April 18: Rev. John Dorrance

“But honey!, these books are an investment!”

Today we will look briefly at the life and ministry of the Rev. John Dorrance. Recently I’ve come to the realization that if you dig deep enough, there is always an interesting story or two to be found in every life. That proved to be the case with Rev. Dorrance. To begin our account of Rev. Dorrance, we turn first to E.H. Gillett’s history of missions in Louisiana:—

“One of the first—if not the first—to labor as pastor at Baton Rouge, was Dr. John Dorrance, a native of Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Nassau Hall and of Princeton Seminary. On the completion of his studies, in 1826, he was sent to the South under a commission from the Board of Missions, and his field of labor was Baton Rouge and vicinity. This had been, and still was, a place of great immorality. Its population, numbering about twelve hundred, had been collected from every State of the Union and every part of Europe. It is not strange that infidelity should have been common and openly avowed. Yet, in view of the temporal benefits of Christian institutions, the people invited the missionary to remain, and contributed to his support. He was ordained and installed, by the Mississippi Presbytery, pastor of the church at Baton Rouge in 1827; and during a pastorate of four years his labors were eminently successful.”

“Although the future scene of his ministry was in a Northern State (Wilkes Barre, PA), he left behind him a testimony that he had not labored in vain. Possessed of rare intellectual endowments, his mind was not brilliant, but admirably balanced, and capable of a prodigious grasp. If he did not shine as a student, he was wise and prudent as a man. He died in the triumph of a Christian faith, April 18, 1861.”

The first known Presbyterian services in Baton Rouge were conducted by the Rev. William McCalla, while he was a chaplain stationed there with the U.S. Army. Then in 1822, the Presbytery of Mississippi sent a Rev. Savage, who preached for a short while at several locations in the area. Then in 1827, Rev. Dorrance was installed over the work. During his ministry the church was organized and left its mission status behind. At its organization, the church had only fifteen members, but just five years later it was strong enough to plant a daughter church in Zachary, Louisiana. The Zachary church, now known as Plains Presbyterian Church, was founded in 1832, and it became one of the strongest in the South. It later became one of the founding congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America, in 1973.

So there’s that interesting aspect to our story. The other interesting note comes from an unexpected angle. A little searching on the Internet turns up a bookseller who has a rare volume for sale, once owned by Rev. Dorrance. The work is titled Liber Psalmorum Hebraice, or The Book of Psalms, in Hebrew. It was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1809 as part of the first American printing of any part of the Hebrew Bible. It is a small book, about the size of a common paperback, and has almost 500 pages. Part of the leather cover is now detached and there are other signs of wear that you might expect for a book this old. The first book published on American soil was an edition of the Psalter, published in 1640 by Harvard College. This became known as the Bay Psalm Book. You may have seen in the news recently that an old historic church plans to sell one of their two copies of this rare book, which may bring as much as $30 million dollars at auction. By contrast, the asking price for this copy of the Hebrew Book of Psalms is a steal at a mere $20,000. To read the bookseller’s full description, click here.  So yes, those books you are buying could be an investment. The problem is waiting around 200 years to cash in.

Words to Live By:
Books are among a pastor’s best tools. Much thought goes into picking the best available. Many are used frequently. Some are constant companions. The best books are those worth reading more than once. That’s true for all of us, whether pastors or not. And with the best book of all, I urge you to turn to the Bible at the start of each day, before the press of life interrupts. And learn to read the Scriptures meditatively—slowly, thoughtfully, and with application.

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books, there is no end; and much study is a wearness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJV)

For Further Study:
A small collection of Rev. Dorrance’s papers, consisting of ten sermon manuscripts, was preserved and is housed at the Special Collections Department of the Princeton Theological Seminary.  To see more about this collection, click here.

Sources: Gillett, Ezra Hall, History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, volume 2, 1864, pp. 379-380. (available on the Internet, here.

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