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the second reformed presbytery in america

As was previously noted, the Reformed Presbytery was disorganized by the union of 1782 with the Associate Presbytery. Thus was formed the Associate Reformed Presbytery. A number of the Covenanters remained apart from this union (as did some from the Associate Presbytery). Glasgow notes, with a touch of wry humor, “The consequence was, three bodies were formed instead of one.”. The societies were in urgent need of pastoral care. This care was soon provided for in the arrival of several men from Ireland who would be instrumental in the re-organization of a Reformed Presbytery in America, as well as the organization of the first Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


 Rev. William Gibson, born July 1st, 1753 and raised in County Down, Ireland, he was later a graduate of the University of Glasgow, Scotland. “[ I ]n early life”, he left the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (of which his parents were members) and became a Covenanter. After studying theology privately in Edinburgh, he was licensed to preach May 19th, 1781. On April 17th, 1787, Gibson was installed as pastor of the united congregations of Kellswater and Cullybackey, County Antrim, Ireland. The following year he married Miss Rebecca Mitchell of Londonderry County. His steadfastness for Covenanter dissent of British rule without regard for Kingship of Christ won the ire of the local magistrate. This magistrate sought to impose the oath of allegiance upon Rev. Gibson, or else he should forfeit his life. Again, the assumption on the part of local and Imperial rulers was that the Covenanters were in league with the United Irishmen in order to throw off British rule. As has been previously noted, the Covenanters in Ireland were for liberty long before the United Irishmen came on the scene. And because of their violent methods, the Reformed Presbyterians made sure to distance themselves from them. So, with the threat of death hanging over him for his refusal to pledge allegiance to the Crown, Gibson fled Ireland for America in 1797.

James McKinney, (according to Sprague’s Annals, cited by Glasgow) was born on November 16th, 1759 in County Tyrone, Ireland. McKinney also studied at the University of Glasgow, graduating 1778. Upon his graduation, he elected to continue his studies, taking “… a full course in medicine and theology, and was licensed by the Reformed Presbytery of Ireland, May 19th, 1783.”. He was installed as pastor of Kirkhills or Dervock, County Antrim. Miss Mary Mitchell of Londonderry County and James McKinney were wed in 1784. He too was linked to the United Irishmen and after preaching a sermon on the “Rights of God”, was indicted for treason. Soldiers seeking to arrest him at his home, found that he was providentially absent. McKinney did travel a great deal throughout Antrim and Derry in his ministrations. In 1793, under indictment for treason, McKinney made his way to America. In America, McKinney ministered faithfully, tirelessly, to a scattered group of societies from Vermont to the Carolinas. During the course of these ministrations, it became evident to him that the Covenanters in America were in a somewhat different situation than their brethren in Ireland and Scotland.

Under McKinney, therefore, a remnant of the church maintained its position of dissent from the government, but shifted the basis of that dissent from the Solemn League and Covenant and the Revolution Settlement to the secular nature of the new American constitution. This marked a new intellectual beginning for the church and was the answer to the question of the relationship of the Scottish church to the United States that satisfied the remnant of the society people.”

Thus the Covenanters in America decried the new Constitution for two reasons: the blatant disregard for the reign of Christ as King over the nations and the way in which it “…trampled underfoot, by express provision, the rights of man.”. As they had called for liberty from their oppression by the Crown, so now the Covenanters called for the liberty of African slaves – the oppressed in America. They bore an early and persistent testimony against the evils of slavery in the new nation. These two primary points of dissent found fertile ground and were courageously preached against by McKinney. He would be instrumental in the organization of the First Reformed Presbyterian congregation in Philadelphia.

The earliest beginnings of the Broomall Congregation: Philadelphia 1798

A Mr. Thomas Thompson is believed to be the first Covenanter to make Philadelphia his permanent residence. About the time of the beginning of the American Revolution, he came from County Down, Ireland and settled in Philadelphia. After the war, “probably in 1788 or 1789”, after many years without fellowship, he was joined by Mr. John Wallace. In actuality, according to Glasgow, Wallace was preparing to leave Philadelphia, to go to New York and then back to Ireland. He met an acquaintance of Mr. Thompson’s, who was instrumental in getting them together. They (Thompson and Wallace) formed a society, which would become the congregation to which the Broomall congregation traces its origin. Not until 1791 would they have the blessing of the preaching of a Covenanter minister. Rev. James Reid, under the auspices of the Reformed Presbytery in Scotland, preached to the society in Philadelphia. There was an influx of members during the following years, due largely to the growing tensions and eventual insurrection in Ireland, which occurred in 1797. Rev. James McKinney arrived from Ireland in 1793 and provided occasional preaching for the society. It was occasional because he was the only Covenanter minister and had many societies to tend to, as has been previously noted. The society flourished under his leadership (not to mention the steady flow of immigrants) and soon construction was begun in 1796 on a church edifice on St. Mary’s Street. At about this time, back in Ireland, things were heating up for Rev. William Gibson. He was joined by two young men (Samuel B. Wylie and John Black) who were at the time Students of Theology. Gibson, Wylie and Black – all in God’s providence would help to establish the Reformed Presbyterian witness anew in America.

Upon the arrival of Rev. Gibson in Philadelphia, the society was organized into a congregation, having by now several families in their midst. This organization took place on the Lord’s Day, January 28th, 1798 at the Gaskill Street schoolhouse in which the society had been meeting. Glasgow further notes that this was the same location in which the Reformed Presbytery was disorganized in 1782. Thomas Thompson and Stephen Young were ordained as ruling elders of the congregation the same day. Gibson presided over the organization and installation, with the assistance of two elders from New York. It is very likely that Wylie and Black were in the midst of the congregation that day. They had both settled in the Philadelphia area. Together they would continue their theological studies, and eventually teach at the University of Pennsylvania for a number of years. Black would be called to serve the Church in the Pittsburgh area, Wylie would remain in Philadelphia. Both became able and renowned scholars.

As previously noted, Gibson, Wylie and Black were travelling companions from Ireland. Glasgow notes that Gibson landed in Philadelphia. How did Wylie and Black come to be in Philadelphia, if they did not land there? The answer to that question is found in Stevenson’s account:

In 1797 a young man who had just graduated in the University of Glasgow sailed for the United States. Landing at New Castle, Delaware, with a single companion, he journeyed on foot to Philadelphia. When they arrived at the spot where our Public Buildings now stand, at Broad and Market streets [sic], they inquired for the city of Philadelphia, which was not yet in view, and were told that it lay half a mile distant toward the Delaware river [sic].

More than likely, the ship on which they traveled was destined to Newcastle, Delaware first, then it would go on to Philadelphia. Perhaps, all three companions debarked at Newcastle and funds being limited, only Gibson was able to travel to Philadelphia on onboard either the same vessel, or a different one. (They were all three of a young age at the time.) Possibly they pooled their resources and drew lots. Black and Wylie, both being single at the time, may have given the opportunity to Gibson who was married. This is all speculation. What is clear from the record is that Wylie and a companion (probably Black, because Gibson landed in Philadelphia) traveled to their new residence on foot in the Fall of 1797.

Samuel B. Wylie

Well aware of how far Philadelphia is distant from New Castle, Delaware, Samuel B. Wylie made his entrance into the Covenanter community in Philadelphia. He held the Master of Arts degree from the University of Glasgow – awarded him in 1797. Having begun to teach in Ireland, he soon found employment as a teacher in Cheltenham. By 1798 he would be teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. All the while, he continued to pursue his theological studies. In May of 1798, McKinney and Gibson constituted a Reformed Presbytery in Philadelphia. One of the first orders of business was to formally recognize Alexander McCleod, John Black, S.B. Wylie and Thomas Donelly as Students of Theology. “Pieces of trial for license were assigned them”. These four men would continue their studies under care of the new presbytery . On June 24th, 1799, after having been sustained in all of their several trials for licensure since being recognized as Students of Theology, each candidate was then examined in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Rhetoric, Logic, Metaphysics, Moral Philosophy, Divinity, practical religion and views of the Christian religion. “All candidates were licensed to preach.” The following year, on June 25th, 1800 the Reformed Presbytery met at Ryegate, Vermont. His former traveling companion, Rev. Gibson was pastor there, having been installed on July 10th, 1799. At that time Samuel Brown Wylie became the first man ordained into the gospel ministry in the Reformed Presbytery of America.

On November 7th, 1800 presbytery considered a call by the united congregations of New York City and Wallkill. Wylie declined the call – he and Alexander McCleod had received an equal number of votes. The vote then completely favored McCleod, who asked for time to consider the call. The reason behind their reluctance was that some of the members of these united congregations were slave holders. McCleod, on conditions, accepted the call. Presbytery enacted a resolution that “no slave holder should be allowed the communion of the Church.” Wylie then received his first assignment from presbytery – to be on a committee with McKinney. This committee was assigned the duty of going to the southern congregations, informing them of the resolution of presbytery regarding the sin of slave holding. Together, McKinney and Wylie undertook their duties and God granted great success in removing the sin of slave holding from the midst of the Covenanters.

During this time back in Philadelphia, the work on the church building continued. The congregation continued to grow in members and leadership. Wylie married Miss Margaret Watson on April 5th, 1802. Also in 1802, Wylie was called to be the pastor of the Philadelphia and Baltimore congregations. He accepted the call on condition that he be granted a year in Europe and then a period of two years to serve the congregations jointly, after which time he would choose one or the other, or neither. (As for support, Dr. Carson has a helpful discussion of the practice of subscription which was the common means of supporting a pastor and maintaining church property up to the Civil War era. Carson reports that frequently, those who had subscribed to provide a specific amount towards supporting the pastor, failed to meet their obligation. Thus the pastor was left financially strapped.) Upon his return from Europe, Wylie was installed as agreed on November 20th, 1803. After the agreed upon two year period, he opted to devote himself to the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, which numbered about thirty-five members at the time. By now the work on the church building was finished. Yet, in a short time, the need would arise for a larger edifice.

Apparently, the edifice on St. Mary was not adequate for several reasons. Stevenson describes it as, “…uncomfortable, poorly furnished and poorly situated …”. Sufficiently in need, the congregation sold the St. Mary Street property, necessitating temporary meeting arrangements, and began work on a new edifice located at Eleventh Street, below Market Street. This work was completed in June of 1818. A Theological Seminary was organized in Philadelphia, Wylie was chosen as its professor, serving from 1810-1817 and again from 1823-1828. He also continued his affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania, serving there as Professor of Latin and Greek from 1828-1845. (All these undertakings might lead one to conclude that stress had not yet been invented.) At this new location, Wylie would faithfully tend the flock given into his care for a good many years. He also gained a national reputation as a linguistic scholar, having an understanding of fourteen languages. Many regarded Wylie as one of the best scholars the Covenanters ever produced – though his preaching seemed to have left something to be desired. Dr. Wylie served as the moderator of Synod in 1800 and 1801. As such, it is especially unfortunate to see the schism which occurred in 1833 under his leadership.