Jim Stewart, the pastor of the Danville Presbyterian Church in Kentucky has a great sense of history. He serves one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Kentucky. Indeed, his congregation, organized in 1784, reputedly once occupied the first house of worship for Presbyterians in Kentucky; a replica of the log church stands today on Constitution Square in Danville. Last fall while I was there preaching for the Danville Church, Jim gave me a copy of their history: Richard C. Brown's The Presbyterians; Two Hundred Years in Danville, 1784-1984 (1983).
There are older Presbyterian churches in the United States. The Reverend Patrick O'Connor, a trustee of Louisville Seminary, serves the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, a church which started in 1662, and has bragging rights to being the oldest continuously serving Presbyterian Church in the United States. But as I read Brown's history of the church in Danville, a town proud also to be home to Centre College and the birthplace for Danville Presbyterian Seminary, our predecessor, I was again struck by what a rough neighborhood Kentucky was in the late eighteenth century.
Of course, it wasn't even Kentucky then. In those days we would have been considered Virginians. And a good deal of the "roughness" of the neighborhood was in fact caused by our own Presbyterian forebears who were not particularly polite to their church-going neighbors.
These were the years just before and after the American Revolution, you see. The organizing pastor of the Danville church settled his family there in 1783, the year Britain recognized the independence of the new United States of America. Feelings still ran high in the former colonies, especially toward those former colonists who belonged to the Anglican Church, the state Church of England. Reading their story, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we've come in ecumenical relations.
Presbyterians could be particularly hostile to traveling Anglican clergy on the frontiers of the Carolinas and Virginia. One such traveling Anglican, the Reverend Charles Woodmason, writing in his journal, complained bitterly of bothersome Presbyterians.
Presbyterians "interfered" with Rev. Woodmason's pastoral activities, he tells us, by changing the dates of preaching services on posted notices, hiding the keys to the Anglican meeting houses, and distributing whiskey "two hours before his services to get his congregation drunk." Presbyterians, he said, refused him hospitality (a serious offense on the frontier) and gave him false directions. "And if that wasn't enough, one entry in his journal states, 'they hir'd a band of rude fellows to come to service who brought with them 57 dogs (for I counted them) which in Time of Service they set fighting, and I was obliged to stop.'"
The passage that raises Rev. Woodmason's complaint to art is that parenthetical remark "for I counted them." Can't you just picture this poor Anglican preacher in a spin, besieged by ruffians and dogs, stopping to count the fifty-seven cantankerous canines?
I'm pleased to say that relations between the Anglican and Reformed communions has improved considerably since the seventeen hundreds. Benign neglect of the ties that bind is, thankfully, our most egregious ecumenical failing.