An Introduction to Southern Presbyterian History (1611-2001)
We begin this story of Southern Presbyterianism in a time before the South itself existed. And we tell the story for many reasons. We tell it because there is a kind of wisdom that comes from history that comes from nowhere else. Southerners have always understood that. A Mississippian by the name of Faulkner put it this way: "Remembering knows before knowing ever remembers."
We tell it because there are specific lessons from the past that our generation needs to learn again today. We tell it because there are truths that they held dear that we take for granted, and we need to learn what those truths cost lest we presume their possession.
We tell it because it hasn’t been told in many a year and a Pharaoh has come up who knows not Joseph. We tell it because there are those who tell it wrongly and would denigrate it.
We tell not in pride, but in thankfulness to God and in humility. Thankfulness to God because he has given us such a rich heritage. Humility because we are sinners and have done so much to besmirch it.
We begin our telling with Francis Makemie, Scotch-Irish missionary to ‘the plantations’ (as the English called them), the colonies of America. It is true that the Story of American Presbyterianism does not begin with Francis Makemie, nor does the story of Southern Presbyterianism, but he is rightly reckoned as a "founding father" of Presbyterianism in America and the South.
Makemie (pronunciation unknown, various alternatives have been suggested) was born in Ramelton, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1658, and was educated at Glasgow University, Scotland. He came as an ordained Evangelist from the Presbytery of Laggan to the American Colonies in 1683, at the request of Col. William Stevens of Rehobeth, Maryland. He was a devoted and able preacher of the Lord’s Gospel, and labored faithfully for twenty-five years in Maryland, Virginia, the Barbados and elsewhere.
Makemie was an enterprising man of affairs, a public spirited citizen, a distinguished advocate of Religious Liberty, for which he suffered under the corrupt Governor of New York. He is especially remembered as the chief founder of organized Presbyterianism in America. He assembled the first presbytery in 1706 and served as the first moderator. The first officially sanctioned Presbyterian meeting in the Virginia colony took place in Francis Makemie’s house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on October 6, 1699. He died at his home in Accomack County, Virginia, in the summer of 1708, and was buried in his family cemetery.
We learn much from his life about the quest for religious liberty in this land, and even about the background to the First Amendment of our Constitution (and the reasons so many Americans sought it), and we learn something about commitment to ministry and missions. We linger here, then, to tell his story.
Makemie was introduced to Christ and grace through the influences, among others, of his schoolmaster (who was also a minister of the Gospel). Years later when Makemie gave his testimony before the presbytery he would speak of "a work of grace and conversion wrought in my heart at fifteen years of age, by and from the pains of a godly schoolmaster, who used no small diligence in gaining tender souls to God’s service and fear."
Makemie’s father must have had some means, for he gave his son a complete education (a rare privilege in those days) and Makemie speaks of his mother often kneeling in prayer for him. Beyond this, we know little of his days in Donegal.
In 1676, he made his way across the channel to study at the University of Glasgow. He is listed in the old record books as "Franciscus Makemius . . . Scoto-Hibernus." This means, of course, "Francis Makemie, a Scot of Ireland" or "Scotch-Irish." The designation doesn’t indicate someone of mixed Scottish and Irish blood, but someone of Scottish descent born or resident in Ulster. This appellation is still used by American genealogists today to identify Scots of Northern Irish provenance who immigrated to the colonies and later into the United States. In Britain, they tend to be called "Ulster Scots."
At any rate, Makemie studied for perhaps three years in Glasgow and then returned to study "divinity" (theological training in preparation for ministry) in Ulster under the direction of the Presbytery of Laggan (which covered Londonderry, Donegal and Tyrone). Now, it’s important for us to remember the situation in Scotland and Ireland, for it no doubt had a profound effect upon young Makemie. These were the "Killing Times" in Scotland, as the Covenanting Presbyterians engaged in conflict with the Royalist forces of the Stuarts. Defoe estimates that as many as 18,000 Presbyterians lost their lives during those days in the quest for religious freedom and the crown rights of Christ. Makemie would perhaps have been at Glasgow at the time of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (1679), and the Presbyterians of Laggan would make up the forces who would stand in the breach at Londonderry and Enniskillen in 1689.
Even while Makemie was being examined for ministry (he was licensed to preach in the Autumn of 1681), some of the ministers of his presbytery were being held in prison because they refused to take the king’s oath of supremacy in matters of faith and worship. Indeed, his own pastor from Ramelton, Thomas Drummond was among them. This was no time for the faint of heart to enter into the Presbyterian ministry.
Now at this critical time, when these Ulster Presbyterians were under enormous pressures and burdens, and with five more of their own ministers about to be shipped off to prison, letters arrived from Barbados in the West Indies and from the Presbyterians of Maryland and Virginia asking for help, pleading with these Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to come to their aid. At tremendous personal cost and self-sacrifice, these brave and visionary men responded. When William Traill, the moderator of Presbytery, was let out of prison, he crossed the ocean and ministered in Maryland. And in 1683, the Presbytery of Laggan ordained Makemie as an "evangelist," a missionary and sent him to the needy brethren on the other side of the Atlantic. He was thus the first minister of the Presbyterian faith who was specifically ordained and appointed for the purpose of serving as a preacher for the people of the American colonies.
Presbyterianism in America before
Whitaker drowned in the James River in 1617 and was succeeded by a Scottish minister, George Keith, who arrived in Virginia in the same year. His Puritan inclinations are evident in his report that: "Ceremonies are in no request, nor the Book of Common Prayer; I use it not at all. I have, by the help of God, begun a Church government by ministers and elders. I made bold to choose four elders publicly by the lifting up of hands and calling upon God."
So many Puritans eventually came to Virginia that by 1638 they made up almost ten percent of the colony’s population. When Governor Berkeley (who was a loyal supporter of Charles I and thus antagonistic to those with Puritan sympathies) demanded that they worship in accordance with the liturgy of the Anglican Church, a thousand of them packed up and moved to Maryland in 1649 at the invitation of Governor William Stone (about the time the Westminster Assembly was ending its regular sessions back in London).
A succession of Puritan ministers came to serve these folk in Maryland. William Tompson ministered there from 1643-1648. Francis Doughty of Gloucester, England came first to Massachusetts, then became the first English Presbyterian minister in New York City (from 1643-1648), and then worked with the Puritans in Maryland (from 1648-1652). Matthew Hill of York carried on Doughty’s work and wrote to Richard Baxter in 1669: "We have many also of the reformed religion who have a long while lived as a sheep without a shepherd though last year brought in a young man from Ireland who hath already had good success in his work."
And, of course, we should mention the work of the Dutch Reformed Churches, which were in every essential respect Presbyterian. The Dutch established the two oldest Presbyterian congregations in America: the Southampton Presbyterian Church, Long Island, in 1640 and the Jamaica Presbyterian Church, Long Island, in 1656.
Makemie comes to the Colonies
Makemie first went to Barbados and preached his initial sermon in the New World there. From thence he made his way to the eastern shore of Maryland and was received as the minister by the people of Snow Hill (a little town located in Worcester County, Maryland). He organized a congregation there that same year. Indeed, he drew together churches in Salisbury, Rehobeth and other places in Maryland as well. At about the same time, he began looking across the line to Virginia and ventured into the Chesapeake Society that was to be part of the threefold beachhead of Presbyterianism in the South (along with the Carolina Lowlands and the Backcountry).
In Virginia, he organized churches at Pocomoke, Onancock, and on the Elizabeth river near Norfolk. These congregations in Maryland and Virginia were among the mother churches of Presbyterianism in the South (and indeed of mainline Presbyterianism in America).
Presbyterian Beginnings in Virginia
When Makemie arrived in the Elizabeth River area, he wrote: "I found there a poor, desolate people mourning the loss of their dissenting minister from Ireland whom the Lord had pleased to remove by death the previous summer." Makemie, went to work right away, though he had to support his ministry by tent-making (a fact which, among other things, led Lord Cornbury, the royal governor of New York, to describe him as a "Jack of all Trades; he is a Preacher, a Doctor, a Merchant, an Attorney or Counsellor at Law, and what is worse of all, a Disturber of Governments"– we’ll see why he said this later!).
In October of 1699 Makemie appeared in the county court of Accomack and asked the judges to grant him the permission to gather a church and preach the Gospel in homes he owned in Pocomoke and Onancock. This was required by Virginia law. Remember, the Episcopal Church was established there. That meant not only that it was the only recognized religion but also that its ministry was supported by a colonial tax called a "tithe." If you were a citizen of Virginia, you paid it. Furthermore, colonists were required by law to attend the services of a Church of England (Episcopal) church every Sunday. Non-attendance was punishable by civil sanctions.
However, the "Toleration Act" was passed in the English Parliament at Westminster on May 24, 1689, upon the accession of William and Mary to the throne, and many colonists were eager to see the latitude it provided applied to the colonies. By this act of Parliament, freedom of worship was, for the first time, granted to Nonconformists (i.e., dissenting Protestants such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists). It was one of a series of measures that firmly established "the Glorious Revolution" of 1688 in England. It allowed Nonconformists their own places of worship and their own teachers and preachers, subject to acceptance of certain oaths of allegiance. It did not apply to Roman Catholics and sectarians, and maintained the existing social and political disabilities (e.g., exclusion from political office) endured by all dissenters.
This situation was not completely changed in Virginia until after the enactment of Thomas Jefferson’s "Statute for Religious Freedom" by the Virginia General Assembly of 1784-85! So, at any rate, Makemie appeared in court, declared himself a loyal subject of the Queen (Anne), indicated that he accepted certain articles of religious belief as set forth by the Church of England, and received a license to preach and gather a congregation.
Francis Makemie’s Certificate to
be a dissenter (from the Church of England) preacher.
We still have a copy of his preaching certificate, required by Virginia for all dissenting ministers. It reads like this: "At a Court held & Continued for Accomack County October ye 5th 1699."
Whereas Mr. Francis Mackemie made applicacon by peticon to this Court that being ready to fullfill what ye Law enjoynes to dissenters that he might be quallified according to Law and prayed that his own dwelling house at Pocomk* & also his own house at Onancok next to Capt Jonathan Livesleys migh be the places recorded for meeting, and haveing taken ye oaths enjoyned by act of Parliamt instead of the oath of allegiance & Supremacy & subscribed the Test as likewise yt he did in compliance wth what the sd Law enjoynes produced Certificate from Barbodoes of his quallificacons there & did declare in open Court of ye sd County & owne ye articles of religion mentioned in ye Statute made in ye 13th yre of Queen Elizabeth except ye 34th: 35th & 36 & those words for ye 20th & authoritys in Controversies of faith weh ye Court have ordered to be registred & recorded and yt ye Clk of ye Court give Certificat thereof to ye sd Mackemie according as ye Law enjoynes.
Recruiting Support from the Old Country
Early in 1706, seven Presbyterian ministers met in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Makemie represented the churches of Virginia. Hampton, McNish and Nathaniel Taylor (another Scot) represented the Presbyterian churches of Maryland. Samuel Davis (Scotch-Irish) and John Wilson (a Scot), too, were there from Delaware, as was Jedidiah Andrews of Philadelphia (Andrews was Harvard educated and a native of Massachusetts). This "meeting of ministers," was the first presbytery of American Presbyterianism. At later meetings, of course, Ruling Elders would be present too representing their flocks.
Presbyterian Beginnings in New York
The Royal Governor of New York, Lord Cornbury, was infuriated and called Makemie and Hampton before him. Cornbury (Edward Hyde) demanded, "How dare you to take it upon you to preach in my government without my license?" Makemie replied, "We have liberty from an act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of King William and Queen Mary , which gave us liberty, with which law we have complied." Makemie then produced certificates written out by the courts in Barbados, Virginia and Maryland, showing that he had obeyed all the requirements of the English law.
"These certificates do not extend to New York," said Cornbury. "I have complied with the English law," replied Makemie, "and that same law extends to all of the dominions of the English sovereign." At the same time, Makemie and Hampton told the governor that they were ready to appear before the New York judges and take out certificates there if it was considered necessary.
"You shall not spread your pernicious doctrines here," snorted the governor. "As to our doctrines, my Lord, we have our [Westminster] Confession of Faith, which is known to the Christian world, and I challenge all the clergy of [New] York to show us any false or pernicious doctrines therein."
"You must give bond and security for your good behavior, and also bond and security to preach no more in my government," threatened Cornbury. "Endeavoring always so to live as to ‘keep a conscience void of offense towards God and man,’ yet if your lordship requires it, we would give security for our behavior; but to give bond and security to preach no more in your exellency’s government, if invited and desired by any people, we neither can nor dare do." These were Makemie's bold words in reply. "Then you must go to jail," said the governor.
Makemie shot back: "It will be unaccountable to England, to hear, that Jews, who openly blaspheme the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and disown the whole Christian religion; Quakers who disown the Fundamental Doctrines of the Church of England and both Sacraments; Lutherans, and all others, are tolerated in Your Lordships Government; and only we, who have complied, and who are still ready to comply with the Act of Toleration, and are nearest to, and likest the Church of England of any Dissenters, should be hindered, and that only the Government of New-York and the Jersies. This will appear strange indeed." Furthermore, he added, "We are neither ashamed nor afraid of what we have done, and we have complied and are ready still to comply with the Act of Parliament which we hope will protect us at last."
But the discussion was ended and as they parted, Lord Cornbury muttered to Makemie: "You, Sir, know Law." Just how much Makemie knew it would soon be displayed! So, off to jail Makemie went. For six weeks and four days Makemie and Hampton were kept in prison. Then the charge against Hampton was dropped, and Makemie was allowed to go free on bail. He returned to Virginia and Cornbury supposed that the minister would not dare come again to New York to face a trial. He was wrong.
Makemie came, and on June 6,1707, stood up before a jury in the courtroom in New York to be tried for the crime of preaching a sermon in that town in the previous January! Witnesses were brought in to prove the fact that he had preached. He waved these men aside with the declaration, "I own the matter of fact as to preaching. . . . I have done nothing therein of which I am ashamed or afraid." Three friends spoke for Makemie and then he stood up to plead his own case before the jury.
He showed that he had full and clear knowledge of every law of England and every law adopted in any of the colonies, in so far as they were concerned with his case. The lawyers and the judges were filled with astonishment that Makemie had such intimate acquaintance with the laws and that he made so strong a plea for justice for himself and other ministers (no wonder Cornbury had called him a "jack-at-all-trades, a preacher, a doctor of physic, a mechanic, an attorney, a counsellor-at-law, and, which is worst of all, a disturber of governments"!). The jury at once brought in their verdict that the preacher had not broken any law and that he should be set free. The governor and the judges were so unjust, however, that they made him pay about four hundred dollars (a colossal sum in those days) to meet the expense of the trial.
Makemie then entered the Huguenot Church in New York and preached. His sermon was printed and
scattered abroad far and wide. Cornbury, on the other hand, was soon afterwards removed from his office in New York because of injustice and corruption.
The Last Days and Beyond
The Presbytery he had helped established grew to the point that, in 1716, it was made into a synod, the Synod of Philadelphia, and subdivided into four presbyteries: the Long Island Presbytery (which covered New York and New Jersey), the Philadelphia Presbytery, New Castle Presbytery (representing Delaware), and Snow Hill Presbytery (Virginia and Maryland).
Another thing that strikes us is the initiative of presbytery in mission work. There was no central church bureaucracy involved in marking out the New World for missions or in the sending of evangelists. It was the reply of ministers and presbyteries to the call of need and the time of opportunity. Some reflection upon this fact calls to mind that none of the great movements of God in missions over the last three hundred years has been planned by an agency, or launched by a board initiative, or conceived by a parachurch organization. All have been conceived in prayer and fostered by the church. The instrumentalities came later.
The Ulster roots of Southern Presbyterianism also stand out as we remember the beginnings of Presbyterianism in the South. American Presbyterianism would bear the marks of Northern Irish Presbyterianism for a hundred crucial years. It still does in some respects. We often think of our Presbyterian ancestors in Scotland and bless their memory. Rightly so. But no one contributed more to American Presbyterians in general and to Southern Presbyterian in particular than the Scotch-Irish. It was the missionaries of Ulster who founded our first Presbytery. It was the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants themselves who populated the early core centers of American Presbyterianism: the Pennsylvania boundary lands, the Maryland shores, the South Carolina Lowlands and Upcountry, the North Carolina foothills and mountains, as well as coastal plains, the Virginian Chesapeake society, and so on. It was the theological controversies in Ulster that framed the debates around the Adopting Act (1729) and led to American Presbyterian subscription to the Catechisms (which had never been the practice of any British Presbyterian body).
And so we thank God for His providence and grace. Had He not ordained the call of Makemie, we wouldn’t be here.