The First Presbyterian Church is the oldest church in Newark. It was originally a Congregational Church. The change to Presbyterian occurred in 1720.
The original settlers in Newark, from Branford and Milford Connecticut, came to Newark because they opposed the absorption of their communities by the Colony of Connecticut. Newark was founded with its laws based on the Scripture and with full citizenship granted to only church members. This organization was the last attempt in the United States to establish a theocracy. The pay for the first minister, Rev. Abraham Pierson, was Eighty pounds per year. He came from Branford Connecticut and his ministry began on October 1, 1667.
The first church building had the following dimensions: "Four or Six and Twenty Foot wide, and thirty Foot Long and Ten Foot Between Joints, which for the Better Carrying it to an end, the Town hath made choice of Five Men, Viz: Deacon Ward, Sarj. Harrison and his Son John, Sarg. Obdh. (Edward) Rigs and Michael Thompkins." The church was Newark's first public building. It stood, on Broad Street, opposite the present First Presbyterian Church. In the back of the church was the graveyard which became known as "The Old Burying Ground". It was named that to distinguish it from the graveyard which was behind the present First Presbyterian Church. For the next forty years all affairs of the town were held in the church. On August 28, 1675, flankers were built at two of the corners of the church. Soldiers were positioned in them to guard against possible Indian attacks. For the first forty years of Newark, this meeting-house was the scene of worship, town-meetings and military proceedings. After its completion, young Joseph Johnson beat the drum to call families to worship.
During the 1600s
The first reverend, Abraham Pierson, was born in Yorkshire, England. He graduated in 1632 from Cambridge University. He arrived in Boston in 1639 and resided in Lynn. He had at least four sons and found daughters, Abraham, Thomas, Theophilus, Isaac, Abigail, Grace, Mary, and Rebecca. In 1640 he moved to Southampton, Long Island to have more freedom to be more conservative. In 1644 he moved to Branford, in the New Haven community, when Southampton was annexed to Connecticut. In the fall of 1666 the Branford people moved to Newark, Abraham Pierson followed them in 1667. On March 4, 1772 Abraham Pierson Jr. joined his father in a co-pastorate. The elder Pierson died on August 9, 1678 and was buried in an unknown plot in Newark. Speculation is that he was buried "on the third small hill behind the church, possibly beyond the present Halsey Street."
Abraham Pierson Jr. became the sole reverend with the death of his father and remained there until the spring of 1692.He was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1641, graduated from Harvard College in 1668, and came to Newark in 1669. It was during his pastorate that many of the original settlers of Newark, "one by one, crept silently to rest". Their places were filed by their children and by new settlers from abroad. It was these new settlers that were inclined to be less rigid in church politics and favored Presbyterian government. Reverend Pierson also leaned toward Presbyterianism. It was this controversy that is assumed to have caused the removal of the Reverend. After his resignation he sold his house and lands and moved back to Connecticut. In 1694 he became the pastor of the Killingworth church and soon after the first rector of Yale College. The College was temporarily moved to Killingworth when the church would not release him from his duties there. He held both offices until his death on March 5, 1707.
The third reverend was John Prudden. His pastorate began on August 23, 1692. His salary was 50 pounds a year and firewood. John Prudden was born in Milford on November 9, 1645. He graduated Harvard in 1668 and in the spring of 1670 he began preaching in Jamaica, Long Island. During his pastorate the church was repaired with new shingles and the church lands of 200 acres were confirmed through a deed. He resigned on June 9, 1699 and lived in Newark until his death on December 11, 1725.
Next in the 1700s
Newark's next pastor was Jabez Wakeman, son of Rev. Samuel Wakeman of Fairfield, Connecticut. He was born around 1678 and graduated from Harvard in 1697. His pastorate began on April 15, 1700. Rev. Wakeman was only 21 years old at the time and he lasted less than five years. He died from dysentery on October 8, 1704. His only child, Samuel, had died of the same illness nine days before. The "retired" Rev. John Prudden supplied the pulpit until a minister could be found.
On October 1, 1705, Mr. Samuel Sherman was invited as the next reverend but unsatisfactory information about him was received and the offer was withdrawn on February 19, 1706. During the negotiations with Samuel Sherman the church thought that it would be wise to apply to Lord Edward Cornbury, who was the Governor of New York and New Jersey, for permission to hire a minister. Lord Cornbury ordered that no one should be allowed to preach without either a certificate from the Bishop of London or a license from himself. This obviously meant that the minister had to be an Episcopalian but Cornbury then extended it to the Presbyterian and Congregational churches.
Mr. Samuel Whittlesey had a trial as minister on May 17, 1706 and was offered the job as the next minister on March 31, 1707 but he declined. The fifth pastor of the church then became Nathaniel Bowers. He arrived by ship on June 16, 1709 and on June 22, 1709 he became the pastor. Nothing is known about his early years, except that he came from New England. He died on August 4, 1716.
During this time the seeds of Presbyterianism where being sown. Also the second church was built. It was made of Stone and measured 44 feet in both length and width. A bell was introduced in the steeple. After 1791 it served as a Court House. The building stood on the west side of Broad Street and to the south of the first church building. It was also during this time the "Mountain Society" was formed which later became the second church of Newark and then the First Presbyterian Church of Orange.
October 22, 1719 brought Newark its sixth pastor, Joseph Webb. He remained for eighteen years and was dismissed by the Presbytery of East Jersey in November, 1736. It was during this time the Congregational Church became a Presbyterian Church. The first representative of the church at the Synod of Philadelphia was Caleb Ward (in 1725). It remained in the Synod of Philadelphia until 1733 when it became part of the new Presbytery of East Jersey.
In 1733 a prominent member of the church, Colonel Josiah Ogden, harvested his crops on a Sunday. This outrage led to a long bitter argument and his leaving the church. Colonel Ogden and his followers then started the First Episcopal Church (Trinity Church).
The seventh pastor of the church was the Rev. Aaron Burr. His tenure lasted from December, 1736 until the fall of 1755. Aaron Burr was the son of Daniel Burr and was born in Fairfield Connecticut on January 4, 1716. He graduated from Yale College in 1735 and preached his first sermon at Greenfield, Massachusetts. It was during his tenure in Newark that the Great Schism in the Presbyterian Church of America occurred. The result was the Old Side and the New Side parties. The New Brunswick Presbytery was ejected and the division became localized with the Presbytery of Philadelphia standing with the Old Side and the Presbytery of New York with the New Side. In 1745 the Presbytery of New York and the Presbytery of New Brunswick formed the new Synod of New York. This split stayed until 1758.
The Great Schism produced the New Jersey College, which is now Princeton University. To continue to provide education after the split, the Synod of New York granted a charted to the College on October 22, 1746. The original site of the College was Elizabethtown (Elizabeth) and after four months it moved to Newark under the care of Rev. Aaron Burr. The College was reorganized in September of 1748 under a new charter secured from Governor Belcher.
Rev. Burr resigned his pastorate in 1755 but retained the presidency of the college. It moved to Princeton in 1756. He died on September 24, 1757 and was buried in Princeton. 1758 brought the end of the Great Schism and the First Presbyterian church fell under the wing of the new Synod of New York and Philadelphia.
Immediately after the resignation of Rev. Burr, the Rev. John Brained began to preach. He stayed until May of 1759, at which time he requested to leave the church and resume his missionary work with the Indians.
The Rev. Alexander MacWhorter succeeded the Rev. John Brained in the summer of 1759. He was born at New Castle, Delaware on July 15, 1734 and graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1757. He served in Newark for forth-six years until his death on July 20, 1807. During his pastorate he became a chaplain in the patriot army and the third church building was completed. It was opened for worship on January 1, 1791. Free stone for the church was quarried on Bloomfield Avenue and the mortar made from clam shells left by the Indians along the banks of Newark Bay gave the building it's Georgian Colonial appearance. This church was nicknamed "Old First Church". On January 1, 1801 Rev MacWhorter preached his well known "Century Sermon".
The Rev. Edward Dorr Griffin was installed as a colleague pastor with Rev. MacWhorter on October 20, 1801 and succeeded him in the pastorate when the Rev. MacWhorter died. Rev Griffin was born at East Haddam, Connecticut on January 6, 1770 and graduated Yale in 1790. During his pastorate a parsonage was built for him on the west side of Mulberry Street. His pastorate ended on April 27, 1809 when he accepted a professorship at Andover Seminary. He returned to Newark as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in 1815. In 1821 he became president of Williams College. He died in Newark on November 8, 1837 and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
The Rev. James Richards became pastor upon Rev. Griffin's resignation, he had previously preached in Morristown. He was born at New Canaan, Connecticut on October 29, 1767 and entered Yale in 1789 but was unable to finish. A degree in Mater of Arts was awarded him in 1794. Rev. Richards remained until the fall of 1823 when he became a professor of theology in Auburn Seminary, New York. During his pastorate the first Sunday School in Newark was started (1814).
July 27, 1824 brought the installation of the Rev. William T. Hamilton, who was an Englishman by birth. His pastorate lasted 10 years to October 22, 1834 when he moved to a Southern Climate for his health. A division over his hiring brought about the Third Presbyterian Church. In 1824 the Presbytery of Newark was formed from the Presbytery of Jersey. The Fourth Presbyterian Church, now extinct, was formed on April 14, 1831. The Plane Street Presbyterian (African) Church was organized in October of 1831.
The Rev. Ansel D. Eddy began his pastorate on August 11, 1835. He was a graduate of Union College (1817). He resigned on February 22, 1848 and became the pastor of the Fifth Presbyterian Church (Park).
A Bedford, Massachusetts born, Rev. Jonathan P. Stearns, was installed as pastor on December 13, 1849. A graduate of Harvard in 1830, he then studied theology at Andover. He remained pastor until February 21, 1883 when he was made pastor emeritus.
The Rev. David R. Frazer was installed on February 21, 1883. He preached until June 16, 1909. He was a graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary. It was during his pastorate that the First Presbyterian Church took a prominent part in the development of church extension work, giving liberally and establishing missions.
This was an era of education and evangelism. During this time, the church renewed its Christian covenant and conducted outreach to the surrounding community and the Tri-state area. Its motto became, "Many members. One Body...Christ the head". It supported World War I and II. War time noonday services were held to support our troops during this time of strife; and sermons condemning Hitler were abundant. The Charter that established the church was presented to the Synod of New Jersey in 1903. Musical concerts were held in tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the 60's. Revival mass meetings were held on a regular basis and a 250-year celebration was held. Trustee Gilbert Brown, known for his compassion for others, forged a bond of friendship with St. James AME Church and the growing "colored” population in Newark. First Presbyterian Church in Newark sponsored “Interracial Day” and joined the Urban League and the NAACP. They even sponsored a forum on "The Negro in America". In 1967, after the riots in Newark, there was a tremendous decline in the church's membership as the population of the city began to change. A small number of faithful members remained at the church in order to continue to proclaim the Gospel.
2000 and beyond!
In the 2000s, Old First Church has had very gifted pastors, most recently Rev. Thomas Patton (Designated Pastor, 1992 – 2009), Rev. Dr. Glen C. Misick (Installed Pastor, 2013 – 2016), Rev. Dr. J. Perry Wootten (Transitional Pastor, 2016 – 2017) and Rev. Dr Betty J. Tom (August 2018 to present).
Currently, Old First reaches out to the neighborhood through community dinners, an informal food pantry, a clothing closet for the needy, and a community-friendly prayer service each Thursday at noon after which lunch is served.