The Springfield Meeting House, New Jersey


” One pint of spring water when demanded on the premises ” was the strange payment stipulated by the donor of one hundred acres of land given in 1751 to the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church in Spring-field, New Jersey, to be for the use of the minister of the parish. The church records do not state that the rent has been paid regularly, but they do state that the woodland enabled them for many years to furnish the free firewood that was a part of the support promised to every one of the early pastors.

The first building occupied by the church was completed in 1746. Fifteen years later the second building was first occupied, and it continued to be the centre of the community’s religious life until November, 1778, when it was needed for military stores. The church was gladly given up to the army, and services were held in the garret of the parsonage.

The British under General Knyphausen, determined to drive Washington and his men from the New Jersey hills and to destroy his supplies, marched from Elizabeth Town on June 23, 1780. There were five thousand men, with fifteen or twenty pieces of artillery, in the expedition. A few miles away, near Springfield, was a small company of patriots, poorly equipped but ready to die in the defence of their country.

Warning of the approach of the enemy was given to the Continentals by the firing of the eighteen-pounder signal gun on Prospect Hill; twelve Continentals stationed at the Cross Roads, after firing on the enemy, had hurried to the hill. After firing the gun they lighted the tar barrel on the signal pole.

Instantly the members of the militia dropped their scythes, seized their muskets, and hurried to quarters. ” There were no feathers in their caps, no gilt buttons on their home-spun coats, nor flashing bayonets on their old fowling pieces,” the pastor of Springfield church said in 1880, on the one hundredth anniversary of the skirmish that followed, ” but there was in their hearts the resolute purpose to defend their homes and their liberty at the price of their lives.”

The sturdy farmers joined forces with the regular soldiers. For a time the battle was fierce. The enemy were soon compelled to retreat, but not before they had burned the village, including the church. Chaplain James Caldwell was in the hottest of the fight. ” Seeing the fire of one of the companies slacking for want of wadding, he galloped to the Presbyterian meeting house nearby, and rushing in, ran from pew to pew, filling his arms with hymn books,” wrote Headley, in ” Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution.” ” Hastening back with them into the battle, he scattered them about in every direction, saying as he pitched one here and another there, ‘ Now put Watts into them, boys.’ With a laugh and a cheer they pulled out the leaves, and ramming home the charge did give the British Watts with a will.”

The story has been attractively told by Bret Harte :

. . . Stay one moment ; you’ve heard Of Caldwell, the parson, who once preached the Word Down at Springfield? What, no? Come that’s bad; why, he had All the Jerseys aflame ! And they gave him the name Of the `rebel high priest.’ He stuck in their gorge, For he loved the Lord God—and he hated King George !

“He had cause, you might say! When the Hessians that day

Marched up with Knyphausen, they stopped on their way At the `farm,’ where his wife, with a child in her arms, Sat alone in the house. How it happened none knew But God—and that one of the hireling crew Who fired the shot ! . Enough !—there she lay, And Caldwell, the chaplain, her husband, away!

“Did he preach—did he pray? Think of him as you stand By the old church today—think of him and his band Of military ploughboys ! See the smoke and the heat Of that reckless advance, of that straggling retreat! Keep the ghost of that wife, foully slain, in your view— And what could you, what should you, what would you do?

“Why, just what he did! They were left in the lurch For the want of more wadding. He ran to the church, Broke down the door, stripped the pews, and dashed out in the road With his arms full of hymn-books, and threw down his load

The battle of Springfield is not named among the important battles of the Revolution, but it had a special meaning to the people of all that region, for it taught ‘ them that the enemy, who had been harassing them for months, was not invulnerable. From that day they took fresh courage, and their courage increased when they realized that the British would not come again to trouble them.

After the burning of the Springfield church, the pastor, Rev. Jacob Vanarsdal, gathered his people in the barn of the parsonage. Later the building was ceiled and galleries were built.

For ten years the barn was the home of the congregation, but in 1791 the building was erected which is in use today.