John Wilson

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A Complaint by an Irish Presbytery
by Rev. David T. Myers

The facts are very sketchy on the Rev. John Wilson back in 1730.

What we do know is that he came to the middle colonies of America from Ireland sometime in the early seventeen hundreds from the Presbytery of Armagh in Ireland. Presenting his credentials as a minister of the Presbyterian convictions, he was immediately received by the presbytery. Without a call to a particular church, he began to preach at Lower Octorara in eastern Pennsylvania with much acceptance by the members of the congregation. As Richard Webster says in his History of the Presbyterian Church, he made “a strong party in his favor.”

It was then that the Presbytery of New Castle received a letter from the Irish Armagh Presbytery on January 17, 1730 regarding the Rev. Mr. Wilson. What was transmitted in that letter is lost to history, but it must have been unfavorable to Rev. Wilson as they resolved not to employ him in the visible church.

The written record of Richard Webster states that a misunderstanding arose between the congregation and the Presbytery. A local Judge of the New Castle County Court, the Honorable Robert Gordon, wrote to the Synod to interpose between the two units of Presbyterianism. They did, but to what results we are not informed.

However it must have been not too favorable to Rev. Wilson, as he moved to Boston, Massachusetts.

The only other record of him is that at the age of 66, Rev. Wilson died on this day, January 6, 1733, just three years after the original complaint came from the Irish Presbytery to the infant Presbyterian church in the colonies.

Words to Live By:
As this author said at the beginning of this post, there is much left unsaid in the written record. And whenever we hear of an issue between a Presbytery and a local church, or a Presbytery and a members of that lower court, it is a day of sadness over the lack of unity in the work of the Lord. Let us resolve to pray when we find ourselves in such a situation, or hear of others of God’s people when they find themselves in the midst of such conflict. Let us pray for clarity of vision for all sides, love for the brethren, and that the purity of Christ’s church would be preserved in the ongoing dispute.

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At last! Minutes of the Second Presbytery

RehobothFour days ago, you read the historical devotional on March 18, where we noted that the stated clerk of the first presbytery held in this country lost all but a short paragraph of the minutes of that meeting. In 1707, beginning on March 22, the second presbytery was held in Philadelphia. George McNish, one of the seven ministers present at this second meeting, was chosen Clerk of the Presbytery, while John Wilson was chosen the Moderator.   Present also were teaching elders Jedidiah Andrews and  Nathaniel Taylor. Francis Makemie would show up on the 25th of March. Ruling elders Joseph Yard, William Smith, John Gardener, and James Stoddard were present from several churches within the bounds of the Philadelphia Presbytery.

» At Right: Old Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, Rehoboth, Maryland (1683), which competes with Fairfield Presbyterian Church, Fairton, New Jersey (1680) in the claim for the oldest Presbyterian church in America »

Samuel Davis sent in his excuse as to why he missed the last Presbytery and would not be present at this meeting either. The presbyters did not sustain his reasons for his absence, and sent a letter to teaching elder Davis requiring him to be present at the 1708 presbytery meeting. He did, and they immediately elected him the moderator of the next Presbytery.

The church at Snow Hill, Maryland, had called Mr. John Hampton to be their pastor, but the latter had declined their call.  He gave several satisfactory reasons to the presbytery as to why he was not in favor of going there as pastor. They nevertheless moved that the call be left in his hand until the next presbytery in 1708, hoping that the call would be finally accepted by Mr. Hampton. In the meanwhile, they sent a letter of encouragement to the church to continue in their endeavors for a settled pastor among their ranks.

It was on the 25th of March, 1708, that two biblical sermons were given onHebrews 1:1 and Hebrews 1:2 by teaching elders Francis Makemie and teaching elder John Wilson, which messages had been approved at the last Presbytery meeting.  These texts were no doubt taken from the Genevan Bible, as that was the version carried over to these shores by the early Presbyterian pilgrims. And given the practice of early Scottish ministers, the length of the sermons easily could have been two hours long.  We are told  that both sermons were approved by the Presbytery.

Since Francis Makemie had been successful in convincing two ministers to come over and help the infant Presbyterian church previously, the Presbytery urged Makemie again to write to Scotland and a certain minister by the name of Alexander Coldin. He was to give an account of the state and circumstances of the dissenting Presbyterian interest in and among the people, especially in and about Lewistown, and signify the earnest desires of those members that Mr. Coldin travel over to these shores and become their minister.

We conclude that their meeting was not unlike the gathering of Presbyterians in presbyteries across the modern world now.  Sermons are preached, though not as long as these early expositions of the Word. Elections are held for presbyterial office.  Excuses are considered as to absences, and approved or disapproved. Pastors without call are considered for vacant pulpits. Overtures are recommended, discussed, and voted upon by the presbyters. All in all, the work of the Lord began in Philadelphia, 1706, and continues today in hundreds of presbyteries across the world.

Words to Live By:  Speaking to elders, be faithful to your presbytery meetings, for there the work of the Lord is initiated, issues of interest to the church are discussed by and for elders, warnings are heeded, encouragements are given, and support is given to the kingdom of grace.

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The Stated Clerk was the Culprit

MakemieStatueThe Presbyterian clergymen had been identified as either ministers and waiting to be called to place of ministry. Through informal talks, it was agreed by these seven ministers to gather for a presbytery meeting, the first to be held in the colonies of America. They did gather in the month of March, 1706 in Philadelphia. We know that it happened before the 28th of that month. But the exact date of this first presbytery is unknown to us because the stated clerk lost all but two paragraphs of the meeting. The stated clerk, unknown in name, was the culprit. Judging however from the date of  later meetings  in the following years, we can estimate that this meeting was held on March 18, 1706, with the Rev. Francis Makemie as the first moderator.

A review of the historic seven names of this original Presbytery might be profitable.  Even before you read the rest of this paragraph, close your eyes and see if you can name any of the seven clergy? They were: Francis Makemie, John Hampton, George MacNish, Samuel Davis, John Wilson, Jedediah Andrews, and Nathaniel Taylor. Their backgrounds show a wide divergence of  traditions. Makemie was Scot-Irish with strong ties to those mother countries of Presbyterian pilgrims.  Samuel Davis came from Ireland and pastored a church in Lewes, Delaware. Three of the ministers were from New England. Jedediah Andrews was a graduate of Harvard.  John Wilson was pastor at New Castle. Nathaniel Taylor was also from New England. The other two, George McNish and John Hampton, had just come over from England in answer to the call of Makemie.  Of the original seven, only three were pastors and the rest were missionaries.

» Statue in Accomack County, Virginia marking the grave of Frances Makemie, unveiled in 1908. »

Now Samuel Davis had sent an excuse to this first meeting. It evidently had something to do with travel time to get to Presbytery.   However the excuse was not sustained by the brethren. They were not going to allow for any variance with what they considered to be both a privilege as well as a duty in attendance at Presbytery.

The purpose of the Presbytery was described later as a meeting of ministers for consultation as to the most proper measures for advancing religion and propagating Christianity in the colonies. A second purpose was listed as furthering and promoting the true interests of religion and godliness. The last reason was for the improvement of the ministerial abilities of teaching elders, which improvement was to be tested by prescribing text to be preached upon by two ministers at every Presbytery meeting.  That performance was subject to the criticism, positive and negative, of the rest of the elders.

Hebrews 1:1-2 was the assigned text for the 1707 presbytery, to be preached  by Francis Makemie and John Wilson.

Philadelphia was the chosen site because it was central to the scattered bodies of Presbyterians which were meeting in churches in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Long Island, and  New England.  Perfect religious freedom was enjoyed in this eastern city of Pennsylvania.

The organization of Presbyterians thus gave them an early advantage over other religious traditions in the colonies. They were ready to press on the inhabitants of this new land the value of holding true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission.

Words to Live By: In faith and life, let everything be done decently and in order. Especially is this a good rule for the planting of a church. What you do in the beginning days will be central in building the church in succeeding days. So start the church well, according to Biblical principles and practices, and that rule will continue in later years, receiving the blessing of the Lord.

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