The Source of American Presbyterianism (2) - Scotch-Irish in America

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER XIII (2) Start of Section

Most of the information we now have about the early ministers of the Presbyterian Church prior to 1760 we owe to the antiquarian zeal of the Rev. Richard Webster, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mauch Chunk, Pa., whose writings on the subject were put in shape in 1853 although they were not published until shortly after his death in 1856. Mr. Webster leaves out of account the Scotch-Irish ministers that were absorbed by New England Congregationalism as he is intent upon the history of the Presbyterian Church and the work of her ministry prior to 1760. Out of 200 early ministers mentioned by him there were thirty-three whose place of nativity could not be determined, but of the remainder fifty-five were from Ireland, twenty-six from Scotland, six from England, five from Wales, two from Continental Europe and seventy-three were American born, many of Scotch-Irish ancestry. The Scotch-Irish preponderance is particularly marked in the early period before American schools began to graduate fit candidates for the ministry. The American field long continued to attract ministerial supply from Ulster. Numerous cases are on record of the application to an American Presbytery of a probationer of an Ulster Presbytery indicating that the candidate had prepared for the ministry with a view to going to America for admission. Some defective material got into the American ministry in this way, but the Presbyteries were firm in maintaining discipline and a few Scotch-Irish ministers were deposed for heterodoxy or misdemeanor. One case of the sort became famous owing to the part which Benjamin Franklin took in it. He gave the following account of it in his Autobiography:

"About the year 1734 there arrived among us a young Presbyterian preacher named Hemphill, who delivered with a good voice, and apparently extempore, most excellent discourses; which drew together considerable members of different persuasions, who joined in admiring them. Among the rest I became one of his constant hearers, his sermons pleasing me, as they had little of the dogmatical kind, but inculcated strongly the practice of virtue, or what in the religious style are called good works. Those however, of our congregation who considered themselves as orthodox Presbyterians, disapproved his doctrine, and were joined by most of the old ministers, who arraigned him of heterodoxy before the Synod, in order to have him silenced. I became his zealous partisan and contributed all I could to raise a party in his favor and combated for him awhile with some hopes of success. There was much scribbling pro and con upon the occasion; and finding that though an elegant preacher he was but a poor writer, I wrote for him two or three pamphlets and a piece in the Gazette of April, 1735. These pamphlets as is generally the case with controversial writings though eagerly read at the time, were soon out of vogue, and I question whether a single copy of them now exists.

"During the contest an unlucky occurrence hurt his cause exceedingly. One of our adversaries having heard him preach a sermon, that was much admired, thought he had somewhere read the sermon before, or at least a part of it. On searching he found the part quoted at length, in one of the British Reviews, from a discourse of Dr. Foster's. This detection gave many of our party disgust, who accordingly abandoned his cause, and occasioned our more speedy discomfiture in the Synod. I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture; though the latter was the practice of our common teachers. He afterward acknowledged to me, that none of those he preached were his own; adding that his memory was such as enabled him to retain and repeat any sermon after once reading only. On our defeat, he left us in search elsewhere of better fortune, and I quitted the congregation never attending it after; though I continued many years my subscription for the support of its ministers."

This minister was Samuel Hemphill, who while a probationer in Ireland acted as supply to the congregation at Burt, propounding doctrines to which exceptions were taken by the Rev. Patrick Vance. After Hemphill went to America Vance wrote to his brother-in-law, an elder at Nottingham, Pa., expressing an unfavorable opinion of Hemphill. Hemphill however presented credentials from the Presbytery of Strabane, Ireland, and was licensed to preach and eventually he settled in Philadelphia as Franklin has described. Although his sermons gave such great satisfaction to Franklin, who was a deist, orthodox Presbyterianism promptly resented his teachings. The Rev. Jedediah Andrews, in a letter written June 14, 1735, gave the following account of the situation:

"There came from Ireland one Mr. Hemphill to sojourn in town for the winter, as was pretended, till he could fall into business with some people in the country, though some think he had other views at first, considering the infidel disposition of too many here. Some desiring that I should have assistance and some leading men, not disaffected to that way of Deism as they should be,—that man was imposed upon me and the congregation. Most of the best people were soon so dissatisfied that they would not come to the meeting. Free thinkers, deists, and nothings, getting a scout of him, flocked to hear. I attended all winter, but making complaint brought the ministers together, who acted as is shown in the books I send you."

Hemphill, when cited before the Presbytery, asserted that Andrews was actuated by jealousy, because there was always a larger audience when Hemphill preached than when Andrews preached. The ecclesiastical court met April 17, 1735, and the indictment of Hemphill's theology was formulated in a series of articles. Hemphill's mode of defence seems to have been chiefly the making of imputations on the motives of his accusers. He also took the ground that his utterances had been misrepresented, meanwhile displaying reluctance to declare just what he did say and just what he did believe. Sufficient was eventually extracted from him to elicit an unanimous verdict that his teachings were unsound and dangerous and he was suspended from the ministry. Hemphill posed as a martyr, and issued a statement that the commission of the Presbytery which tried him had "no pattern for their proceedings but that hellish tribunal the Spanish Inquisition." The Synod approved the action of the Presbytery and Hemphill sent a communication in which he said: "I shall think you do me a deal of honor if you entirely excommunicate me."

At one time Hemphill had such a following that Presbytery and Synod were the targets of a pamphlet warfare. In the midst of this hubbub came the announcement of Hemphill's systematic plagiarism. The evidence was incontrovertible as the sermons by various authors which he had taken and passed off for his own had been published in England, and he made the mistake of supposing that copies would not get into the American colonies. Franklin, as appears from his own account, continued to uphold Hemphill even after the exposure, but the martyr was now shown to be an impostor and his popularity suddenly collapsed. He moved away and nothing is known of his subsequent career. He was an early example of the clever, plausible sophist, a type that from time to time appears in the ministry, but is better assured of a career in our own time than it was in the pioneer stage of the American church. Although the need of ministers was so great that easy judgment of qualifications would have been a natural tendency, yet the early Presbyterians seem to have been firm in their discipline. Notwithstanding Hemphill's marked success as a popular preacher and the formidable championship that rallied to his support, the Presbytery did not flinch from discharging its duty, and the commission that tried Hemphill was unanimous in its decision. The incident seems worthy of particular detail for perhaps more than any other event it illustrates the courage and loyalty of the founders of the Presbyterian Church of the United States.