Planting the Presbyterian Church in America

Henry Jones Ford

Although all the church historians recognize the important influence which Scotch-Irish emigration exerted in introducing and spreading Presbyterianism in the American colonies, yet owing to the usual mode of treatment which regards Presbyterianism as a phase of the Puritan movement, the architectonic character of the Scotch-Irish influence does not stand out with the distinctness that is its due. Thus Dr. Briggs in his American Presbyterianism first mentions the Puritan settlements in New England. A much older History by the Rev. Richard Webster gives a more correct view of genetic order, by taking Ulster as the starting point of the history of the Presbyterian Church in America. The still older History by the Rev. Charles Hodge regards the beginnings of American Presbyterianism as involved in Puritan emigration to America. All these historians have solid grounds for the positions they have taken, but for a clear understanding of the matter certain distinctions should be borne in mind. We must distinguish between Puritanism and Presbyterianism; between Presbyterianism and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

The use of the term "Puritan" has been traced to the year 1564. Fuller, in his Church History, says that in that year "the English Bishops, conceiving themselves empowered by their canons, began to show their authority in urging the clergy of their dioceses to subscribe to the liturgy, ceremonies and discipline of the Church, and such as refused the same were branded with the odious name of Puritans, a name which, in this nation, first began in this year." Archbishop Parker, in his letters of this period, uses the terms "Precision," "Puritan" and "Presbyterian" as nicknames for the reforming party in the Church. In 1574 Dr. Thomas Sampson, who was himself one of those that sought to purify the order and discipline of the Church, wrote to Bishop Grindal, protesting against the use of the odious epithet "Puritan" to designate "brethren with whose doctrine and life no man can justly find fault." This repugnance to an appellation that later was accepted as honorable was due to the fact that as originally used it carried with it an imputation of schism, whereas the early Puritans considered themselves loyal Churchmen, seeking to rid the Church of abuses and corruptions.

The Puritan movement in its inception had a marked infusion of the joyous spirit of the Renaissance, of which indeed it was intellectually a derivative. The Puritan gentry united the elegance of Elizabethan culture with a keen appreciation of the Biblical scholarship that was exposing as unwarranted the episcopal jurisdiction against which there were strong practical grievances. Hallam's Constitutional History remarks that "the Puritans, or at least those who rather favored them, had a majority among the Protestant gentry in the Queen's [Elizabeth] days," and "they predominated in the House of Commons." Puritanism was a spirit of resistance to current pretensions of high prerogative in both Church and State, in natural association with demands for such reforms in both those spheres of government as would establish constitutional order. There was originally nothing narrow or ascetic in Puritanism, The strength of the movement that thwarted the strivings of James I. toward absolute dominion in Church and State was in the country gentry, a pleasure-loving class. The biography of Colonel Hutchinson gives the portrait of a Puritan gentleman of the original type. He was fond of painting, sculpture and all liberal arts; was devoted to gardening and gave much attention to the improvement of his grounds; he had a great love for music, and often played upon the violin.

"Presbyterian" was originally synonymous with "Puritan," because the term denoted the historical theory which Puritanism advanced in opposition to the current claims of episcopal authority. The theory asserted the parity of presbyters and denied that the bishopric was a distinct and superior order. Originally this doctrine was advanced as a principle of reform within the Church, and not as the mark of a particular denomination, as it has since become. In Chapter III. of this work it was noted that the early Presbyterian preachers in Ulster accepted a Presbyterian form of episcopal ordination, and sat in convocation with the clergy of the Church of Ireland. At that time one could be a Puritan, a Presbyterian and a Churchman. At a later period, when the Presbyterian order had been overthrown by the Independents, the Presbyterian clergy of Ulster denounced the revolution and became a mark for the scurrilous invective of John Milton. The Independent sects which through Cromwell's military supremacy obtained a temporary control of the Government of England also took to themselves the term of "Puritan," associating it with austere behavior, while "Presbyterian" became the title of a particular Church, which was Established in Scotland, but which in England and Ireland was a form of dissent from the Established Church.

Puritanism then originally signified hardly more than the championship of constitutional order and opposition to absolutism in Church and State. Like all opposition parties it embraced various elements that in course of time came to differ in their particular aims and methods. The intellectual ferment of the times produced doctrines and principles at variance with Presbyterianism, and eventually sects claimed the name of "Puritan" that had little in common with original Puritanism. The term has become so amplified that now any denomination that dates from the Puritan period is apt to lay claim to Puritan ancestry and include Puritan achievement in its denominational history.

Puritanism as a doctrine of Church polity had a following that extended far beyond the bounds of English Puritanism. As is well known, the doctrine received its most logical and authoritative exposition from the French theologian John Calvin, who was settled in Geneva, Switzerland. Presbyterian sentiment flowed into America from many sources, so that an examination of the beginnings of American Presbyterianism must consider many elements. But if the inquiry be narrowed to the question of the corporate derivation of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, the evidence points unmistakably to Ulster as the source.

In Chapter V. some account was given of the reasons why Puritan migration to America took place more readily among the Independents than among the Presbyterians. Hence that particular element among the Puritans heavily predominated in the settlement of New England; but there was a Presbyterian element in Puritan migration, and it was strongly evident even in New England. It is estimated that about 21,200 emigrants arrived in New England before 1640, and according to Cotton Mather about 4,000 of them were Presbyterians. Calvinists from Holland and France brought Presbyterianism with them to America, as well as the immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and England. Germs of Presbyterianism were strewn throughout the colonies as far south as the Carolinas, and some isolated congregations were formed at a very early date. But while Presbyterianism was thus diffused by many rills the organization of the Presbyterian Church of the United States was the particular achievement of the Scotch-Irish element.

Although evidence of record is meager, there is enough to establish a direct connection between Ulster and the formation of the first American Presbytery. In Chapter V. mention was made of the Scotch-Irish settlements on the Chesapeake Bay in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and of their call to Ulster for ministerial supplies. Francis Makemie, who went to Maryland in response to this call, organized the first American Presbytery. About that time the Presbyterians were hard pressed by an energetic movement started in 1701 to build up the Church of England in the colonies. Makemie, who had been long in the American field, went to London in the summer of 1704, and appealed to the Presbyterian and Puritan leaders for men and funds to sustain them. Support was pledged for two missionaries for two years, and Makemie returned to America with two young ministers, John Hampton, who like Makemie himself prepared for the ministry under the supervision of Laggan Presbytery, and George McNish, who was doubtless a Scotsman as no nationality is specified in the record of his admission to the University of Glasgow and that was the custom in case of students from Scotland. The three arrived in Maryland in 1705, and in the spring of 1706 they united with Jedediah Andrews, John Wilson, Nathaniel Taylor and Samuel Davis, four ministers already at work in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, to form the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Andrews came to Philadelphia from Boston in 1698 and appears to have been ordained in Philadelphia in 1701. Wilson came from Boston to Newcastle, Del., in 1698. Taylor was minister to the Presbyterians on the Patuxent River, Md. The date when his ministry began and his derivation are uncertain, but Dr. Briggs thinks it most likely that he came from New England. Davis was settled at Lewes, Del., prior to 1692, and was probably an Irish Presbyterian.

The membership of the Presbytery was therefore pretty evenly divided between Irish Presbyterians and New England Presbyterians, but the formative influence undoubtedly proceeded from the Scotch-Irish missionary Makemie. The organization affected was Scotch-Irish in type. The analysis made by Dr. Briggs brings this out clearly. After describing the organization of the Ulster Presbyteries, he observes: "The first American classical Presbytery was such an Irish meeting of ministers, but without subordination to a higher body. ... It was very different from a Westminster classical Presbytery, or a Presbytery of the Kirk of Scotland." Makemie writing about the Presbytery said that among its rules was one "prescribing texts to be preached on by two of our number at every meeting, which performance is subject to the censure of our brethren." Dr. Briggs remarks: "This also was an Irish custom. The records of the early Irish Presbyteries contain frequent references to it."

At that time Presbyterianism was weak in Philadelphia, and it remained so until the great Scotch-Irish immigration poured Presbyterianism into the country and the preaching of George Whitefield gave a marked impetus to religious zeal. When the Presbytery of Philadelphia was organized only one member was settled in Philadelphia, and so far as the composition of the membership was concerned the Presbytery might well have had another location and another name. But sound strategic reasons controlled the choice. George Keith, once a zealous Quaker, but who had become quite as zealous a Church of England man, had made Philadelphia the base of a controversial activity that took a wide range. In 1692 Keith visited Makemie's parish on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and challenged him to a public disputation. There was a forward movement on the part of the Church of England all along the line, and Puritans of every sort, Presbyterian or Congregational, were impressed with the necessity of energetic action for the common defense. New England Congregationalists and English, Scotch and Irish Presbyterians cooperated in this crisis. The organization of the Presbytery of Philadelphia was a stroke in the Puritan interest. Soon after the first meeting of the Presbytery Makemie wrote to Dr. Benjamin Coleman of Boston, March 28, 1707: "Our design is to meet yearly, and oftener if necessary, to consult the most proper measures for advancing religion and propagating Christianity in our various stations." The results of this action were of profound importance. Dr. Briggs says of the work of Makemie and his associates:

"They organized an institution which was a rallying point for Presbyterianism in the Middle States. It enabled them to license and ordain their ministers in a regular manner; it enabled them to cooperate with the organized forces of Puritanism and Presbyterianism in all parts of the world; it was a master stroke of wise policy which now gave Presbyterianism an advantage over Episcopacy, in spite of the strong influences and active oppression by the authorities in Church and State."

An incident occurring immediately after the first meeting of the first American Presbytery showed that organization for the common welfare was the urgent need of the non-conformists. After the adjournment of the Presbytery, October 27, 1706, Makemie and John Hampton set out on a journey to Boston, probably to consult with the Puritan ministers there. On the way they stopped in New York, and preached in that city and on Long Island. Both were arrested on a charge of preaching without license. The charge against Hampton was not pressed, but Makemie had to sustain trial. He was defended by three of the ablest lawyers in the Province, and was acquitted on the ground that he had complied with the Toleration Act; but the costs of the trial were thrown upon him, amounting to £83, 7s., 6d. The affair outraged Puritan sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. Feeling against Governor Cornbury of New York was so strong owing to this and other arbitrary action that in April, 1707, the New York Assembly made a strong indictment of his administration. He was eventually recalled by the home Government and his successor took office in 1709.

The Presbytery of Philadelphia was the centre from which the organization of American Presbyterianism proceeded. In 1716 the Presbytery had grown so that it divided itself into subordinate meetings or Presbyteries, three in number at first, with expectations soon realized of a fourth, organized on Long Island. These Presbyteries were represented in the first American Synod, which met in 1717. At the first meeting of this Synod a "fund for pious uses" was founded, and Jedediah Andrews was appointed treasurer. Dr. Briggs remarked that "this was the basis of all the schemes of missionary enterprise which have arisen from time to time in the American Presbyterian Church."

An instance of Scotch-Irish pugnacity is furnished by the struggle of 1741 over some points of doctrine, discipline and practice which it does not lie within the province of this work to discuss. From the accounts given by Church historians it appears that an energetic minority, only twelve in number, got control of the Synod, the membership of which was four times their number. Dr. Briggs says that the twelve were all Irishmen with the possible exception of one, whose nativity is uncertain. Seven belonged to the Presbytery of Donegal. One result of this struggle was the organization of the Synod of New York, with three Presbyteries, New York, New Brunswick and New Castle. The two Synods remained separate until 1758, when they were united as the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. In 1788 this great Synod organized the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the first session of which was held in Philadelphia in May, 1789. This was the consummation of the work of organization begun by the Scotch-Irishman Francis Makemie in 1706.

Thus it appears that both in historical connection and in nature of organization the Presbyterian Church in the United States was a Scotch-Irish enterprise. Still another mark of Scotch-Irish influence is the name borne by early Presbyteries. In or about 1729 the first New England Presbytery was organized, and was named Londonderry. In 1732 Donegal Presbytery was formed, with such an extensive area in Pennsylvania and Maryland that from it other large Presbyteries eventually issued, Carlisle in 1765 and Baltimore in 1786. From place names alone, the historian could infer that Scotch-Irish influence was active in the American colonies from about 1715, but fortunately many records remain of ministerial supplies furnished by Ulster, that were of illustrious service in planting religion and in spreading learning and culture.