July 6: Morris’ Reading House

Morris’ Reading House

Looking over the early spiritual history of this country, this author came across an incident from Virginia which is found in E.H. Gillet’s book “History of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.” Written in 1864, it sheds light upon early Presbyterianism in the United States and how it developed by means of a most unusual means of advancing the Gospel. Found in pp 111 – 114, I quote the following words:

“The rise of Presbyterianism in Hanover (Virginia) is inseparably connected with what is known by tradition as Morris’ Reading House. This was the first of several buildings in that region, erected to accommodate those who were dissatisfied with the preaching of the parish incumbents, and anxious to enjoy the privilege of listening on the Sabbath to the reading of instructive and devotional works on religion.

“The origin of this movement was somewhat singular. The people had, for the most part, never heard or seen a Presbyterian minister. But reports had reached them of revivals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. A few leaves of Boston’s Fourfold State, in the possession of a Scotch woman, fell into the hands of a gentleman who was so affected by their perusal that he sent to England by the next ship to procure the entire work. The result of its perusal was his conversion. Another obtained possession of Luther on Galatians; he in like manner, was deeply affected, and ceased not to read and pray til he found his peace in Christ.

“These persons, with two or three others—all heads of families—without previous counsel or conference, absented themselves at the same time from the worship of the Parish (e.g. Church of England) church. They were convinced that the gospel was not preached by the parish minister, and they deemed it inconsistent with their duty to attend upon his ministrations. Four of them were summoned on the same day and at the same place, to answer as to the proper offices for their delinquency. For the first time they here learned of their common views. Confronted in them by this unexpected coincidence, they thenceforth chose to subject themselves to the payment of the fines imposed by law rather than attend church where they felt that they could not profit.

“They agreed at first to meet every Sabbath alternately at each other’s houses to read and pray. Soon their numbers increased. Curiosity attracted some, and religious anxiety affected others. The Scriptures, and Luther on Galatians were read. Afterward, a volume of Whitfield’s sermons fell into their hands. (Eventually since Morris’s home became too small for the attendance, a meeting house was built merely for the readings.) The result was that several were awakened and gave proof of genuine conversion. Mr Morris was invited to several houses, some of them at considerable distance, to read the sermons which had been so effective in his own neighborhood. Thus the interest that had been awakened spread abroad.

“The dignitaries of the Established Church (of England) saw the parish churches deserted and took the alarm. . . . They invoked the strong arm of the law to restrain it. . . . The (leaders of the reading houses) were cited to appear before the Governor and Council.

“Startled by the criminal accusation which was now directed toward them, . . . they had not even the name of a religious denomination under which to shelter their dissent. At length, recollecting that Luther, whose work occupied so much space in their public religious reading, was a noted Reformer, they declared themselves Lutherans.

“But so it happened that, on the way to Williamsburg (Va.), one of the company, detained by a violent storm at a house on the road, fell in with an old volume on a dust covered shelf. Reading it to wile away the time, he took it with him with the owner’s permission. At Williamsburg, he and the others agreed that it expressed their own views. When they appeared before the Governor, they presented the volume to him. (A Scotsman), the Governor found it to be the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He then designated the men before him as Presbyterians, and dismissed them with the gentle caution not to excite disturbances.

“The first Presbyterian minister who visited Hanover (Virginia) was William Robinson. On this day, July 6, 1743, they listened to the first sermon ever preached by a Presbyterian minister in Hanover, Virginia.”

Words to Live By:
Who can deny that when the Spirit of God wishes to raise up a church for Himself, any means—even the mere reading of Scriptural sermons—will accomplish His ends? Of course in our day many might argue that we are past reading sermons or commentaries. But this author knows of one group of Christians who have together taken up the challenge to read Calvin’s Institutes, and meet weekly to discuss what they have read. Whether it is on electronic tablets or the taking up of books, profitable ends might be served by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people, much like this eighteenth century reading club which resulted in regeneration and sanctification for the early Presbyterians of Virginia. They didn’t even know what they were! It was the Governor of Virginia who designated them Presbyterians!

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