A Journey of Faith X: Planning for a Bigger Sanctuary

Upper Pyne. Photo courtesy of Historical society of Princeton

Local philanthropist Moses Taylor Pyne and church hierarchy are eager to replace the modest ‘insignificant’ building with a grander structure than the members can afford.

This is the tenth 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.

At the turn of the century, during the pastorate of the Reverend Pennington Corson, the first practical concern of the trustees was the construction of a parsonage adequate for the needs of the minister’s large family. But there was also growing sentiment for a new church building. There is no doubt that the local congregation worked hard to attain this goal.

Children of the members of that era relate the great pride that their parents took in their new church; it became a point of interest to show to out-at-town visitors in the community. It is also true that there is no way that the local membership could have raised sufficient funds on their own to erect such a building. We should truly be grateful, as a congregation, for all those who gave generously toward the building of our church.

However, much of the initiative for a building campaign came from outside the local church. Unfortunately, the major impetus for building, the type of architecture chosen, and the fund-raising efforts, all reflect an elitism that we like to think is foreign to Methodism. It was felt that a new building needed to reflect the grandeur of the campus buildings on the opposite side of Nassau Street. And much emphasis was put on the need to attract college students by having a handsome new edifice.

In 1902 a number of Methodist clergy, including two Bishops, visited Princeton to determine the feasibility of a building project. At the Annual Conference of 1903 a committee was formally appointed to determine whether a new church building was advisable and, if so, to develop plans for such a building.

Pennington Corson was appointed secretary of this committee, a position which he retained even when succeeded at the Princeton church by the Reverend William W. Moffett, who also had a seat on the committee. This was a high-powered comnittee; four of the twenty-three members were bishops, all but six were members of the clergy, and the local church was represented by only two members.

At its Sesquicentennial in 1896 the College of New Jersey had transformed itself into Princeton University. A growing student body and the wealth of Moses Taylor Pyne, an alumnus of the Class of 1877, had precipitated a spate of new buildings on the campus. Pyne, a wealthy philanthropist, who came to reside in Princeton in 1895, made his home at “Drumthwacket,” the present New Jersey Governor’s Mansion. As much as possible, he emulated the manner of living of the English county gentry.

His vision, however, encompassed more than his own residence. He envisioned Nassau Street as resembling the high street of an English village, and the collegiate Gothic buildings he endowed for the university resembled those on the campus at Oxford. In 1896 he erected two half-timbered buildings on Nassau Street, called Upper and Lower Pyne. With shops on the street level, the two upper floors originally held dormitory rooms. Upper Pyne was razed in 1963 to make room for the bank building at 76 Nassau Street. Lower Pyne is still standing at 92 Nassau Street, on the corner of Witherspoon Street.

A third Pyne building was envisioned for the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue, on the lot that would be needed for the proposed new and larger Methodist Episcopal Church. Pyne, interested in the development of the community as well as the university, had been made a member of the advisory committee appointed by the Conference.

Persuaded that it was in the best interests of both town and gown to have a new church building, Pyne donated the corner lot. By a Deed dated March 4, 1910, M. Taylor Pyne and Margaretta S. Pyne conveyed the property to the Princeton Methodist Episcopal Church with the express condition that the edifice to be erected be a church and not a parsonage.

The Deed also stated that if at any time the Methodist Episcopal Church should cease to occupy the property for religious purposes, then its value should be determined by a representative of the church and of Princeton University, and it be offered for sale to the Trustees of Princeton University. If this offer should be declined, then the value of the land alone must be paid to the University.

The Advisory Comittee published a booklet which included proposed plans for the new building, As well as their strong advocacy of such a project. Their report begins: 

A large committee of ministers and laymen, chosen from New Jersey and adjoining States consider the condition of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Princeton, find the present building entirely unsuited to the needs of the situation and not in keeping with its’:environments. They find a congregation of devoted and faithful people, who are making great sacrifices to sustain the interests of our church, and, under the present conditions, with gratifying success; but they are unable, without assistance, to erect such church buildings as the increasing demands of this growing community require. And, further, in the student body of the University, from year to year, there are over one hundred young men from Methodist families, who have a just claim upon us, and for whom we desire to provide a comfortable and attractive church-home. The committee, therefore, have unanimously decided to appeal to the philanthropic people~f Methodism and other broad-minded and liberal citizens interested in the promotion of the cause of Christ to aid in erecting a church edifice that shall properly represent our denomination in this great educational center and do credit to the cause of religion. 

(Several bishops agreed). Dr. James M. Buckley of the Christian Advocate was less tactful in expressing his agreement.

Princeton is one of the most beautiful places in the.land. Presbyterians have poured out their money until, including the buildings of the Theological Seminary and the University, the town contains the finest assembly of educational buildings in the land. It was a great grief to me to look upon the little Methodist church, in a most. conspicuous place, not because it is a Methodist church, but because of its insignificance and entire inadequacy to represent the denomination in that classic town. All this becomes more significant when we remember that the President of the University expects to secure $12,550,000 for additional buildings and endowments…. When this vast sum becomes operative in the work of the Institution, Princeton will be one of the greatest educational centers of the world.

President of the University Woodrow Wilson added his encouragement.

I learn with a great deal of interest that you are hoping and planning to secure a new. house of worship for your congregation in Princeton, and I wish to express to you my very sincere hope that the movement may succeed. Certainly it would gratify us all very much to see this influential congregation properly housed and the Methodist communion worthily equipped in Princeton.

The proposed floor plan in the booklet shows the sanctuary on the corner section of the lot, with an entrance on Nassau Street opening into a vestibule, and an entrance on Vandeventer Avenue opening directly into the sanctuary. Two large rooms on the east side would provide space for Sunday School, prayer meetings and class meetings.

A picture of the exterior shows a short, rather squatty, tower at the rear of the building. A second picture and floor plan are pasted in the booklet, both of which more closely resemble the building that was actually built. The main difference on the exterior is a set of four spires on the bell tower. It is far more attractive than the building originally proposed.

The booklet invited subscriptions, but the committee had to report at the 1906 Conference that only about $15,000 in cash and reliable pledges had been received. The members of the congregation had responded liberally with pledges, and there was some evidence of community interest. In 1909 a subscription was taken among the ministers attending the Annual Conference and nearly $3,000 was pledged. However, it was not considered safe to consider building until a few months later, when the Reverend William Moffett announced that he had secured a pledge of $10,000 from Charles H. Sanford, given in memory of his late parents.