The Next Page: A celebration of Presbyterianism

As the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gets ready to convene here next week, Mark Roth takes a look at a denomination with roots in the values of early Scots-Irish settlers

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In another week, legions of Presbyterians will descend on Pittsburgh, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) holds its biennial General Assembly at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

In a very real sense, it will be a homecoming.

There are still more Presbyterians in this region than any other place in the nation, a direct result of the early immigration patterns for Western Pennsylvania.

To celebrate that legacy, a group of us from Pittsburgh and Redstone presbyteries have put together a lecture at 7 p.m. on July 2 at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District, and an accompanying exhibit that will run through Aug. 26.

Both the lecture, by historian Peter Gilmore, and the exhibit, which will feature brief histories and artifacts of 11 congregations and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, will focus on the strong ties that exist between Presbyterianism and many of our earliest residents.

As pioneers made their way over the Allegheny Mountains in the late 1700s, they were led by immigrants from northern Ireland whose families had originally come from Scotland. These Scots-Irish Presbyterians formed the backbone of the new region, and set up worship sites -- at first, just log benches surrounding a crude pulpit; later, tents; then log churches; later still, brick and frame sanctuaries.

The prejudices of the era were still evident. In 1784, the Virginian Arthur Lee, the great-uncle of Robert E. Lee, described Pittsburgh as "inhabited almost entirely by Scots and Irish, who live in paltry log houses, and are as dirty as in the north of Ireland."

The Scots-Irish farmers saw themselves in a different light. Farming, to them, was a noble profession -- a way of remaining independent and upholding the moral values they had been taught.

Thomas Mellon, a Scots-Irish immigrant who would go on to become a judge and found a dynastic American business family, said his father's ambition was to leave a successful farm to him, and "I knew that ... for me to abandon the honest and noble pursuit of an independent farmer, and become a doctor or teacher or miserably dependent preacher; or what was in his eyes worst of all, to enter the tricky, dishonest profession of the law, was a proposition which seemed to him too preposterous to contemplate."

The area grew quickly. As Mr. Gilmore has put it, "the five southwestern Pennsylvania counties of Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland arguably developed from a crude frontier region into a functioning society between 1780 and 1800, as did Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Indiana, Lawrence and Mercer Counties between 1800 and 1830."

And all of them received Scots-Irish and Scottish Presbyterian migrants, enough so that in 1781, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia approved the creation of the first presbytery west of the Allegheny Mountains, Redstone Presbytery. A clear sign that the founders knew this was a frontier Presbytery? Its charter said that its furthermost border would stretch "west to the setting sun."

Below are a few glimpses of this rich history.

If you're going ...

The lecture on Presbyterian history, followed by a question-and-answer session, will get under way at the Heinz History Center at 7 p.m. on July 2.

Tickets for the event can be purchased in advance for $10 each by contacting the Pittsburgh Presbytery at 412-323-1400, ext. 315, or by Wednesday.

Hicks Chapel, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Hicks Chapel, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Click images for larger versions

If Presbyterians have a central home here, it is the seminary in East Liberty, which traces its roots to a log cabin school set up near Service Presbyterian Church in Beaver County in 1794. The wooded campus, which serves about 300 students today, is the direct result of a 1959 merger between two seminaries that used to sit near each other on Pittsburgh's North Side -- Western Theological Seminary and Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary.

The postwar boom

Tuesday Noon Club
Like other mainline churches, the Presbyterians boomed after World War II. Two signs of that:

The Tuesday Noon Club for businessmen Downtown, started by the Rev. Clarence Macartney at First Presbyterian Church in the 1930s, had reached an average weekly attendance of more than 800.

Beulah Presbyterian
At Beulah Presbyterian in Churchill, baby boomers in fourth to 12th grades jammed the church hall for dinners on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Under the Rev. Dale Milligan, the church developed a curriculum for Youth Club known as LOGOS that was adopted by churches across the nation.

The Rev. John McMillan, 1752-1833

The Rev. John McMillan

Known as the "Apostle of the West," Rev. McMillan was in his early 20s when he set up several of the earliest Presbyterian congregations in the region, including Chartiers Hill in North Strabane, Washington County, and Bethel Presbyterian in Bethel Park. Known for his stentorian voice and ceaseless energy, Rev. McMillan and his wife Catherine had three boys and four girls, and three of the daughters married ministers. Another later minister at Chartiers Hill? The Rev. Joseph Wilson, father of President Woodrow Wilson.

The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet

The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet
The first African-American Presbyterian congregation in the region, Grace Memorial Presbyterian, was formed in the Hill District in 1868. As its first pastor, the church called Rev. Garnet. A famous abolitionist then, but largely forgotten today, he had created controversy with an 1843 speech at the National Negro Convention calling for slaves to rise up against their masters. After founding Grace Memorial, Rev. Garnet went on to become U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

How to vex a 1790s Presbyterian: Isaac Watts' hymns

An Isaac Watts hymn

The earliest Presbyterian churches were founded in what are now Westmoreland, Washington and Fayette counties, and they were not immune from the doctrinal disputes that churches in Ireland and Scotland faced.

At Laurel Hill Presbyterian in Dunbar, Fayette County, the Rev. James Dunlap had the temerity to introduce Isaac Watts' hymns, like the one shown here, in 1790. More traditional Presbyterians believed that only the psalms should be sung in church, and about a third of the congregation moved to an opposite hill to set up Laurel Hill Associate Reformed Presbyterian.

Mark Roth, a Presbyterian elder, is chair of the Presbyterian History Committee. He is also a Post-Gazette staff writer (, 412-263-1130)

region - lifestyle - opinion_commentary

First Published June 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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