Saturday, June 15, 2013

Heading to the Meeting House in Imlaystown

A few weeks ago I got a message from Hidden New Jersey reader and renowned bird blogger Rick Wright, asking whether I'd ever written about Gilbert Imlay. No... I'd only heard the name Imlay in reference to Imlaystown, a section of Upper Freehold and the supposed home of Hannah Saltar and Mordecai Lincoln, the New Jersey ancestors of our sixteenth president.

It got me curious, so I took a drive through the countryside of Monmouth County to find the tiny community.

You'd never know it once you're there, but Imlaystown isn't far from I-195, and as the crow flies, it's practically next door to Six Flags Great Adventure. Rather than using the GPS, I was going slightly less high tech: directions jotted down from a Google Maps search. I hadn't looked up a specific address, so I was hoping it would get me to the center of town, such as it was.

Thing was, I got distracted along the way. Sure, I got off 195 and rambled down country roads, but then I saw a sign for the Yellow Meeting House staring at me from the other side of a T intersection. From my earlier reading, I knew this was the oldest house of worship in the area, having been built in 1737 on land donated by the Saltar family. There was nothing else of note within eyeshot, so I figured that if I found the Meeting House, I might find the town nearby.

An arrow on the sign pointed left and said "Three miles," so I took note of the odometer and made the turn. A shade less than three miles later, I came to an intersection with Yellow Meeting House Road. Gotta take it, right? Regrettably, a fair number of widely-spaced McMansions had been built on either side of the road, followed by some older split-levels and ranch homes as I drove along. Could I even hope that the view of my destination was unspoiled, at least a little bit, by 20th and 21st century housing?

Then, as advertised, I found the Yellow Meeting House, far back in a field dotted with gravestones, seemingly untouched by modern life. The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey notes that "a side door is kept unlatched so that anyone may try out the white box pews or climb to the large balcony in the rear." I didn't find this to be the case, but a glance through one of the many windows revealed a simple yet impressive interior.

Now worshiping in a newer church in Imlaystown proper, the congregation of the Upper Freehold Baptist Church has its roots at the Yellow Meeting House and still holds an annual gathering there on the last Sunday in July. Working with a local friends organization, church members keep the building and grounds well cared for, and it's not hard to imagine the faithful arriving on horseback, on foot and in carriages. The graveyard contains burials from the 1700s to the present, with a fair number of war dead. Decorated with a weathered flag and presumably replacing a worn, unreadable stone, one granite block reads:

"Bordentown January 6, 1777 
'Honored and dear father, I have this day joined the Light Horse.' 
Jonathan Holmes died in service, Aug 4, 1777."

Indeed, one of the church's early ministers was a strong advocate of American independence and may have influenced Holmes' decision to join the army. Reverend David Jones was ordained at the Yellow Meeting House in 1766 and continued preaching there until late 1775, when his sermon "Defensive War in a Just Cause Sinless" became a widely circulated message of patriotism. He soon took a chaplain's post with a Pennsylvania regiment and accompanied troops to Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge and Monmouth. Like Reverend James Caldwell, he became well known to the British, to the point where General Howe put a price on his head.

Perhaps it was Jones' spirit that drew a wary presence during my visit. As I walked from the graveyard toward a historical sign nearer the parsonage, I heard a hawk screech in the near distance. Looking up, I saw three red tailed hawks circling above, as if to warn me: show respect for our dead!

I may have overstayed my welcome. It was time to make my way back to Imlaystown proper and find what I'd originally been looking for. That's a story for next time... and I'll eventually get to Gilbert Imlay!


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