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Bizarre History of Cape May: Two local churches have prevailed for centuries

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While the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church proudly celebrates its 300th anniversary this year it could look back to almost two years ago when the Baptist Church of Cape May Court House marked its 300th birthday and established the claim to be the oldest church in Cape May County.

The Baptists, who celebrated their milestone by publishing a glossy 168-page coffee table book of text and photos about their history, started their local church on June 24, 1712. Two years later, about ten miles to the south in Lower Township, came the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church, its precise date of charter clouded by the passage of time.

Although of different denominations, the churches’ histories are generally similar. Many of their original members were induced to migrate to the county from Long Island and Connecticut in the late 1600s because of information that this was a good place for whaling and for the profits that ensued. But their results did not always match their expectations and they turned to farming as a supplement or replacement instead.

Both groups had strong religious beliefs and imposed discipline on alleged violators. One Baptist was accused of failing to contribute to the pastor’s salary. He spoke to the congregation and apparently won his case because the charge against him was dismissed. Sometimes the church settled non-religious issues such as a man sending his cows to pasture on another man’s property.

Liquor was a nasty word in those times. A woman was asked not to take communion because of reports of her drinking habits. It was not clear whether the church served wine at communion.

Extra curricular activities on Sunday were taboo, as one man found out when he was caught salvaging useable materials from a shipwreck. Likewise, a woman was censured for selling cake on Sunday.

The Presbyterians were just as adamant about drinking liquor. Their second pastor, the Rev. Hughston Huges, was dismissed from the pulpit in 1726 after serving one year. He was cited for “too frequently lifting the cup to his mouth.”

The title of the first Baptist Church of Cape May may be somewhat confusing to the newcomer because the church actually is situated in Cape May Court House which is part of Middle Township. Years later came the Cape Island Baptist Church which has retained its original name although Cape Island was renamed Cape May. And in North Wildwood there exists the Anglesea Baptist Church which was started before the borough of Anglesea joined North Wildwood and now is officially known as and governed by North Wildwood.

Upon their arrival here the Baptists began meeting in homes and that led to the signing by 37 charter members of the first Baptist Church Covenant on June 24, 1712. It was the largest membership to enter the Philadelphia Baptist Association at the time.

The Presbyterians, perhaps inspired by the Baptists, were to follow with their own church less than two years later. It was to take two other sites before today’s historic venue on Seashore Road was to become a reality.

At that time the churches were also known as meeting houses. The first service was held in 1714, date unknown, in a small log building that has been identified as Coxe Hall, where the church was organized. It was in that same hall that the Baptists had held a few of their meetings too.

The hall was named after an Englishman who never set foot on Colonial soil. His name was Dr. Daniel Coxe, physician for Queen Anne and others of the English court, who sent delegates here to represent him in land acquisitions and development.

In 1762 a new and larger structure was built. It was to survive through the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 until 1824 when the present church building was occupied after being built the previous year.

It took the Baptists five meeting houses before they were to settle in their present expansive church and adjacent facilities on Route 9 in the heart of Middle Township, some of which was to be designated as Cape May Court House and the county seat when the voters rejected Dennis Township as a possible site in a referendum.

Their first formal site for meetings after the official organization of the local Baptist church in 1712 was in 1714 in a building on what was known as the Leaming plantation about four miles south of Cape May Court House. When a larger church was needed, they built their second meeting house in 1744 on more than an acre of land on Church Street which is now the Baptist cemetery. That was to last until Christmas Day of 1824 when a new building was dedicated, only to be destroyed by fire almost three decades later on Feb. 5, 1854.

Soon the membership got together to decide whether the church should be rebuilt on Church Street or move to a more central location on Main Street (Route 9) in the growing Cape May Court House. A vote among members supported the move by a count of 90-44. From that emerged the fourth meeting house which was dedicated in 1855.

In 1911 the members decided to build a larger church for the burgeoning population. The old edifice was torn down and a new one, which still stands today, replaced it as the fifth meeting house. It was dedicated on June 15, 1913.

The Baptist church’s first pastor, serving from 1712 to 1730, was the Rev. Nathaniel Jenkins Sr., a native of Wales where he was ordained before he came to the New World. About the same time the first pastor at the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church was Scottish-born Rev. John Bradner who served from 1714 to 1721.

In her well researched anniversary book, “1712-2012 First Baptist Church of Cape May,” author Susan Armour says, “It is rare to find a church that has prevailed for so many years.” Indeed it is even rarer to find two churches not far apart from each other that have prevailed for so many years.

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