First Reformed Church belongs to the “Reformed Church in America,” one of the oldest in North America. It was founded by the Dutch in 1628 in New Amsterdam, which was then a colony of The Netherlands and is now New York City. The Reformed branch of Protestantism has its roots in the Reformation of the 1500s. Its primary spiritual leader was John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland.
A number of Dutch families, joined by families of French Huguenots, came from settlements in Brooklyn, New York, to make their livelihood in this area by farming the rich soil along the Raritan and Millstone rivers. This valley was a raw and churchless land, but in a short while these families of strong Christian faith began holding worship services in their homes, and as their numbers increased, they decided to build a small church on the bank of the rivulet called Three Mile Run, which was located three miles from the landing place at Inian’s Ferry (New Brunswick) and, whose reform movement spread to several countries including the Netherlands, where it became the Dutch Reformed Church.
Two worshipping groups developed in the region, one in the section know as Three Mile Run and the other in the area know as the River and Lawrence Brook. People of the Three Mile Run section may have built a church as early as 1703*, and by the year 1717, the First Reformed Church of New Brunswick. The two groups were considered one congregation and were known as “The Church at Three Mile Run“. (*by 1710, the Three Mile Run Church was able to establish the Six Mile Run Reformed Church)
“The Reformed Dutch Church” of New Brunswick was organized in 1717, when Dutch folks at the River and Lawrence Brook built a church. It was a wooden building, fronting the River and occupying the corner lot at Burnet and Schureman Streets, and like most of the early Dutch churches, its breadth was greater than its depth. The total number of pews was 50, and the church could seat 300 worshippers. It was not completed for several years but remained in service upwards of 50 years.
By 1754 there was interest in building a larger structure in a more central location. On September 12, 1765 Philip French, a member of the congregation, leased to the trustees the land on which the present church stands for the next 2,000 years at a rental fee of one peppercorn upon demand! The new building was a stone structure, nearly square in keeping with a common design in those days, and would comfortably seat 400 people. The front entrance was on Queen (Neilson) Street with a side door on Prince (Bayard) Street. At the south side was a long pew for the use of city officials. Two pillars in the center supported the roof on which there was a small steeple with a cross on top. A bell was installed about the year 1775 to call the parishioners to services. To ring the bell the sexton pulled the long rope standing in the middle of the aisle.
Leaders of the church made sure that a charter was granted for the education of Dutch Reformed ministerial candidates. Thus was born Queens College, which later became Rutger’s University. The charter was signed by King George II and dated November 10, 1766.
As the Revolutionary War approached, difficult times were ahead for First Reformed Church and the town of New Brunswick. The church gained no new members from 1773 to 1779. New Brunswick was in the path of both armies and suffered considerable damage as a result. Before the arrival of the troops, members of the church had taken down the bell and hidden it in the ground up the hill where Old Queens now stands. The British troops occupied the town during the winter of 1776-77, and took over all of the public buildings including the First Reformed Church. They removed all of the pews and the building was converted into a hospital and later a stable. The Three Mile Run Church is said to have been destroyed in the war. Over a hundred private homes and barns also suffered severe damage. The Reformed Church suffered considerable damage. Worship services were suspended from December 1776 through July 1777. When the war was over, the church was temporarily repaired, and services resumed – the building was shared by the Presbyterians, whose building had been completely destroyed by fire during the British occupation – each congregation holding services on alternate Sundays.
In 1799, Sarah Van Doren, assisted by other women of the church, started a Sunday school which is credited with being the oldest continuing Sunday school in the country. Sarah Van Doren reorganized the Sunday School in 1817. It had fifty scholars at that time. Years later, Sarah Van Doren was remembered as “an old lady of rather sour countenance, who wore glasses and had the reputation of being a good organizer.”
By 1803 the congregation had grown to the extent that the people found it difficult to find seats on Sunday mornings. By 1811, after considerable discussion, it was decided that a completely new building was needed. The old stone church was used for the last time on Sunday, May 20, 1811. Demolition was scheduled for the next day. The bell was taken down, the pews removed and through the week the old building was dismantled. During the week word spread that Dr. Conduit – the beloved Pastor of the church – was seriously ill with pneumonia. He died on June 1, 1811. He was buried beneath the walls of the old church where he had preached, now being dismantled. Just a little over a month later, July 6, 1811, the cornerstone was laid. The building was dedicated on September 27, 1812. At the time, the building was one of the largest in the state. It could seat 1100 people.
In the 1820′s the center of the business district was Hiram Street, right at the door of the church. It was the center for farmers to bring in their produce until 1864. So for over fifty years the church and the marketplace were next to each other. On August 22, 1828, a question was brought before the New Brunswick Town Council concerning advisability of placing a clock in the Reformed Church’s steeple. The Town Council felt that a visible to the merchants and shoppers was needed. The clock was purchased from B. Davidson, New York City. Jacob Wyckoff was hired to maintain and repair it at a cost of $12 per year. In 1950 it was electrified and in 1988 completely overhauled.
Tragedy struck the church on Saturday morning, May 29, 1971. Fire raced through the alter area, severely damaging the supporting pillars, part of the gallery, as well as the organ. All except one of the priceless stained-glass windows were destroyed. Two of them were authenticated Tiffany windows which had attracted glass experts and served as study pieces for stained-glass scholars. The only one saved was the one depicting Christ the Shepherd. The communion plates were fused into one mass by the heat of the fire. The silver communion chalice was blackened and broken into three pieces. The first firemen in the building rescued the pulpit Bible, which was only slightly damaged by water.
Through the years great effort has been made to keep the exterior and interior of the church as close as possible to the way it looked when first erected. It is believed that the pews are the original ones, but the congregation now enjoys the comfort of cushions. In 1995-96 a breezeway was constructed, joining the sanctuary to Fellowship Hall and the Church School, allowing cover in inclement weather and handicap access.
Today, The Town Clock Church is dedicated to the same Christian principles of its founders when organized in 1717. Conditions and circumstances have changed since those early days, but much of the same work continues. New Brunswick is a now large urban city with major highways leading to it. First Reformed Church contributes to the solution of special inner city problems indigenous to today’s large cities. Although the congregation now numbers only 77 active members, they are still just as spiritually strong and active.
- Historic American Buildings Survey conducted in 1961 at the Library of Congress’ American Memories website.
- Historical discourse delivered at the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the First Reformed Dutch Church, New Brunswick, N.J., October 1, 1867
- The Town Clock Church – History of the First Reformed Church, New Brunswick, NJ, by Rev. Dr. J. David Muyskens, 1991
- Old and Historic Churches of New Jersey, Volume 2, by Ellis L. Derry, 1994