May 14: Makemie

1908—On May 14, a handsome monument was erected to Makemie’s mem­ory, at Makemie Park, Accomac County, Va. On this occasion Dr. Henry vanDyke, famous Presbyterian preacher and author, wrote the following sonnet:


To thee, plain hero of a rugged race,
We bring a meed of praise too long delayed. Thy fearless word and faithful work have made
The path of God’s republic easier to trace
In this New World: thou hast proclaimed the grace
And power of Christ in many a woodland glade,
Teaching the truth that leaves men unafraid
Of tyrants’ frowns, or chains, or death’s dark face.

Oh, who can tell how much we owe to thee,
Makemie, and to labors such as thine,
For all that makes America the shrine
Of faith untrammelled and of conscience free?
Stand here, gray stone, and consecrate the sod
Where sleeps this brave Scotch-Irish man of God!

Francis Makemie is considered by Maryland Presbyterian historians to have been the first Presbyterian minister definitely commissioned to come to America under regular appointment by presbytery and with au­thority to establish churches in the new world. It was to the southern section of the Maryland Eastern Shore that he originally came, arriving in 1683. There, in what was then Somerset County (whose territory in­cluded all of the three present counties of Somerset, Worcester and Wi-comico), he proceeded at once to organize along  strictly Presbyterian lines at least three congregations of Dissenters (composed, no doubt, principally of settlers of original Presbyterian persuasion) which he found already in existence—one being located at Rehoboth, on the west bank of the Pocomoke river, a few miles from its mouth; one at Snow Hill; and one at the head of the Manokin river, where now stands the town of Princess Anne. All of these organizations still exist, with active congregations.

It is believed also that in this same year two other church organiza­tions were effected, one at Pitts Creek, which was the forerunner of the present Presbyterian Church at Pocomoke City, and the other on the Wicomico, the mother church of the present congregation at Salisbury.

As Francis Makemie is regarded by Maryland Presbyterians as the leading spirit in the assembling of the first presbytery in America, which was organized in 1705 or 1706, and as the Makemie churches of the southern Eastern Shore of Maryland became charter members of that presbytery and formed a large portion of its constituency, many his­torians agree in dating the beginnings of organized Presbyterianism on this continent from the year of Makemie’s arrival in America.

On this same ground also many authorities concede to the Makemie churches the right of being regarded the first Presbyterian churches in America certainly known to have been constituted according to strict Presbyterian principles of government. Thus Maryland, within whose bounds many other Christian denominations of this country had their foundation, considers herself the cradle also of the organization of the Presbyterian Church in the western world as we know it today.

On the basis of these historical facts, Presbyterians from many parts of the United States, with the General Assemblies of both the National and Southern Churches officially cooperating, will gather— October 4—on the “Makemieland” of Maryland’s Eastern Shore for a celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth year of their church’s cor­porate development.

The celebration will take the form of a pilgrimage among the five churches first organized by Makemie. A visit will also be made to the grave of Makemie, located on what was his own home plantation just across the Maryland line, in Accomac county, Virginia—addresses being made at various of these points by outstanding leaders of both the National and Southern bodies of the denomination.

In 1665—one year before the county of Somerset, Md., was organized —Col. William Stevens had patented a large plantation on the west bank of the Pocomoke river, which he called Rehoboth (“There is room”), and on which he built his home. In the years that followed he became one of the outstanding leaders of his county. He was a member of the Gov­ernor’s Council, and was judge of the court of Somerset county. Though a vestryman of the Episcopal (Church of England) parish in his com­munity, he was singularly broad-minded for his day, and was not only tolerant, but cordial toward members of other faiths. He had invited George Fox, the Quaker, to hold services at his house.

When the new Presbyterian immigrants came to his locality as neigh­bors, he proffered to them the use of his home as a meeting place for their congregations, and in 1680 he wrote to the Presbytery of Laggan, in the province of Ulster, Ireland, requesting that they send ministers to care for their flocks.

When this letter was read before Laggan Presbytery there happened to be present a young man who was nearing the completion of his course of preparation for the Presbyterian ministry. He was Francis Makemie, a native of Rathmelton, in the county of Donegal, Ireland. He had re­ceived his education at the University of Glasgow and he was at that time about 22 years of age. He must have been strongly stirred by the appeal in behalf of the Presbyterians in America, for when (in 1682) he received his ordination by presbytery he set out at once for this continent.

Makemie arrived at Rehoboth probably in the spring of 1683. And as a congregation of Presbyterian worshipers already existed there it has seemed logical to assume that the first Presbyterian church to be formally organized by Makemie was at Rehoboth. In quick succession, however, he must have visited the other localities nearby where other Presbyterian congregations were accustomed to assemble, and where— with the full authority with which he had unquestionably been invested by presbytery—he constituted them into regular Presbyterian churches.

The exact dates and the order of organization of these churches can only be conjectured, as the churches possess no records of their own of the first decades of their history. It is generally believed that the min­utes of the sessions of the first churches were lost when the residence of Rev. William Stewart, in Princess Anne, was destroyed by fire some time prior to 1734—Mr. Stewart being at the time pastor of the Manokin, Rehoboth and Wicomico churches. Random references to the churches in Somerset county records and from other sources furnish a framework of information about them, however, and historians feel that they have very solid grounds for their conclusions that they received their full organization in the year 1683—the year of Makemie’s arrival in America. At any rate, out of the recordless shadows of those early years have emerged churches concerning whose Simon-pure Presbyterianism there has never been any question, even to this day.

The first building of the Rehoboth church is believed to have been located a little farther down the river than the present site. But. in 1706, a second edifice was erected—of brick—and this is the structure that con­tinues in use by the congregation to the present, being considered the oldest Presbyterian church building now existing in America.

The Snow Hill Church, whose claim to priority of organization has rivaled closely that of Rehoboth, has the distinction of having been the first Presbyterian church in America known to have prosecuted in due form a call for a pastor before an American presbytery. This was in 1707, when a call was presented to the recently organized Presbytery of Philadelphia for the pastoral services of the Rev. John Hampton.

The Manokin Church at Princess Anne is the only other one of the original Makemie churches—besides Rehoboth—whose present building extends back to the Colonial period, the edifice now in use having been erected in 1765, though enlarged and improved in more recent years.

After having visited and preached among these congregations on the Maryland Eastern Shore, and having established their churches, upon a full ecclesiastical basis, Makemie—probably in the late summer of the year 1683—visited the colony of Presbyterian dissenters on the Eliza­beth river, in Virginia, and journeyed also into the Carolinas. Return­ing to the Elizabeth river section in the fall of that year, he apparently established his home there for the next few years, while he ministered to the congregation in that locality.

In the meantime the Rev. William Trail, who was the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Laggan at the time Col. William Stevens’ letter was received, had also, in 1684, come to America and was serving the church at Rehoboth. Contemporaneously with him, a Thomas Wilson and a Samuel Davis, both Presbyterian ministers—possibly members of Laggan Presbytery also—had come to the Maryland Eastern Shore, where for many years they ministered as pastors of the Manokin and Snow Hill churches, respectively.

By 1689, however, records of Accomac county, Virginia, show that Makemie was residing on a plantation of his own on the Matchatank river, on the Virginia Eastern Shore. And as William Trail recrossed the Atlantic to become the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Borthwick, Scotland, in 1690, Makemie became at this time, apparently, the pastor of the church at Rehoboth, continuing this relation to it until his death in 1708.

The affection which he came to bear toward this congregation—his conceded first church organization in America—is revealed in the fact that in his will he bequeathed them a lot which he owned in Rehoboth, adjoining the church, stating that it was to be “for the ends and use of a Presbyterian congregation, as if I were personally present, and to their successors forever, and none else, but to such of the same persuasion in matters of religion.”

To say that organized Presbyterianism in America had its beginning with the coming of Makemie is not to be interpreted as meaning that until his arrival there was no appreciable number of Presbyterians in America, nor even that, until his own organizations had been formed, there were no congregations of Presbyterian worshipers to be found. Makemie’s work of integration, which was finally to develop into the present wide-flung organization of the Presbyterian churches, was done only with material which he found at hand in ample quantity, and upon founda­tions which had already been laid in all the colonies.

Even in Maryland many Presbyterians were evidently among the inhabitants as early as 1649. When, in that year, the Act of Religious Toleration was passed by the Provincial Assembly, Presbyterians were one of the religious sects against which any kind of derogatory remarks were specifically forbidden.

Lord Baltimore also, in a paper which he read in London before the Lords of Trade and Plantations on July 19, 1677, mentions “Pres­byterians”  (among other denominations)  who maintained by voluntary contributions  congregations for worship “according to their per­suasion.”

The Presbyterians of England, Scotland and Ireland, along with the English Independent Puritans (a large proportion of whom were Congregationalists), had felt the heaviest blows of persecution under the Stuart monarchs. From the very beginning of the colonization of America many of them had sought refuge and religious freedom in the New World.

It is a matter of record that, during the first forty years or so of the Virginia colony’s development, many of the settler s were Puritans, including several ministers. And as the term “Puritan” was applied freely to both independents and Presbyterians, it is quite likely that some of this number were Presbyterians.

Likewise, there is every indication that many who held the Pres­byterian viewpoint as to doctrine and church polity were among the first colonists who came to the shores of New England. Indeed, the Rev. John Robinson, who had been the devoted pastor of the little band of pilgrims who came over in the Mayflower, was originally a Presby­terian and claimed that his organization at Leydon conformed to the rule of the French Presbyterian Church.

Another strong Presbyterian element was introduced into the New England section only a few years after the arrival of the first Pilgrim fathers when, under the encouragement of “the Presbyterian leaders in the south of England and also in I ondon,” the founding of a Pres­byterian colony in the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts Bay was under­taken. Patton, in “A History of the Presbyterian Church,” says: “The first installment of colonists [for this enterprise] came in 1625, but the perfect organization did not take place till 1629, after a second and quite a large company of immigrants arrived, when a Presbyterian church was fully constituted.”

But New England very early became predominantly Congregation-alist, and strict Presbyterianism soon became submerged under the preponderating influence of the larger church’s “independent” system. Even the strongly Presbyterian character of the early church at Ply­mouth was from the first considerably modified by the presence and zeal of many independents in the congregation.

Near the middle of the seventeenth century many independents, together with some of the Presbyterians who clung somewhat more tenaciously to their own denominational convictions, began a migration from New England into the Dutch province of New York and into New Jersey. Before the end of that century, records show the existence of a number of well-established independent or Presbyterian congregations (variously referred to by contemporaries under both names) in both of these provinces. On Long Island especially several churches which were strongly Presbyterian in constituency and organization were founded during this period. Of these latter, the two most notable were at Hemp-stead and Jamaica.

The Rev. Richard Denton had come to America in 1630 and had labored originally at Watertown, Mass.    Being opposed by certain Con-

14gregationalists because of his Presbyterianism, he removed first to Con­necticut, and about 1644—followed by a large number of his congre­gation, he moved again to Hempstead, L. I., where he established a Pres­byterian church which survives today in the Christ Presbyterian Church of that place.

On this account priority has been claimed for the Hempstead church as the first organized Presbyterian church in America. While there is no question that the original organization was very largely Presbyterian in character—and most historians accord to the church full credit for this fact—it is nevertheless likely that there was a blend of Presby­terians and independents in the congregation, with the probable result that its government was an adapted form of Presbyterianism, rather than the strictly constituted type. Also, after the return of Richard Denton to England in 1659, some of the ministers by whom the church was served during the next fifty years or so were no doubt Congregation-alists, whose influence brought about a further modification of the church’s Presbyterian administration.

The greatest distinction of this church from the Presbyterian point of view is the fact that from the first it has always born the name Presbyterian. Accordingly, when the church in 1894 celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of its founding by Denton, the follow­ing statement, as quoted by Patton, was made in their published “Souvenir of the 250th Anniversary”: “Our claim is not that the Hemp­stead Church is the oldest Protestant and presbyterial in form in the churches of America . . . but that it is the oldest of the denomination which has always been called by the name Presbyterian.”

A similar claim of priority has been made for the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Long Island, N. Y., which was organized some time prior to the year 1670. It is known, however, that, during the* first thirty years or more, the church at Jamaica was served largely by Congrega-tionalist ministers, and it no doubt had a large percentage of independ­ents in its congregation. In 1700 the church called the Rev. John Hubbard to be its pastor, and, reverting to the original character of its formation, voted that he should be ordained “in the Presbyterian way.”

McDonald, in his “History of the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, L. I.,” labors to show that the Jamaica church is the oldest existing Pres­byterian church in America. Yet Vesey, an Episcopalian minister in New York city about the beginning of the eighteenth century, speaks of the church as one of the Scotch independents. Even MacDonald, further along in his history, concedes, as Dr. Bowen points out in “Makemieland Memorials,” that George Macnish is to be regarded as the “father of the Presbyterian church on Long Island.” George Macnish, however, was one of the ministers brought to America in 1705 by Francis Makemie; he first served the Manokin Presbyterian Church on the Maryland Eastern Shore for six years and did not go to Long Island until 1711. It was not until after Macnish had become its pastor that the church came into con­nection with the presbytery which had been formed in 1705-6.

As the number cf congregations in the colonies multiplied, Makemie, who was passionately devoted to the principles of a pure Presbyterian


order, became the leader in a movement to complete the denomination’s organization. A foundation having been laid in his own strictly consti­tuted organizations, a small group of earnest men assembled, at his invi­tation, in the new Presbyterian church on High (now Market) street, near Second, in Philadelphia, and the first presbytery of America was organized.

This was in 1705 or 1706, and the tradition is that Makemie was the presbytery’s first moderator. Other congregations entered into the mem­bership of this presbytery, so that, by 1717, it had grown to such propor­tions that four presbyteries were created, and the first synod in America was formed. This synod, in turn, developed into the first General Assem­bly, which was constituted in 1788.

The Presbyterian Messenger, of Dubuque, Iowa, official organ of the Presbyterian Synod of the West, editorially commented concerning the approaching celebration as follows:

“In 1683 the Rev. Francis Makemie founded the first of a group of Presbyterian churches, in the eastern parts of the country, and he is gen­erally considered the father of Presbyterianism in America. This fall special observance will be made by Presbyterians in many parts of the country of his 250th anniversary. This is right and the faithful pioneer is worthy of our honor and grateful remembrance. The name of Francis Makemie will ever shine in the history of American Presbyterianism as one of the bright and noble names which the church delights to honor.

“But in a letter from the Presbyterian Historical Society of Phila­delphia it is pointed out that while the honors due to Francis Makemie should not be lessened, it should also be remembered that ‘Presby­terianism in America antedates the year 1683 by a long period, being practically contemporaneous with the very first colonists who came to these shores. A number of congregations were scattered among the earliest settlements ministered unto by Presbyterian pastors, but not all organized along strictly Presbyterian lines.’

“The question of the first Presbyterian churches and preachers, after all, is of minor importance. That there were Presbyterian churches and ministers in the colonies from the earliest days seems well established. That Francis Makemie was the great pioneer through whom Presby­terianism was finally and organically established is admitted by all and his share in the history of the church deserves proper recognition and worthy celebration. Honors enough for all, and the church will best honor their memory by devoting itself anew to the great task to which they gave their lives—viz. the preaching of the Word of God for the salvation of sinful men and the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

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