A Journey of Faith for 150 Years: 1786-1847

Nassau Street in the 1870s: Courtesy Howe Insurance

This is the first in a series of excerpts from “A Journey of Faith for 150 years: A history of the Princeton United Methodist Church” by Ruth L. Woodward, Copyright 1997. 

This excerpt features Rev. David Bartine, the ‘spiritual godfather” of the Princeton Methodist Church (and the father of Dr. Oliver Bartine, who would procure the land for the first sanctuary), 

The earliest of the hard working, circuit riding, Methodist preachers in New Jersey covered the entire state as their circuit. They found New Jersey slow to welcome Methodism. The Society of Friends was dominant in the southern part of the state and’ northern New Jersey was largely Presbyterian, with strong pockets of Dutch Reformed communities. The central part of the state contained all three groups, and none particularly welcomed any competition.

As more Methodist ministers became available the state was divided into the East Jersey and West Jersey Circuits, roughly corresponding to our Northern and Southern New Jersey Annual Conferences today. As smaller divisions were formed the Trenton Circuit was established in 1786. It seems likely that some of the circuit riders held services in Princeton, and there are suggestions that an itinerant lay preacher visited here as early as 1791.

In 1802 the Reverend Ezekiel Cooper was the first ordained Methodist minister on record as having preached in Princeton. However, we should probably consider that the real beginnings of Methodism in Princeton coincide with the appointment of the Reverend David Bartine to the Trenton Circuit, and Bartine should certainly be honored as the spiritual godfather of the Princeton Methodist Church.

Born in Westchester County, New York, in 1767, Bartine first served as an assistant to Bishop Francis Asbury, which meant preaching at no specified salary in places where there were no churches. He later received his first appointment from Bishop Asbury, who admired his wonderful oratorical power.

Bartine spent forty-one years in the Methodist ministry, many of those years on circuits that required constant travel. During this time he held twenty-nine one-year appointments and six two-year appointments. His first assigment was to “preach, form circuits and prepare the ground for permanent congregations” in “all that part of the State of New York west of Albany and as far north as Canada.”

After this grueling assignment he was moved to New Jersey where, except for a few years across the river in Pennsylvania, he spent the remainder of his ministry. He must have had a rigorous constitution, since even when assigned to an already established Methodist church he was still expected to ride a circuit to the surrounding towns and countryside.

Bishop Asbury praised Bartine for his “splendid argumentative power in compelling the enemies of Methodism to respect her.” Bartine apparently enjoyed engaging in logical debates, in what was described as “a cold steel-like manner,” without showing anger, but cooly presenting clear and logical arguments. One of his favorite gambits was to go into a store with his Bible in hand, and force a controversy on some text with the local men gathered there. Then he would calmly assert what he believed was right. He had a prodigious memory and could probably easily outquote any of his opponents.

As minister of the Trenton Circuit, Bartine first preached in Princeton in 1810 at the home of a Captain Blue, returning at intervals after that. However, it was not until 1841 or 1842 that a Methodist class was established by the Reverend C. H. Whitecar, meeting in the home of Samuel Stephens on Canal Street, now Alexander Street, with Mr. Stephens acting as the class leader.

Bartine’s second wife was Elizabeth Hunt of Cedar Grove, a small settlement several miles from the center of Princeton. Located on the Cedar Grove Road, now the Great Road, it contained a cluster of houses and farms, a one room school and a small general store. Mrs. Bartine remained in Cedar Grove, caring for the children of Bartine’s first marriage, along with their son Oliver, freeing her husband to travel more extensive and arduous circuits. Bartine finally retired to Cedar Grove in 1835.

In 1845 the Reverend T. T. Campfield held a series of revival meetings at Cedar Grove. The conversions that resulted from these meetings created enough enthusiasm to support the building of a small chapel the following year. Located about 100 yards southwest of the Great Road, it is described as a weatherboarded building painted white. David Bartine must certainly have been an enthusiastic supporter of this project, and the following year his son, Dr. Oliver Bartine, became a leading member of the group responsible for establishing a church in Princeton.

The elder Bartine’s influence probably was also felt under the leadership of the Reverend Israel Corbit, the second minister to serve Princeton, who had formerly served under Bartine in Camden, New Jersey. George Batchelder, eighth minister of the Princeton church, was not only converted under Bartine, but later became his son-in-law.

The revival meetings at Cedar Grove gave impetus to the group of Methodists already holding class meetings in Princeton to organize their own church. The New Jersey Conference had for some time been eager to establish a Methodist society to serve not only Princeton, but the surrounding area. However, the opposition of many of the townspeople had made it impossible to find a suitable location for a church at a resaonable price. Now, at the request of the local group, the Conference established a Princeton Circuit, and in April 1847 the Reverend Joseph Ashbrook was the first minister appointed to the new church, with the small congregation still meeting in members’ homes. The first task facing the new minister was to secure a plot of land on which to build his church.