The Story of Northumberland Presbytery 1811-2011
On the occasion of the celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Presbytery of Northumberland, The Reverend Robert Cocks wrote a book detailing the history of the Presbytery from 1811 – 1986. You will find the first two chapters of that book reproduced below as published by Paulhamus Litho, Inc. Mountoursville, PA. Copies of the book and a slide lecture prepared by Mr. Richard L. Mix are available from the MULTI-MEDIA RESOURCE CENTER, at the Presbytery office.
THE PRE-ORGANIZATIONAL YEARS
Our Mission Statement
We, as the Presbytery of Northumberland, a part of The Presbyterian Church (USA), exist in order to give encouragement, leadership, administrative support, and financial management for the following mission:
T proclaim that Christ is Lord and that we are both created and called to be one body of Christ in suffering and in service to all whom God calls us to serve individually and corporately;
To create within this part of the Body of Christ a sense of vision and motivation which enhances our growth and develops our spiritual gifts in a distinctively Christian ministry characterized by mercy and grace;
To remain open always and in all ways to God’s call to serve in patterns familiar and unique;
To show God’s reconciling love in justice which includes caring for all humanity as we struggle with both personal and social captivities;
To honor the Creator by calling the world through our example and our deeds to a more perfect trusteeship of God’s creation.
To this end the Presbytery, in our unity and in our diversity, must call all churches and persons to repentance, under the assurance of forgiveness, and to the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Tracing the beginnings of Northumberland Presbytery is like asking “Where does a river begin? In this spring or some other?” One might wish a definite date could be established: the organization of the first extant congregation; the setting off of an area for development of churches by Synod action; the organizational date of the judicatory itself. Record of the first congregation is lost in the mists of unrecorded missionary activity. Arbitrary adoption of either of the other dates would mean neglecting to mention many noteworthy events of the early missionary enterprise.
Long before any claim could be made that Presbyterianism had been firmly established in the area, the great missionary to the Indians, David Brainerd, thrice visited the Susquehanna valley about 1745. He traveled on horseback, later afoot when his mount broke a leg, through “a hideous and howling wilderness.” At Shamokin (now Sunbury) he was kindly received but “had little satisfaction by reason of the heathenish dance and revelry they held within the house where I was obliged to lodge.” Brainerd was encouraged by Chief Shikellamy however, and later preached “to about fifty (Indians) who were sober.”
In 1763 the United Synod of New York and Philadelphia voted to answer the request “that some missionaries be sent to preach to the distressed frontier inhabitants and to report their distress, and to let us know where congregations are a-forming and what is necessary to be done to spread the gospel among them, and that they inform us what opportunities there may be of preaching the gospel to the Indian nations in the neighborhood.”
Three years later Revs. Charles Beatty and George Duffield were sent to the Juniata and regions beyond. In 1770 Revs. John “Fighting Pastor” Elder, Tate, and Steel were assigned to the Fort Augusta and Fort Freeland area. Equally skilled in gospel and musketry they often preached with a muzzle-loader beside the pulpit.
These missionaries had power to organize churches. Following their visits the names of Old Buffalo, Chillisquaque, Warrior’ Run and Northumberland are mentioned from about 1774. Buffalo lists its organization as 1773, with supply speakers being used for the first 15 years.
On July 16, 1775 Rev. Philip Vicars Fithian preached in the original Warrior Run church on the bank of the Susquehanna. Never finished, this building was burned by Indians in late June 1778 during the Big Runaway. Settlers as far west as Antes Fort, near Jersey Shore, had to flee to Sunbury and beyond. Fithian, licensed by the first Philadelphia Presbytery November 6, 1774, had received honorable dismissal to labor outside the bounds April 4, 1775, as no vacancies existed. He journeyed up the Susquehanna as far as Bald Eagle (Mill Hall) where he turned southwest to Pittsburgh. Several presbytery areas are mentioned in his Journal.
The area, now the central and southern reaches of Northumberland, previous to 1786 was assigned to Donegal Presbytery by the Synod of Philadelphia. It is noteworthy that during the Revolution not a single member of Donegal could attend its sessions for three years. In 1786 Carlisle Presbytery was formed out of the western part of Donegal.
On May 20, 1794 General Assembly ordered, and on April 14, 1795 there was organized “all ministers and congregations occupying the central part of Pennsylvania, and now comprised within the limits of 15 counties” into a new organization to be called the Presbytery of Huntingdon. The name was derived from the Countess of Huntingdon, a friend of Whitefield, associated doctrinally with the tenets of Calvin and Knox. Three pastors, later to become organizational ministers of Northumberland were among the eleven who constituted Huntingdon. They were Hugh Morrison at Buffalo, Sunbury and Northumberland; John Bryson of Warrior Run and Chillisquaque; Isaac Grier at Pine Creek. Bryson represented Huntingdon at Philadelphia Synod meetings more frequently than any other member.
These men were zealous for high levels of scholastic education. In 1795 there is a report of a candidate “who came under care but was soon discouraged” Calls went out for ministers to assist in organizing churches. A few came, but as late as 1809 Huntingdon petitioned General Assembly because of “deplorable situations of a great many people within our bounds and “the fact that there is not a single licentiate under care” to furnish a missionary or missionaries to occupy fruitful fields.
As the frontier gradually opened settlers pushed north and west along the rivers. The West Branch was opened beyond the Great Island at Lock Haven. Lycoming Creek was exploited northward by lumbermen and trappers. Simultaneously northern counties were being opened from the Sullivan trail settlements of New York; congregations formed in that area were administered by the Geneva Synod.
As early as 1807 a proposal for a new presbytery was made “on account of their locative situation, rendering a general attendance at meetings impracticable.” Four years later, by resolution of the Synod of Philadelphia on May 16, 1811, five ministers and twelve churches were set off from Huntingdon to become the Presbytery of Northumberland. It followed the following line: “beginning at the mouth of the Mahatango Creek, a north-west course to the west branch of the Centre and Lycoming County lines, leaving eastward Revs. Asa Dunham, John Bryson, Isaac Grier, John B. Patterson, Thomas Hood, and their respective charges, and the vacant charges of Great Island, Pine Creek and Lycoming.” Pine Creek was later to become Jersey Shore church.
Hugh Morrison1 had resigned Buffalo over political differences with Samuel Maclay, a powerful state figure, in 1801. He moved to Sunbury to live, continuing his pastorate there and in Northumberland, and adding the Old Shamokin Church (often called the Old Log Church) to the east. Isaac Grier had moved to succeed Morrison at Sunbury by the time Northumberland was constituted.
Early charges usually consisted of several churches, each of which issued a call for half or a fourth of the pastor’s time. In addition he was expected to extend the missionary effort in his area gratuitously. The first resident pastorate was probably Morrison’s at Buffalo where he settled in November 1788. He had been called June 19, 1787 when Huntingdon met at Newville. He was ordained between times at Hanover. John Bryson arrived to shepherd Warrior Run, near Fort Freeland, and the Chillisquaque region in 1789.
Morrison’s call read seventy-five pounds sterling yearly from Buffalo for one-half his time. Sunbury and Northumberland divided the remainder of his time and salary equally. Presbytery in the earliest years often had to post churches for failure to meet salary contracts, and proud old Buffalo did not escape. “The Annals of the Buffalo Valley 1755 – 1855” lists Buffalo subscribers to the call who were sued for back stipends due Morrison in 1803. The principal, interests and costs. when the last payment was made to his estate in 1810, amounted to $1,179.30.
THE EARLY YEARS:
THE FIRST PRESBYTERY MEETING
Northumberland Presbytery organized agreeably to instructions of the 1811 Synod in Northumberland church, October 1, 1811, with an approximate membership of 884 souls. The churches included: Sunbury, Northumberland, Buffalo and Washington, Chillisquaque, Warrior Run, Mahoning, Derry, Lycoming, Great Island, Muncy, Briar Creek and Pine Creek. Asa Dunham was elected Moderator and John B. Patterson was elected Stated Clerk.
The first regular order of business thereafter was establishment of a “system of rules” mainly concerned with the mechanics of the judicatory. These are written into the first pages of the Minutes of Presbytery, Volume I, but were apparently not printed. No further mention of rules appears until April 1859. A committee was then appointed to reassess the churches for per capita levies, compile the standing rules that had been from time to time adopted, and record them at the end of the Presbytery records. No such list is -found in Volume III however’ Apparently Presbytery had as much difficulty keeping abreast of changing requirements 150 years ago as it has today. The same may be said of keeping track of candidates, for in 1859 they were instructed to report their whereabouts and work at least once a year thereafter.
The next order of business was “applications for supplies” which resulted in appointment of Revs. John Bryson and Thomas Hood to “bring in a draught of supplies.” Men were assigned to vacant charges one Sunday a month. It would be reasonable to assume these special appointments were for the celebration of the sacraments, although in later instances appointment for such purposes was carefully spelled out in the minutes. The next item supports this supposition, for Isaac Crier and John B. Patterson were appointed to inspect the credentials of “travelling ministers” within the bounds of Presbytery and to make their appointments. Most of these men were licentiates. Asa Dunham was assigned to spend as much time as practicable in missionary effort within the bounds.
A brief history of the founding ministers is in order.
Rev. Isaac Crier, a “very correct classical scholar” was born in 1763 in Franklin County. He studied under James Ross at Chambersburg, graduated from Dickinson College in 1788. Theological studies continued under Dr. Nesbit with licensure by Carlisle, December 21, 1791. He spent two years in travelling missions, first from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, then along both branches of the Susquehanna and as far north as Ticonderoga, New York. Called to Lycoming, Pine Creek and Great Island, he was ordained and installed by Carlisle, April 9, 1794. In 1806 he accepted calls from Northumberland and Sunbury. At both Jersey Shore and Northumberland he conducted academies with eminent success. Crier died August 23, 1814, leaving one son who became Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, another who was a minister of this Presbytery. Rev. Asa Dunham was born in Middlesex County, New Jersey, in 1752, studied theology at New Brunswick and was there ordained. He came to Columbia County churches after a New Jersey pastorate and died in 1825. During his last charge his manse burned and all members of his family save himself perished. Dunham, in addition to possessing great missionary zeal, raised funds for the endowment of Princeton Seminary.
Rev. John B. Patterson was born in Lancaster County in 1773, studied under N. M. Semple of Strasburg and at the University of Pennsylvania. 1795. Licensed by New Castle in 1797, he was ordained and installed at Mahoning and Derry by Huntingdon, December 4, 1799. He died May 8, 1843.
Rev. Thomas Hood was born in Chester County in July 1781, graduated from Dickinson in 1798, studied under Rev. Nathan Grier at Brandywine Manor and was licensed by New Castle in 1802. Huntingdon records his ordination on October 2, 1805 (it may have been 1804) when he was installed over Buffalo and Washington. In 1812 he became pastor for one-fourth his time over the new Milton congregation; shortly thereafter he resigned Washington to give one-half time to Milton. Hood continued in these two churches until just before his death on March 17, 1848.
Rev. John Bryson was born in Cumberland County, January 1758, studied under Rev. Waddell of Virginia, taught for two years, then graduated with Grier in the first Dickinson class in 1788. Licensed by Carlisle December 22, 1790, he went on missionary tour several months before being called to Warrior Run and Chillisquaque that year. In 1841 he retired from this only pastorate to private life, and died at the ripe age of 97 on August 3, 1855. Bryson had also been a common soldier in the Revolution.
Rev. Dr. Waiter Eastwood, in his presbytery history of 1941, estimates the highest salary for’ the first decade was about $575, with possibility Hood was raised to $600 in 1813. He points out that not one of the congregations provided or owned a manse. Ministers shared the financial hardships of their people, providing much of their own subsistence, and like Paul pursuing worldly cares and avocations. Indeed they had many worldly cares to distract them from primary purposes.
Presbytery early concerned itself with moral issues. It spoke clearly its opinion to provide guidance to lay parishioners, and adopted the principle of keeping its own house in order as proper example for its members. A case in point is perhaps the earliest effort of the temperance movement. In 1818 Presbytery “resolved unanimously, that the use of ardent spirits be excluded from our meetings in the future.” This action was followed in 1826, years before the general temperance movement had made appreciable progress, by a resolution viewing with deep distress even temperate use of spirits. It concluded: “the use of intoxicating liquors is not…, necessary either in the hay or harvest fields, or at raisings or working frolics, where ….. they occasion most accidents that occur.” Presbyters were also cautioned not to attend funerals unless reasonable assurance be given no ardent spirits would be offered to the company.