The Source of American Presbyterianism

Henry Jones Ford

The foregoing review of the situation in New England brings out more clearly the importance of Pennsylvania in the planting of Presbyterianism in America. The Presbytery of Philadelphia, founded by Makemie, was the tap root from which the institutional growth of Presbyterianism proceeded. Presbyterianism in New York City and vicinity, which early became an important factor in the development of the Church, was an offshoot from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The first movement for the organization of a Presbyterian church in New York City dates from the visit of Makemie and Hampton in 1707. The first regular congregation was constituted in 1717, and the Rev. James Anderson, a native of Scotland and a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, was the first pastor. In 1718 a lot was purchased in Wall Street, and the following year a meetinghouse was erected. Owing to its inability to obtain a charter, and alarmed for the security of its property, the congregation eventually vested the fee of its lot and building in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The property was reconveyed to the trustees of the church after the Revolution.

Notwithstanding legal hindrances, Presbyterianism throve so that, in 1738, New York Presbytery was constituted through the action of the Synod of Philadelphia, which ordered that the Presbytery of Long Island and the Presbytery of New Jersey should be united and thenceforth known as the Presbytery of New York. When erected it consisted of sixteen ministers and fourteen churches—Woodbridge, Hanover, Elizabethtown, Westfield, Newark and Connecticut Farms, in New Jersey; Wallkill, Bethlehem, and Goshen in and about the Highlands of the Hudson; Jamaica, Newtown, Setauket and Mattituck, on Long Island; together with the church in New York City. The churches of Elizabeth and Newark and those on Long Island were originally Congregational in their government, so it appears that in this section Presbyterianism gained at the expense of Congregationalism, although having no advantage in legal position. Probably we shall not err if we attribute the early prosperity of Presbyterianism outside of New England to the early formation and vigorous activity of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

The fountainhead influence of that Presbytery is distinctly manifested when the ecclesiastical antecedents of the original membership of New York Presbytery are considered. The oldest and most distinguished member of the new Presbytery was Jonathan Dickinson. Dr. Briggs says of him: "Dickinson was the ablest man in the American Presbyterian Church in the colonial period. It is due chiefly to him that the Church became an American Presbyterian Church, and that it was not split into fragments representing and perpetuating the differences of Presbyterians in the mother countries of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales." He took an active part in establishing the College of New Jersey, the corporate predecessor of Princeton University, and was its first President. Dickinson was born at Hatfield, Mass., and was graduated at Yale in 1706. He received a call to the Independent Church at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and was ordained in 1709 by the Consociated ministers of Fairfield, Conn., who came on invitation to perform that service.

It therefore appears that his position was originally just like that of other Congregational ministers. His subsequent career was determined by the fact that the existence of the Philadelphia Presbytery provided a basis for ecclesiastical organization that appealed to him. He joined the Presbytery in 1717, and soon after the church of which he was minister put itself under the care of the Presbytery. In 1733 the Presbytery of East Jersey was created and Dickinson became its leading member, which position he also held in the New York Presbytery into which the East Jersey Presbytery was merged.

John Pierson, who was second on the roll of original members, was also a New Englander. He was the son of Abraham Pierson, the first President of Yale College, where he graduated in 1711. In 1714 he received a call to Woodbridge, N. J., where he was ordained April 27, 1717, by the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Joseph Houston, the next on the roll, was a Scotch-Irishman who emigrated to New England, whence he removed to the Delaware Bay region. On July 24, 1724, he was taken under the care of the New Castle Presbytery as a probationer, and on October 15 of the same year he was installed as pastor of Elk Church, Md. In or about 1739, he was installed pastor of Wallkill Church, New York.

Among other members of the New York Presbytery who owed their ordination to the Philadelphia Presbytery was Joseph Webb, son of a pastor of the same name at Fairfield, Conn. He was graduated at Yale in 1715, and received a call to Newark, N. J., where he was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, October 22, 1719.

John Nutman, a native of Newark, graduated at Yale in 1727, was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1730, and settled at Hanover, N. J. Samuel Pumroy was descended from an old Puritan stock of Northampton, Mass. In 1708 he came to Newtown, L. I., as a Congregational minister, but on September 23, 1715, he was admitted to the Philadelphia Presbytery, and in 1717 was one of the three ministers who formed the Presbytery of Long Island. The Church at Newtown to which Mr. Pumroy ministered remained Independent until 1724, when it put itself under the care of the Presbytery. Mr. Pumroy continued in this charge until his death, June 30, 1744.

These instances suffice to show the influence exerted by the Presbytery of Philadelphia in gathering all congenial elements into the Presbyterian Church. Apart from that influence there is little in the antecedents of the ministers forming the New York Presbytery to suggest that they would have preferred Presbyterianism to Congregationalism. Of the sixteen only one, Houston, was of Scotch-Irish nativity. Nearly all of them were from New England. Twelve were graduates of Yale and three of Harvard. The circumstance that determined their adherence to the Presbyterian discipline is to be attributed chiefly to Makemie's foresight in making a timely start of church organization in a strategic position. In population and position Philadelphia then more closely approximated the character of a national capital than any other town in the colonies, and in planting the first Presbytery at that point Makemie associated its growth with the growth of the nation. Demonstrative evidence of this fact is afforded by the speedy appearance of a brood of Presbyteries all mothered by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. All the great organizers of American Presbyterianism were connected either with the Philadelphia Presbytery or with directly affiliated Presbyteries.

Next to the work of Dickinson in structural value was that of the Tennents. The founder of the famous family, William Tennent, was born in Ireland and was a cousin on the mother side of James Logan, Secretary of the Province of Pennsylvania. He married, May 15, 1702, a daughter of the Rev. Gilbert Kennedy, a distinguished Presbyterian minister, who having been ejected from his charge in Girvan, Ayrshire, Scotland, took refuge in Ireland and became minister of Dondonald. He died February 6, 1688. William Tennent was graduated at the University of Edinburgh, July 11, 1695. Notwithstanding the fact that he married into a Presbyterian family, he turned to the Established Church and was ordained by the Bishop of Down as deacon, July, 1704; as priest, September 22, 1706. After becoming a clergyman he is said to have held a chaplaincy in a nobleman's family, but he became unwilling to conform to the requirements of the Established Church and he decided to go to America. He arrived in September, 1716, with his wife, a daughter and four sons, who became ministers. On September 17, 1718, he applied to the Synod of Philadelphia for admission. In so doing he made a statement of his reasons for dissenting from the Established Church, of which he had formerly been a member, being in the main that episcopal government was anti-Scriptural.

It is clearly a fact of great tactical importance that at the time Tennent arrived there was in existence an ecclesiastical organization of which he could become an adherent. Otherwise he might just as readily have become an Independent or a Congregational minister, as happened in so many cases in New England. As it was, his ability as an organizer became of great value to the cause of American Presbyterianism. He settled at East Chester, N. Y., November 22, 1718, and did effective work in spreading Presbyterianism in Westchester County. He removed to Bedford, New York, in May, 1720. In 1721 he took charge of Bensalem and Smithfield in Bucks County, Pa. In 1726 he accepted a call to Neshaminy, where he established the famous Log College, thus becoming, says Dr. Briggs, "the Father of Presbyterian Colleges in America." He died May 6, 1746.

Gilbert Tennent, eldest son of William, was born in the county of Armagh, Ireland, February 5, 1703. He was educated by his father and was licensed as a preacher by the Philadelphia Presbytery in May, 1725. An indefatigable worker and an eloquent preacher, his career is prominent in church history, owing to his vigorous initiative which made a stir wherever he went. A friend of Whitefield, who admired his eloquence, Gilbert Tennent exemplified the same type of fervent and emotional religion, and like Whitefield, he became an itinerant evangelist. After a conference with Whitefield in New Brunswick, in November, 1740, Tennent went to New England, where he preached numerous sermons with marked effect in arousing popular interest. He frequently preached three times a day. His tour included a number of towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut. At New Haven he preached seventeen sermons, and a large number of students were drawn into the ministry. He returned to New Brunswick in 1741, and soon became as active in writing as in teaching. In 1744 he removed to Philadelphia and took charge of the Second Presbyterian Church, but he does not appear to have been successful in routine pastoral work, which was probably too restricted a field for his powers. In 1763 he went to Great Britain in company with Samuel Davies to raise funds for the College of New Jersey, in which they had marked success. In 1755 Tennent was again with the Second Church of Philadelphia, and his labors at this period appear to have been more fruitful in parish results. He died January 23, 1764.

William Tennent, brother of Gilbert and second son of the first William Tennent, was born in County Antrim, Ireland, June 3, 1705. He, too, became a distinguished Presbyterian minister. He settled at Freehold, N. J., and like his brother he was active in evangelistic work, visiting Maryland and Virginia in such labors. John Tennent, third son of the first William, was born in County Armagh, Ireland, November 12, 1707. He was licensed September 18, 1729, and in 1730 was ordained by the Philadelphia Presbytery as pastor at Freehold, N. J., in which charge he preceded his brother William. He died April 23, 1732, aged twenty-five. His brother William carried on his pastoral work for him six months prior to his decease. A younger brother, Charles Tennent, born in County Down, May 3, 1711, was also an eminent minister. He was pastor of Whiteday Church under New Castle Presbytery, but in 1763 removed to Buckingham, now Berlin, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He died in 1771.

The Tennent family afford an extraordinary instance of hereditary faculty, and their services were of inestimable value in popularizing the Presbyterian type of worship. Dr. Briggs says that "William Tennent is one of the grandest trophies won by Presbyterianism from Episcopacy in the first quarter of the eighteenth century."

Among the early recruits gained by the Synod of Philadelphia were a number of Scotch-Irish clergymen, some coming by way of New England and some direct. Adam Boyd, born at Ballymoney, Ireland, in 1692, came to New England in 1722 or 1723. He followed Craighead to Pennsylvania and was ordained at Octorara September 13, 1724. The Forks of the Brandywine was included in his field until 1734. He spent his life in this region, dying November 23, 1768. He left a widow, five daughters and five sons. The eldest son is said to have entered the ministry but he died young. One of the sons, Adam, went to Wilmington, N. C., where he started the Cape Fear Mercury, in 1767. He was a leading member of the Committee of Safety, formed among the Revolutionary patriots of that region. In 1776 he entered the ministry and became chaplain of the North Carolina brigade.

Archibald McCook was received as a student from Ireland by New Castle Presbytery in March 1726, and was licensed September 13, of that year. In 1727 he was sent to Kent in Delaware, his charge embracing several congregations. He was ordained June 7, and died within a few months.

Hugh Stevenson, a theological student from Ireland, was received by the New Castle Presbytery, May 11, 1726. He was licensed September 13, and employed in temporary supply of pulpits until 1728 when he was called to Snow Hill, Md. In 1733, while preaching in Virginia, he experienced treatment of which he made formal complaint to the Synod. The Synod sent a copy to the Church of Scotland with a request that that body use its influence with the British Government to lay "a restraint upon some gentlemen in said neighboring Province as may discourage them from hampering our missionaries by illegal persecutions." In 1739 or 1740 Stevenson opened a grammar school in Philadelphia. He was a teacher of high reputation, but in turning from ministerial work to education he discontinued ministerial labor and fell into some irregularities for which in 1741 he was suspended by the Synod. He died some time before May, 1744.

John Wilson, of whose antecedents nothing is recorded save that he was a minister from Ireland "coming providentially into these parts," was received by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729. He preached at Lower Octorara and established himself in the favor of the congregation, but in January, 1730, the Presbytery of New Castle received a letter from Armagh Presbytery of such tenor that the Presbytery resolved not to employ him. He was then preaching at New Castle and the congregation stood by him. Robert Gordon, Judge of New Castle County Court, appealed to the Synod in Wilson's behalf, but the Synod upheld the Presbytery. Wilson soon after removed to Boston, and died there January 6, 1733, aged sixty-six. It is supposed that the Rev. John Wilson was his son, who was born in Ulster, and was ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Chester, N. H., in 1734, and who died there, February 1, 1779, aged seventy-six.

Dr. Hodge writing in 1839 gives a list of the ministers who entered the Presbyterian Church from 1729 to 1741, but he states that the records are so imperfect that the list cannot be regarded as complete. He mentions thirty-eight and of these nineteen were from Ireland; the others so far as known being natives of America.