January 27: The Paxtang Boys (1764)

The Fighting Parson and his Paxtang Boys
by Rev. David T. Myers

When calling a Presbyterian pastor, his qualifications are important. Does he preach the Word of God? Check! Does he evangelize the unconverted and make disciples? Check! Does he administer the sacraments? Check! Does he visit the people in their homes, especially the sick? Check! Does he lead military operations against marauding natives? Whoa! Wait a minute. What? That isn’t listed in the Book of Church Order! And yet, that was often the calling of the pastor in frontier churches. In this case, the Rev. John Elder was one of the Fighting Parsons of the Paxtang Boys in Pennsylvania.

John Elder was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on January 26, 1706. He attended the University of Edinburgh. In 1735, he traveled to America and into the Presbyterian church. Ordained on November 22, 1738, he was called to the Paxton Presbyterian Church, two miles north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Other than a brief separation from that congregation, he was to stay there as an under shepherd for 56 years.

Being a Presbyterian was no easy life in colonial America. Surrounded by hostile natives, each day was a challenge. Weapons were carried as they worked in the fields, or even as they gathered for worship. Pastor Elder himself would prop his rifle next to his pulpit! On the way home, members would scan the skies for any smoke, which would indicate a home burned by the natives. More than one member might be killed or captured during the week.

Finally, the men of the Presbyterian Church in Paxton realized that something more was needed. They were being picked off family by family. So Pastor Elder formed an association for defense which he named the Paxtang Boys. John Elder became the captain of the group. They were recognized by the provincial government and Captain Elder became Colonel Elder. As more and more members were killed, the fever for revenge broke out among the settlers.

Gathering in a group of fifty, the Paxtang Boys headed for the Indian village to find the murderers of their families. There is evidence that Pastor Elder tried to stop them, but they were too delirious for revenge. They arrived at the village and in the end, all the natives, those who were guilty and those who were innocent in the raids, were slaughtered. A further raid into another town brought more killing by the Boys. They even marched to Philadelphia, but were stopped finally by the militia.

On this day, January 27, 1764, Pastor John Elder wrote the following communication to the Provincial Governor: “The storm which has been so long gathering has at length exploded. Had the Governor removed the Indians, which had been frequently, but without success, urged, this painful catastrophe might have been avoided. What could I do with men heated to madness? All that I could do was done. I expostulated but life and reason were set at defiance. Yet these men in their private lives are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful. This deed, magnified into the blackest of crimes, shall come to be considered as wrath caused by momentary excitement, to which human infirmity is subjected.”

Words to Live By:
Paul in Ephesians 4:26, 27 commands “Be angry, and yet do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger. And do not give the devil an opportunity.” When the Paxtang Boys degenerated into savages themselves, killing both those guilty and innocent natives in villages, it continues to be condemned in writings even today in Pennsylvania. Being out of control is not an option for the believer, ever. One trait of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. See Galatians 5:22, 23.

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