November 20: Presbyterians by the Boatload

Waves of Presbyterians Arrive in America
by Rev. David T. Myers

An early American journal called the Pennsylvania Gazette put it succinctly for wave after wave of Scot-Irish from Ulster, Ireland to our shores. Published on this day, November 20, 1729, it stated, “Poverty, Wretchedness, Misery, and Want are become almost universal among them, . . . . so that there is not Corn enough rais’d for their Subsistence one Year with another; and at the same Time the Trade and Manufactures of the Nation being cramp’d and discourag’d, the laboring People have little to do, and consequently are not able to purchase Bread at its present Rate; That the Taxes are nevertheless exceeding heavy, and Money very scarce; and add to all this, that their griping, avaricious Landlords exercise over them the most merciless Racking Tyranny and Oppression. Hence it is that such Swarms of them are driven over into America.” To this listing of woes is the oppressive treatment of Irish Roman Catholics and the Anglican Church upon Ulster Presbyterians.

The first wave took place in the years of 1717 – 1718. Under the leadership of their pastor, the Rev. James McGregor, Presbyterian Covenanters from Aghadowey, Ulster shipped out for Boston, Massachusetts, expecting a warm welcome from the Puritans in that seaport town. However, this warm welcome was not forthcoming. In fact, those who followed this initial entrance were brought into the realization that they were unwelcome, period! But they persevered and ultimately settled throughout the New England colonies.

The second wave took place in the years from 1725 to 1729. The fact that the Pennsylvania Gazette recorded in our first paragraph of this post proves that this immigration was from Ulster to and through Pennsylvania. Indeed, the presence of many early Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania from this time period proves the point. It was so large in its day that the English Parliament searched for causes for the massive fleeing of Presbyterians to America.

The third wave of immigration was in 1740 – 1741. Famine was its main cause, as nearly half a million Irishmen died at this time. Beginning this year and in the next decade, there was a large percentage of Scot-Irish Presbyterians making their exodus. And as important as Pennsylvania was as an entry point, countless Irish families cast a vote by their feet as they followed the Great Wagon Road into the rich Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, and later on into the Carolina’s, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Fifteen years later, in 1754 – 1755, invitations came from governors of North Carolina to Ulstermen which, added to a devastating droughts in the province, brought a fourth wave of immigrants to America. It wasn’t easy to come over during these years either. The French and Indian War was raging in the colonies, and would for seven years. But they still came.

The last wave was 1771 – 1775, just prior to the Revolutionary War, in which a hundred ships brought to our shores, close to 25, 000 to 30, 000 immigrants, mostly Presbyterian.

Words to Live By:
The great majority of transfers were Presbyterian Scot-Irish immigrants. We can be thankful for their courage and convictions. They were to have a tremendous influence in the Revolutionary War as our Presbyterian forefathers had no problem fighting the British. But more than fighting for liberty was their desire to lay the spiritual foundations for historic Presbyterianism in the new land. We stand in their shadows as we seek to build Presbyterian churches to remain true to the Scriptures, the Reformed Faith, and the good news of Jesus Christ. Are you, the reader, in one of those congregations, supporting it by your membership, spiritual gifts, and tithes?

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