Maryland Toleration Law Opens up Colony for Reformed Preaching
April 21 was an important date in 1649 for the Reformed faith in the colony of Maryland. Originally, Maryland was a colony established as a refuge for English Catholics. But as more non-Catholics came into the colony, and indeed it became a Protestant colony, the Maryland Assembly on this date established the Maryland Toleration Law, or as it is sometimes known as The Act Concerning Religion.
What it did was to mandate religious tolerance for trinitarian Christians. That adjective “trinitarian” is important. If a citizen of the colony denied the deity of Jesus Christ, for example, then the punishment was seizure of their land, and even death. Thus Unitarians, or Jews, or atheists were threatened by this law. It was meant more so as a protection for the Roman Catholics as it was for the Protestants, and specifically the Reformed faith.
It wouldn’t last long on the books, being repealed in 1654 by Oliver Cromwell’s influence upon the colony, and specifically the Anglican Church. It would be returned to the law books, but then repealed forever in 1692. It is interesting though that a part of it was found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the rights of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The phrase “the free exercise thereof,” comes from the Maryland Act of Toleration.
What interests us in this Act of Toleration is that it allowed “the father of Presbyterianism” in the colonies, Francis Makemie, the freedom to preach in Maryland. Arriving in the Maryland colony in 1683, he didn’t have to seek permission from the governor of the colony to proclaim the richness of free grace. Further, those of the Reformed faith who were driven out from the Virginia Colony’s control by the Anglicans, could come to Maryland to practice their Reformed faith. Makemie went on to establish several Presbyterian churches in Maryland.
Words to Live By: This same Francis Makemie didn’t let state laws prohibit him from preaching the gospel. (See January 21 historical devotional) He was willing to go where the Holy Spirit led him to proclaim the unsearchable riches of God’s grace, regardless of the state law. But when the liberty of the state enabled him to go, he didn’t “let the grass grow under his feet” in sharing the good news of Christ, and Him crucified. Let us not let the fear of man’s face hinder us in sharing what Christ has done for us.
Four days ago, you read the historical devotional on March 18, where we noted that the stated clerk of the first presbytery held in this country lost all but a short paragraph of the minutes of that meeting. In 1707, beginning on March 22, the second presbytery was held in Philadelphia. George McNish, one of the seven ministers present at this second meeting, was chosen Clerk of the Presbytery, while John Wilson was chosen the Moderator. Present also were teaching elders Jedidiah Andrews and Nathaniel Taylor. Francis Makemie would show up on the 25th of March. Ruling elders Joseph Yard, William Smith, John Gardener, and James Stoddard were present from several churches within the bounds of the Philadelphia Presbytery.
» At Right: Old Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth, Maryland (1683), which competes with Fairfield Presbyterian Church, Fairton, New Jersey (1680) in the claim for the oldest Presbyterian church in America »
Samuel Davis sent in his excuse as to why he missed the last Presbytery and would not be present at this meeting either. The presbyters did not sustain his reasons for his absence, and sent a letter to teaching elder Davis requiring him to be present at the 1708 presbytery meeting. He did, and they immediately elected him the moderator of the next Presbytery.
The church at Snow Hill, Maryland, had called Mr. John Hampton to be their pastor, but the latter had declined their call. He gave several satisfactory reasons to the presbytery as to why he was not in favor of going there as pastor. They nevertheless moved that the call be left in his hand until the next presbytery in 1708, hoping that the call would be finally accepted by Mr. Hampton. In the meanwhile, they sent a letter of encouragement to the church to continue in their endeavors for a settled pastor among their ranks.
It was on the 25th of March, 1708, that two biblical sermons were given onHebrews 1:1 and Hebrews 1:2 by teaching elders Francis Makemie and teaching elder John Wilson, which messages had been approved at the last Presbytery meeting. These texts were no doubt taken from the Genevan Bible, as that was the version carried over to these shores by the early Presbyterian pilgrims. And given the practice of early Scottish ministers, the length of the sermons easily could have been two hours long. We are told that both sermons were approved by the Presbytery.
Since Francis Makemie had been successful in convincing two ministers to come over and help the infant Presbyterian church previously, the Presbytery urged Makemie again to write to Scotland and a certain minister by the name of Alexander Coldin. He was to give an account of the state and circumstances of the dissenting Presbyterian interest in and among the people, especially in and about Lewistown, and signify the earnest desires of those members that Mr. Coldin travel over to these shores and become their minister.
We conclude that their meeting was not unlike the gathering of Presbyterians in presbyteries across the modern world now. Sermons are preached, though not as long as these early expositions of the Word. Elections are held for presbyterial office. Excuses are considered as to absences, and approved or disapproved. Pastors without call are considered for vacant pulpits. Overtures are recommended, discussed, and voted upon by the presbyters. All in all, the work of the Lord began in Philadelphia, 1706, and continues today in hundreds of presbyteries across the world.
Words to Live By: Speaking to elders, be faithful to your presbytery meetings, for there the work of the Lord is initiated, issues of interest to the church are discussed by and for elders, warnings are heeded, encouragements are given, and support is given to the kingdom of grace.
The Presbyterian clergymen had been identified as either ministers and waiting to be called to place of ministry. Through informal talks, it was agreed by these seven ministers to gather for a presbytery meeting, the first to be held in the colonies of America. They did gather in the month of March, 1706 in Philadelphia. We know that it happened before the 28th of that month. But the exact date of this first presbytery is unknown to us because the stated clerk lost all but two paragraphs of the meeting. The stated clerk, unknown in name, was the culprit. Judging however from the date of later meetings in the following years, we can estimate that this meeting was held on March 18, 1706, with the Rev. Francis Makemie as the first moderator.
A review of the historic seven names of this original Presbytery might be profitable. Even before you read the rest of this paragraph, close your eyes and see if you can name any of the seven clergy? They were: Francis Makemie, John Hampton, George MacNish, Samuel Davis, John Wilson, Jedediah Andrews, and Nathaniel Taylor. Their backgrounds show a wide divergence of traditions. Makemie was Scot-Irish with strong ties to those mother countries of Presbyterian pilgrims. Samuel Davis came from Ireland and pastored a church in Lewes, Delaware. Three of the ministers were from New England. Jedediah Andrews was a graduate of Harvard. John Wilson was pastor at New Castle. Nathaniel Taylor was also from New England. The other two, George McNish and John Hampton, had just come over from England in answer to the call of Makemie. Of the original seven, only three were pastors and the rest were missionaries.
» Statue in Accomack County, Virginia marking the grave of Frances Makemie, unveiled in 1908. »
Now Samuel Davis had sent an excuse to this first meeting. It evidently had something to do with travel time to get to Presbytery. However the excuse was not sustained by the brethren. They were not going to allow for any variance with what they considered to be both a privilege as well as a duty in attendance at Presbytery.
The purpose of the Presbytery was described later as a meeting of ministers for consultation as to the most proper measures for advancing religion and propagating Christianity in the colonies. A second purpose was listed as furthering and promoting the true interests of religion and godliness. The last reason was for the improvement of the ministerial abilities of teaching elders, which improvement was to be tested by prescribing text to be preached upon by two ministers at every Presbytery meeting. That performance was subject to the criticism, positive and negative, of the rest of the elders.
Hebrews 1:1-2 was the assigned text for the 1707 presbytery, to be preached by Francis Makemie and John Wilson.
Philadelphia was the chosen site because it was central to the scattered bodies of Presbyterians which were meeting in churches in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Long Island, and New England. Perfect religious freedom was enjoyed in this eastern city of Pennsylvania.
The organization of Presbyterians thus gave them an early advantage over other religious traditions in the colonies. They were ready to press on the inhabitants of this new land the value of holding true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission.
Words to Live By: In faith and life, let everything be done decently and in order. Especially is this a good rule for the planting of a church. What you do in the beginning days will be central in building the church in succeeding days. So start the church well, according to Biblical principles and practices, and that rule will continue in later years, receiving the blessing of the Lord.
Back in the early years of the Internet, the Rev. David W. Hall was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. David had a number of scientists and engineers in the congregation and so was able to make good advantage of the Web in those early days. Under the title of Premise, he initiated a web-based magazine. The content of that magazine is no longer online, but it is preserved at the PCA Historical Center. From one issue of Premise, we are reproducing here an article on Francis Makemie, “the father of American Presbyterianism.”:—
Francis Makemie and Freedom of Speech
One illustration of how religion and politics were interwoven, especially the religion and politics of strongly Scottish Calvinist sentiment, can be seen from the experience of Ulster Presbyterian missionary Francis Makemie (b. 1658). Makemie had been reared on tales of the Scottish rebellion that adopted the Solemn League and Covenant, and he was educated at the University of Glasgow one generation after Samuel Rutherford. Commissioned by the Presbytery of Laggan, a fiercely Calvinistic stronghold, the first Presbyterian minister on the North American continent landed on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay in 1683. Over time, he earned a reputation as a threat to the Anglicans in the area, and he was reported to the Bishop of London (who never had authority over Makemie) to be a pillar of the Presbyterian sect. His work was commended by Puritan giant Cotton Mather, and his correspondence with Increase Mather indicates considerable commonality of purpose among early American Calvinists. Cotton Mather would later recommend a Catechism composed by Makemie for his New England churches.
Makemie organized at least seven Presbyterian churches committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Scottish ecclesiastical order between 1683-1705. In between the organizing of churches along Scottish models—the Scottish League and Covenant seemed to be blossoming in America, perhaps more than in its native Scotland—Makemie served as a pastor in Barbados from 1696 to 1698. He also sheltered persecuted Irish Calvinist ministers from 1683-1688. Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688 the need for shelter in America diminished, and some of these religious refugees returned to Ireland and Scotland. Makemie, however, remained in America, found a wife, and continued organizing Presbyterian congregations throughout Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In a 1699 letter, Makemie still spoke reverentially of Geneva as a Calvinist center.
Ministers from the Church of England protested Makemie’s church planting, caricaturing his ministry as subversive and nonconformist. Eventually the Sheriff of Long Island at the behest of the British Governor of New York, Lord Cornbury arrested Makemie and another Presbyterian colleague, John Hampton, for preaching without a license by. On January 21, 1707, the warrant for their arrest charged them with spreading “their Pernicious Doctrine and Principles” in Long Island without “having obtained My License for so doing, which is directly contrary to the known laws of England.”
Cornbury’s oppressiveness was well known from several earlier cases, and Makemie realized that if freedom of religion were not granted in one colony, America would never have the kind of free expression needed. He may have viewed New York as a mission for religious freedom; en route to Boston from New Jersey, he could have simply avoided Cornbury’s territory. In what would become one of the earliest tests of freedom of speech in America, this Irish Calvinist was indicted by an Anglican authority (also exposing an early establishment of religion in New York) and held for two days prior to trial.
Makemie appeared before Cornbury (who called the missionary “a Disturber of Governments”) in the council chamber at Fort Anne, New York, on the afternoon of January 23, 1707. Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde) charged: “How dare you take upon you to preach in my Government without my License”! Makemie answered that Parliament had granted liberty to preach in 1688 under William and Mary. Cornbury contended that such laws did not extend to the American colonies. Makemie answered that the act of Parliament was not restricted to Great Britain alone, but applied to all her territories; Makemie also produced certificates from courts in Virginia and Maryland that had already recognized his work. When Cornbury argued that ‘all politics is local,’ including rights and penalties, Makemie reminded him and his attorneys that the Act of Toleration was applicable in Scotland, Wales, Barbados, Virginia, and Maryland, and that without express restriction it was also applicable in all “her Majesties Dominions”—unless, of course, New York was not considered under her dominion.
Notwithstanding, Cornbury did not want Makemie or other “Strolling” preachers in his territory. Makemie further argued that strolling Quakers were permitted religious liberty in the colonies, which brought Cornbury’s equal-opportunity-oppressor rejoinder: “I have troubled some of them, and will trouble them more.” When Cornbury revived his charge that Makemie was spreading “pernicious doctrines,” the Ulster missionary answered that the Westminster Confession of Faith was very similar to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and challenged “all the Clergy of York to show us any false or pernicious doctrines therein.” Makemie even stated his willingness to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles should that satisfy the Governor.
Earlier Makemie had applied to the Governor to preach in a Dutch Reformed Church in New York and had been denied permission. His speaking in a private home gave rise to the charge of preaching unlawfully. Cornbury reiterated that Makemie was preaching without license, charging him to post bond for his good behavior and to promise not to preach again without licence. Although he disputed any charges against his behavior, Makemie consented to post bond for his good behavior (knowing there were no provable charges), but he refused to post bond to keep silence, promising in Lutheresque words that “if invited and desired by any people, we neither can, nor dare” refuse to preach. Like Luther, Makemie could do no other.
Cornbury then ruled, “Then you must go to Gaol?” Makemie’s answer is instructive.
[I]t 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.
Cornbury responded that Makemie would have to blame the Queen, to which the defendant answered that he did not blame her Majesty, for she did not limit his speech or free religious expression. At last, Lord Cornbury relented and signed a release for the prisoners, charging both Makemie and John Hampton, however, with court costs. Before leaving, Makemie requested that the Governor’s attorneys produce the law that delimited the Act of Toleration from application in any particular American colony. The attorney for Cornbury produced a copy, and when Makemie offered to pay the attorney for a copy of the specific paragraph that limited the Act of Parliament, the attorney declined and the proceedings came to a close.
In a parting shot, Lord Cornbury confessed to Makemie, “You Sir, Know Law.” Makemie was later acquitted, and free speech and free expression of religion, apart from government’s approval, took a stride forward in the New World. Makemie pioneered religious liberty at great risk, and all who enjoy religious freedom remain in debt to this Scots-Irish son of Calvin.
Upon hearing of Makemie’s eventual (though delayed) release, the esteemed Cotton Mather wrote to his colleague the Rev. Samuel Penhallow on July 8, 1707:
“That Brave man, Mr. Makemie, has after a famous trial at N. York, bravely triumphed over the Act of Uniformity, and the other poenal laws for the Church of England, without permitting the matter to come so far as to pleading the act of toleration. He has compelled an acknowledgement that lawes aforesaid, are but local ones and have nothing to do with the Plantations. The Non-Conformist Religion and interest is . . . likely to prevail mightily in the Southern Colonies. I send you two or three of Mr. Makemie’s books to be dispersed. . . .”
In another blow for religious freedom, the next year a Somerset County, Maryland, court approved the certification for a Protestant Dissenter church to be established. By a narrow 3-2 vote of the court, Makemie secured liberty for Presbyterian churches under “an act of parliament made the first year of King William and Queen Mary establishing the liberty of Protestant Dissenters.”
Makemie was also instrumental in laying the groundwork for an Irish priest, William Tennent, to immigrate to America. Tennent would later establish the “Log College,” and one of its students, the Rev. Samuel Finley, started the West Nottingham Academy in 1741. These schools, much like Calvin’s Academy in Geneva, became the proving grounds of the American republic. From this one Academy came founders of four colleges, two U. S. representatives, one senator, two members of the Continental Congress, and two signatories of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton). Samuel Finley went on to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1761.
This developing American Calvinism, far from the modern caricature as a narrow or severe sect, was a boost to personal freedom and civil discourse in its heyday. The first American Presbyterian pastor helped entrench the right to free expression and free worship by appealing to the principles of the Glorious Revolution. A tidal wave of Calvinistic thinking came to America through immigrants like Makemie and continued to radiate outward.
This writer puts a question mark in our title simply because there are several churches which claim to be the first Presbyterian Church in the colonies. Each of them presents its claim with good evidence. Sometimes a claim is based on the existence of at least one elder. Or the stated date of organization might be based on when Bible studies first began in a given location, or when a building was first occupied by the congregation. Time and poorly kept records leave all of this unclear. But what is clear about Rehoboth Presbyterian Church in Rehoboth, Delaware is, that it is the first Presbyterian Church built by the Father of American Presbyterianism, namely, Francis Makemie.
“Our mission was from Jesus Christ, and warranted from the Scriptures.”—Makemie.
There are actually two dates of October 15 associated with Makemie. The first one took place in 1699 when the Irish immigrant minister appeared before the County Court of Accomac to request permission to preach the gospel in Virginia. Many Christians, and especially Christian Presbyterians do not realize that those minister/missionaries outside of the Anglican faith had to apply for licenses to preach the gospel. Further, if you were not attending an Anglican, or we would say today, an Episcopal church, there could be civil penalties for not attending church. He asked permission to preach at two homes. It was on October 15, 1699 that permission was given to him. Later on, an Act of Toleration was granted for all ministers to freely worship and proclaim Christ’s truth. But before that, preachers could be arrested and held in jail for daring to preach without a license. Francis Makemie himself was arrested in New York for doing just that.
The other date associated with this date of October 15, 1706 was when Rehoboth Presbyterian Church of Maryland, was opened by the Rev. Francis Makemie. Rehoboth meant “There is Room.” Later in the eighteen hundreds, there was a great deal of physical construction done to the one floor church. Today this church continues on and it is currently a congregation of the PC(USA) in Rehoboth, Delaware.
Words to live by: Suppose the Rev. Francis Makemie had not come to the shores of the American colonies, saying that it was too far, too expensive, too dangerous, and whatever excuse might be offered? Humanly speaking, we might not be writing a Presbyterian blog because there would have been no Presbyterian presence in the land. But that is “humanly speaking.” The truth is that the sovereign God ordained in the colonies that there be Christian Presbyterians as one of the key ingredients of our forefather’s faith. And did they ever come! Thousands upon thousands came over the Atlantic Ocean. And from our earliest days, the Bible of Presbyterianism was presented as the infallible Word of God, and God added to Himself a church, such as Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, in Delaware.
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