Methodism Comes to Zion, By Eva M. Kyle
© August 1, 1989
It is uncertain just when the first Methodist circuit rider appeared in the area, but there is record of their activity as early as 1834-35. Isaac Livingston Kip of Neshanic, a local historian, reports the following as told to him by Mrs. Lydia Woolweaver, widow of Abraham Woolweaver, who lived on Dutchtown Road and whose farm is shown on an 1850 map of the area. Her story reads as follows, “A Methodist circuit rider from Hunterdon County used to ride in to call on me and my husband, you see my husband’s parents were Methodists. When he came we sent word to our neighbors, and when they had gathered he preached to us. As the congregation grew these services were moved to the stone school house on Hollow Road where baptisms were performed, communion was administered and a class started with Jeremiah Hegeman, its appointed leader.”
These people had great desire to have a church of their own in Zion, and in 1843, the cornerstone for a small wooden church was laid by Rev. Daniel Parrish on a quarter acre of land, donated by David S. and Catherine Wyckoff. The church was dedicated by Rev. John Shaw in 1844, and the first trustees were – James S. Wyckoff, William Dougherty, David S. Wyckoff and William Edwards.
A report on the community by Pastor J. S. Stock in March of 1869 reads: There has been slow but steady improvement in the morals and circumstances of the surrounding population, which is widely scattered over a large area, the people have limited means, which in connection with other causes render religious services and indispensable blessings to all.
By 1880, the small frame church could no longer accommodate the fifty to sixty families it was then serving and was replaced by the present stone building. The church became the hub of all good things in Zion and the spokes to that hub were the paths through the woods and fields by which the people came. Begun many years before by the Indians on their yearly migration to the shore, these paths had been enlarged and extended to meet the needs of the settlers who followed.
In 1888, another small piece of property was acquired for the purpose of erecting a horse shed. Until the shed was erected, the horses had been tied to a hitching rail at the front of the church.
A very active Epworth League was organized during the winter of 1896. An outbreak of measles and bad weather caused the cancellation of many of their meetings that winter but as soon as the weather improved the first project on their agenda seemed to have been the acquisition of a library of some 240 books, which were much appreciated and enjoyed by the whole congregation. They were also responsible for the installation of kerosene lamps in the church, and were responsible too for a very good visitation program and one report noted that all the sick had been visited and their needs ministered to. These young people were the organizers of picnics, suppers and all social activities. There was a very special day called Woods Frolic Day which was held in the fall after harvest when every family came to the church, bringing the pastor his winter’s supply of wood and sharing with him all the good and necessary things they had gathered to see them through the coming winter. With the pastor’s needs taken care of, they opened their baskets for a real get-together. After the contents of baskets were explored and devoured, the grown-ups visited while the children enjoyed their games, then there was a “sing” in which everyone participated with special selections by the choir.
A charter member and a driving force in the League was Cora Baldwin, who later became Mrs. Edgar Higgins, her grandparents David S. and Catherine Wyckoff gave the land on which the Zion Church was built. Cora was a tireless worker and held every office from secretary to treasurer, and until she retired to a nursing home was the organist and her husband Edgar lead the singing.
From 1844 to 1907, Mt. Zion was served by some 40 pastors, many of them students from the Pennington Seminary, so Zion was their first pastorate. During the years 1852-53, the young student’s name was Thomas 0’Hanlon who went on to become Headmaster of the Pennington Seminary.
In 1889, Hopewell organized Methodist church with Neshanic doing the same in early 1900, both these churches drew from the Zion membership. As the activities on the brook diminished and a devastating blight destroyed the peach orchards, the people moved to other areas to seek employment. Church attendance dwindled rapidly and from 1907 to 1916 the church was closed. After 1916, infrequent services were held by the Hopewell and Centerville pastors. In 1935 after careful study and planning, Mt. Zion officially became a part of the Neshanic circuit with Drew University supplying the student pastors. In October of 1935 Zion held its first homecoming service and the church was filled to capacity. The Zion church has been in continuous service since that time, even surviving a disastrous fire in 1975. People from as far away as California, Texas and Florida sent donations for its restoration which was accomplished in less than two years because God’s people remembered the little church that held such wonderful memories for them or some member of their families in years gone by.
If as the poem says the heart is the store house for our memories how many wonderful memories of the Zion Church have been shared and passed on over the years, not only by its members but by those young student pastors who preached their first sermons there, to hearts ready and eager to hear the message they brought of a love that passes all understanding, and in return they raised their voices in hymns of praise and thanksgiving for that love.
Today if I sit very quietly with my eyes closed, I imagine I can see and hear Edgar Higgens standing in front of the church singing out for all to hear “WE ARE MARCHING UPWARD TO ZION, THE BEAUTIFUL CITY OF GOD.”