First Baptist Church of South Plainfield Celebrates Its Bicentennial
By Janet Purcell Piggott
The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield, which is celebrating its Bicentennial throughout the month of December, is a congregation knitted together on both the threads of history and friendship/intimacy.
“I remember the first time that I walked into the sanctuary and met with these people,” says Rev. Dennis O’Neill, the current pastor. “It was like coming home to a gathering of old friends and family.”
Since the First Baptist Church of South Plainfield, NJ was founded on December I, 1792, eight generations of people have been born into the congregation and have lived out their lives as part of this sturdy family of believers.
The church was founded at a time when South Plainfield was still known as New Brooklyn and the people traveled to Scotch Plains for Sunday services. Most of the New Brooklyn folks were farmers who got together and decided it would be a good idea to have a church closer to where they lived and worked. They withdrew their memberships from the church in Scotch Plains and contacted the Philadelphia Baptist Association to begin the process for establishing a church of their own.
A small cedar wood building 28′ x 18′ was built. The interior was made of plain pine boards with no plaster and no ornamentation. The building was simple and functional.
From that original group of 21 practical people, three were nominated to serve as the first official pastor. They were Benjamin Coles, Jacob F. Randolph, and Benjamin Blackford. Jacob F. Randolph won the election by a large majority and began serving part time at a wage of 37 pounds 10 shillings a year. The rejected Mr. Blackford broke away from the gestating church and founded a church in the nearby city of Plainfield.
Perhaps one reason this congregation has stayed together for such a long period of time is that is was built on a strong foundation of people who were both strict and liberal at the same time. On September 29, 1796–more than a half century before the Civil War was to erupt–a black slave woman called Jane who belonged to a Mr. Richard Hat tar was received into membership.
Another progressive move occurred in January 18, 1880 when it was agreed that female members have the same privileges in meetings as men. And yet church lore tells another story of one very stern member in those early days who kept a close eye on the attendance of church members. If someone did not show up for Sunday services, he would visit that person in their home to find out why. If the excuse wasn’t good enough for him, that person was excluded from membership in the church until he or she publicly repented the backsliding. Only then was the person returned to full membership.
It was that kind of determination that saw this small band of Christians through the fluctuations of change, growth and expansion. In 1812, because the congregation had grown to 95 souls, a 20′ extension costing $700 was added to the building they had been occupying. And in 1833 a subscription of $2,350.50 was made toward the building of the new meeting house. These buildings, each in its own time, stood on the property which is now the Baptist Cemetery of Samptown on New Market Avenue.
As the church became more prosperous, members were assigned pews and pew rents which were applied toward the pastor’s salary.
Church records indicate that it was about this time that Rev. Jacob Randolph “left with 32 of the wealthier members to go to Plainfield.” This group founded what is known today as First Park Baptist Church in Plainfield.
In December 1851, Brother E. I. Runyon made a Resolution that the members of the church living in the vicinity of New Market be allowed to build a church there. In 1852 forty-five members of the New Brooklyn Baptist Church transferred their membership to what is now considered to be the “daughter” church, First Baptist Church of New Market.
It wasn’t long after that, in 1878, the congregation became divided in its thinking. Some felt the present location was ideal while others felt it would be more desirable to move to the center of town. Heated arguments ensued and one night the pastor, Rev. A. A. Armstrong, was so upset that he left the discussions and closed himself in the parsonage which stood where the McCriskin Funeral Home stands now. The story that has been retold down through the generations is that on April I, 1879, while Rev. Armstrong was fasting and praying about the dilemma, a young girl named Julia chamberlain, ran into the parsonage crying out that the church was on fire. Sparks from passing train had ignited the wooden church building. It is said that Rev. Armstrong, deciding that this was a clear answer to his prayers, ran out to the porch and stood watching the flames reaching to the heavens. Some said they heard him singing the Doxology as he watched. “My prayers have been answered,” he is said to have concluded aloud.
Immediate steps were taken to build a church in New Brooklyn—right in the center of town—with the $2,000 insurance from the fire.
Both the interior and exterior of the church have changed in the ensuing years. The sanctuary’s original ornate high ceilings are actually still there but are now hidden beneath the lowered ceiling facade.
Originally the building had two front doors that stood to the left and right of a sign bearing the church name. Entry is now made through a pair of sturdy doors that are centered under a magnificent round stained glass window. Donated by the Austin family, the five Austin children are represented in the design of the window by the five-pedaled daisies—their mother’s name and her favorite flower.
One of those children, Floyd Austin, who is seventy-five years old now, remembers walking to Sunday School on Sunday mornings with his grandfather, Civil War Veteran Edward Benjamin Austin. “He would give each of us five kids pennies to put in the collection plate,” Mr. Austin recalls. “In those days if a grownup put a quarter or a dime in the plate, well that was all there was. We thought it was great to be putting pennies in.”
Mr. Austin goes on to tell about people arriving for Sunday School at 9:45 in horse-drawn wagons. The horses were cared for in barns that stood behind the sanctuary where Henderson Hall is now located. The regular service began at 11:00. “People would rest on Sunday afternoons and then come back at 7:00,” he says. The evening service was well attended. The timing of it worked out well for people like Mr. Austin’s father who worked on the railroad and was unable to attend morning worship with Mrs. Austin and the children.
“Baptists at that time didn’t do anything on a Sunday,” Mr. Austin goes on to say. “We couldn’t even go to a baseball game. No movies. But a couple of times we walked up to the baseball game with Douglas Manning whose father was Postmaster and one of the upper people in town. We figured if it was okay for Douglas Manning to go, it was okay for the Austin kids too. Well, our father heard about it and…oh ho…!”
The Austins weren’t the only children in the congregation that got into a little devilment on Sunday afternoons and evenings. Betty Emmons remembers going for Sunday night services and climbing along the backs of the pews with her friends. “Church was the focal point of our social lives,” she says. “We’d go on Sunday nights and sing and giggle.” She still remembers her favorite dress that she would wear to morning worship. “It was blue with yellow flowers on it,” she says.
“And Rev. Reinig used to take the young people on outings in his big black touring car,” Mrs. Emmons continues. “It was cold in the winter,” she says as she recalls coming in to the potbelly stove that stood just outside where the kitchen is now.
During her growing up years, Mrs. Emmons attended church and Sunday school regularly—but when she fell in love it was with a young man of another church. Bill Emmons attended The First Baptist Church with his wife occasionally over the years and he must have felt good about what he found there. “He eventually joined on his own and even became a Deacon, that’s how much this church meant to him” Mrs. Emmons says proudly.
For many years, The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield, which was renamed several times, was the only Protestant church in town. It was previously known as Samptown Baptist Church, New Brooklyn Baptist Church, South Plainfield Baptist Church, and finally its present name was adopted.
In 1909, at a cost of $4,600, a new parsonage was built next to the church and a large wing, called The Baptist Recreation Center, was attached to the back of the sanctuary. The church had become the center for social activities in town.
The “old timers” like to think back to the social events when young and old alike would get together for the simple joy of just being with each other and having a good time.
They speak of the picnics that were held in Riverside Park in Bound Brook “right along the Raritan” where there were games and races and a lot of good food. “The women would pack basket lunches,” Floyd Austin recalls. “There were no hot dogs in those days!”
And Christmas—“We always had a get together in the evening and Santa would come and give us each an orange tied up in a big red bow and a small box of chocolates in a box with holly on it,” Mr. Austin says. “Even during the depression. I don’t know where the money came from, but we had it even then. ”
Although The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield has never been a wealthy congregation in terms of money, it has always managed to be a vital part of the community in which it lives. Every election day people that worked the polls could look forward to a good spaghetti dinner there. And once a month the ladies of the church would serve the Rotary Club a sumptuous dinner. At that time the kitchen was in the basement and there were big cook stoves down there and long tables would be set up. “Boy those women could cook,” was a recent comment by a gentleman who attended regularly. “They’d make roast beef, prime rib, potatoes, vegetables and wonderful homemade pies!”
The women of the church—and the men—can still turn out a delicious meal. This past October 27 was the annual Homecoming Sunday and after the special morning worship service, church members and a large number of guests were treated to buffet luncheon that would have brought even the Rotarians back for more!
Homecoming Sunday is a rather new tradition in The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield. A few years ago it was decided to invite former members back for a time of worship and fellowship. Mr. Austin says, “We decided to tell them ‘come on you old people who used to come. Come on back, we want to talk to you. We want to have a little fun’ .” Each year attendance for that special Sunday has been growing and this past year a large group of people attended. Former Interim Pastor William Aurger and Rev. J. Kenneth Mart of the First Baptist Church of New Market participated in the service.
Although the great majority of those attending the Homecoming Service have never left the church, a few had gone for a number of years but are now attending regularly again. Janet Tekley is one of those people. She’d been part of the church family since she was five years old, but
she left the congregation for a number of years. “The day I came back into the door of the church after an absence of about fourteen years,” she says, “I felt as if I had been here only yesterday. People came up to me and said, ‘glad to see you, Janet.’ Nobody said to me ‘where were you?’ They just brought me home. ”
The concept of “home is a very important one to this congregation. In 1990 they became involved in The F.I.S.H. homeless Program, a hospitality network to aid women and children who have become homeless. “When we were asked to do this, most of us had at least sixty reasons why we were no t ready for it,” Janet Tekley says. “Whatever resistance we had–and I was one of the ones that resisted it hardest–we just stepped in and did what we were called to do because w~ knew we did not have a choice. It was what was needed to do and we did it.”
Every two months The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield is the night host for up to fourteen women and children. Each family has its own private space in one of the Sunday School rooms. The participants are considered to be guests of the church and are always treated as such. Along with the help of other volunteers from other congregations and community groups, church members prepare the evening meal and eat with the guests. They play games with them and help the children with their homework. In the morning they are taken to school, to work, or to the day church, Wesley United Methodist. “Everybody benefits in one form or another from this program. I can’t think of one person in the congregation who hasn’t participated in some way,” says Pastor Dennis M. O’Neill.
One of the strong characteristics of this congregation is that its members participate in any way they can. Those that have special skills donate their time and expertise. One of those persons is Gordon Holtz. A skilled carpenter, and a man who has an eye for a good bargain, Mr. Holtz attends auctions and going-out-of-business sales where he has purchased items such as cabinets for the church kitchen and the double doors that now serve as the church’s main entryway. Mr. Holtz and other church members installed the cabinets in the kitchen and the new front doors. Their most recent project will be the installation of a shower in the are~ that is used by the Homeless guests.
“Gordon Holtz and his wife, Judy, have been part of the backbone of this church,” says Rev. O’Neill who goes onto explain that Mr. Holtz has recently mastered the use of the computer and has computerized all the cemetery records. He also paved the roads in the cemetery, digs the graves and maintains the cemetery grounds.
The First Baptist Church of South Plainfield is a congregation made up of people from many walks of life. The membership is diverse while at the same time being homogeneous in its common belief system.
Michele Lewkow says she finds this to be a place “where people can come and find the seeds of faith. There are outlets here to help develop that. We have active ministries and those ministries have gotten us out of ourselves and into ~ larger community. In a lot of ways it helps us as much as it helps them.”
Janis Nietzer agrees. Speaking as one of the newer members of the congregation, she says, “This church has a lot of needs. It’s the kind of church that really could be spending a lot of money on itself and its building, but any money that is raised always goes back to the community and to different programs.” She tells about attending a women’s meeting when she first came to the church, “They were talking about this large amount of money they raised and what to do with it. I was so impressed with this little group of women and that amount of money they raised and the amount they decided to give away. I thought, ‘this is really wonderful.”‘
The people of the congregation credit their growth in that direction to the leadership of Pastor O’Neill who has been with the church since his graduation from Eastern Baptist Seminary in 1984. “This has become away to put a face to our theory, our beliefs,” he says.
Floyd Austin served on the Pulpit Nominating Committee that ultimately presented Rev. O’Neill to the congregation. Mr. Austin’s words echo the voices of the church body when he speaks of the selection of Rev. O’Neill. “It was love at first sight,” he says. Mr. Austin, who is known to be a strong silent type of man, a retired railroad worker, proudly says, “I was at his Ordination and I said to the committee of all the ministers, I said, ‘We love this man, Dennis O’Neill. He was sent here to us let’s give him the green light’.” And so they did.
Michele Lewkow remembers that Rev. O’Neill asked her and Jackie Buckalew to help serve communion at the Ordination Service. “Of all the things I could have done to help that day, serving communion was something special. I had never served before and I was glad I could do th3t,” she says. “I don’t think he realized how important that was to me when he asked me.”
Janis and Rob Nietzer agree that Rev. O’Neill is a motivating factor in the steadily increasing membership in the congregation. “He attracts younger people…and we’re doing things together like going to a football game, etc.” Mrs. Nietzer says.
The Nietzers have two small children of their own and they are foster parents to many others, they are very interested in what the Sunday School is offering their children. “Our concern is more ‘Are they feeling good in the church? Do they know they are special and that they can turn to God for help?”‘ Mrs. Nietzer says. “The children are learning specific Bible stories, but more than that, they are feeling welcomed here. It’s a general feeling that they are learning.”
The Nietzer children may not realize it yet, but that sense of belonging they are experiencing is precisely what the rest of the congregation says about this church family.
Michele Lewkow says it simply, “I love that place. It’s really home to me.”