The Rebel Clergyman of New Jersey
by Rev. David T. Myers
With half of inhabitants of New Jersey being Scotch-Irish Presbyterians during the American Revolution, it is not surprising that the British labeled our focus today as “the famous rebel clergyman of New Jersey.” Certainly, the Rev. Azel Roe, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge, New Jersey preached independence from tyranny in the pulpit. And that made him a target of British forces in the area.
Azel Roe was born on Long Island, New York on February 20, 1738. Little is recorded of his early life, but there must have been some spiritual upbringing in that he graduated from the College of New Jersey, later Princeton, when he turned eighteen years of age. Later in his ministry, he would receive the Doctor of Divinity from Yale College, but for now, it was the pastorate that he committed his life and soul in ministry. Called to the First Presbyterian Church in Woodbridge, in New Jersey, he was to serve there as shepherd of their souls, for fifty-two years.
In the history and indeed church history of that church on-line, he was called to be the ninth pastor of the church in this congregation located between New York City and Philadelphia. And yet, his confines of ministry were not restricted to its boundaries. So often did he hold private meetings in a near by area, that its people united with Woodbridge Presbyterians in 1769, a union which would hold until the 1790’s when that portion of the congregation started their own church.
This devoted patriot pastor was “a man of commanding presence and excellent address, energetic and zealous in the Master’s work.” His style of preaching was “argumentative” and yet very effective, it was said. And it didn’t matter what color the people were. Way before his time, he received in men and women of color, or Negroes, baptizing and receiving them as members of the flock.
There was initially a militia among the members of the local church. There must have been some hesitation, despite the pastor’s preaching and urging to the cause of liberty, to get fully engaged in the struggle. So Rev. Roe, in a fire-fight with the British forces, put himself under enemy fire and refused to retire from the battle, until the Presbyterian militia promised to join him in that endeavor. They did finally, and the die was cast for the church to be heavily involved in the American independence. However, Rev. Roe was eventually captured, and spent time in the infamous Sugar House prison of New York, a virtual concentration camp for captured Americans. It was surely due to the providence of God that he came out of that experience alive, for countless Americans died in its squalid conditions.
After the war, he continued on his preaching and teaching ministry at Woodbridge, New Jersey. It was said that after the revolutionary war, his salary was paid in firewood and food, with the provision that his cows could be able to graze in the church cemetery! And it was in that cemetery, he is buried with his wife.
Words to Live By: This is not the first time this author has written on this Presbyterian pastor (See Feb 20, 2013), but it is the first time we have seen his commitment to the cause of liberty in the American Revolution. It is true that much prayer must go into a national commitment. Once that was over, he and his people made their commitment to liberty, and a wiliness to fight to gain it. We thank them for this commitment to God and Country.