(from a Paterson/Passaic area newspaper dated 1885 Nov 16*)
An Ancient Congregation
The Seceders’ Church of Passaic
Its Venerable Pastor
Peculiarities of the Old-Time Service
Abraham Ackerman’s Handsome Bequest and
What It is Likely to Lead Up to
A Fortune Waiting for Some One
The wonderful progress in wealth and population made by the towns and cities surrounding New New York has worked some queer changes, even within the past decade. It would be difficult to find another place which furnished a better example of this progress than Passaic.
Ten years ago, it was nothing more than a country village controlled by the descendants of fourteen men who in 1688 sailed up the Passaic River and founded the settlement of Acquackanonk under “letters patent” from the Lords Proprietors of the colony of New Jersey. Now this is all changed. The VAN WINKLE’s, VAN RIPER’s, TERHUNE’s, VREELAND’s, and KIP’s, are in a hopeless minority. New life and new blood have worked great changes. Instead of country roads in a country village, Passaic is now a thriving city, with macadamized streets and the other customary modern improvements.
One of the most interesting and curious landmarks of the past is the True Reformed, commonly called the “Seceders” Church. It is located on Main Avenue, the most important thoroughfare in the city, and its antique appearance, together with the neglected condition of the grounds surrounding it make it a conspicuous object, sure to be observed by all passers-by. Very few of the present residents of Passaic know aught of the history of this church. The congregation, which comprises about a dozen people, will not sell out nor will they improve the property. While passing the edifice last Sunday, a World reported noticed a few ancient-looking carriages tied up under the shed beside it and moved by curiosity, determined to attend the service. Inside, he found the minister engaged in exhorting the brethren to obey the mandates of the Lord.
The pulpit stood about twenty feet above the floor, and behind it, with hands outstretched upon the pages of a Bible, was a figure such as imagination would conjure up as having dropped from the clouds. His almost snow-white hair hung over his shoulders, while his face had scarcely a wrinkle, and there was no more indication of beard than could be found on the face of a girl of sixteen. His voice was remarkably clear and strong and in contrast with the extreme old age which the general outline of his features indicated. Intermingled with his preaching were frequent quotations from the Psalms and the Old Testament, both of which he seemed to know by heart.
Cobwebs hung from every nook and corner of the roof and sides, and directly over the old man’s head the industrious spider seemed to have concentrated his energy, for a complete network of webs formed a canopy having suspended from the low roof. Six persons–four males and two females–constituted the congregation and occupied the two front seats. The remainder of the pews were in the hands of the spiders, and the webs which they had woven, glistening under the rays of the winter sun, which shown through a window beside the pulpit, gave evidence of the industry of the insects.
The reporter sat and listened for about ten minutes until the close of the sermon. Then there was singing by the congregation, every one of whom bore the appearance of extreme old age. Their trembling voices ringing up among the bare rafters sounded strangely unnatural and caused the solitary visitor, whose presence the little congregation did not notice, to wish for the close of the service so that he could get out.
In order to get at the facts concerning the strange congregation, the reporter after leaving the church sought out an old resident in the vicinity and learned the origin and history of the “Seceders.”
About the year 1825, a division took place among the congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church, still in existence and prosperous, in the other end of the city. Abraham ACKERMAN, at that time the richest man in Passaic County, was the leader and instigator of the schism. He furnished the money for and built the “Seceders” Church, and after some persuasion, succeeded in inducing Domine FRELEIGH, then the pastor, to accompany the Seceders. The new church started on its career with a flourish. More than half the brethren joined them, but (trouble) soon followed which soon brought discredit on it.
Abraham Ackerman died in 1829 and in his will, bequested considerable property to the church. His relatives demurred and charged that their dead kinsman had been improperly influenced. Wild stories were set afloat about Domine Freleigh. One reverse followed another. The Dominie’s two daughters took to drink and brought him into disgrace. In less than a year after the death of their patron, Abraham Ackerman, the Rev. Peter Freleigh cut his throat and was found dead one morning in bed. People said he could have had no better luck. The congregation went back to the old fold, but the bequest from Abraham Ackerman’s estate remained.
On July 18, 1830, the present pastor, Rev. Jno. BERDAN, was called to take charge of the church and for a time at least stemmed the adverse tide. He was and still is a remarkable man in many respects. Born in Bergen County in 1797, he was but poorly educated in a common school and never studied for the ministry. In 1824, he was licensed a preacher and his subsequent call to the True Reformed Church was his first and only one.
The congregation has been thinned out gradually by death and desertion until it now numbers less than a score. Meanwhile, the money left by the will of Abraham Ackerman still remains, the interest upon it more than paying the minister’s salary and the ordinary church expenses. At the time the will was made, the bequest amounted to about $17,000 and the interest, since over and above expenses, makes it a desirable legacy for some one. It is believed that after Rev. Mr. Berdan’s death there will be an interesting legal squabble over this money.
The History of Passaic County has the following concerning Mr. Berdan:
“He is a close and careful student, regular in his methods, and has averaged more than one hundred sermons a year during the fifty-six years of his ministerial service. He can recall at this day the text from which he preached on any particular day. His memory runs back to the pioneer days of the country, long before Passaic was thought of. He is well preserved and has never used tobacco or liquor during his life. He is tall and still erect as an elder.”
(*The above is taken from an article within PCHS’s “Winfield Scott Collection.” Scott, a Passaic Attorney, maintained a collection area newspaper articles from about the late 19th century which he organized into a series of five scrapbooks and later donated to PCHS.)
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