Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Identity and Community: Trinity Church and Swedesboro, New Jersey

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Identity and Community: Trinity Church and Swedesboro, New Jersey

Article excerpt

Looking back on the process of building the new sanctuary for Trinity Church, Swedesboro, Nicholas Collin, the church's rector from 1773 to 1786, wrote that

every person acquainted with the present state of ecclesiastical affairs in America, must be sensible of the difficulty of such an enterprize; which moreover was the greater, as it was necessary on every principle of prudence and public spirit to form the new church on a plan suitable to the prospect of a future age. Its dimensions ought to correspond with the increase of population for at least a century and its appearance with the gradual progress of taste in a country advancing fast to the modes of civilized life; yet neither the resources, nor the sentiments of the people were equal to my design.1

It is evident that from the outset, Collin considered this building to be more than a house of worship for his congregation. It was to serve as a civilizing influence as well, each detail considered "indispensable for convenience, symmetry, and neat elegance."2

Prior to 1784, when work on the building commenced, no religious sanctuaries comparable in scale and style existed in the southern counties of New Jersey. Although there were a few modest exceptions, most houses of worship, regardless of denomination, were meetinghouses. Indeed, two years after Collin began work on this church, the local Moravian congregation just a few miles south on Oldmans Creek also built a new sanctuary. Like Trinity, Zion Church was of brick construction, but there all similarities between the two buildings ended. Local tradition guided its design, resulting in an architecturally pleasing, but austere and unambitious plan. By contrast, Collin's vision for Trinity looked defiantly forward, seeking architectural inspiration from urbane Philadelphia,3 not in local folk traditions. His new church would dominate and elevate the cultural and spiritual aspirations of a rustic, rural village where many buildings, including the old church and rectory, were built of logs. For the most part, Swedesboro's architecture naturally evoked a century of Swedish habitation. Collin would be Trinity's last Swedish rector, but his design did not acknowledge the church's Swedish roots. In many ways the building symbolized the complex and transitioning identity of this parish and community, neither of which were any longer dominantly Swedish. This new house of worship visually reflected and affirmed a relationship linking the fortunes of the church and town that had existed from the beginning.

By the mid-1760s, the church was actively involved in many aspects of the village's civic and economic life, choosing not to confine itself strictly to religious matters. In 1771, for example, the vestry under the leadership the Rev. John Wicksell, were responsible for establishing the Swedesboro Academy and conveyed a half-acre of the church's lands for its construction. They were motivated, they said, "by the desolate condition of the Schools and schooling of children in these parts" and wished "to promote and encourage learning among their Children and others for the Time to come."4 The vestry was explicit in its desire to establish "a public and free School...wherein all Christian Denominations Children that help and contribute to building and upholding the sd School house Shall have a full and absolute liberty to send their Children to be trained in the several branches of Learning..."5 The deed, interestingly enough, stipulated that the curriculum include yearly music instruction, perhaps because the Swedish missionaries frequently complained of the poor quality of singing in their churches. They also acknowledged the need to provide free access to education, noting that "two or three Orphan Children out of the neighborhood of said place shall have their schooling gratis or such a number, be it more or less as the circumstances at all limes may admit..."6 And although the vestry reserved for themselves the privilege of using the building on Sundays, they allowed for a degree of religious liberty. …

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