The Presbyterian Church in America and the Anniversary of the First Presbytery Meeting
by Barry Waugh
Three hundred years ago this year the first meeting of the General Presbytery was convened in Philadelphia. A specific date in 1706 cannot be pinpointed due to the loss of the first leaf of the minutes, but a letter of Rev. Francis Makemie provides the basis for assigning the year. The letter was written by Rev. Makemie from Philadelphia, to Benjamin Colman on March 28, 1707. After relating the story of his imprisonment with some other ministers for their preaching the Gospel as dissenting, non-Church of England ministers, he mentioned that he and six other ministers had met in Philadelphia earlier that month to consult regarding the best way to advance the Gospel. This meeting is the first convening of the General Presbytery with a complete set of minutes in the manuscript record book, and these minutes are preceded by a partial and brief section of minutes recorded in 1706. From this small and imprecisely dated beginning, the Presbyterian Church grew to organize its first meeting of the General Synod in 1717, then its first General Assembly in 1789. During these years the Presbyterian Church formally adopted the Westminster Standards in 1729, and then saw a division between the Old and New Sides in 1744 that was reconciled with a reunion in 1758. The Presbyterian Church’s ministry increased through the years so that by the end of the eighteenth century it enjoyed a substantial flock distributed throughout the young nation for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying God.
The six oldest congregations in the Presbyterian Church in America can trace their ministries to the early years leading up to and following the first presbytery meeting. Each of these congregations was organized before the first General Assembly in 1789. Through the colonial period and into the early years of America, the Presbyterian Church ministered through local congregations as America grew and prospered, and these six PCA churches can trace their ancestry directly to the foundational work of the Presbyterian Church in the eighteenth century.
The oldest organized church in the PCA is the Fairfield Presbyterian Church of New Jersey, which traces its beginning to 1680. The Fairfield congregation was represented in the General Presbytery at its meeting on May 19, 1708, where the “Cohanzy” congregation submitted a call to the Rev. Joseph Smith to serve as the pastor. The Fairfield congregation also has one of the oldest buildings in the PCA, which is known as the Old Stone Church and dates to 1780. This simple yet beautiful stone building is bounded on three sides by a large cemetery that continues the interments begun at a graveyard in the church’s original location. The Old Stone Church building is no longer used for regular worship, but it was recently renovated to maintain its eighteenth century appearance for future generations.
One of those buried in the Stone Church’s cemetery is the church’s minister from 1789 to 1844, Ethan Osborne, who died in his one-hundredth year of life on May 1, 1858. Rev. Osborne had ministered faithfully to his congregation for over fifty years. After completing his college education at Dartmouth, Osborne studied theology privately with Rev. Andrew Storr and later with Rev. Joseph Vaill. After turning down a call to a New York church, he went to southern New Jersey, accepted the call to Fairfield, and began his ministry at the end of 1789. Osborne had turned down the New York call at the advice of his friend, Dr. Sproat of Philadelphia, who had received the D.D. from the College of New Jersey in 1780. Rev. George Duffield, a graduate of Nassau Hall and the pastor of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, delivered the ordination sermon at Osborne’s installation service at Fairfield. The Fairfield Church has enjoyed a long history of worship and Gospel proclamation in southern New Jersey, and it owes its beginning to that handful of men constituting the first presbytery who saw God’s purpose for the Fairfield Church.
The early years of the Presbyterian Church were difficult times due to the uncertainties and dangers of frontier mission work and opposition to the Presbyterians by other denominations. Not only did Presbyterian ministers have to contend with the state and persecution, but they also had to overcome the many miles that often separated congregations from one another. One early minister, Samuel Blair, who had studied at William Tennent’s Log College in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and was ordained in 1734, had two difficult pastorates before he was called to the second oldest church in the PCA at Faggs Manor in Chester County, Pennsylvania. During his short time of service, he founded a classical school where he was the principal overseeing the education of many students including—Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister and President of the College of New Jersey; John McMillan, a founder of Jefferson College; and John Ross, a founder of Dickinson College. His brief life of “39 Years & 21 Days” is remembered on his grave marker in the church cemetery. Blair’s short life is indicative of the difficulty of rural colonial life and the pressures of pastoral service in his era. The Faggs Manor Church continues to worship in a somewhat rural area of Pennsylvania as Philadelphia continues its expansion into Chester County.
There are two PCA churches that were organized in 1760 that are located at opposite ends of the east coast from each other—First Presbyterian Church, Waynesboro, Georgia, and First Presbyterian Church, Schenectady, New York. The Schenectady church initially worshiped in the building used by the Episcopalians until in 1769 eight Presbyterians purposed to build a wooden place of worship for themselves, which was not completed until after the arrival of the first minister, Rev. Alexander Miller, in 1771. Following the departure of Rev. Miller, the church worshiped through the ministry of supply pastors until it called Rev. John Young, who remained for just a short time. Supplies served the church for several years including Dr. John Blair Smith, who preached to the congregation for two years at the end of the eighteenth century. Dr. Smith had been the president of Hampden-Sidney College and had received both his A.M. and D.D. from Princeton College. The Schenectady church continues its ministry in what started as a small, remote village, but is now one of the many industrious and busy cities of New York.