Church Rooted in Pioneering Days; BILLY KENNEDY Has Been to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a City Cradled by Ulstermen. His Report Outlines a Remarkable 225-Year Ulster-American Link

By Kennedy, Billy | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), December 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Church Rooted in Pioneering Days; BILLY KENNEDY Has Been to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a City Cradled by Ulstermen. His Report Outlines a Remarkable 225-Year Ulster-American Link


Kennedy, Billy, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


FEW churches outside Northern Ireland have an Ulster connection quite like First Pittsburgh Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.

The Ulster ties there have been maintained for 225 years from its colourful foundering pastors in the turbulent American frontier years to present- day minister - Belfast-born Leslie Holmes.

First Pittsburgh was established in 1773 with the Rev David McClure and the Rev Levi Frisbie initial pastors. Both had ridden 700 miles on horseback to assume their new charge, which included a mission to the Indian tribes in Ohio.

Church influences in Pittsburgh began in 1761. Quaker merchant James Kenny set up a school in an area constantly besieged by Indian tribes and Londonderry-born army chaplain Charles Beatty preached to the settlers.

With the Rev George Duffield, an Ulsterman of Huguenot stock, Beatty established a mission which eventually led to a permanent church. Beatty left Ulster in 1729 as a 14-year-old boy with his widowed mother and he earned a living as peddler, tramping along the frontier with wares on his back.

Through the influence of Scots-Irish preacher the Rev William Tennent, Beatty turned to religion and, after his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, he enlisted as a British army chaplain during the French-Indian wars.

Western Pennsylvania was a bloodied land in the 1760s, as a result of an Indian rising led by a chief Pontiac. There were massacres, burnings, lootings, and kidnappings. To combat the Pontiac rising, Beatty acted as agent for the relief of the poor and, on a fund-rising tour in Britain, he raised pounds 4,000.

Pittsburgh Presbyterians were among the most gallant on the revolutionary side during the War. The militias played an important role in the struggle and a young local boy Ebenezer Denny planted the American independence flag at Yorktown.

Forty eight officers in the colonial and revolutionary armies were linked to First Pittsburgh, with nearly all of them buried in the church cemetery.

The Roman Catholic Church did not have a resident priest in Pittsburgh until 1808 and, until then, First Pittsburgh congregation had a monopoly of religion in the city. The first log cabin church for First Pittsburgh was erected in 1786.

First Pittsburgh's first minister after the Revolutionary War was the Rev Samuel Barr, described as "a tough little red-haired Ulster-Scot from Londonderry". Barr, educated in Glasgow, was a Calvinist of the old school, who pandered neither to the dictates of political masters or to the religious revivalism that was increasingly prevalent at the time. Barr founded Pittsburgh Academy which later became the Western University of Pennsylvania and, eventually University of Pittsburgh.

Barr left in 1789 for a new calling in Delaware after successfully facing down a charge from the congregation of failing to live up to his responsibilities.

For 11 years, First Pittsburgh Church was guided by a layman, Scottish- born Judge Alexander Addison, who led most of the residents of the township in resisting the whiskey rebellion against the government. However, a sizeable number of lay Presbyterians were involved in the Scots-Irish inspired rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania and they were later refused communion by their ministers and elders until they confessed and repented their sins. …

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