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No separation between church and state in early Cape May

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The freedoms for which colonists fought in the American Revolution were abused even in religion as far back as 1721 in the territory now known as Cape May, Lower and Middle townships.

People who were non-believers were often scorned and sometimes subjected to physical punishment if they did not abide by the laws of God. There was little separation between church and state then, as shown by the legislature governing this area. It introduced a bill that would punish those who “denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of Holy Scriptures, etc.”

One who disagreed strongly was a local pastor and a legislator himself. Rev. Nathaniel Jenkins Sr., a native of Wales, came to this country in 1710 and was to become the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cape May in 1712. Now in its 302nd year, the church is the oldest in the county. Although it still maintains the Cape May identity the church is actually situated in the county seat of Cape May Court House which is part of Middle Township.

Cape May has its own Cape Island Baptist Church which was founded 170 years ago in 1844. It still bears the name of Cape Island, the community that was renamed Cape May in 1869.

When Jenkins heard what his fellow legislators were attempting he stood to protest while at the legislature’s meeting place.

“I believe the doctrines in question as firmly as the promoters of that ill-designed bill,” he said, “but will never consent to oppose the opposers with law, or with any other weapon, save that of argument, etc.”

The bill, sparked by those who came here from New England, never became law and its doom was said to have been sealed by the eloquence of Jenkins, who served at the new church from 1712-1730 followed years later by his son, Nathaniel, Jr., one of nine children.

But other disciplines within the church still went on right through the 19th century, and there were times when the congregation was the highest jury of appeal. Occasionally at the Court House church there was a “Day of Discipline” following the pastor’s sermon to discuss what punishment to hand out to a church offender.

In an 1866 case a woman member was asked to defend herself on a charge that she married a man who already had a wife. Another woman was asked not to take communion because she allegedly drank liquor. And a man was accused of selling liquor on a Sunday.

Oysters were a profitable business early on and when a man and others were accused of poaching them the legislators on March 27, 1719 declared that oyster beds are “wasted and destroyed by strangers and others at unreasonable times of the year, the preservation of which will tend to great benefit of the poor people and others inhabiting this province.” So a law was enacted banning residents from gathering or raking oyster beds from May 10 to Sept. 1.  If you weren’t a resident, you were banned from oyster collection at any time.

The penalty for violation was seizure of the offender’s boats and equipment. Named to an inspection commission were two prominent figures in early Cape May history, Jacob Spicer and Aaron Leaming, both of whom migrated to this area from Long Island in search of bigger things. Their fees for maintaining law and order among the oysters were keeping half of the forfeitures. The other half went to the colony.

The churches, meanwhile, continued to hold court on matters that were and were not spiritual. One man faced charges of violating church covenant and un-Christian conduct. He was accused of not contributing to the salary of the church pastor. He eventually addressed the jury (the church congregation) and won his case.

In 1846, Jacob Hand took his case to the deacons of the First Baptist Church of Court House. He complained that Jacob High was allowing his cows to graze on Hand’s property. A committee was formed and the High Jacob was ordered to remove his cows from the lands of the Hand Jacob by Monday morning or prosecution proceedings would be started.

The Rev. Alfred Cauldwell, who served as pastor of the Court House church for only two years from 1878-1880, was told literally to “get a horse.” How was he to visit the homes of church members without a horse to get him there? he was asked. He resigned because of inadequate funds to pay him. Whether he rode off into the sunset on a horse has not been recorded.

During the pastorate of the Baptists Rev. Jenkin David from 1808-1822 member Christopher Smith was accused of “persecuting the church and minister.” Smith asked to “be restored to fellowship” but was told it could only happen if he resolved his differences with the pastor.

Whether he did is unclear but he must have been encouraged when the West New Jersey Baptist Association went on record as calling him “a good man” who “was beloved by all.”

From the very beginning of colonialism, music was controversial in some of the churches of that time. Whether it should be played or sung at all was an issue. Eventually choirs and their directors were accepted, but when the cello-like instrument viol entered the scene a member protested that he “utterly refused to fulfill his covenant obligations while the bass viol is retained by the church.”

Although most matters of today’s churches are resolved internally, there has been emphasis in current times on the need for separation of church and state. The question now is how wide that separation should be.

No longer is it resolved in the sanctuary whether a member should be rebuked for allowing his cows to invade another man’s territory. But today, government offices are closed on Christmas and contrarily they remain open on Good Friday, another important day in the history of Christianity.

One wonders how they handled that in the 18th century.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the books “The History of Cape May County New Jersey 1638 -1897,” by Lewis Townsend Stevens, and “300 1712-2012 First Baptist Church,” by Susan Armour.)

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