In May of 1709, the newly created Presbytery of Philadelphia recorded that the “people of Maidenhead and Hopewell (present-day Lawrenceville, and the area of Trenton, Ewing, Pennington, and Hopewell) had expressed their interest in calling a minister”. The farming families forming this young congregation came from many places: East and West Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and even Scotland and England. One of these early members was Enoch Armitage, a widower with three children, who came from Ligeate in Yorkshire, England in 1719.
These early families practiced daily family worship, Bible-reading, praying, and psalm-singing as the young Presbyterian congregation grew. Their greatest treasure was the Bible – read, preached, sung studied, memorized, and emphasized in confessions, worship, sacraments, and daily living. In the early years, they worshiped in homes and barns, in the Pennytown schoolhouse just south of the present church property and at the Presbyterian meeting house at Maidenhead, later called Ewing.
Finally, about 1724, the first church meeting house was built just south of the present building in what today is the cemetery. Measuring 30 by 34 feet, it had a heavy frame of squared timbers hewn from sweet gum trees and was covered on its roof and walls by cedar shingles. Elder Enoch Armitage gave the timber, made the hardware, and provided much of the labor for construction. He was a blacksmith, town clerk, Clerk of Session, Elder and devoted lay leader. The first recorded sermon at the church was written by Elder Enoch Armitage.
The Pennington area Presbyterians became involved in the Revolutionary War as it marched its way into their church, their homes and their lives. From Monday, December 9 to Saturday, December 14, 1776, Lord Cornwallis and his troops were quartered in local inns, houses, barns, schools and even the church meeting house. According to local tradition, soldiers exercised their horses by jumping them over the cemetery wall. The pews were hacked with axes, the marble top of the communion table split by a hard blow and a large hole was punched in one wall. Far worse than the damage to the meeting house was the destruction of the church deeds, the ransacking of homes and the personal assaults, looting and pillaging throughout the area.
Nearly all the men of the congregation fought in General Washington’s citizen army. Three young men from the congregation – John Muirhead, John Guild and David Lanning – personally guided General Washington and his troops to the surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton during the early morning hours of December 26, 1776, following Washington’s famed night crossing of the Delaware River. Rev. John Guild, pastor during the British army’s occupation of Pennington, served the longest of any pastor in the congregation’s history – more than 43 years. His raised grave is visible today in the cemetery south of the present sanctuary.
Fire and Reconstruction
On Sunday, January 25, 1874, as members of the congregation arrived home after worship, the church bell pealed insistently. Before most of the congregation could return, the 1847 Gothic church building had burned to the ground. The fire gutted the building and the tall steeple toppled into the rubble. The building was not insured. Shaken but undaunted, the church’s leaders assembled and inspired by Rev. Foster’s gift of half his year’s salary, the church leaders sought pledges to rebuild the church. Just one year later – by the end of the first worship service in the new sanctuary – all the necessary funds had been subscribed. That red brick church, our present one, was built in 1875 with one story and a 130-foot steeple with a bell.
Sunday, May 11, 1909, was the 200th Anniversary of the church. The size of the session had more than doubled from three elders to eight in 1915 and changed to a rotary system instead of life tenure in 1919. In 1927 Titus Hall, honoring long term organist and educator, Charles Titus, was added to provide needed classroom space. The sanctuary was remodeled and the memorial stained-glass windows were added. By 1951 the enrollment of the Sunday school had so greatly increased that eight new classrooms were partitioned and finished by the voluntary labor of 65 members of the Men’s Bible Class. This addition was named Magner Hall in honor of Rev. A. Kenneth Magner, minister from 1923 – 1959.
In 1957 Corner House was purchased with the first floor to be used for more needed classrooms and the second floor to provide housing for the Assistant Minister. In 1964 a much-needed education wing and Heritage Hall were added, and the sanctuary was refurbished again. Two additional classrooms were added to the education wing to accommodate the thriving Pennington Presbyterian Nursery School. During these years, under the leadership of Pastor Walter Coats, the congregation was known to all as world-minded group of people dedicated to their faith and families. Mission locally and globally was and continues to be an ongoing commitment for members of all ages. Rev. Bill McQuoid and Rev. Su Fall continued this commitment with peacemaking activities, Senior High Work camps, LOGOs, Stephen Ministry, Vacation Bible School as well as support and active involvement in mission projects such as HomeFront, TASK, Anchor House, prison ministry, Pedals for Progress, and partnerships in Russia, Jamaica and Ghana. The twenty-first century brought the congregation to new challenges, but the call is the same – to share with the next generation what we have heard and learned from our rich history: the power, wonder and faithfulness of the Lord. The installation of Pastor, Rev. Nancy Mikoski in November 2008 and a successful capital campaign during the following year were wonderful signs of God’s abundant blessings. The members of Pennington Presbyterian will continue to share faith, live in community, and serve all as we move into our next 300 years of ministry.
We gratefully acknowledge our indebtedness to Edwin G. York and his invaluable history of our church, The Pennington Area Presbyterians, 1709-1984.