Presbyterianism Comes to America

Scots-Irish immigrants from Ulster brought Presbyterianism to the British colonies of North America beginning in the late 17th century. The first churches were founded in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. As Dr. John W. Christie writes in Presbyterianism in Delaware, “The first Presbyterian religious service in what is now Delaware appears to have been conducted in New Amstel (New Castle), in 1654, by the Dutch Domine Johannes Theodorus Polhemus, on his way to New Amsterdam from Brazil. The first pastor sent to this church by the Classis (Presbytery) of Amsterdam was Everardus Welius, in 1657. Previous to Welius’ coming Evert Pietersen, sent out as a schoolmaster, had opened there Delaware’s first school, enrolling twenty-five children. This church had a precarious existence, being without a pastor for long periods. After the English took the colony from the Dutch in 1664 some of its services were conducted in English. The last recorded services under Dutch religious auspices were in midsummer 1690, when Domine Rudolphus Varick preached three Sundays, and administered the communion.

“As was natural the next pastor was not Dutch. He was the Rev. John Wilson, from New England. He arrived in 1698, and preached in the court house, because the old Dutch church building had gone to decay. In 1707 a new church was erected. The New Castle church, therefore, appears to be the oldest Presbyterian church, and its building the oldest fabric still in use as a Presbyterian church, in Delaware.” The first Presbytery in America was organized by Francis Makemie in 1706. It became a powerful factor in religious affairs in this region. By 1717 the increasing number of churches and the distances between them necessitated an increase in the number of the Presbyteries, and the formation of a synod, the synod of Philadelphia. One of its three Presbyteries was that of New Castle enrolling all four of Delaware’s ministers at that time: John Wilson of New Castle, Samuel Davis of Lewis, David Evans of Pencader, and Robert Witherspoon of “Appoquinimy” (Drawyers). Since Samuel Davis was preaching to a group of people at Lewes in 1692, the second Presbyterian church in Delaware is, perhaps, the one at Lewes.

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