THE FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA
The Pocomoke River rises in southern Delaware, forms a part of the eastern boundary of Somerset County, Maryland, and empties into Pocomoke Sound, an inlet of Chesapeake Bay. On the banks of this stream, not far from the mouth, Colonel William Stevens, a native of Buckinghamshire, England, located in 1665, taking out a patent on what he called the Rehoboth plantation, the name being chosen from Genesis 26:22. ” And he called the name of it Rehoboth. And he said, For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in this land.” When Somerset County was organized he was made Judge of the County Court. He also became a member of ” His Lordship’s Councill,” and was one of the Deputy Lieutenants of the Province.
As the years passed many followed Colonel Stevens to Somerset County, in search of religious freedom. Scotch, Scotch-Irish, French, and Quakers were represented in the village that was known at first as Pocomoke Town, though later it was called Rehoboth. Many of these settlers were Presbyterians, who had lost their property through persecution.
In 1672 the Grand Jury, encouraged by Judge Stevens, asked Rev. Robert Maddux to preach at four points in the county. One of these points was the plantation house at Rehoboth. The next year George Fox, the Quaker, was in the community. He also preached in his famous ” leather breeches ” at Colonel Stevens’ plantation, to a great congregation of several thousand whites and Indians. A Quaker monthly meeting followed.
The number of Presbyterians increased to such an extent that in 1680 Colonel Stevens asked the Presbytery of Laggan in Ireland for a godly minister to gather the band of exiles into a church. Francis Makemie was sent as a result. Soon Rehoboth Church was organized by him, as well as a number of other churches in the neighborhood. The exact date of the beginning of Rehoboth Church is uncertain, but it is probable that the first building was erected about 1683.
For some years Makemie travelled from place to place, preaching and organizing churches as he went, but from 1699 to 1708, except in 1704 and 1705, when he visited Europe, he lived in the neighborhood and preached at Rehoboth whenever he was at home.
When it became necessary to erect a new church building, he decided to have this on his own land, because of Maryland’s intolerant laws. This building, which is still in use, dates from 1706, the year when its builder assisted in organizing the first Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church at Philadelphia.
Makemie’s name will ever be connected with the struggle for religious liberty. He had a certificate from the court that permitted him to preach in the Province of Maryland, but he had many trying experiences in spite of this fact. His congregation groaned under the necessity of paying taxes to support the rectors of three neighboring parishes.
The greatest trial was not in Maryland, but in New York, where he spent a portion of 1706 and 1707. His experiences there should be familiar to all who are interested in the struggle for religious liberty in America.
The story is told in a curious document written by Makemie himself, which was printed in New York in 1707, under the title ” A Particular Narrative of the Imprisonment of two Non-Conformist Ministers; and Prosecution & Tryal of one of them, for Preaching one Sermon in the city of New-York. By a Learner of Law and Lover of Liberty.”
The warrant for the arrest of the ” criminal ” was addressed to Thomas Cordale, Esqr., High-Sheriff of Queens County on Long-Island, or his Deputy, and was signed by Lord Cornbury. It read :
” Whereas I am informed, that one Mackennan, and one Hampton, two Presbyterian Preachers, who lately came to this City, have taken upon them to Preach in a Private House, without having obtained My Licence for so doing, which is directly contrary to the known Laws of England, and being likewise informed, that they are gone into Long-Island, with intent there to spread their Pernicious Doctrines and Principles, to the great disturbance of the Order by Law established by the Government of this province. You are therefore hereby Required and Commanded, to take into your Custody the Bodies of the said Mackennan and Hampton, and then to bring them with all convenient speed before me, at Fort-Anne, in New-York.”
When brought before Lord Cornbury, Makemie said : ” We have Liberty from an Act of Parliament, made the first year of the Reign of King William and Queen Mary, which gave us Liberty, with which Law we have complied.”
But Lord Cornbury replied : ” No one shall Preach in my Government without my Licence. . . . That Law does not extend to the American Plantations, but only to England. . . I know, for I was at Making there-of. . . . That Act of Parliament was made against Strowling Preachers, and you are such, and shall not Preach in my Government.”
Makemie again challenged Lord Cornbury to show ” any Pernicious Doctrine in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church.” Later he refused to give ” Bail and Security to Preach no more.”
” Then you must go to Gaol,” his Lordship said.
On January 23 another warrant was given to the High Sheriff of New York. He was told ” to safely keep till further orders ” the prisoners committed to him.
From the prison Makemie sent a petition asking to know the charge, and demanding a speedy trial. Later the prisoner was released on habeas corpus proceedings.
At the trial, where Makemie conducted his own de-fence, he read Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as a complete reply to the charge that he believed what incited the people to disregard the authority of the king.
The jury brought in a verdict of ” not guilty,” but Makemie was obliged to pay the costs, including the fees of the Court Prosecutor, which amounted to twelve pounds. The total cost of the trial, including the expense of a trip from his home in Maryland, made necessary by a recess in the trial, was more than eighty pounds.
A few months later Makemie died. It was felt by those who knew him that the trying experiences at New York hastened his end.
He had not lived in vain. His struggles for religious liberty were to bear rich fruit before many years.
Henry van Dyke wrote a sonnet to the memory of Francis Makemie, which was read on May 14, 1908, when the monument to the memory of the pioneer was unveiled :
“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 Of God’s Republic a firmer resting-place In this New World : for thou hast preached the grace And power of Christ in many a forest glade, Teaching the truth that leaves men unafraid Of frowning tyranny or death’s dark face.
” Oh, who can tell how much we owe to thee, Makemie, and to labor such as thine, For all that makes America the shrine Of faith untrammelled and of conscience free? Stand here, grey stone, and consecrate the sod Where rests this brave Scotch-Irish man of God.”