Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The James Caldwell Project or, How History Can Revitalize a Community

Reverend Robert Higgs, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey, understands the power that history holds for the revitalization of a community.  First Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest congregations in the mid-Atlantic. It was formed in 1664 by New England Puritans in search of land in the newly established colony of East Jersey. (That is roughly seventeen years before the colony of Pennsylvania was founded in 1681). The College of New Jersey (eventually Princeton University) was established in 1746 by Jonathan Dickinson, the pastor of the church. During the American Revolution the congregation was a hotbed of revolutionary activity.  William Livingston, Elias Boudinot, and other supporters of independence were members of the church.  The minister at the time was James Caldwell, the fiery patriotic preacher of "give 'em Watts boys" fame.

For much of the eighteenth century, First Presbyterian was the center of intellectual and social life in Elizabeth.  Rev. Higgs wants to return the church to prominence by making its history a featured attraction in Elizabeth's revitalization efforts.

"The Academy," Elizabeth, NJ
Higgs is a voracious fundraiser who has raised millions of dollars to restore the church, its graveyard, and its old parish house to its eighteenth-century form.  The parish house is being turned into a public hall called "The Academy."  It will have a 250-seat auditorium for public lectures and events, a museum devoted to the history of the church during the American Revolution, and multiple classrooms and offices.  The goal is to make the "The Academy" a community focal point.  Higgs also hopes to host symposia and conferences related to New Jersey and Presbyterian history. (Plans are in the works for a possible public conference on Presbyterians and the American Revolution) You can read more about the project here.

I am happy to say that I have signed on as a historical consultant for this project.  After spending a day with Higgs last spring at Messiah College, I am convinced that this project can go a long way toward revitalizing a New Jersey city in decline.  I am even more excited about the role that history will play in these efforts. The New Jersey Historical Commission is also excited.  They have provided additional funding for the project and my work with it. This is public history at its best and I am thrilled to be a part of it all.

"Give 'em Watts boys"
I will be spending the better part of the summer presiding over a team of students and former students who will be conducting research on the Presbyterians in Elizabeth during the American Revolution, with particular focus on James Caldwell.  Stay tuned.