New Light on Early Colonial Presbyterian Ministers -- By: James T. Dennison, Jr.

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 60:1 (Spring 1998)
Article: New Light on Early Colonial Presbyterian Ministers
Author: James T. Dennison, Jr.


New Light on Early Colonial Presbyterian Ministers

James T. Dennison, Jr.*

* James T. Dennison, Jr. is head librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.

The origin of American Presbyterianism has been shrouded by the hoary past of a bygone late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The paucity of primary sources has made these misty beginnings the focus of contention. Was American Presbyterianism translated from the old world, i.e., Scotland and Ireland? Or was American Presbyterianism inspired by the new world, i.e., New England Congregationalism?

No small amount of ink has been expended in an attempt to trace the origins of the “founding fathers” of the Presbytery of Philadelphia (1705/1706). In the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge and Richard Webster defended their views of the original patriarchs against E. H. Gillett and William Hill.1 Charles Augustus Briggs weighed in towards the end of the century with his influential American Presbyterianism endorsing the more progressive view of the New School party.2 Briggs has been followed by twentieth-century authors such as Leonard Trinterud and Lefferts Loetscher.3 Each nineteenth-century proponent has attempted a meticulous examination of the venerable origins of the constituting eight: Francis Makemie, Jedidiah Andrews, John Hampton, John Boyd, John Wilson, Nathaniel Taylor, George McNish, and Samuel Davis.4

However, it is significant that twentieth century scholars have accepted the conclusions of Briggs without subjecting them to a fresh examination of the evidence by contemporary standards.

It would appear beneficial to revisit this question, particularly in the light of sources compiled since the appearance of Briggs’s work in 1885. The following documents and repositories will be considered below: Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of those who Attended Harvard College (1883–1975); Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (1915–50); W. F. Marshall, Ulster Sails West (1943); James McConnell and Samuel G. McConnell, Fasti of the Irish Presbyterian Church 1613–1840 (1951); Boyd S. Schlenther, The Presbytery as Organ of Church Life and Government in American Presbyterianism, 1706–1788 (1965); Donald Whyte, A Dictionary of Scottish Emigrants to the U.S.A. (1972); P. William Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (1981-); documents from the Scottish Record Office, Edinburgh, Scotland.

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