Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 8
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: November 1953 Volume 8 Number 1, Pages 2–14
The Great Valley Presbyterian Church
Described in the records of the General Assembly of 1710 as "one of the Apostolic twelve which constitute the whole force of our denomination in the American colonies," the Great Valley Presbyterian Church needs no introduction to the members of this club. It is the mother of Chester Presbytery. In 1684 William Penn granted to the Welsh colonists 40,000 acres of land in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties, which became known as the Welsh Tract. In 1701 he made a further grant of 30,000 acres in what is now New Castle County, Delaware, to three Welshmen, David Evans, William Davis and William Mills , all of whom had been interested in the first tract. This second parcel of land was also known as the Welsh Tract.
A church was in existence at Great Valley in 1710, at least in union with one in Pencader, on the Welsh Tract in Delaware - that is, one church with two congregations of worshippers, but in 1714 some internal controversy caused a division, and the Great Valley Presbyterian Church was organized. How long before 1710 the congregation existed is unknown; it may have been organized soon after 1684. If so, it antedates even the First Church in Philadelphia, which dates back to 1698. These churches are among the twelve organized prior to 1770.
From the first, the Presbyterians were prominent in the Welsh Tract; David Evans was an elder, probably having been ordained in Wales, and William Davis was also a Presbyterian.
The first public reference to the church is in the minutes of Philadelphia Presbytery, dated September 20, 1710:
"Upon information that David Evans, a lay person, had taken upon him publicly to teach or preach among the Welsh in the Great Valley, Chester County, it was unanimously agreed that said Evans had done very ill, and acted irregularly in thus invading the work of the ministry, and was thereupon censured."
"Agreed, that the most proper method for advancing David Evans in the necessary literature, to prepare him for the work of the ministry, is that he lay aside all of his business for a twelvemonth, and apply himself to learning and study under the direction of Mr. Andrews, and with the assistance of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Anderson, and that it be left to the discretion of the said ministers when to put said Evans on trial and license him publicly to teach or preach."
Mr. Wilson was ordered to write to the Welsh in the Welsh Tract and Mr. Andrews to those in the Great Valley, advising them of the above order. This was the first candidate for the ministry taken under care of any presbytery in our land, also the first man ordained to the Christian ministry in this country, according to the brief history of the church published by Dr. A. W. Spooner.
One reference mentions a Rev. Malachi (or Matthew) Jones who served as pastor until 1720. It may well be that he served only while Evans was a student.
David Evans was the son of David Evans, Sr. the grantee of 1701. It is said that he was a preacher of such fiery eloquence that on one occasion a convicted hearer, to escape his ardent appeals, jumped out of the church window.
In 1711 a committee of Presbytery examined him and approved of his "hopeful efficiency", and he was permitted to preach as a candidate for one year. The next year, "his penmanship being careful and in the extreme curious," he was chosen clerk of Presbytery. The people of the Welsh Tract petitioned that he might be ordained, but, "though he had made considerable efficiency," it was voted that he continue his study.
In 1715 he was graduated from Yale College and was sent at the request of the people to reside and preach at the Welsh Tract. He was given a unanimous call and, after "a thorough examination and the usual trials," was ordained, November 3, 1714.
However, he did not continue to give unanimous satisfaction, for a split in the congregation resulted. We read
"There being divers persons in the Great Valley (with whom he was concerned) they were declared a distinct society from his pastoral charge."
Rev. Evans drew a crowd for his farewell sermon at Great Valley in 1740. It may well be the briefest on record, consisting merely of these words, "Goats I found you and goats I leave you." However, he soon forgave and forgot, for two years later he addressed the "goats" as a "church of Christians." He died in 1751.
It is interesting to note that the Upper Octorara Church was at first connected with the Great Valley, for, in 1721, Rev. Evans was directed to spend one-fourth of his time there, the distance between the two being about twenty-two miles. In 1738 he was appointed to supply also once a month the Norriton Church, Montgomery County, which was about ten miles in the other direction. His territory thus covered twenty-two miles to Parkesburg, ten to West Chester, and ten to Norriton.
The devout Welsh pioneers first held their services for worship in the woods or in the homes of members, but in the year 1720, early in Rev. Evans' pastorate, a log building was erected on the Swedesford Road in Tredyffrin Township. This was the first building for a Presbyterian Church outside of Philadelphia and the second in Pennsylvania.
The lot on which the church stood was donated for that purpose by James Parry, and contained about three acres. It was later enlarged by an additional half acre purchased from Johanna Jones. Another half acre was added later, and in 1882 three acres were purchased from Jacob Acker. Most of this ground is occupied by the cemetery.
The site of the first church is marked by the grave of Thomas Hutchinson, of near Malvern, who, at his own request, was buried beneath the spot where the pulpit stood.
The material for this church and most of the labor were contributed by the members. The logs were unhewn, notched at the corners, and the cracks filled with stones and coarse mortar, as was customary in that day. The roof was covered with shingles which had been split and shaved in the woods, and the floor may have been of hard clay or mortar. The window glass, the only material bought for the building, was probably imported from the old country. Even the nails were made by hand. There was a sounding board over the pulpit.
Since there was no provision for heating, the women took to church with them blocks of wood, heated on the hearth, to warm hands and feet. According to tradition, when the weather was too stormy or cold for the horses to stand outdoors, the men of the congregation walked six or seven miles to church.
In the early days, the services, preacher and congregation were all Welsh, but about the middle of the century, the Scotch-Irish element in the Valley became strong enough to demand a change to the English language, and there was a long struggle. The Welsh were led by James Davies and the Scotch- Irish by Thomas McKean, the host of the Blue Ball Inn. The struggle finally ended when the Presbytery demanded a compromise which was satisfactory to both factions. This was in 1764.
Meantime, Rev. John Rowland came in 1740, but strong opposition to him resulted, a year later, in his being barred from preaching in the church by the "Old Side," the Welsh, who were then in the majority. He preached for a time to his followers in barns and other buildings until a church building was erected for him in what is now Charlestown Village. The foundation of this church was laid in 1743, on land given by Job Harvey, a Friend. Miss Edith Hughes of Malvern states that this building is now used as the Charlestown Playhouse.
The next pastor at Great Valley was Rev. Samuel Evans, a son of the Rev. David Evans, He was installed in 1742 and served for five years.
The church depended on supplies for several years, but in 1755 Rev. John Kinkead was installed. In 1757 he was dismissed and publicly disowned by Presbytery, for reasons which are not given.
On April 16, 1761, Rev. John Simonton came to serve the church until his death in 1791. We are told that he was a sound and judicious minister, but being
"constitutionally inclined to ease, was neither animated in the pulpit nor diligent in the discharge of parochial duty."
During his ministry the differences between the Welsh and the Scotch- Irish were numerous.
Sachse states that there is a vague tradition that the primitive church was enlarged or altered shortly before the Revolution. The church and congregation, in common with others in the Valley, suffered much through the ravages of war. Almost to a man, the congregation was loyal to the patriot cause.
The church was incorporated in 1788, the names of the incorporators being John Davies, John Christy, John Griffiths, John Templeton, David Wilson, David Cloyd, John Maxwell, Robert Todd, Thomas Harris, Matthew Neely, James Davies and Thomas R. Kennedy.
In 1791, The Great Valley and Charlestown congregations, after a half century's separation, united in a call to Rev. John Gemmill, D. V. M. In this call, they were joined by a few Presbyterians residing in West Chester, but in 1795 Rev. Gemmill was released from the West Chester charge, as the Great Valley Church demanded all of his time. He was a popular and eloquent speaker, sought by other churches, and was offered the theological chair at Yale College. He remained at Great Valley until 1798.
Now the little log church proved too small for the congregation and on May 20, 1793, with religious ceremony and prayer, the cornerstone for a new church was laid. It is interesting to note that
this was the same time that General Washington, then president, laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in Washington, and that both stones were in the southeast corners of the respective buildings.
The second building was located on the site of the present church, and was built of stone, quarried from neighboring farms. Sand, lime and timber, as well as the work of excavating and grading, were "love Offerings," which made the monetary cost but $860.00. The shingles were the only lumber purchased, and the farmers sent teams to bring these from Columbia, the nearest lumber market. These same shingles lasted 84 years.
This church was the same size as the present one. There were eleven arched and small-paned windows, and the ceiling was slightly arched. The framing timbers were of native wood, the window frames and sashes being of poplar and the floor of oak. Aisles were floored with mortar, with lime used as a binder. The building was heated by four stoves, one in each corner - one authority states that these were installed later. The pipes ran up through the ceiling into chimneys built on top of the walls. The furniture, including the high
pulpit and sounding board, came from the first building. This church was dedicated in March, 1794. The upping block was also built in 1794.
Soon after the erection of this second building there was built the Session House, where the present chapel now stands. It was a substantial stone structure, 22 x 28 feet, with a covered stone entrance at the southwest corner. In addition to its use as a meeting place for session and trustees, this building was used as a public school until the passage of the free school law. It was afterward used as a Sunday School, and torn down in 1868, to be replaced by the present chapel, which was enlarged in 1891.
Rev. William J. Latta became pastor on April 17, 1799, and continued until his death on February 19, 1847. We are told that he was a fine scholar, an earnest, effective and instructive preacher and a public-spirited citizen. He was one of the founders and directors of Princeton College. He and his faithful horse, "Orthodox" were a familiar sight as they traveled over the Valley and Charlestown hills on errands of love and mercy. The Fort Kennedy church was organized on March 20, 1845.
Dr. Latta's daughters were active in mission work and, under their supervision, the women's Female Tract Society was organized in 1820. Members not only read and distributed tracts, but made clothing for distribution in the neighborhood and for a school in India.
Missionary and charitable contributions of the two congregations in 1836 were $79.00, and in 1838, during revival services, they were $209.00.
In 1828 the church was entirely refurnished, and a new pulpit was erected. The seats were arranged to face the entrance, and the aisles were floored with boards. Venetian blinds were hung at the windows, the inside woodwork was painted, and new box pews were placed. To get the hinges for the pew doors, John Todd rode to Philadelphia on horseback and brought them back in saddlebags. The pulpit was elevated and reached by eight stairs with balustrades on each side. In 1850 this pulpit was replaced by a lower one.
The minutes of the church during the middle of the nineteenth century are very interesting and, in view of the indifference with which church membership today is regarded, they furnish some food for thought.
In 1840 we read that the session took into consideration the case of J. R., late a member of the church at Oxford, who had been received upon certificate of his good standing in that church, but of whom rumors of intemperance began to prevail. Then, too, J. R. had absented himself from the church and its ordinances for more than six months. Session having made several efforts to bring him to repentance, cited him to appear before them. When, after two citations, a month had passed, the session suspended J. R. from the privileges of the church until he repented and amended his ways.
In 1842 another member, having neglected the ordinances of the church and refused to contribute to its support for a year, was cited and appeared before the session, but could give no good reason for his conduct and was suspended.
In 1845 we find the session concerned with "an unhappy dispute" between two members, one of whom had sworn profanely. The account of the hearing, before session, occupies many pages and proves that the wording of profanity has not changed in the past hundred years. The blasphemous one was suspended.
Starting in 1850, we find several entries like this,
"Samuel and Martha Gamble presented certificates from a church in Ireland and requested baptism for their child."
They were examined on the nature and design of this ordinance until session was satisfied, and their request was granted.
In 1853, N. C. appeared before session asking for membership. He had been dismissed from the Port Kennedy Church in good standing six years previously, but because his work on the Pennsylvania Railroad required him to labor on the Sabbath, had never presented his certificate. Session having endeavored to bring him to a sense of his sin in violating the Sabbath, and failed, his request for membership was declined.
Rev. William Bingham served as pastor next. He was ordained October 4, 1847 and installed February 28, 1848. He served until ill health forced his resignation on January 3, 1859. Membership at the close of his pastorate was 89. His salary in 1852 was $400.
Rev. Bingham was the first minister to occupy the new manse. Previous pastors had owned and occupied their own farms in the neighborhood, but when this young man came it was necessary to provide a home for him. Accordingly, in 1853, two acres were purchased from John Bartholomew, about a mile west of the church, near Valley Store, and a stone house and frame stable were built. In 1907 this manse was renovated. The cemetery vault was built in 1854.
On January 18, 1855, the ladies of the Home Missionary Society, which had been in a declining state, met at the manse to reorganize. The name was "Female Missionary Sewing Society of Great Valley Presbyterian Church." In 1855 they sent a missionary box valued at $53.00.
The Foreign Missionary Society, called "The Valley Mission Band" was organized on August 4, 1875.
Rev. Robert M. Patterson was installed on August 25, 1859 and served until 1868. He organized, at the outbreak of the Civil War, the first Soldiers' Aid Society, and this group sent carload after carload of supplies to the front until peace was declared. In 1864, $385.00 was given to missions.
In 1861 the church was enlarged by extending the south end about twelve feet, This was done according to Sachse, by the removal of every other cornerstone so as to "tie the addition to the old structure." The building was then dashed to present a uniform appearance. The addition gave an entrance porch with a vestibule on either side and a gallery for the choir. A pipe organ was installed, the arched ceiling was removed and the pews were rearranged.
Rev. Edward P. Heberton was pastor from April 13, 1868 to October 4, 1871. Then came Rev. Samuel Fulton, who served from October 18, 1872 to October, 1881. The Daily Local News notes on December 23, 1879 that twenty-four persons had been admitted to membership the preceding Sunday, and fourteen had been baptised. There were 116 members at the time of Rev. Fulton's resignation.
In 1873 the church was thoroughly repaired and renovated. The walls and ceiling were frescoed, new sashes with stenciled glass were installed, and the woodwork inside and outside was painted. In less than two weeks time, a wind and hail storm broke nearly every pane of glass in the north and west windows. This damage involved an additional expenditure of $125.00.
Dr. Robert M. Patterson was again called to be pastor on June 18, 1885, and his second term of service lasted until 1907.
It was in 1882 that the question of remodeling the building was again raised, and plans were drawn. When bids wore asked it was found that the cost of an entire new structure would be but little more than the cost of remodeling, and it was decided to build. The last service was held in the old church on March 17, 1889. This was a Communion service.
Work was started immediately, and was to have been completed by October 1st, of the same year, but the building was not ready until May 8, 1890. J. H. Dingee was chairman of the building committee, T. Roney Williamson, of West Chester, the architect, and H. Morgan Ruth, of Duffrin Mawr, the contractor.
In a letter to the editor of the Village Record, written March 10, 1889, J. F. Sachse bitterly deplores the razing of the second church to make way for a modern one.
Of blue limestone, the third building was finished inside with oak and hard pine. The walls were frescoed in subdued colors, with brown prevailing, and the panel work on tho ceiling was blue with narrow gilt border. There were stained glass windows, the large one facing the road being contributed by the Sunday School. It had a seating capacity of 300. While tho congregation did not furnish the labor for tho building, the men did about $1,000 worth of landscaping, grading, and building of drives. The total cost of tho church was approximately $11,000.
On May 8, 1890, dedication ceremonies were held, the presiding officer being Governor Beaver, a personal friend of Dr. Patterson. At the same time, the 175th anniversary of the church was observed. The sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. B. L. Agnew, of the Bethlehem Church in Philadelphia. While a constant drizzle fell during the day, it was estimated that 500 persons were present - more than the seating capacity of the church. Carriages met morning trains, and dinner was served at noon.
The carriage sheds, built in 1832, in 1885 were extended on the east, and the old ones were rebuilt to correspond with the new. These sheds were destroyed by fire on May 27, 1947.
Rev. E. Ray Simons was called to the church in 1907, to serve until 1910. In 1911 came Rev. Richard L. Williams, who remained until 1917.
The next pastor was Rev. Arthur Willis Spooner, D.D. He resigned on account of ill health on September 7, 1930, to take effect on November 1, but died in October, 1930. He was a graduate of Williams College and Auburn Theological Seminary. Unusually gifted, he was always generous with his talents.
Mrs. Eric A. Corkhill, the former Victoria Spooner, tells of some amusing incidents during her father's pastorate. One Paoli resident regularly appeared at service with the Sunday newspaper and if he did not care for the sermon, was wont to peruse the news.
She tells of the Allan D. Wallis family, long prominent in the church, with their ten children, coming in a seven-passenger car, extra space provided by the simple device of a table leaf being placed over extra rear seats. One of this family, Dr. Calvin Proctor Wallis, is serving the denomination as a medical missionary in Guatemala.
Dr. Spooner inaugurated the homecoming the first week in October, when former members and friends came for many miles to greet others. Lunch was served. He also inaugurated the Memorial Day services, in which the newly organized American Legion participated, and church members lined up to carry flowers to the cemetery.
The June lawn fete was established before the Spooner pastorate, and represented a year's project, for the Ladies' Aid met once a week to sew for the fancy table. A dinner was served, and cake and candy and other articles were sold, to realize a handsome sum for the work of the church. This has been discontinued in later years.
The story of the church bell is an interesting one. Installed in December, 1926, it was dedicated January 2, 1927. Prior to that time the church had no bell, because conservative estimates had placed the cost at $2,000, beyond the reach of the congregation - or so they thought.
One Sunday, just before pronouncing the benediction, Dr. Spooner asked two men to go to the Sunday School room and carry in the blackboard, placing it on the pulpit where it could best be seen. Then he presented the project, as only he could. He said in effect, "before you leave the church, we shall get pledges for this bell." Illustrating on the blackboard, he continued, "If so many will give $100, $50, $25 and $10, we shall soon have it. Now you all know what my salary is; I can't afford to give much. I really can't afford $100, but I will start off with that figure. Now how many of you will equal my $100?" (Mrs. Corkhill reports that at this point her mother almost swooned.)
The members were seething within, but before they left the church all the money was subscribed, and after the bell was installed, and pealing over the Valley, everyone was very proud of it.
Henry L. Woll was installed in May, 1931, his first charge after being graduated from the Evangelical Theological college in Dallas, Texas, and resigned effective April 10, 1945.
Carl E. Anderson, the present pastor, was installed December 22, 1945.Top
Session Minutes from the Clerk.
"History of Chester County" by Futhey and Cope.
Facts concerning her father by Mrs. Eric Corkhill.
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