Posted January 12, 2017 in Around the Synod

By Sam Whyte

When Benjamin Franklin trudged up Market Street from the Delaware River on his first morning in Philadelphia on Sunday, Oct. 6, 1723, he slipped into the Quaker Meeting House on the southwest corner of Second Street and fell asleep. When, a few years later and two short blocks southeast, he occasionally attended worship services at the First Presbyterian Church, he might have fallen asleep again.

PhillyAs he writes in his autobiography about the minister, the Rev. Mr. Jedediah Andrews, “…his Discourses were chiefly either polemic Arguments, or Explications of the peculiar Doctrines of our Sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting and unedifying, since not a single moral Principle was inculcated or enforced, their Aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens.”[1]

It was “to make Presbyterians” that Mr. Andrews had come to Philadelphia in 1698, recommended to the congregation by Increase Mather, the Boston Puritan minister who was the president of Harvard College when Andrews was a student there, graduating in 1695. At the time, the fledgling First Presbyterian Church was holding services in an old warehouse belonging to the Barbadoes Company once owned by William Penn; it was located on the northwest corner of Second and Market, and the Presbyterians shared the space with a small band, probably nine people, of Baptists. The Presbyterian group could not have been much larger. It is possible that English Nonconformists, New England Congregationalists and New York Reformed Dutch also worshiped with the Presbyterians and Baptists.

While a Congregationalist by background and training, Andrews nevertheless was licensed by Presbyterian ministers and was probably ordained in Philadelphia in 1701, although no exact record has been found of that ordination. About that time, the Anglicans took notice of their Calvinist brethren. One, the Rev. John Talbot, a missionary in Burlington, NJ, and Philadelphia, wrote, “The Presbyterians here come a long way to lay hands on one another, but after all I think they had as good stay home for the good they do.”[2]

George Keith, another Anglican missionary but previously a Scottish Presbyterian and then a Quaker, noted about Philadelphia that “They have here a Presbyterian meeting and minister one called Andrews, but they are not like to increase here.”[3] The Rev. Thomas Clayton, the first rector of the nearby Church of England Christ Church, noted about Andrews: “I have talked with the minister and find him such as I could wish.”[4].

Yet increase they did, for Andrews remained with the church and shepherded it for close to half a century, the membership growing substantially enough so that they could erect a church building and later two enlargements; early membership records, however, are spotty at best. The first edifice, raised in 1704, was known as “Old Buttonwood” because of its setting in a grove of buttonwood or sycamore trees. (Today, the fellowship hall of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia at 21st and Walnut streets is called “Old Buttonwood Hall.”)

It was in First Church that the first presbytery in the country was founded in 1706 with Andrews one of the seven organizing members; nine years later he was one of the founders of the first synod. Both Presbyterian bodies held their first meetings in Andrews’ church for many years. The records of the church from 1701 through the following four decades are in his handwriting as indeed are the minutes of the presbytery and synod from 1708-1746.

In 1716, the same year as the founding of the synod, Andrews was instrumental in establishing the “Fund for Pious Uses” and served as the organization’s first treasurer. Today the company is known as the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund, but for 129 years it had the unwieldy name of “The Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and of the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers.” Frederick Loetscher asserted that “all Boards, Agencies and Charters of the presbyterially governed church in the western continent” have their origins in the Fund.[5] Currently, it holds the distinction of being the oldest life insurance company in the United States.

Andrews was “devoted to his flock, a solicitous minister to the destitute, indefatigable in his journeys and labor among the population.”[6] Despite his strengths in leadership in the church and community, Andrews was often hounded by controversy. In 1733, he petitioned the Synod for an assistant to help him with his growing congregation. An interim, the Rev. Samuel Hemphill from the Ulster Presbytery of Strabane in Ireland, was assigned in 1734, but within a year, Andrews brought formal charges of heterodoxy against him at the synod, the first heresy trial in American Presbyterianism.

At that trial, Hemphill was found guilty and “unqualified for any further exercise of his ministry.” Benjamin Franklin, now a prominent figure and publisher in Philadelphia, once more took note of Andrews by defending Hemphill in several pamphlets, one of which became a best-seller: “Some Observations on the Proceedings against the Rev. Mr.  Hemphill with a Vindication of His Sermons.” (July 1735)

Andrews’ relationship with his next assistant, the Rev. Robert Cross, fared better after an earlier rocky road had been smoothly paved. The two had taken opposing views on the subject of Presbyterian ministers needing to embrace the Westminster Confession of Faith before ordination. (The Adopting Act of 1729) Further, Andrews desired to have as his aide the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown, NJ, regarded by many as a “theological genius.” A portion of the Philadelphia congregation as well favored Dickinson. But Cross was chosen and would remain for almost 20 years, becoming in 1741 a major player in the anti-revival Old Side/pro-revival New Side division in the church. Both Cross and Andrews were Old Side.

Two years into the controversy, however, a significant number of the members of First Church siding with the New Side established the Second Presbyterian Church in a building that had been secured for the Great Awakening’s Rev. George Whitefield on his preaching forays in the city. When in 1743 Second Church called the Rev. Gilbert Tennent to the pulpit, he was reported to have taken half the congregation of First with him, but extant records do not support such a loss. Through many breaks, splits, mergers and structures at various locations throughout the city for over a century, First and Second were once again united at the 21st and Walnut streets location.

Andrews, well-known in both the city and in Presbyterian circles, continued to serve his congregation with Cross as his assistant. In 1746, however, the Rev. Mr. Andrews was stripped by the presbytery of his ability to serve in the ministry because of illicit acts committed with a married woman. (Minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Oct. 29, 1746.) Whether he was restored to his earlier position before he died in 1747 is not clear from later Minutes.

His will named his wife, Helena, and son Ephraim as heirs, and his estate was valued at £72.18, including 363 old books appraised at £25. Many of those volumes had been willed to him by the Rev. Francis Makemie, the Father of American Presbyterianism, with whom Andrews had so courageously and devotedly labored in the early years of the 1700s. At Andrews’ death near mid-century, Presbyterianism was securely established in Philadelphia and in the Middle Atlantic Colonies.


[1] Frank Woodworth Pine, ed.  Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 1916), 104.

[2] Edgar L.  Pennington. Apostle of New Jersey: John Talbot (PhiladelphiaThe Church Historical Society, Pub. No. 10, 1938), 96.

[3] Charles Augustus Briggs. Letter Books of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.  American Presbyterianism, 125, as quoted in Benjamin L. Agnew, “When was the First Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Organized?,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Vol. III, , March, 1905, No. 1, 11 .

[4](Harry Pringle Ford.  “Early Presbyterianism in Philadelphia.  Abridged from The Philadelphia Record, Saturday, December 13, 1924. Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Vol XXI, October, 1926. No 6,  385).

[5]“Dedication and Unveiling of a Historical Tablet.” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society. Vol. XI, June, 1922, No. 6,. 213.

[6] Rev. Edward Yates Hill, DD. “Some Leaders of the General Synod,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Vol. 9, 1917-1918, 297.