Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830

Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830

by Peter E. Gilmore


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822945437
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 393,555
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Peter E. Gilmore is a ruling elder at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and serves on the Commission for Preparation of Ministry of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. He has taught at several Pittsburgh universities, and previously served as staff writer and editor for UE News, the official publication of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. He teaches history at Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh.

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This is the story of Irish immigrants who sought to recreate an old-world ethnoreligious culture and in so doing, established Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania. This study attempts to understand their translation of religious belief and practice from the north of Ireland to western Pennsylvania, how it functioned, and how and why change occurred.
Although there have been numerous books on “Scotch-Irish Presbyterians” (variously styled), this is the first sustained examination of Irish Presbyterian religious culture in the Early National Period, and in a region which saw a heavy concentration of Presbyterians from Ireland. Such a book is long overdue.[1]
This is both an historical study of an American region transitioning from the Colonial to the Early Republic eras and an examination of an Irish diaspora. The Presbyterians who contributed the making of western Pennsylvania at the turn of the nineteenth century largely understood their faith through the prism of Irish experience.
By the second half of the eighteenth century, Ireland’s Presbyterianism encompassed numerous, fractious, competing denominations and tendencies. Despite differences, Irish Presbyterians shared distinctive commonalities, especially within Ulster, Ireland’s northern province. Fundamental ideas of Presbyterianism, both creed and church governance, came from Scotland, and that nation’s protracted Reformation. So, too, did many Presbyterian families.
But they shared more than a common Scots legacy: Their communities also had the experience of being Scots Presbyterians in Ireland, contributing to change in Ireland which altered their understanding of Presbyterianism even as Presbyterianism in Scotland underwent change.  The Irish experience was a defining moment for the Presbyterians.
Situated between the disenfranchised Catholic Irish majority and the Anglican ruling minority, Ulster Presbyterians clung to their distinctive creed while creating through their church structure a kind of state within a state.[2] Through their attachment to a very Scottish brand of Presbyterianism in an Irish context, Ulster Scots created a regional particularism that set them apart. The differences within their Presbyterianism became a hallmark of an Ulster Presbyterian system. Irish conditions created among Ulster Presbyterians loyalty to and understanding of their “Scottish” creed not always readily accepted or recognized by American or Scots Presbyterians in the Pennsylvania backcountry.    
When Presbyterians left Ireland they did so for Irish reasons, their values, politics and aspirations shaped by Irish history and experience. In the American colonies and new United States, these Presbyterians may have been distinguishable from immigrants of native Irish background who were Catholic in religion. But they were also distinct from Scots.[3]
Experiences in Ireland, and migration across the Atlantic and into the American backcountry, 1770-1830, shaped the outlook of networks of individuals, families, friends and old and new neighbors whose ethnoreligious culture gave rise to a robust regional Presbyterianism. Presbyterians predominated in Irish migration in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And western Pennsylvania figured as a preeminent destination. In a recent study, Rankin Sherling makes a convincing argument that Irish Presbyterian clerical migration is a reliable indicator of Irish Presbyterian migration overall. Pennsylvania (as a whole) accounted for more than half of the known places of settlement for Irish Presbyterian ministers, 1770-1810.[4] Those with origins in the north of Ireland, both lay and clerical, built regional Presbyterianism, congregation by congregation. They brought with them organizational structures, rituals, and theology.
Leaving an in Ireland in which they were “second-class subjects in a second-rate kingdom,” Presbyterians settling in western Pennsylvania looked to create a new Ulster free from the encumbrances and restrictions of landlordism and episcopalian church establishment. Settlement in the transappalachian west meant economic opportunity, political liberty, and creation of godly communities according to the particular vision of various Irish Presbyterian tendencies. In his study of Irish Presbyterian migration to eastern Pennsylvania earlier in the eighteenth century, Patrick Griffin proposed, “Pennsylvania appeared to men and women of the north as a perfect Ulster, one where opportunities coexisted with religious freedom.  In these years, therefore, as they looked inward to make sense of profound change, they also looked outward to reconstruct their vision of Ulster.” [5] We argue here that something similar occurred in western Pennsylvania among later generations of migrants.
Presbyterianism represented the chief cultural marker of the majority of Irishwomen and Irishmen who settled in the transappalachian west. The region, still home to a disproportionately large Presbyterian population, became a longstanding denominational bastion in the Early Republic and site of a Presbyterian-dominated Irish diaspora.[6]
Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania seeks to build on recent studies of Irish and Presbyterian migration to North America, including some volumes to which this writer contributed. Of particular relevance to this project are David Wilson, United Irishmen, United States (1998); Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name (2001); Kerby A. Miller, et. al., editors, Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan (2003); David A. Wilson and Mark G. Spencer, editors, Ulster Presbyterians in the Atlantic World (2006); Kerby A. Miller, Ireland and Irish America (2008); Warren Hofstra, editor, Ulster to America (2012); Joseph Moore, Founding Sins (2016); and Rankin Sherling, The Invisible Irish (2016).  In numerous ways, the various scholars participating in these projects strove to produce insightful, evidence-based studies which looked at Irish Presbyterians of Scottish origin in the context of change within the Atlantic Archipelago and wider Atlantic world. The authors’ awareness of contextual dynamism help produce work often unlike the “Scotch-Irish” studies of previous decades and generations.
As this book emphasizes the Irish origins of western Pennsylvanian Presbyterianism, the author has relied on and benefited from the relevant historiography of Irish Presbyterianism. In particular, a debt is owed to Andrew Holmes and The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice 1770-1840. Holmes offers a substantive portrayal of traditional Ulster Presbyterianism prior to the nineteenth-century triumph of evangelicalism, allowing for its internal differences while demonstrating its common contours. Holmes’ book represents the “control” to the experiment which is this exploration of diasporic religious belief and practice. In Ulster, Holmes concludes, “Presbyterians saw themselves as a separate community and as a covenanted people.” As the following pages will make clear, this author makes a similar claim for those in western Pennsylvania.[7]
The present volume is not another book on the Scotch-Irish (or, if one prefers, the Scots-Irish). “Irish Presbyterian” as used in this book generally refers to the people often regarded as “Scotch-Irish,” “Scots-Irish” or “Ulster-Scots.” Those terms, with their considerable and oft-times misleading ideological baggage, do not appear in this study except within quotation marks.  “Scotch-Irish” is largely anachronistic with respect to the Colonial and Early National periods, as the immigrants tended to refer to themselves as Irish. [8] In previous publications, “Scotch-Irish” is often used only in connection with the Colonial Era. A leading twentieth-century historian of the group proposed that “The story of the shaping of the Scotch-Irish people and of the part they played in American life ends…with the Revolutionary War.” James Leyburn said further that although migration from Ulster resumed after the Revolution, newcomers “did not seek out Scotch-Irish communities in their country of adoption.” These conclusions are demonstrably false with respect to western Pennsylvania. Leyburn’s consideration of post-Revolutionary migration ignores (and in ignoring, misjudges) the volume of that migration.[9]
Most problematically, the term “Scotch-Irish” is an invitation to over-emphasize Scottish origins at the expense of the Irish realities which defined the group and its religiosity. “Scotch-Irish” tends toward a homogenization of Presbyterianism which ignores the distinctiveness of Irish conditions, especially the civil penalties and political and economic subordination imposed on Irish Presbyterians, and a religious life which often emphasized a hyper-traditionalism.
The “Irish Presbyterian” designation employed throughout this study emphasizes the Irish dimension of the subjects’ transatlantic migration and the Irish origins of their worldview and cultural practices, in particular, their Presbyterianism. “Presbyterian” is used for the obvious reason that the study is concerned with faith life and religious practices.
What does “Presbyterian” mean? In its most essential meaning, the term refers to a form of church government. A Presbyterian church structure, from the bottom-up, consists ever larger judicatories: session, presbytery, synod, assembly. A session consists of a congregation’s minister and elected elders. A presbytery is a representative body consisting of ministers and elders from several congregations with the responsibility of assisting and coordinating the work of the church within a specific geographic territory. Synods are church councils with representatives from presbyteries and broader geographic responsibilities.
But “Presbyterian” means more than the historic substitution of representative bodies for the episcopal hierarchy which had long dominated Western Christianity. As the collective product of the more radical variant of Protestantism which challenged Lutheranism in the sixteenth century, Presbyterian belief emphasized the sovereignty of a triune God, the insufficiency of fallen humanity to achieve salvation, and the indispensable role of grace. The preaching of the Word and the two sacraments prescribed by the Reformed tradition—baptism and communion—became understood as means by which humans receive grace. Presbyterians embraced scripture as the revealed will of God. Reformed Protestant formulations of belief, especially the Westminster Confessions of Faith (1646), served as reverenced summaries and applications of scripture.  The Presbyterianism which came to western Pennsylvania grew out of experiences and struggles—spiritual, ecclesiological, and political—in Scotland first of all but later and especially in Ireland.   
For the purposes of this study, “Presbyterian” refers to the communicants and institutions of several denominations.[10]  A majority belonged to the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or “General Assembly” church, the mainstream American equivalent of Ireland’s General Synod. But significant minorities belonged to the organizational expressions of a more traditionally orthodox or doctrinally strict (or, as some would maintain, faithful) Presbyterianism: Associate Presbyterians (or “Seceders”), Associate Reformed Presbyterians (“Union Seceders”), and Reformed Presbyterians (“Covenanters”). And there were other, smaller variants, almost always with a clear connection to Ulster Presbyterian religiosity.
Communicants of these differing and frequently warring theological and ecclesiological tendencies constructed the region’s Irish Presbyterian ethnoreligious culture. Individual place of origin in Ireland, the year and circumstances of departure, migration experiences, timing and places of settlement, and consequent social standing all contributed to shaping differences. So, too, did the particular variety of Presbyterianism to which they adhered.
Presbyterianism, its meaning derived from old-world practice and reinterpreted by American experience, united as well as divided migrants of Irish origin. The story of early western Pennsylvanian Presbyterians is necessarily a narrative of negotiation and contest among Presbyterian disputants and Irish immigrant cohorts—among those who arrived at different times and under differing circumstances. Discord and disagreement, transported in their cultural luggage, direct our attention yet again to commingled Irish and Presbyterian legacies. Their Presbyterianism became a means by which the Irish in Western Pennsylvania ordered their lives and understood the world.
By locating the beginnings of western Pennsylvanian Presbyterianism within Irish communities, this book can address an unspoken but open question: What exactly was a “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian,” as referenced in studies of the Pittsburgh region and Colonial and Early National Periods? The answers can be found in the actually lived faith experiences of Irish Presbyterians, within thick webs of interpersonal connections, Irish and migration experiences, and a wealth of rituals and beliefs which infused a communal worldview.
Presbyterians—both in the north of Ireland and in western Pennsylvania—understood and shaped their world through the preaching and study of scripture, recitation and reference to the confessions of faith believed to aptly summarize scripture, and through regular ritual performance. Irish Presbyterians participated in family worship, catechesis, prayer meetings, community worship, sacraments and related rituals of chastisement, inclusion and exclusion, and observance of Sabbath and fast days. Their Reformed Protestant faith formally dispensed with the ritual of confession and yet informally they practiced such a rite in preparation for communion. Their Reformation forebears rejected pilgrimage, but they trekked miles to partake in sacred events. The belief that they were a covenanted people gave particular ugency to Presbyterians’ prescribed ritual practices. Basic to their outlook was the understanding that they were collectively committed in mutually binding relations with the Supreme Being. Such relationship, they believed, had immediate and eternal implications.
Along with familiar religious practices, early Irish immigrants to western Pennsylvania brought with them the sensibilities of protoindustrial peasant society. In frontier and post-frontier transappalachian society, their translated communalism would be reinforced by the exigencies of subsistence farming and new settlements. (The suggestion that the migrant “Scotch-Irish” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were “rugged individualists” would have come as a surprise to families who built their economic and religious lives around cooperation with each other.) Economic and social change altered the context for the practice of their faith. The intensified economic development of western Pennsylvania following the failure of popular struggles culminating in the Whiskey Rebellion gradually facilitated a transformation of Presbyterian religiosity. 
Most western Pennsylvanians in the period under study lived in the countryside, in protoindustrial (if not, at times, precapitalist) farming communities. To be sure, Presbyterians from the north of Ireland also settled in the market towns of Pittsburgh, Washington, and Canonsburg, where some worked as shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers. But overall, the experiences of townspeople were not those of the rural majority. Washington County had the largest population of any county in western Pennsylvania for most of the period, and substantial Irish Presbyterian settlement. Buoyed by the growth of Pittsburgh, the recorded size of Allegheny County’s population surpassed that of Washington for the first time only in the 1830 federal census. The town of Washington had a population of less than 2,000 in 1830—less than 5 percent of the total population in a county.
By “western Pennsylvania” we refer to the territory west of the central Pennsylvania spine of the Appalachian Mountains (and west of Laurel Ridge), the region known as the Upper Ohio Valley—the territory drained by the Ohio’s major tributaries (Allegheny, Monongahela and Beaver) and the myriad creeks and streams feeding those rivers. The focus of this study is largely on the southwestern counties of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland, then as now the region’s population centers.
The period covered by this study, 1770-1830, begins with the transappalachian migration preceding the Revolutionary War and ends during the first administration of Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish Presbyterian immigrants and the first Irish-American president. These years saw high levels of Irish Presbyterian migration to North America, much of the early development of western Pennsylvania, and the formative phase of regional Presbyterianism. The period ends before the completion of a transportation infrastructure (canals and railroads) vital for the region’s full integration in the market, Pittsburgh’s transition from a commercial to an industrial center, the immigration of large numbers of Irish Catholics, and the schism in mainstream Presbyterianism—and near the apogee of institutional change within Irish Presbyterianism.[11]
The first two chapters describe the Irish migration to Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1830, and the institutional beginnings of Presbyterianism in the region during those years. Chapters Three and Four discuss the content of Presbyterian practice. Chapter Five examines the revivalism which occurred in the wake of the Whiskey Rebellion. Chapter Six uses the lens of revivalism to look closely at doctrinal differences among Presbyterians. The final chapter considers the affect of increased commercialism on precapitalist religious understanding and practices.
This study relied heavily on Presbyterian church records, immigrant letters, contemporary publications (including newspapers, sermons and polemical pamphlets) and civil records. The church records are mostly minutes kept by sessions and presbyteries of various denominations. Although an (approximate) end-date of 1830 limited the range of available session minutes, those examined provided indispensable windows into religious and community life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Examination of records of western Pennsylvania presbyteries of the mainstream church and other Presbyterian denominations provided information on local and regional activities and concerns. Records of synods and assemblies completed the survey. Congregational and presbyterial histories also offered up valuable information; those written in the nineteenth century were often derived from interviews with older communicants and sometimes drawn from no-longer available records.
Although the names of major players in early regional Presbyterianism occasionally appear in the pages, the research for this book attempted to uncover facets of the lives of women and men seldom referenced unless in sweeping statements. Repeated searches of the sources yielded instances of faithfulness and foolishness, reconciliation and recalcitrance: the repeated warp and woof of the Irish Presbyterian fabric woven 1770-1830. Due in large part to their appearance before sessions, we have the names of otherwise obscure individuals—farmers, artisans, laborers—whose lives intermeshed with others in the migration into western Pennsylvania and the creation of settlements and congregations. 
Who, exactly, were these Presbyterians, and what did they want? Andrew Holmes, in his definitive study of Ulster Presbyterianism, suggests that “[b]eing a Presbyterian for some people had little to do with attendance at meeting. Their identity signified attachment to certain cultural, ethnic, and political ideals that were informed but not necessarily beholden to the peculiar doctrines of Presbyterianism.”[12] Something similar seems true for western Pennsylvania and its Presbyterian-dominated Irish diaspora. But if formal membership mattered less than a shared sense of peoplehood, ministers, elders, and communicants—with all their hopes, pieties, and anxieties—provided a collective sense of meaning and direction. Some migrants had arrived in the region seeking to create a new, godlier Ireland and a more perfect Ulster, a place where humble social origins and simple faith could be exalted, and material and spiritual existence uplifted.  For Joseph and Mary McClorg, living in the near-wilderness of the Shenango Valley in the 1820s, western Pennsylvania seemed “a land of liberty and Gospel Light.”[13]
 West of the Alleghenies, a constellation of factors—rebellion, economic dislocation, weekly prayer meetings, electrifying sermons, conviction of sin, yearning for “right relations” with God—repeatedly triggered a more heightened sense of connection to a Presbyterian tradition informed by Irish experience.
[1] Discussing “the notorious sectarian rivalries that raged in the Pennsylvania backcountry among Scotch-Irish Presbyterians,” Richard R. John expressed surprise nearly three decades ago that this regional cultural and religious history has not received more attention. (“Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously:  The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of American Political Culture,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 10, No. 4 [Winter 1990], 526.)
[2] Peter Brooke, Ulster Presbyterianism: The Historical Perspective, 1610-1970 (Dublin, 1987), 62. Brooke observes that at the turn of the eighteenth century, a “Presbyterian Revolution,” by creating “a tight-knit church organization” on a Scottish model, in effect erected an unofficial, semi-legal national church.
[3] See Peter Gilmore, “The Flyting of Brackenridge and Findley: Contested Ethnic Identity in Post-Revolutionary Pennsylvania.” in Frank Ferguson and Richard MacMaster, eds., Ulster-Scots and America: diaspora, literature, history and migration, 1750-2000 (Dublin, forthcoming.)
[4] Rankin Sherling, The Invisible Irish: Finding Protestants in the Nineteenth-Century Migrations to America (Montreal, 2016), 191-192, 200-201.
[5] The “second class/second rate” phrase is adapted from Patrick Griffin, "Defining the Limits of Britishness: The 'New' British History and the Meaning of the Revolution Settlement in Ireland for Ulster's Presbyterians," The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (July 2000), 287; Patrick Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots-Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764 (Princeton, 2001), 66.
[6] According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, in 2010 Pennsylvania ranked third for number of members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (, and third for the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (
For the presence of an Irish diaspora, see Peter E. Gilmore, “Refracted Republicanism: Plowden’s History, Paddy’s Resource, and Irish Jacobins in Western Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Summer 2016), 394-417.
[7] Andrew R. Holmes, The Shaping of Ulster Presbyterian Belief and Practice, 1770-1840 (Oxford, 2006), 306.
[8] The use of “Irish Presbyterian” seems more in keeping with the period and location than any other. This historian has found only one instance in the regional record of “Scotch-Irish” used by a Presbyterian born in Ireland for the period 1770 to 1830.
[9] James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, A Social History (Chapel Hill, NC, 1962), 317.
[10] I follow the example of David W. Miller, who proposed for the Irish context that the varieties of Presbyterianism, including Seceders, Covenanters and the mainstream church, be regarded “as components of one religious system in which division itself played a functional role. Within that system the way to attract adherents was not to preach individual, emotional-laden conversion, but to outbid the preachers and their flocks in fidelity to the seventeenth-century standards.” (“Presbyterianism and ‘Modernization’ in Ulster,” Past & Present, A Journal of Historical Studies No. 80 [August 1978], 69.) 
[11] The basis of Pittsburgh’s industrial development began during the period of study: “By 1830 the city was a bustling commercial and industrial center of some 12,600 inhabitants—the third largest city west of the Appalachian Mountains, trailing only New Orleans and Cincinnati.  It boasted nine glass factories, eight steam-driven rolling mills, six textile mills, and dozens of foundries, machine and tin shops, tanneries, and rope and boat-building works which churned out an endless array of producer and consumer goods for sale mainly in the West.” During the 1830s, however, Pittsburgh’s “entrepreneurial class,” recognizing the city’s decline as a commercial center, “increasingly invested their capital in internal improvements and in manufacturing during the 1830’s.”  Railroad construction in the 1840s and 1850s represented the greatest single factor contributing to the city’s eventual industrial success. “The industrial transformation of Pittsburgh and the South Side boroughs during the 1830’s and 1840’s had lured thousands of work-starved Irish immigrants, including the first sizeable influx of Catholics.” (Victor Anthony Walsh, “Across ‘The Big Wather’:  Irish Community Life in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, 1850-1885,” Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1983, 94-95.)  
The mainstream American church split in 1837, with western Pennsylvanian presbyteries contributing to the dominance of the Old School party. The Reformed Presbyterian Church experienced schism in 1833 as communicants clashed over the continuing obligation of old-world covenants at a time in which American politics and culture became more democratic for white men. In Ireland, mounting divisions within the General Synod of Ulster led to the secession of ministers who opposed mandatory subscription to Westminster standards and then to the creation in 1830 of the Remonstrant Synod. The General Synod made subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith obligatory for all ministers, licentiates, and elders in 1835.
[12] Holmes, 60.
[13] Colonial-era Presbyterian immigrants, suggests Patrick Griffin, expected to “reconstruct their vision of Ulster” along the Pennsylvania frontier. Pennsylvania was perceived “as a perfect Ulster,” a place where economic opportunity co-existed with religious freedom. (Griffin, The People with No Name,86.)  McClorg Family Letters, Joseph and Mary McClorg to David McClorg, 28 Aug. 1822 (From collection of Kerby A. Miller, used with permission).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction xix

1 "A Great Many Have Corae from Ireland" 3

2 "A Social Combination" 17

3 Irish Presbyterian Ritual and Discipline in the Pennsylvania Countryside 31

4 Defining a Doctrinally Distinct Community 47

5 From Insurrection to Revival 61

6 Revivalism, Psalmody, and "Satanic" Ministry 79

7 The Sabbath, Temperance, and Market Revolution 96

Conclusion 113

Notes 119

Bibliography 185

Index 215

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