Posted January 12, 2017 in Around the Synod

By William B. Moore

For those who think the Presbyterian Church is going through turmoil today, they should look at the last 200 years! The Presbyterian Church had divided in Scotland and Ireland so that there were Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Presbyterians and just plain Presbyterians by the 18th century.

Lake ErieAmericans thinking they could put Scotland’s problems behind them in 1782 arranged a merger between the Associate and Reformed Presbyterians — forming the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church — but minorities in each denomination continued, so there were three churches instead of just two. To make things worse, the Presbyterian Church divided in 1837, forming Old School and New School bodies.

By mid-century, there were some thoughts of reunion, so most of the Associate and Associate Reformed Presbyterian churches joined to form the United Presbyterian Church in 1858. The Civil War caused a division in both halves of the Presbyterian Church, so there were then four new bodies: two in the North and two in the South. In 1870, the two Northern Presbyterian bodies put aside their differences and merged, and those in the South eventually did the same.

Merger of the United, Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches was attempted in the 1950s, but the battles over integration caused the Southern Presbyterians to withdraw from negotiations, so only the Northern Presbyterian and United Presbyterian Churches merged in 1958; the Southern Presbyterians joining only in 1983. All the while, other splinters were occurring, forming the Orthodox and Evangelical Presbyterian Churches.

Northwest Pennsylvania, where the Presbytery of Lake Erie is situated, was not settled by Europeans until 1788, when David Mead came to Cussewago, now called Meadville. The settlement was abandoned several times but finally re-established permanently in 1794, and Erie, Warren and Franklin soon joined it. The earliest Presbyterian churches were founded about 1800, but unfortunately none have proof of an exact date: Meadville claims 1800, Middlebrook 1799.[1]  Soon many villages and crossroads had their own Presbyterian Churches since the first wave of settlers were largely Scots Irish.


Associate Reformed Presbyterian:

By 1858, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery of the Lakes included the following congregations within the present bounds of the Presbytery of Lake Erie:

Crawford County: Cochranton, Meadville, Hartstown, North Shenango

Erie County: Erie, Waterford, McKean, Beaver Dam[2]

The Associate Presbyterian Presbytery of Shenango in 1858 included:

Crawford County: Fairfield, Adamsville, Kerr’s Ridge, Shenango, Conneautville, Conneaut Lake, French Creek

Venango County: Oakland, Allegheny, Cherry Run, Clintonville[3]


The Presbyterian Church (Old School) included up to 1868:

Crawford County: Meadville, 1st, Little Sugar Creek, Conneaut, Gravel Run, Oil Creek, Centerville, Conneautville, Harmonsburg, Evansburg (Conneaut Lake), Greenfield, Venango, Cochranton,

Erie County: North East, Fairview, Springfield, Erie, 1st, Waterford, Union, Harbor Creek, Sturgeonville (merged with Fairview, 1870), Erie, Park

Venango County: Amity, Mill Creek (Utica), Scrubgrass, Big Sugar Creek, Franklin, Concord, Cherrytree, Waterloo (Polk), Mount Pleasant, Oil City, Pleasantville, Petroleum Center

Warren County: Warren, Tidioute, Sugar Grove, Irvine[4]

The Presbyterian Church (New School) included up to 1868:[5]

Crawford County: Cambridge, Centerville, Conneaut, Conneautville, Cussewago, Gravel Run, Kerr Hill, Meadville, 2nd, Titusville

Erie County: Beaverdam, Corry, Edinboro, Erie, 1st, Fairview, Girard, Greene, Harbor Creek,[6] Mill Creek, Mill Village, North East, Springfield, Union, Washington (merged with Edinboro, 1870), Waterford, Wattsburg

Venango County: Big Sugar Creek, Cherrytree, Concord, Mill Creek, Sunville

Warren County: Brokenstraw, Garland, Pittsfield

Two churches in McKean County — Bradford and Kendall Creek — after a decade of major oil development there, were moved by the General Assembly from the Presbytery of Genessee Valley to Erie Presbytery in 1887.[7]  Through 1888, new churches were established in the re-united Erie Presbytery: Erie, Central, Erie, Chestnut St., in Erie County; North Clarendon in Warren County.[8]

Reformed Presbyterian:

Crawford County: Cochranton, Shenango

Challenges and Changes:

The greatest changes in the area came through transportation and industry. The earliest transport was on creeks or through the woods, so settlements remained small and isolated, though Erie had shipping on Lake Erie. When canals were built in the late 1830s, Meadville and Conneautville developed industry and population grew, but due to engineering difficulties, the canal did not reach Erie until 1843. The next advance — railroads — came to Erie in 1852, and it soon became an industrial powerhouse, growing to Pennsylvania’s third largest city, with foundries and other heavy industry, as well as wholesale and retail trade, including ship chandlery.

Railroads did not develop south of Erie until the Oil Boom, following Col. Edwin Drake’s drilling of the world’s first commercially successful oil well just south of Titusville in 1859. Railroads were quickly built from Meadville to Erie, from Titusville to Union City, and Titusville to Oil City, all with connections elsewhere. Newly emancipated slaves from the South settled in the area seeking work, and Irish and Swedish immigrants joined the immense throng of oil-seekers in the Oil Creek Valley in the 1860s.

Population followed the oil business north along the Allegheny River into Tidioute and Warren County in the late 1860s, then south along the Allegheny to Emlenton and beyond in the mid-1870s, and last to Bradford and McKean County in the late 1870s. Some churches were short-lived since the oil boomtowns in which they were located were ephemeral, too: the United Presbyterian Church of Pithole City was established in 1866 and its building was sold by the sheriff the next year — though it was later moved to Oil City and used as a store — but Pithole itself had been founded only in 1865, was largely deserted by 1868 and surrendered its borough charter in 1871.

Petroleum Center’s Presbyterian Church was founded in 1865 and outlasted the town, which was virtually empty by 1875. Oil production and refining continued as a major business in Venango, Warren and McKean counties through the 1970s. While some churches were abandoned by the turn of the century, at the other end of the scale, the wealth generated by the oil industry at one time made the churches in Titusville and Warren the owners of the largest endowments in the presbytery.

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a great scaling back of basic industry. Most of the oil refineries closed, and Talon, the world headquarters of the zipper industry in the 1930s, left Meadville. Population has also relocated away from the area, leaving many of the churches stressed and downsizing to survive.


[1]    Middlebrook dissolved in 1859; only its cemetery remains.

[2]    R. D. Harper, The Church Memorial, Columbus, OH:  1858, p. 369.  There were also congregations at Jamestown, Georgetown [Sheakleyville], New Vernon and Sandy Creek in Mercer County and one in Buffalo, NY.

[3]    Harper, p. 381.  There were also Springfield, Rocky Spring, Mineral Ridge, Greenville, Lebanon, Mercer, Cross Roads and Jamestown in Mercer Co.

[4]    Eaton, S[amuel] J[ames] M[ills], History of the Presbytery of Erie, NY:  1868, pp. 407-456.

[5]    Eaton, S[amuel] J[ames] M[ills], Supplement to the History of the Presbytery of Erie, Franklin, PA:  1888, pp. 1-12.  Churches which divided in 1837 were:  Gravel Run, Harborcreek, Meadville, Mercer and  Washington, so these locations each had two separate Presbyterian Churches.  Some other congregations switched allegiances between the Old and New Schools during their 30-year separation.  There were also New School congregations in Mercer County:  Mercer, 2nd, and Pinegrove.

[6]    Eaton, S[amuel] J[ames] M[ills], History of the Presbytery of Erie, NY:  1868, pp. 407-456, had noted only a few of these which belonged to the “other branch.”

[7]    Eaton, S[amuel] J[ames] M[ills], Supplement to the History of the Presbytery of Erie, Franklin, PA:  1888, p. 28.

[8]    Eaton, S[amuel] J[ames] M[ills], Supplement to the History of the Presbytery of Erie, Franklin, PA:  1888, pp. 14, 15, 27.  In Mercer County, Fredonia and New Lebanon were organized. [pp. 16, 26]