Foreign Ministers of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1681-1758

From Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil by Rev. J. G. Craighead

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MUCH the largest proportion of the early Presbyterian ministers in this country were from the Irish Church. They, however, were originally either natives of Scotland or descendants of those who had removed to Ireland, and, with few exceptions, were educated in Scotland. Webster states that nearly two-thirds of the ministers of the Presbyterian Church in America, previous to 1738, were graduates of Glasgow University. It is now impossible, from accessible records, to determine the nationality of all these ministers, so intimate was the intercourse between Scotland and the north of Ireland, and so constant were the accessions from both these churches to the ministry in this country. We shall, therefore, not attempt this distinction, but content ourselves with giving, in the limited space at our command, the names of the clergymen, the time of their arrival in America, the places of their ministry, and, in some few instances, the character and results of their labors. Even this bare recital we believe will be sufficient to secure the conviction of the importance of the services they rendered not only to Presbyterianism, but likewise to civil and religious liberty, in the land of their adoption.

FRANCIS MAKEMIE, to whom the honor has been ascribed[1] of laying the foundations of the Presbyterian Church in this country, was born in the county of Donegal, Ireland, educated in a Scotch university, and licensed in 1681 by the Presbytery of Lagan. An application from Maryland for a minister to settle in that colony led the Presbytery to ordain him as an evangelist for America. Arriving in this country, by way of Barbadoes, either in 1682 or 1683, he organized a church at Snow Hill, Maryland, in 1684, which was, so far as now known, the first regularly organized Presbyterian church in America. The Eastern Shore of Maryland and the adjacent counties of Virginia continued to be his principal field of labor, though he extended his journeys at times as far south as the Carolinas. Over all this region he performed with great fidelity the duties of a primitive bishop, organizing a number of churches and supplying them, so far as he could, with preach ing. Feeling the need of help, he opened correspondence with Boston and London in order to obtain aid for destitute places, and made two journeys to England, returning in 1705 with two ministerial brethren. In 1705 or 1706 he assisted in forming the first presbytery, that of Philadelphia, consisting of seven ministers; and afterward continued until his death (1708) actively and usefully engaged in missionary-tours among the destitute settlers, in gathering congregations and furnishing them with competent ministers, thus exerting an extensive influence in behalf of Presbyterianism in the entire region. He is represented as “indefatigable in effort, clear-sighted and sagacious in his views, fearless in the discharge of duty, a man of eminent piety and of strong intellectual powers.”

Samuel Davis was the next minister, in point of time, to Makemie. He preached at Lewes, Delaware, and afterward at Snow Hill, Maryland, and was moderator of Philadelphia presbytery in 1709. John Frazer and Archibald Riddel came to America 1685; the former preached at Woodbury, Connecticut, the latter at Woodbridge, New Jersey. David Simpson and John Wilson arrived 1686, and the latter was settled at New Castle, Delaware. George MacNish accompanied Makemie on his return from England in 1705, and labored at Monokin and Wicomico, Maryland, settling at Jamaica, Long Island, where he was instrumental in forming, 1717, the Presbytery of Long Island. John Hampton, the other associate of Makemie in labor and in imprisonment by Lord Cornbury for preaching without a license, was pastor at Snow Hill, Maryland.

Josias Mackie labored for nearly a quarter of a century in Virginia; John Boyd, 1706, pastor at Freehold and Middletown; James Anderson, 1709, pastor at New Castle, Delaware, and then in New York city; John Henry, 1709, was the successor of Makemie; George Gillespie, 1712, pastor first at Woodbridge, New Jersey, and then at White Clay Creek, Delaware; Robert Lawson, 1713; Robert Witherspoon, 1714, labored in Delaware; John Bradner, 1714, pastor at Cape May, New Jersey, and Goshen, New York; Hugh Conn, 1715, pastor at Patapsco and Bladensburg, Maryland; Samuel Gelston, 1715, labored at Kent, Delaware, in Virginia, and as pastor at South Hampton, Long Island; John Thomson, 1715, preached at Lewes, Delaware, Middle Octorara and Chestnut Level, Pennsylvania, and removed in 1744 to Virginia; he took a prominent part at the division of the synod, being the originator of the overture which resulted in the adopting act. His Explication of the Shorter Catechism,[2] his treatise on the Government of the Church and his sermons on Conviction and Assurance are pronounced to be as “able, learned, judicious and evangelical as any of the writings of Dickinson and Blair.”

William Tennent, 1716, was orginally a deacon in the Established Church of Ireland; he left it on account of conscientious scruples, and coming to America was received by the presbytery of Philadelphia. First settled at East Chester, New York, then at Bensalem and Smithfield, Pennsylvania, and in 1726 at Neshaminy. Here he established the celebrated “Log College,” and made it his great lifework to educate young men for the Presbyterian ministry. In it some of the very best men of the Church were educated—men eminent alike for learning and piety. He was a warm personal friend and admirer of Whitefield, and a zealous promoter of revivals.

Robert Cross, 1717, pastor at New Castle, Delaware, and colleague pastor to Jedediah Andrews in Philadelphia, where he was the leader of the Old Side party and author of the protest that divided the synod. James Macgregor, 1719, came to Boston with one hundred families who had been connected with his church in Ireland. These settled near Haverhill, calling the place Londonderry, and electing Mr. Macgregor as their pastor. Many regard this as the first Presbyterian church in New England, and it grew rapidly under his able ministry. Though but a youth at the time, he was among the brave defenders of Londonderry, Ireland, and discharged from the tower of the cathedral the large gun which announced the approach of the relief vessels. Robert Laing, 1722, supplied Snow Hill, Maryland, and Brandy wine and White Clay Creek, Delaware; Alexander Hutcheson, 1722, supply at Drawers, Delaware, and pastor of Bohemia Manor and Broad Creek churches, Maryland; Thomas Craighead, 1723, pastor of White Clay Creek, Delaware, then at Pequa and Big Spring, Pennsylvania; Joseph Houston, 1724, preached first at New London, Connecticut, then pastor of a church on Elk River, Maryland, and finally pastor at Walkill, New York; Adam Boyd, 1725, pastor of Octorara and Pequa churches, Pennsylvania, where he labored for forty-four years.

Gilbert Tennent came with his father to this country in 1716, and was installed pastor at New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1726, where he remained sixteen years. He accompanied Whitefield in 1740 on a preaching-tour to Boston, which they extended as far north as New Hampshire and Maine, and which was attended with great religious interest. He accepted a call to a new congregation in Philadelphia that had been formed of Mr. Whitefield’s admirers in 1743, where he passed the residue of his life, twenty years, endeared to all by reason of his loving and compassionate nature. Few equaled him as a preacher. John Tennent, the third son of William Tennent, Sr., was licensed 1729, and ordained pastor of the church of Freehold, New Jersey, 1730, where he passed his brief ministry of three and one-half years, eminently successful in winning souls to Christ. John Moorhead, 1729, came to Boston, where he had charge for forty-four years of the “Church of Presbyterian Strangers,” and where his labors were attended with great success; James Campbell, 1730, labored in Pennsylvania and North Carolina; John Cross, 1732, minister at Baskinridge, New Jersey, was a great promoter of revivals; and John Campbell, 1734, labored in Pennsylvania.

William Tennent was installed pastor of his brother’s congregation at Freehold, New Jersey, where he remained until his death, 1777, occasionally making preaching-tours into Maryland, Virginia and New York. His ministry was attended with frequent revivals, and resulted in the establishment of a number of churches. He was an earnest and active patriot, and zealous in resisting the aggressions of the enemy.

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[1] “Rev. Richard Denton, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, had charge of the Presbyterian church at Hempstead, Long Island, from 1644 to 1658, when he returned to England.”—Rev. P. D. Oakley, in the “New York Observer

If this statement can be fully established—and the evidence adduced is very strong—then must Rev. Mr. Denton be regarded as the first regular Presbyterian minister in this country.

[2] The only known copy is in the possession of Rev. B. M. Smith, professor in Hampden-Sidney College, Va.