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The Truth About Christ Church: A Legacy of Piracy in Middletown

A retrospective look at the history of pirates and church from the Red Bank Register's archives

The following column on the history of was first published on March 11, 2011. It tells all you wanted to know about our Mysterious Middletown Sightings Tour feature this week and more. Read on ...

is a huge and diverse community with some of the most impressive parks and nature trails, waterfronts and farms, homes and churches in the state.

But back in the 1700s it was a new frontier, sparsely populated and, according to an article in the 1935 issue of the Red Bank Register, dependent upon a legacy of piracy. 

While scanning the Red Bank Register archives, I came across an article from the New York Times that was reprinted in the Jan. 10, 1935 issue of the Register. The article concerns the early history of Christ Church on Kings Highway in the historic Middletown Village area of the colonial town.

The headline of the article, written 76 years ago, reads "Old Church Set Up By Pirate's Legacy;” and it calls the early residents of Middletown “perhaps the most ignorant and wicked in the World.”   The article goes on to say that Christ Church ministers’ salaries are from ill gotten gains.  

“Bloodshed and crime of more than two centuries ago now pay the salary of the rector of Christ Protestant Episcopal Church at Middletown, N.J., William Leeds, reputedly one of the chief cohorts of the notorious pirate, Captain Kidd, is remembered not only for the legacy he left for the support of a missionary to preach the gospel to the inhabitants of Middletown and Shrewsbury, but also by a monument erected outside the portals of Christ Church,” the story said. 

According to the article, Leeds was one of Captain Kidd's men, some of whom settled in the Ideal Beach section of Middletown and married township women. “Piracy in the Middletown section at least was not considered a disreputable profession," the story went on to say. "Pirate chiefs and their ships received commissions during the colonial wars.”  

According to the article, during a trial in Middletown of one of Kidd’s men, as many as seventy or eighty Middletown men forcibly rescued the prisoner and held the justices prisoners instead.   “This is not a thing which happened by accident, but by design," it read. "For some considerable time past, some of' the ringleaders kept … a pirate in their houses, and threatened any that would offer to seize them.”  

The article states that Leeds knew that the nooks and crannies in the bay near Middletown provided ideal places for pirates to unload their illicit cargos: “Here he came to pick up silks, Spanish laces, jewels, objects of art and other luxuries which he marketed throughout the colonies.

"A member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), Leeds, in all probability, took no part in the deeds of piratical violence. However, he grew wealthy from pirate plunder. At the height of his prosperity he met George Keith, founder of Christ Church, and established an intimate friendship resulting in the legacy.”  

I’m assuming that “intimate” had a different connotation in those days and just meant a strong friendship.   The first official recording of Christ Church dates to June 17, 1701. Rev. Alexander Innes came to Middletown in 1680 and, according to records, held services in the home of John Stout while a public building was being erected.  

Christ Church today is two buildings, the charming old church that was built in 1836, and the newer one that was built in 1966. It has a membership of 240 active families as well as a number of families who are not active. It is no longer dependent on pirate’s booty to support its ministry, but like all churches, depends on the generosity of its members.                                 

The small white church with the distinctive white steeple is a landmark at the corner of Kings Highway and Church Street.   According to a tercentennial anniversary edition of the Christ Church Historical Notes, published in 2001, the organization of the church is dated from Christmas Day in 1702 when Keith, along with Rev. John Talbot held their first service at a home in Tintern Manor (near the Shrewsbury River).

Since both men were missionaries sent from England, his sermon was aptly called “Sow the Seed and Plant the Word.”   In the preface of the book, James F. Hale, who authored the book, wrote “A good history is one that refrains from adding to, omitting from, overstating, understating or distorting known fact beyond the realm of that which is determined to be truth.”  

I say good for you James Hale. It is always surprising to me when people try to bleach their history of its colorful past. Although Christ Church does not say anything about who, or where, the money came from to fund the church ministry in their historical book, it does acknowledge that a pirate was rescued from the jail: “Middletown men, seventy or eighty in strength, forcibly rescued a Kidd cohort, Moses Butterworth, from a trail session at the Middletown Court in March.”  

Hale also notes that Leeds died in 1739 and left his property at Swimming River, in Leedsville, now Lincroft, to Christ Church. Leeds was buried near his house. Hale explains that the story of Leeds' connection to Captain Kidd is unfounded and may be merely a local legend of folklore.  

All these goings on are pre revolutionary war, so the next section of the book talks of William III, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, who incorporated the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in June as the source of all Church of England missionary work in the colonies.

It goes on to say, that a Colonel Morris had written to the Bishop of London describing the people of Middletown as, “perhaps the most ignorant and wicked people in the world; their meetings on Sundays is at the publick house where they get their fill of rum and go to fighting and running of races which are practices much in use that day all the province over.”  

Piracy seemed to be a thing of the past, but it has been making news for the past decade because of the Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. I heard recently that shipping companies have been giving in to Somali pirates because it costs them less than having their ships held up for months. Unfortunately, sometimes the end does justify the means.     

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