The Early American Presbyterian Church on Stony Ground

Henry Jones Ford

Some account has already been given of the earliest arrivals of Scotch-Irish ministers, in connection with the Chesapeake Bay settlement. Ministerial activity next becomes noticeable in New England immigration. In October, 1714, the Rev. William Homes and his brother-in-law, the Rev. Thomas Craighead, with their families arrived in Boston from Londonderry. Mr. Homes was born in 1663 of an old Ulster family, and went to New England about 1686 as a school teacher. A desire to enter the ministry caused him to return to Ireland, and at the meeting of Laggan Presbytery in 1692 he was reported as "on trial to ordination." He was ordained December 21, 1692, as pastor at Strabane. He received the M.A. degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1693. On September 26, 1693, he married Katherine, daughter of the Rev. Robert Craighead of Londonderry. When he emigrated to America he was over fifty years old, and had had ten children. He was a man of note and consequence in the Irish Church and was elected Moderator of the General Synod that met at Belfast in 1708. His knowledge of administration incited him to publish Proposals of Some Things to be done in our Administring Ecclesiastical Government, printed at Boston in 1732. Mr. Homes settled at Chilmark, in Martha's Vineyard, where he remained until his death, June 27, 1746, in his eighty-fourth year.

The Rev. Mr. Craighead came of distinguished Scotch-Irish stock. He was graduated at the University of Edinburgh as Scoto-Hibernus, December 10, 1691, and became pastor of Dearg, in the Presbytery of Convoy, Ireland. On May 3, 1715, the Presbytery approved his demission from the congregation of Dearg, and gave him a testimonial to go to America. The Synod censured the Presbytery for not acting with greater deliberation. This minister, whom the Scotch-Irish church was so loath to lose, did not at first meet with favorable acceptance in America. He settled at Freetown, Mass., where the support he received was so inadequate that he petitioned the General Court for assistance. In June, 1718, he was allowed ten pounds for six months services. In 1719 he appealed to the Justices of the Peace for Bristol County, and at the Court of General Sessions the town was ordered to lay a rate for his support. There was a violent resistance to this measure, many refused to pay, and some were imprisoned. A petition went up to the General Court, which on June 19, 1719, ordered that the prisoners should be liberated, the rate be annulled and Craighead's election as minister of Freetown should be void. Craighead then petitioned for relief, setting forth that he had served for four and a half years, and had received no pay for three years. In December the General Court granted him twenty pounds. Craighead then left Freetown, but was unable to settle himself in New England. He joined New Castle Presbytery, January 28, 1724. This was the opening of a new career whose lustre made amends for his unfortunate New England experience. On February 22, 1724, he was installed pastor of the church at White Clay Creek, in Delaware. He labored in that region for seven years greatly promoting the spread of Presbyterianism by his eloquence and zeal. In 1733 he moved to Lancaster, Pa., and joined Donegal Presbytery. He was pastor of the church at Pequea from October 31, 1733, thence he went to Hopewell, within the bounds of the present town of Newville, a few miles west of Harrisburg. It was a frontier settlement, presenting a difficult post for an old man to fill, but he was now at the close of his career. He died in the pulpit in April, 1739, just as he had pronounced the benediction.

Father Craighead, as he was generally known in Pennsylvania, was progenitor of families prominent in southern and western Presbyterianism. One son, Thomas, born in 1702, married Margaret, daughter of George Brown, Londonderry, Ireland, and coming to America, became a farmer at White Clay Creek, Del. Another son, Alexander, became an eloquent minister whose stirring activities were exerted in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. Jane, a daughter of the Rev. Thomas Craighead, married, October 23, 1725, the Rev. Adam Boyd, pastor of a church at the Forks of the Brandywine.

The difficulties which Mr. Craighead experienced in Massachusetts are said to have been largely due to a contentious disposition, but it is difficult to reconcile this opinion with the judgment of him expressed by Cotton Mather in a letter written July 21, 1719, to a leader of the opposition to Craighead. Mather said: "Mr. Craighead is a man of singular piety and humility and meekness, and patience and self denial and industry in the work of God. All that are acquainted with him, have a precious esteem of him."

While this particular controversy may have been aggravated by personal differences (John Hathaway, a kinsman, was conspicuous among the minister's enemies) yet the underlying causes were such as to make it symptomatic of conditions unfavorable to Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism in New England. The Independents were virtually an Established Church. Notwithstanding the common Puritanism of both Independents and Presbyterians, and the sympathetic attitude of leading clergymen in both parties, the differences in order and discipline were bound to tell. The seat of authority in the Presbyterian polity is the council of presbyters and elders of the member congregations. This implies the existence of ecclesiastical units as a condition precedent. An isolated body is practically a Congregational church, and as Presbyterianism entered New England it found a Congregational field in which its adherents could feel at home. On the other hand, attempts at separate organization would raise practical difficulties as regards the support of the Church. At that time it was considered entirely proper to levy taxes for ecclesiastical use. Originally among the New England Puritans the town meeting was virtually the congregation in session upon public business, an integral part of which was care of the meetinghouse and the support of the minister. So the planting of a Presbyterian Church would raise the question for the Congregationalists whether provision for its support should be included in the town rates, and for the Presbyterians, whether they should have to pay a town rate for public worship while providing for themselves at their own expense. It is pretty clear that difficulties of this nature inflamed the situation with which Craighead had to deal at Freetown, and were too much for him, notwithstanding his eloquence, zeal and fortitude. Removed to Pennsylvania, his qualities were such as to secure for him an illustrious and fruitful career.

At the same time that Craighead was having his troubles at Freetown there was an event at Worcester significant of the clash of interests that retarded Presbyterianism in New England. The Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled in Worcester were accompanied by the Rev. Edward Fitzgerald, whose antecedents have not been traced. They began to erect a building of their own, but one night a crowd of townspeople destroyed the framework. According to local historians Deacon Daniel Heywood of the Congregational Church encouraged the attack, and the "best people in town" were present. The explanation of this outburst is that the people did not want to have to support two Churches when one would suffice for all. The affair was a crushing blow to the Presbyterian interest. The settlers clung to their own form of worship, some going to Sutton to be under the Rev. John McKinstry, who began his ministry there about 1720; some removing to Londonderry in New Hampshire. The Rev. Mr. Fitzgerald departed when it was found that no regular place of worship could be had, but he returned occasionally to preach, and there is mention of his presence as late as 1729.

Some years later another attempt was made to establish a Presbyterian Church and a call was sent to the Rev. William Johnston of Mullaghmoyle, County Tyrone, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. In 1737 John Clark and nine others petitioned the town to free them from taxation for religious purposes. It is recorded that "ye Irish petition" was voted down by "a grate majority." The point of the application was that the petitioners wanted to be rid of the burden of contributing to the support of the established Congregational Church, in addition to supporting their own Presbyterian Church. Johnston, unable to maintain himself in Worcester, removed to Windham, N. H., where in July, 1742, he became the first minister of the town. In July, 1752, the poverty of the parish forced him to withdraw, and he went into the State of New York, where he held a number of charges and gave years of service before his death, May 10, 1782, in Florida, Montgomery County.

A still more violent clash between Presbyterian tendency and the established Congregationalism occurred in Connecticut in or about 1741. In Milford, New Haven County, some people revolted against the doctrinal views of the town minister, and formed a Presbyterian congregation which sent a call to the Rev. Samuel Finley, For the offense of preaching to them, Mr. Finley was arrested and sentenced to be transported out of the colony as a vagrant and a disturber of the public peace. Mr. Finley eventually became President of the College of New Jersey.

Although Presbyterianism was checked in New England, there were no theological barriers to the incorporation of the Scotch-Irish in the Congregational Church, and that is what generally took place. The seating lists of the Worcester Congregational Church for 1733 have been preserved and show many Scotch-Irish names. What probably happened is that the Scotch-Irish became enrolled in the local Puritan congregation and as such were members of the Church and of the town meeting, although gathering for church services of their own when some Presbyterian minister visited the community. A like process doubtless went on in other places. For instance, James Smith, who settled in Needham, Mass., is thus mentioned in the record of the Congregational Church of that town:

"Jan. 9, 1726—James Smith & Mary his Wife, admitted into the Church, came from Ireland A. D. 1718, & Brought a Testimonial with them from Mr John Stirling, Minister of the Congregation of Ballykelly in the County of Londonderry."

Thus Scotch-Irish emigration to New England tended rather to furnish recruits to Congregationalism than to spread Presbyterianism. The ministers, too, apparently found it hard to preserve their Ulster type of organization in a land without Presbyteries or Synods, and they allowed themselves to be converted into Congregational ministers, a process that not only was without theological shock but made little practical difference in the status of a particular congregation.

It has already been noted that Ulster immigration to New England in 1718 was promoted and attended by ministers. The five ships that arrived in August, 1718, brought among their passengers the Rev. William Boyd, of Macosquin, Londonderry, and the Rev. James McGregor, of Aghadowey, a neighboring village. Boyd came rather as a guide than as an emigrant and he returned to Ireland; McGregor intended to remain. His charge at Aghadowey was unable to support him, and eighty pounds were due him at the time of his departure. Little is known of Mr. McGregor's antecedents, but it is thought that he came from the Scotch Highlands, inasmuch as he had such a knowledge of Celtic that he took a leading part in missions organized for work among Celtic speaking people. He was ordained at Aghadowey June 25, 1701. He arrived in Boston August 4, 1718. The records show a blot upon his career of a sort likely to occur at that period. It was an age of hard drinking among all classes of people. In 1704 McGregor was admonished before the Ulster Synod for his behavior in having taken several cans of ale at Coleraine, when, as he admitted, "less might have served." But the charge of drunkenness was declared to be not proven, and except for that one affair he appears to have led an exemplary life.

Cotton Mather, after two months of intercourse, exerted himself to obtain employment for McGregor, writing of him as "a person of a very excellent character: and considerably qualified for the work of ye ministry as well for his ministerial abilities, as his Christian piety, serious gravity, and as far as we have heard, every way unexceptionable Behaviour." Upon Mather's recommendation the town of Dracut, a little north of the present city of Lowell, gave McGregor a trial. It makes rather a strong suggestion that even at that early period the ministerial profession was overcrowded when it appears that McGregor was chosen from among some fifteen candidates for the place. In town meeting on October 15, 1718, it was voted that Mr. McGregor should be invited "to settle in Dracut to preach the Gospel and do the whole work of a settled minister" at a stipend of £65 a year, rising to £70 after four years, and until there should be fifty families in the town, when the amount should be increased to £80. McGregor accepted the call and in addition to his work as pastor taught the village school.

In this there is no mark of gain to the Presbyterian Church. A Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister had been settled as a Congregationalist minister in a Massachusetts town; that appears to be all. There is no evidence that any of the Scotch-Irish who landed in Boston with McGregor accompanied him to Dracut. The mass of them were at that time looking forward to a collective occupation of new territory, and this desire was before long realized in the settlement of Nutfield subsequently known as Londonderry. This place, although in New Hampshire, is not very far north of Dracut, and a number of the Scotch-Irish settlers stopped at Dracut on their way. They induced McGregor to go with them, and the first religious services in the new settlememt were conducted by him. It says much for McGregor's constancy to his people that as soon as they were thoroughly established in their new home he gave up his secure position at Dracut to join them. He settled in Londonderry in May, 1719, and died there on March 5, 1729, leaving a widow and seven children. One of the sons, David, became famous as a Presbyterian leader, through his ability as a preacher and as a controversialist. The widow, Mary Ann McGregor, was married, January 9, 1733, to the Rev. Matthew Clark, McGregor's successor at Londonderry. Clark came to America from Ireland in 1729 with credentials from the Presbytery of Coleraine.

In 1719, the Rev. James Woodside arrived in Maine with some Ulster emigrants who settled at Merrymeeting Bay, but Woodside remained behind in Falmouth with his family, probably awaiting more settled conditions. The people at Brunswick, Me., at a town meeting November 3, 1718, called him as pastor at a stipend of forty pounds a year. Apparently he did not get on well with his parishioners. In May, 1719, the town meeting voted to continue his services for six months "provided those of us who are Dissatisfied with his Conversation (as afore Said) Can by Treating with him as becomes Christians receive Such Satisfaction from him as that they will Heare him preach for ye Time Afores'd."