By Richard Gwynallen
Reverend Nathaniel Jenkins, Sr.
25 March 1678 • Tyngraig, Caerdicanshire, Wales
2 June 1754 • Hopewell, Cumberland, New Jersey
Relationship to Fawn: 8th great-grandfather
The Jenkins family is a line of my mother’s maternal family line. I was drawn to this little story first because it was another Welsh family line, second because it was centered in a part of the country less common in our various family lines, and then because of one incident I ran across about Nathaniel Jenkins. The latter became for me a good example of the lesson our rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, drew from our study of Tractate Sotah 11 that we each must speak out against injustice, even if we are certain it won’t have any effect.
Nathaniel immigrated to the American Colonies from Wales with his wife, Esther Jones, and their infant son, in 1710 – 1712, arriving in New Jersey. He became minister of the First Baptist Church of Cape May upon its founding in June 1712.
Although today it still maintains the Cape May name, the church is actually situated in the county seat of Cape May Court House which is part of Middle Township. He remained at that post until 1730, when he resigned and moved to the church in Cohansey. He remained minister of the church in Cohansey until his death on the 2nd of June 1754.
As a slight aside, Cohansey is the name of a river from which this church takes its designation. The meeting house stands in the township of Hopewell, and county of Cumberland, 47 miles southwest from Philadelphia. This church has an interesting distinction. According to the Reformed Reader website, “Most of the Baptist churches in America originated from England and Wales; but Cohansey from Ireland. The Baptist church whence it sprang, is still extant in Tiperary, and distinguished by the name of Cloughketin.”
To get back on track, Nathaniel and Esther eventually had nine children. We are descended from their daughter, Hannah.
In The History of Cape May County, New Jersey : from the aboriginal times to the present day, Leslie Townsend Stevens has this about Nathaniel: “He was a man of good parts and tolerable education, and acquitted himself with honor in the loan office (where he was a trustee), and also in the assembly . . . “
It was an instance in his time as a member of the Colonial Legislature of New Jersey, where he served from 1721 – 1733, that is the centerpiece of this story. As a brand new member of the legislature he was faced with a bill advanced under the leadership of some who had moved to New Jersey from New England that would make it a crime to not believe in the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the inspiration of the scriptures. Separation of church and state was not so firm in those times, and “religious freedom” did not necessarily include everyone. This bill seems like it was an incident of Puritans from New England attempting to tighten religious controls in New Jersey. The bill apparently had significant support. Rev. Jenkins rose to oppose the bill and is quoted as saying: “I believe the doctrines in question as firmly as the promoters of that ill-designed bill; but will never consent to oppose the opposers with law, or any other weapon save that of argument.” (The Baptist Encyclopedia – A Dictionary, 1883, and The History of Cape May).
The bill was defeated “and its doom was said to have been sealed by the eloquence of Jenkins . . .”
I imagine that Rev. Jenkins was a competent and respected minister given that he seems to have had only two posts in 42 years. I imagine he was a good man who did good things in life and lived honorably – an average man doing a good job and loving his family. Ms. Townsend Stevens seems to say as much with her solid but not exciting assessment of Jenkins I included above. However, in one unexpected moment, from that average life Nathaniel Jenkins rose to some greatness. He took a stand that stopped religious tyranny from being instituted as law. He took that stand as a newly minted, inexperienced legislator who was probably faced with much more seasoned men. One never knows when circumstances will require you to act, to be an active part of history, or whether one will succeed in that action. The important thing is to rise when the moment demands it. The most average person can rise to a moment of greatness and have an impact.