We often forget that for the first one hundred years of our history we were an English Colony. The first Anglicans to settle locally are believed to have arrived with founder John Fenwick in 1675 who established Salem as the first permanent English Colony in the Delaware Valley. While there is no concrete information about any early church structures, these first members of the Church of England in Salem met in homes and were ministered to by Swedish, Lutheran and ultimately Anglican priests from other early churches in the Delaware Valley.
It wasn’t until 1722 that the Anglican ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’ met in England and named Salem as a “mission church.” The ground upon which the first church structure was built was deeded to the church and its Wardens on February 5, 1727. This original deed for an acre of land on Market Street in Salem is now held in the archives of the Salem County Historical Society. The first permanent building was completed and dedicated on June 24, 1727, St. John the Baptist Day, and thus the church was named. The building was small, chapel-like, measuring 28 feet by 40 feet with a small belfry and spire, double front doors and side porches that opened to the church yard, all surrounded by a stone wall.
During the Revolutionary War with England in the 1770s, there were Anglican Church members who were sympathetic with the patriots seeking independence. For this reason, British soldiers showed their disdain by using the church building as a stable for their horses. Following these events, the building went through years of neglect. In 1810, The Rev. Henry James Feltus wrote “The old Church had become a home for the birds, and a burrow for rabbits, its pulpit and pews rotten, and its velvet hangings faded and torn, and it was unfit for public worship.” This was followed by years of good fortune for St. John’s, and on November 8, 1820, after many years without a rector, The Rev. Richard Cadle was ordained to the Order of Priest in St. John’s Church.
Interior of St. John's, ca. 1934. Façade of 1868 Hall-Labagh pipe organ can be seen on the left, which was used until the 1937 installation of the Kimball organ. Photos were donated by Jim and Helen Acton.
1934 photo. of the exterior and cemetery. Note the original 1838 wooden steeple and bell tower. Both above photos with more comprehensive captions appeared in recent issues of the Forerunner.
As the parish grew, a larger structure was needed. William Strickland, a Philadelphia architect who had apprenticed under Benjamin Latrobe, prepared the drawings for a new church. Under the pastorate of The Rev. Henry M. Mason, the 100+ year old church building was torn down, and in its place a stone edifice was built. It was dedicated on February 8, 1838. The sermon of the occasion was delivered by the then Rector, The Rev. Edward G. Prescott.
In 1882 the church was enlarged, and in 1884 the chapel was constructed north of the church. With the enlargement of the church by adding the recessed chancel, the flat ceiling of the sanctuary was cambered (curved) to better match the Gothic arched opening of the chancel. It was during these years that electricity was installed in both church and chapel.
Rite I services are held in St. John's Chapel.