Reflecting On Our Sesquicentennial Year Part 1

First Presbyterian Church of Cranford

By George A. Weisgerber


In order to commemorate this special year in the history of our church, the following is a collection of articles we published each month throughout 2001… glimpses into the past, from our beginning days up to the present time. Some of the highlights include the earnest planning and Christian objectives of the early settlers of 1832—stories about their dedication, determination and vision for the future Presbyterian Church—leading up to our official founding on June 26, 1851, the year we were accepted into the Presbytery of Brooklyn in the Synod of Long Island. You will find lots of human interest stories, historical events, and biographical sketches of the people who helped shape the times and the Church as we know it today. For new members, or those unfamiliar with our heritage, we hope this helps you understand how we came to be and what we are about. For those who may have already read these articles each month, we hope you enjoy reading them again! We are pleased to offer “Reflecting on our Sesquicentennial Year.”

CHAPTER 1 – What Was Cranford Like in 1851?

How good is your imagination? In this rush-rush present day, it is hard to visualize what the town was like in the year our church was first established. In those days this was a rural village, with country lanes and dirt roads, horses and buggies, oil lamps in the homes. There were no paved streets, no cars, no electric lights, and no traffic lights—no traffic! And nobody had radio, movies, TV or cell phones! What DID they have? All the good things that made them strong individuals, including the ability to work hard, to build and study for the future, to enjoy strong family ties, and to find space in their lives to worship God.

The river, of course, was in its usual place (although sometimes not!). The town had several very active mills along the river—Crane’s Mill located near the North Union Avenue dam and the Vreeland Mill (later know as Droescher Mill). These operations served at various times as sawmills or as gristmills (bring your own grist).

William D. Wood Although Craneville was still a small village, there were several volunteer soldiers from our town. The precise number is not known. At least one was from our church: William D. Wood. After his return from wartime duties, he served four terms as mayor of Cranford. He also served as Captain of the Cranford Thief Detecting Society, an investigative service. He was Superintendent of the First Presbyterian Church Sunday School for twenty-one years and was very popular with the young people, being known affectionately as “Billy Wood.” He died in 1893, as the building of our third sanctuary was just underway. We recognize his service in the stained glass window at the rear of the current sanctuary.

We would look hard to identify any houses standing today that were on the scene in 1851. Certainly we would not find the beautiful Victorian houses that we now admire—they had not yet been built, as the high Victorian era was still some decades away. There were only about 40 private homes in the area, and they are all gone now, except for a very few. One of these still existing is the Crane/Phillips House, built before 1840, and preserved under the care of the Cranford Historical Society. Another, even older (ca. 1750), is the Norris-Oakey House, at 1119 Orange Avenue—an old timer still with us and recently spruced up.
There were mills, general stores and trade shops, but no public buildings, except for the “Old Red Schoolhouse” built in 1805 (which we’ll learn more about in the next chapter.)

On the national scene, our country had suffered the Panic of 1837, followed by a depression until 1847, and we had been through the Mexican War of 1846-48. By 1851 there were 31 states in the union, California having just come aboard the previous year. Our president serving from 1850-1853 was Millard Fillmore, a Whig. Abe Lincoln was still practicing law in Springfield, IL. The question of slavery was finding increasing debate. Although the Civil War had not yet begun, tensions were building. Our forefathers must have had much on their minds in those years.
Through it all we held strongly to our religious faith, and in 1851 our first church was built.

In Chapter 2 we’ll find out what the worship environment was like in 1851.

CHAPTER 2 – How Did We Worship in 1851?

Early settlers in Craneville supported their families through agriculture and light industry. At the same time, they were true to their principles and priorities, and they provided for family worship and education of their children. Accordingly, the first public building in this town was the “Old Red Schoolhouse,” built about 1805 and located across from the Denman farm homestead, at what is now the corner of South Union Avenue and West Fields Road (now Lincoln Avenue).

In that “Old Red Schoolhouse” our church had its birth. Beginning in 1832, the building was used for worship by Presbyterians, and in the early days we shared the facility with the Methodists, having a Sunday School attendance of about 29 children. Occasionally, adult services with visiting preachers were held there. The West Fields pastor made quarterly visits to the schoolhouse to examine the children on their knowledge of the Scriptures and the Shorter Catechism.

The Presbyterian adults and teenagers were communicant members of the West Fields Presbyterian Church, and on Sundays they walked, rode horseback or drove the family wagon to attend service. That church had been organized in 1727 and originally occupied a log building three miles west of Craneville. In 1803 a new building was erected on Mountain Avenue, where today’s Westfield church now stands. For the Craneville people attending service on Sundays, it was a day filled with travel, worship, and fellowship—with sermons and then Bible Study in the afternoon and evening—after which they wended their way back home to Craneville.

As we can well imagine, those hardy souls traveling from Craneville were bonded by their shared worship, but also felt a strong desire to establish a church closer to home, to bring organized worship to the growing village of Craneville. The Methodists, who had been traveling to their affiliated church in West Fields, felt similar wishes.

On January 24, 1850, a meeting was held by Craneville village people to start planning a church building and organization. This was the first positive step towards our own church in Craneville.

CHAPTER 3 – Getting Plans Together for a Church

It is apparent that Josiah Crane was one unusually well-motivated person, a self-starter who got things done. He left his mark on our town and our church. Even before our church founding, he had been a central figure in community matters, and also served as superintendent of the Sabbath School in the “Old Red Schoolhouse.”

Josiah initiated the first planning meeting on January 24, 1850 at his home, which was located where the World Savings Bank now stands on North Avenue. The meeting brought together fifty townspeople to consider establishing a Craneville church. Most of the people addressing the question were Presbyterians and Methodists, who all agreed that a church was needed, as well as the services of a resident minister.

Then, on July 6, 1850, a public meeting was held at the home of John Denman, who was one of the Methodists involved. On July 13th, at a meeting in the schoolhouse, a building committee was appointed. The committee members were Josiah Crane, John Grant Crane, Samuel W. Thompson (Presbyterians) and Jacob Miller (Methodist). Of these, Josiah and Sam Thompson were the especially strong pillars of the nascent church.

Things were now rolling, and various amounts of money were pledged at the meeting. Josiah generously contributed a parcel of land for the church and a manse. The parcel was located between North Avenue and North Union Avenue, on what is now Alden Street. This was basically the same block as occupied by Josiah’s house. So, the parcel was in Josiah’s “back yard.”
With great enthusiasm, the new building was soon completed. On March 3, 1851, the little congregation assembled for the first time in the new church, but it wasn’t until June 26th that they became fully organized in the Presbytery. Because this was somewhat of a joint venture between two groups, the Presbyterians and the Methodists, they chose the name “Union Chapel” for the newly assembled church.

As we have seen, Josiah was a very thorough man. He carried out the task of construction from beginning to end—from donating the tract for the church building to donating a burial ground! This original cemetery was located south of the railroad, between High Street and the river. At a later time the burials were exhumed and transferred to a plot in Fairview Cemetery, which we still own, and where you may currently encounter names you recognize.

In Chapter 4 other events and people unfold in this genesis.

CHAPTER 4 – The First Church in Town

Stop to think for a moment about how excited those early worshipers must have been when they first met in their own new church building on March 3, 1851. Here they were, in the very first ecclesiastical structure to be built in Craneville. The members of the Building Committee, headed by Josiah Crane, who was now 60 years old, certainly must have felt proud of their accomplishment. Even though the building cost $2500, a rather large sum of money for a small group in those days, THEY DID IT!

Although the building was occupied immediately, the church had not yet been formally received into the Presbytery. Therefore, plans were put into motion to establish the organization so that members could transfer from the rolls at West Fields. Because Craneville was part of greater Essex County, we submitted an application to be under the care of the Presbytery of Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn! At that time the New Jersey Presbyterians belonged to the Synod of Long Island.
There were twenty-two members who sought to transfer membership from West Fields into the newly forming church. That gave us ten men and twelve ladies, a strong force to get underway.

Next, Chapter 5 looks beyond the Craneville Church of 1851 and tells a little about what was going on in our nationwide denomination.

CHAPTER 5 – Our Denomination in Metamorphosis

At the time that our little church was just getting started in Craneville, other matters were brewing within the national Presbyterian Church. Craneville was not isolated from the body of this larger church, so the growing pains of the denomination were part of our life, too.

An interesting aspect of Presbyterian growth was the establishment of orderly systems to handle financial matters. This involved a slow evolution among the scattered small congregations. Besides taking care of their own local needs, Presbyterians have always sought to help others. As early as 1717, churches had established the “Fund for Pious Uses” for missionaries and charitable activities. Then in 1759 a “Widows’ Fund” was established to provide annuity income to ministers’ widows and distressed ministers. Initially, there was a lack of uniformity among the four synods of the day in the handling of charitable giving, financial affairs, and other issues. Each synod set up their own practices and rules. The confusion was reduced greatly in 1789 in Philadelphia, when the idea of a General Assembly was first implemented. It consisted of elected representatives from the synods, and served as the highest governing body of the denomination. This marked a new era of strength for Presbyterianism and the smoother carrying out of our mission.

Then, in 1799 the General Assembly organized a new corporation of Trustees, acting for the denomination as a whole on matters of collection of gifts and bequests, investment of the denomination funds, and disbursement for “benevolent and pious purposes.”

The first president of these Trustees was Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. Boudinot was truly a remarkable man—a patriot who made many contributions to the nation and to the Presbyterian church. He first lived in Philadelphia, later lived in Princeton and Elizabeth. We recommend reading about this man’s important role.
This Trustee organization became today’s Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation, which is now 202 years old. Over the years it has benefited many individuals and churches, including Cranford’s own endowment fund and some annuities by individual church members.

On matters of governance and doctrine, the denomination began to feel rumblings of bitterness and sectionalism after 1830. This culminated in a dramatic split into two rival factions, which occurred at the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting of May 19, 1837. These groups became known as “The Old School” and “The New School.” Those in the Old were in the majority and adhered to the well-established church, believing in close governance by the ruling boards rather than by outside agencies, and opposed to uniting with the Congregational Church, an action which was being considered.

The New School had liberal tendencies, supported joining with the Congregationalists, sought cooperative missionary projects, and took a more pronounced stand against slavery, a growing issue. When our church was founded in 1851, our presbytery was allied with the New School. The Old School commissioners had withdrawn to become the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).
The agonizing differences on the slavery issue permeated all of our country’s life in those days of the 1850s and 1860s. Being a major moral issue, as well as economic, it weighed heavily on the church. And the schism in the Presbyterian church seemed destined to be permanent. However, the common antislavery viewpoint of the two Schools in the north, gradually drew them closer together, except for the extreme Southern element, who depended heavily upon slavery. A joint committee was appointed in 1866. A harmonious conference was held in Philadelphia in 1869, which resolved the schism. Fortunately, the threatening period of heated rivalry between the factions was brought to an end when they overcame their differences in 1869. By then the country was entering a dynamic time of reconstruction after the Civil War, with westward expansion and robust growth. It was a good time to resolve differences.

In Chapter 6 we return to the events that lead to the official birth of our Craneville church on June 26, 1851.

CHAPTER 6 – We Officially Arrive!

At last! The day is here! At 11:00 A.M. on June 26, 1851, the Commissioners appointed by the Presbytery of Brooklyn convened with the Craneville worshipers to welcome the new church into the Presbytery. Much business was transacted on that “birth day”.

Reverend Dr. Samuel H. Cox of Brooklyn moderated the proceedings. The twenty-two people, who had previously presented their testimonials for transfer from the West Fields church, were welcomed as members, and from this group the first church officers were elected, duly ordained, and installed.

The three ruling elders were: Samuel W. Thompson, Josiah Crane and William Crane, with Samuel Thompson serving as Clerk of the Session.

Two deacons were elected and installed: John G. Crane and David Miller.
Six trustees were named: John Miller (President), Josiah Crane, Jr. (Secretary), David Miller, John Dunham, John G. Crane, Jacob Miller, Jr. and Moses T. Crane.
Everybody had a job! (Except for the twelve ladies, who actually outnumbered the men!… But remember, this was 1851!)

In fact, the ladies were well ahead of the men, having already organized their Ladies Sewing Circle in 1850, before the church was built. That group was already serving missionary causes, and they went on through stages of growth to become today’s Margaret Greene Association.

On this date we officially became:

The First Presbyterian Church
of Craneville,
Essex County, NJ,
June 26, 1851

We were under the care of the Presbytery of Brooklyn, Synod of Long Island. Our new members immediately adopted the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that covered the organizational rules, recognized the Confession of Faith and covenants for future members being received or baptized, and laid out a plan for benevolent actions for each month. What a busy day! And there was more to come!
Adding to the dedication celebration on this first Founders’ Day, the newly organized choir performed at the services. And 150 years later we continue that inspiration in song.

Our first pastor was Reverend Arunah H. Lilly, who served from 1851 to 1853. A succession of fifteen more ministers followed to today, each tending his flock and bringing his own special contribution to our worship and fellowship. How fortunate we have been to have the guidance of such a dedicated group of pastors. As you look at the list of pastors, if you are a long-time member, you can recall some of these fine men and their role in our church.

In these past weeks of our sesquicentennial year, we have looked at the early history of our town and church around the time of our founding. It was a time of great beginnings—not only in our church and town, but also in the continued upsurge of industry. It seems an interesting coincidence that, just as we were getting started, developments in the secular world also were bursting forth in a variety of aspects. These decades were full of changes, which took us out of the agrarian age—beginning with the early start of the Industrial Revolution in textile and manufacture, to the conversion of pig iron to high strength steel, which opened many doors to the creation of new communications via wireless and telephony, to the expansion of railroads across the country, and to the technology for electricity-based industry. These were very dynamic decades in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the remaining chapters, highlights of the 150 years after our founding unfold. After 1851 we became embroiled in the Civil War and it took a number of years before we resumed the exciting period of growth in the church and the community.

Pastors of the First Presbyterian Church, Cranford, NJ

Years of Service Pastors
1851–1853 Arunah H. Lilly
1853–1854 Thomas S. Brittan
1854- William R. Durnett
1854–1864 Hollis Read
1864–1867 Samuel Murdock
1867–1868 Alfred H. Sloat
1868–1873 Alexander A. MacConnel
1873–1877 William Henry Roberts
1878–1884 James F. Riggs
1885–1925 George Francis Greene
1925–1929 Orion C. Hopper
1930–1945 William R. Sloan
1945–1971 Robert G. Longaker
1971–1977 Frank C. Goodlake
1978–1988 George H. Pike
1989–2000 Bruce D. Williams
2002–2009 Gregory A. Horn
2009–2011 Diane Curtis
2011-2020 J. Christian (Chris) Kile