Joseph Smith on the Jersey Shore: In Search of NJ’s Nauvoo

By August 21, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, kids, and I closed out our summer vacation with a quick trip “down the shore” (we’d been staying with my in-laws in northern New Jersey, and I’ve been assured that’s the preferred terminology of locals for what the rest of America calls “going to the beach.”) Thanks to the wonderfully helpful research of our own Steve Fleming, I knew that Mormonism’s history in the Garden State dated back to the late 1830s, but I wasn’t sure if there was much activity along the Jersey Shore. Re-reading Steve’s article, along with a short piece in the April 1973 issue of The Ensign by Stanley B. Kimball (hey, remember when The Ensign used to publish short historical essays by actual historians? That was awesome.), I learned that not only did Mormonism’s history there date back to the 1830s, but that Joseph Smith himself preached in the region. From Kimball’s article:

The earliest non-Mormon use of Nauvoo is in reference to a small fishing village of about 50 men and boys in Monmouth County on the New Jersey shore (now a part of Sea Bright). Although direct evidence is thus far lacking, this Nauvoo was most likely the result of a missionary trip by Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt into Monmouth County from Philadelphia during January 1840.  Joseph Smith reports succinctly, ?I left Philadelphia with Brother Orson Pratt, and visited a branch of the Church in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where I spent several days, and returned to Philadelphia.?[1]

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 9.25.43 PM

From Stephen J. Fleming, “‘Sweeping Everything before It’: Early Mormonism in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey,” BYU Studies 40:1 (2001). Click to enlarge.

It’s not clear which branch of the church Smith visited, though Pratt’s own note that it was “a large branch” with about “ninety members,” probably eliminates all branches but Cream Ridge and Toms River.[2] Though we have no record of Smith preaching to any of the other, smaller branches, we do know that by August 1839 a branch was established in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, located near the present-day community of Sea Bright where the New Jersey “Nauvoo” discussed by Kimball was located.

Like any responsible student of Mormon history, I made sure that we scheduled enough time on our beach excursion to completely take all the fun out of it drive around in search of any historical markers or memorials to the 19th century Mormon presence in the area. A brief search online revealed that an upscale restaurant in Fair Haven and a row of vacation cottages in Highlands (each located near Sea Bright) both carry on the Nauvoo moniker today, and on our way out of town, we navigated to the cottages.

I was saddened to see that damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy (the region was one of the hardest hit by the 2012 storm) had left the formerly quaint row of bungalows just a block away from the beach in a severely dilapidated condition, with broken windows, interior damage, and overgrown shrubbery outside.


Click to enlarge.

It isn’t clear whether or not the owners have plans to repair the buildings and get them up and running again. There is still a lot of rebuilding and ongoing construction all along the Jersey Shore, and I hope that this small reminder of Mormonism’s early history in the region is able to eventually make needed repairs, as well.

Regardless, it is a good reminder that Mormonism has a history (in some cases, a long and rich history) in regions other than the gathering spots and stops traditionally discussed in narratives of the LDS past. In spite of Steve’s wonderful research, and that of others on Mormonism in various locales, these histories still seem to assume a secondary status in the historiography. More research on those regions, their historical context and development, and how community residents today—both LDS and not—remember and commemorate that history, is needed (undergrads and MA students looking for good thesis/term paper topics, are you listening?) in order to more fully understand both the Mormon past and its present.


[1] According to a much later reminiscence by George Woodward, Smith preached “upon astronomy and told where God resided. It was very interesting.” (St. George Temple Minute Book, p. 45 [11 January 1900] Church History Library, as cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), available online here).

[2] Kimball notes that “Sharon Pugsley, reference librarian of the New Jersey Historical Society” believes the branch was “probably the Cream Ridge Branch,” but there were other large branches in Monmouth County, including one in Toms River. See Stephen J. Fleming, “‘Sweeping Everything before It’: Early Mormonism in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey,” BYU Studies 40:1 (2001): 72-104, which describes a branch in “flourishing condition” there.


Article filed under Memory Public History


  1. Very interesting, Christopher. I echo your desire to see more non-Mormon Trail histories.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 21, 2013 @ 7:27 am

  2. People really do say “down the shore” in a non-ironic way. Another variation I’ve heard is “down the hospital” as in “You’ll have to go down the hospital for that test.”

    Israel and Anna Lowrie Ivins were from Toms River. Their son Anthony Woodward Ivins, later a member of the First Presidency, was born there in 1852.

    Anna is in my “Eminent Women of the St. George Temple” project, but I haven’t done enough work on her yet to know any details of the family’s life in New Jersey.

    The article “Young ‘Tony’ Ivins: Dixie Frontiersman” (Ronald Walker, BYU Studies, 2001) notes that the family entertained church leaders in their home, but only mentions Erastus Snow by name.

    A History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties (Edwin Salter, 1890) mentions that Joseph Smith visited New Egypt, Hornerstown, and Toms River in 1840 “and sealed a large number.” It also mentions a visit by John Taylor and frequent visits by William Smith.

    Well, thanks, Christopher! I’ll have to add those sources and a link to your post to my Ivins research folder.

    Comment by Amy T — August 21, 2013 @ 7:58 am

  3. Thanks, Joey.

    And thanks, Amy, for those additional sources! Steve discusses Ivins in his article linked to above, and cites the History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties you note, as well.

    Also, I was just reminded of this old post from David G, which is relevant and has additional info about “Bill Smith, a brother of the prophet”:

    Be sure and read the comments, too. Ardis notes that she was (is?) working on something on the topic and Justin provides links to additional reports from the region.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2013 @ 7:58 am

  4. Another notable figure in Mormon history from Monmouth County was Egbert Grandin.

    There’s an interesting additional source here: “The oldest Mormon church in the country?” It claims that the Saints built a chapel in the area (Jackson Township, Ocean County) between 1839 and 1844 and that it was still standing in 2003. I just scoured the Google map of Jackson Township, but couldn’t find it.

    Comment by Amy T — August 21, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  5. Christopher,

    This is fabulous! My Mormon roots begin in Recklesstown, and then Cream Ridge via Isaac Rogers Robbins, who ended up being a counselor to Sam Brannan on the 1846 Brooklyn voyage. You’ve stirred my interest yet again so I’ll need to plan a trip to NJ in the near future.

    Comment by Tod R. — August 21, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  6. Good stuff, Chris. Driving across the Midwest a bit in the last few years, I’ve become interested in the ways that communities memorialize the historical presence of Mormons–especially in places where there’s no real Mormon presence today. One example is Mormons Island State Recreation Area in Nebraska. This is the pitch: “Named for the winter stopover used by Mormon emigrants heading westward, Mormon Island State Recreation Area still offers comfort and conveniences to campers and other travelers on Interstate 80, as part of Nebraska’s unique ‘Chain of Lakes.'” Growing up, my grandpa was infamous for stopping and dragging everyone out of the car at every historical marker. And now we’re doing it to the next generation!

    Comment by Ryan T — August 21, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  7. Thanks for the shout out Christopher. I’ve greatly enjoyed driving around the New Jersey hinterland looking for cites. There was a Mormon meetinghouse built in Toms River which was torn down around the turn of the century. They actually put a sign up there sometime around 1930. The sign is no longer there, though. That building is particularly significant because that meetinghouse may be the first Mormon chapel ever built. The Mormons also built one in Hornerstown; I have a drawing of it but don’t know the exact location. I don’t think that the chapel that Amy linked to is legit since all the histories only mention 2 chapels (Hornerstown and Toms River) and there wasn’t a large branch in that area.

    There are more cites to see in the Cream Ridge/Hornerstown/New Egypt area. Toms River has grown so much, but Hornerstown is still really small. I’m told that many of the Mormons’ old houses are still standing there. The RLDS Church build a chapel in New Egypt in the 1870s and it’s still there, though they sold it to the Catholics. I need to get a grand tour of that area. I also think it would make a great MHA tour since JS preached there.

    Hope to get the book done one of these days.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 21, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  8. Isn’t it about time MHA held a meeting on the East Coast? Philadelphia when the temple is built, perhaps, or New York City. Isn’t there some sort of significant anniversary coming up for the Church in New York City?

    Since Steve just offered to do an MHA tour (isn’t that right??) he could lead a great one-day bus tour starting in Philadelphia and going up the New Jersey Coast, or the other way around, depending on the location of the conference. : )

    Comment by Amy T — August 21, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  9. Amen, Amy. I need to get a proposal to the powers that be for Philadelphia (I’d hope that Philadelphia and New York would get their own MHA meeting). And there were be several tours: Philadelphia; New Jersey; Chester County, PA; Lancaster County, PA; and maybe even northern Delaware.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 21, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

  10. Thanks, Ryan. You should do a short write up on the state park in Nebraska and post it here–very cool!

    Thanks, Steve, for the additional info. I hope to get back up that way at some point, as well, and look around a bit more.

    Steve and Amy: I’m no longer on MHA’s Board and thus can’t speak for the organization, but I know that NYC is likely too expensive for MHA.

    The best way to propose a location (and I agree that Philadelphia would be fantastic) is to get in contact with Ron and Marilyn Barney (and once they step down as Executive Director and Business Manager, with their replacements) and show them that you have a well-thought out proposal (including an appropriate venue that can accommodate a large organization like MHA, affordable nearby lodging options, and especially potential tour sites (in addition to those listed by Steve, there is a NYC Mormon history walking tour that is kind of fun and would probably be doable, even if the conference were held in Philly.))

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

  11. Ditto Christopher’s recommendation to Amy and Steve.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 21, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  12. I grew up in Tom’s River, New Jersey in the 1970’s. Our chapel was a quaint little building less than a block off the bay in Beachwood, New Jersey. Many a Wednesday night activity ended up with us walking the block down to the beach, jumping off the dock and swimming until dark. We were told our little church had served as a Maritime Chapel, a library and in other various capacities over its long history. Our Branch reflected much of the good as well as the challenges of the “Church of the East.” We were a very small group and had to draw on one another’s strength. I enjoyed reading about the history of our little area as it related to the Restored Gospel and would love to know where the meetinghouse was that is mentioned in Steve Fleming’s post

    Comment by AJS — August 21, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  13. I wonder if the anniversary Amy is thinking of is the centennial of the dedication of the wonderful Brooklyn chapel? It’s still in use as a church, although it was sold off to another church — wouldn’t it be great if we could borrow it back for the week of MHA? maybe hold the Sunday devotional there?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 21, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  14. I get the hint, ladies. I’ll finally get around to sending a proposal to Ron Barney–and hope we can find a place that’s not too expensive here in New York.

    Regarding the church in Jackson Township, New Jersey–here’s a view of it on Google Maps–Streetview, and here’s a link to a blogpost about the “Holmanville Mormon Cemetery” which includes a transcription of some of the names from the grave markers.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 21, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

  15. Wow, Mark, you found it. The FindAGrave entry says, “The Holmanville cemetery is located across East Veterans Highway from the Holmanville Mormon Church (Faith Bible Church),” so there’s evidently some idea in the area that the chapel was built by Mormons. Could it have been RLDS?

    And, oh, yes, it’s the anniversary of the Brooklyn Chapel coming up. How could I forget. I’d definitely vote for both New York and Philadelphia and hope that Mark will send in a proposal, but if it was a choice between Philadelphia and some place like Omaha (and if I had a vote, which I don’t) I’d say Philadelphia. Lots of good church history in the region.

    If you’re serious about writing a proposal for Philadelphia, Steve, drop me a note and I’d be happy to help with figuring out some of the details. The Association for Documentary Editing held its conference in Philadelphia in 2010, so it should be doable.

    Comment by Amy T — August 21, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

  16. Thanks for the timely post. Many New Jersey stakes are formally celebrating the 175 Anniversary of the establishment of the first branch in New Jersey (in Hornerstown, N.J. in 1838) this year.

    Comment by Unknown — August 21, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

  17. Wow—thanks everyone for the great comments!

    Mark B., thanks for the links. It looks like I need to do some cemetourism next time I’m in NJ!

    AJS, thank you for sharing your personal experience growing up LDS in the area. That helps fill in some of the gaps about how members in the area remember the history of the church there.

    Unknown, thanks for the heads up! I had no idea that it was the 175th anniversary, and haven’t heard it mentioned in my in-laws’ ward at all (in the Scotch Plains Stake). What sort of celebrations have taken place/are planned?

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

  18. Christopher: I am told early discussions of the anniversary at the regional level centered around a large state-wide, multi-stake celebration, like some of the temple dedication festivals. The plans were abandoned when Sandy hit, as regional resources and manpower were needed elsewhere.

    The Morristown Stake has made it an emphasis and set a goal to activate/baptism 175 people. It was also mentioned in some local press stories about the stake’s pioneer trek, including this one:

    Comment by Unknown — August 21, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  19. Very cool. Great job, Christopher—and I’m glad your family puts up with your “enhancing” of vacations.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 21, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

  20. Here in the Morristown, NJ stake there has been a lot of talk about it being the 175th anniversary of the church organization in NJ.

    Comment by RobF — August 22, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  21. All very interesting. Amy, I am very interested in a Philadelphia proposal to MHA. I’m buried at the moment with my dissertation so can’t do much for the next little bit, but will be in touch. Thanks for the pointers in that regard, Christopher.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 22, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  22. BTW, you can also say (most people from Jersey I talked to on my mission said) “down a-shore”.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — August 22, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  23. […] a sort of follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago on early Mormonism on the Jersey Shore and as my own contribution to the blog’s emphasis on material culture this month, I thought […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Jesus at the Jersey Shore: Some Thoughts on LDS Images of Christ in Non-Mormon Venues — September 4, 2013 @ 6:13 am


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