Joseph Clark

From A Biographical Dictionary entitled Princetonians (1776-1783) by Richard A. Harrison, the following story of the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown’s second pastor is told.


Joseph Clark, A.B., A.M. 1784, D.D. Jefferson College, Presbyterian clergyman, was born near Elizabethtown, Essex County, New Jersey on October 21, 1751. The Clarks were among the older families inhabiting the area, but Joseph’s parentage has not been established. At the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed to a carpenter, but after some three years in that trade he is said to have aspired to a higher calling and to have prepared himself for college. Just when he was admitted to Nassau Hall is unknown, but a journal he kept, which begins with a moving account of President Witherspoon’s dismissal of the students on November 29, 1776 because of the approaching British army, argues for the disruption of an education already well underway.


The account of the closing of the College has been familiar to College historians, but heretofore they have failed to identify the author and have attributed it to some anonymous student. Since Clark’s authorship is now unmistakable, it is appropriate here to repeat his description of that crisis in the College’s history. It reads:


“On the 29th of November, 1776 New Jersey College long the peaceful seat of science and haunt of the Muses was visited with the melancholy tidings of the approach of the enemy. This alarmed our fears and gave us reason to believe we must soon bid adieu to our peaceful Departments and break off in the midst of our delightful studies; nor were we long held in suspense, our worthy President deeply affected at this solemn scene entered the Hall where the students were collected, and in a very affecting manner informed us of the improbability of continuing there longer in peace; and after giving us several suitable instructions and much good advice very affectionately bade us farewell.


“Solemnity and distress appeared almost in every countenance. Several students that had come 5 and 600 miles, and just got settled in College, were now obliged under every disadvantage to return with their effects or leave them behind, which several through the impossibility of getting a carriage at so confused a time were obliged to do, and lost their all.”


Clark, hopeful that he might somehow continue his studies, agreed with a Mr. Johnson, who apparently lived not too far from the College, to tutor his son until the spring. But Washington’s continued retreat and the British advance as far as Kingston by December 6 put an end to this plan.


Before the month ended, Clark had enlisted in what he described as the “Amwell Battalion” of the New Jersey militia, the Third Regiment of Hunterdon County, which he served through better than four months as adjutant. Although more than once close to a major scenes of military action, Clarks’ involvement in actual combat seemed to have been limited to a few minor skirmishes. On July 8, 1777, he became deputy quartermaster on the staff of Major General Adam Stephen of the Virginia Continental Line. After a delay imposed by illness, he followed Stephen’s division to Pennsylvania but returned to New Jersey on August 14 and to Princeton two days later where he “made some preparations for pursuing my studies.” On August 22 he was again in Princeton, this time waiting “to see the doctor,” no doubt Doctor Witherspoon, on the subject of a possible return to the College, which that summer had managed to reopen with a handful of students. But he was not soon to resume his studies. Instead, he marched off with two New Jersey regiments “on their way to the grand army” and rejoined his own division some four miles below Wilmington, Delaware. He was in or near the action that followed at Brandywine and Germantown, and in December he went into winter quarters at Valley Forge.


During that famous winter, Clark seems to have been chiefly impressed by grumbling among the troops against the Congress. At one point he commented: “I plainly saw that those the cry of Liberty had called into the field, could now (when the same cause ceased to be a novelty) be held in it no other tie than that of Interest.” With the coming of spring, he was heartened by Baron von Steuben’s efforts to improve the discipline of the army and by new of the French alliance. Early in May he left for a visit to New Jersey, which included two days in Princeton, where he “was very happy with my friends.” Having bought a horse there, he rode to Elizabethtown, then to Morristown for a visit with his mother, and returned to Princeton for a stay from May 27 to 30. Back in camp on June 5, he found “all in exception of a speedy and sudden move.” Thereafter he accompanied the army as it followed the British across New Jersey to the battle at Monmouth Court House on June 28, 1778. By the end of July he was in camp near White Plains, New York. In September he again visited Princeton, but early in October he was back in camp “opposite West Point fort.” His account of wartime experiences or such part of it has survived, ends abruptly late in 1778, as the troops once more were moving into winter quarters.


Clark continued in military service through at least most of 1779. Just when he returned to his studies must remain uncertain, but it was in time for him to graduate as one of the six in his class in September 1781, enjoying the highest honor of delivering the Latin salutatory address on the subject of “luxury.” He was then just short of thirty years old.


Clark may have remained in Princeton for a time to begin his theological studies, but by April 1782 he was reading with John Woodhull (A.B. 1766), who advertised the reopening under his supervision of a Latin school at Freehold in Monmouth County. Included in the advertisement was a statement that “Mr. Clark, a very worthy and capable gentleman, late of New Jersey college, is instructor, who gives the fullest satisfaction, so that the school is already in a flourishing state.” Though suffering some disadvantage from a late start, Clark obviously was an apt student. He was licensed to preach on April 23, 1783 by the New Brunswick Presbytery. On October 26 of that year he was sent to supply the pulpit in Allentown, New Jersey, where he continued as a “stated supply” until his installation as pastor in June 1788. He had been ordained sine titulo in June 1784. At Allentown he found a wife in Margaret Imlay, sister of James H. Imlay (A.B. 1786). The couple had four children, a daughter and three sons, including Reverend John Favel Clark (A.B. 1807). In January 1796 Clark transferred to the Presbyterian church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He remained there to the end of his life.    


A man of medium height and slender build, firm convictions, and a sociable disposition, Clark apparently won attention equal through the quality of his sermons rather than through any special animation in their delivery. Certainly, the best known of them, delivered in 1806 on the death of William Patterson (A.B. 1763), shows skill in the development of the opportunity afforded by Patterson’s deathbed acceptance of full communion with a church whose interests he more than once had served. Clark was considered to be a man of good judgment and persuasive effectiveness in the drafting of resolutions and reports. He rose quickly to offices of responsibility within his denomination, including his election in 1800 as moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.


Perhaps this election was a reward for the outstanding success he is reported to have had in raising funds for the support of missions on the nation’s expanding frontiers. Perhaps too it was the reputation thus established that led the trustees of the College to call upon him for special assistance in raising funds for the reconstruction of Nassau Hall after its destruction by fire in 1802. At an emergency session in March, the trustees asked President Samuel Stanhope Smith (A.B. 1769) to undertake a fund-raising mission as far south as Washington, D.C., the elderly Alexander McWhorter (A.B. 1757) to travel through New England for the same purpose, and Joseph Clark to undertake similar mission to South Carolina and Georgia. Possibly, it was for the purpose of lending Clark additional authority as an agent of the College that he was elected as a trustee at the board’s regular meeting in September 1802, although he did not take office until the following April. At the September meeting two additional agents were appointed: Reverend Robert Finley (A.B. 1787) for solicitation in four New Jersey counties, and Reverend William M. Tennent (A.B. 1763) for a mission through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.


Joseph Clark began his mission on November 2, 1802, not to South Carolina and Georgia, but with the ultimate destination of Virginia. He traveled in the company of Judge John Bryan, a native of Virginia who lived then in Peapack, New Jersey and was a justice of the Somerset County court. Apparently, Clark rode in a “coach” with a servant for whose wages $48 would later be allowed, and Judge Bryan rode on horseback. They reached Pequea, Pennsylvania on November 6 and reached Lancaster on the next day, where they stayed almost a full week, the local court being then in session, and where they had their first major success. Before moving on, they had collected or received subscriptions for more than $800. They crossed the Susquehanna River on November 13 and collected $17 “from house to house” before arriving in York that afternoon. There on the next day, a Sunday, Clark preached twice and after “much hard begging” on the following days, they collected $138.50. As they moved into Maryland, they adopted the practice of having Clark work the town or village while Bryan rode into the countryside. At Fredrick, Clark preached on November 21, and through the Monday and Tuesday that followed, they counted the results of their combined efforts at better the $300. They crossed the Potomac into Virginia on Wednesday, November 24.


They came to Leesburg on the next day, to Fauquier Court House on November 29, collecting in and around that place $81. A journey through Stafford County, which seems to have yielded no more than $8, brought them to Fredricksburg. There they found a letter from President Smith, advising them that he had worked that area and was on his way to Richmond. They joined Smith in Richmond on December 3, and two days later Smith was robbed of $600. It was decided that Bryan and Clark would split up, the former riding down the Virginia peninsula for calls at its plantation houses, while Clark gave his attention to members of the state legislature, then in session. He found much prejudice against the College among the legislators and managed to secure no more than $285 from them and a few local citizens. In contrast, Bryan returned from his journey with subscriptions for $714. A joint visit to Petersburg brought a gratifying total of $792. Back in Richmond, they agreed that Bryan would go up the James and through the Virginia Valley back to Pennsylvania, a journey he failed to complete because of his death in December in Albemarle County. Clark drew the assignment of visiting the “lower counties” of Virginia and Maryland lying along York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers. He left Richmond on January 8, 1803, visiting first King and Queen, Gloucester, and Middlesex counties, and then above the Rappahannock, Lancaster, Richmond, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and King George counties. In King George he reached the home of Landon Carter of Cleve on February 12 in the midst of a winter storm and coming down with a fever. He remained a guest in Carter’s for a month, while recovering from his illness and while his servant struggled with a severe attack of the measles. Carter’s hospitality, and in addition a contribution of $50 for the College, possibly was attributable in part to the fact that his sister had married William Burnet Browne of the Class of 1760. But throughout his tour of eastern Virginia, Clark enjoyed the hospitality of more than one well-known planter.


Leaving Carter’s on March 17, he went by way of Fredricksburg to Mount Vernon, Alexandria, and across the Potomac to Georgetown, Washington, Bladensburg, and Annapolis, which he found already had been canvassed. On February 19 he had written Ashbel Green that his “zig-zag tour” was nearly over, that he was “weary, really I am weary,” and anxious to be at rest once more with his family and his people. He estimated that he been collecting about $25 a day. From Annapolis he went through Baltimore to Philadelphia, not neglecting to solicit along the way. At Philadelphia on April 9 he turned over $3,300 to Elias Boudinot, trustee of the College and at the time director of the United States Mint. The diary ends on April 11, when Clark reached Maidenhead (Lawrenceville) on the way home. It is difficult to determine exactly how much he had raised for the College. The trustees in September 1803 received a report that his account had been settled, and the minutes confirm that the payment to Boudinot was in cash. Several hundred dollars of additional sums had been subscribed, some of them as yet unpaid, and it clear enough that Clark and Bryan had handsomely exceeded the total costs for their mission of $625.24. It is clear too that this mission was long remembered as one of the more successful in the effort to restore Nassau Hall.


Clark was to raise still more money for Princeton. In September 1803 he was asked to accept responsibility for additional solicitation in the New Jersey counties of Middlesex, Somerset, and Essex, the last formerly assigned to Robert Finley. In June 1810 he and justice their home town of New Brunswick for the support of a vice-president shown by a receipt, dated December 13, 1811, for $915 collected by him and trustee Joshua Wallace for this purpose in Philadelphia. The item has more than passing interest, for the decision to appoint a vice-president has been interpreted as a move preliminary to the ouster of President Smith in 1812. Clark thus apparently was numbered among the trustees whose dissatisfaction with the conduct of the College contributed to the establishment that same year of the separate Princeton Theological Seminary, of whose board of directors he became an original member.


Clark died, suddenly it seems, on October 19, 1813.