The Story Of Richard McNemar, An Eloquent Pioneer Preacher
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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Part I: The Story Of Richard McNemar, An Eloquent Pioneer Preacher

Part II: The Continued Life Story of Richard McNemar

Dallas Bogan on 6 September 2004
The following is taken from Dallas Bogan's, "The Pioneer Writings of Josiah Morrow"
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Part I: The Story Of Richard McNemar, An Eloquent Pioneer Preacher

Remarkable Story of an Eloquent Pioneer Preacher.
A Leader in the Great Kentucky Revival--The Popular Pastor
of Turtlecreek Church--The First Preacher of Warren County Tried
for Heresy--A New Light Carried with His Large Congregation into Shakerism.

November 29, 1907

Richard McNemar was the most remarkable and influential of the early pioneer preachers of Warren county and the story of his life is of much interest. Although he was a regularly ordained minister of the Presbyterian church, I omit from before his name the prefix, Reverend, because he himself during most of his life as a preacher disapproved of its use and laid it aside.

J.P. MacLean, of Franklin, O., after much research, has prepared a valuable brochure on the life and labors of this remarkable man, of which an edition limited to 250 copies was printed for the author by the Franklin Chronicle in 1905. Mr. MacLean has done more than any other writer to put in an accessible form the history of the Shaker communities in the west. In preparing his sketch of McNemar he had at his command not only rare tracts and publications, but the records of the Shakers and manuscripts written by McNemar, one of which contained memoranda of the memorable events in his life. In this article I shall make free use of the facts Mr. MacLean has collected with so much industry.

Richard McNemar was of Scotch-Irish extraction, as were so large a proportion of the Presbyterians of this country. His mother's name was Knox. His father's surname was not uniformly spelled Richard often writing it McNamar, but in print it is now generally, if not uniformly, McNemar.
Richard was born in Tuscarara, Penn., November 20, 1770, and was the youngest child of a farmer. The family lived in various localities, Richard remaining with his parents after his brothers and sisters had found homes of their own. He worked on the farm in the summer and went to school in the winter. On April 1, 1786, before he was sixteen, he commenced teaching school and the next year he went to the Redstone country in Western Pennsylvania. He continued to teach school and to work at what he could find to do until the autumn of 1791, when he descended the Ohio and arrived at Maysville, Ky., November 8, 1791. About Christmas of this year, being twenty-one, he started to school again and commenced the study of Latin, doubtless having the ministry in view. There were no theological seminaries at that time which he could attend. Students were prepared for the ministry under the direction of some ordained preacher. McNemar seems to have attended no college but there is reason to believe that he had a good classical education, and when he became a preacher he was probably a man of more learning than the average minister of his church in the west at that time, and the Presbyterians had the best educated ministry in the early settlement of the west.

A Presbyterian Preacher.

On April 1, 1792, he visited Cincinnati for the first time and remained there three months. At this time we hear for the first time of his preaching, and it is recorded that he preached fifteen sermons at Cincinnati, Round Bottom and Cavolt's Station. This was four years before he was licensed to preach, but at that time young men preparing for the ministry were sometimes permitted to preach while pursuing their studies. He returned to Kentucky, resumed his studies and at times again taught school. In January, 1797, when he was a little over twenty-six years of age, he was regularly licensed a Presbyterian preacher. The same year he preached at Cabin Creek in northern Kentucky and in August, 1798, was ordained by his presbytery pastor of that congregation. In November, 1798, we first hear of his preaching in what is now Warren county, Ohio. At that time the few Presbyterian preachers in the Miami country were under the charge of a Kentucky presbytery. He came north of the Ohio to attend a meeting of the presbytery at Orangedale, a church immediately south of Middletown. At this meeting Rev. Archibald Steel was ordained pastor of the Orangedale congregation. McNemar visited the Turtlecreek church, the first Presbyterian church in the Turtlecreek valley. Here McNemar records that he "had an interview with the pastor, James Kemper, at the house of Jonathan Tichenor one of the elders, where I had an evening meeting, and where we lodged together. Kemper was about to go to the vicinity of Cincinnati and to take charge of Turtlecreek."


While McNemar was preaching at Cabin Creek the most extraordinary revival in the history of the Ohio valley commenced. It is known as the Kentucky Revival, but it spread into Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, and the Northwest Territory. McNemar was a leading spirit in this revival on both sides of the river, and he afterwards wrote a small volume giving a history of the movement. As the excitement spread immense outdoor meetings were held to accommodate the crowds. Thousands would attend these meetings, some families coming a distance of 50 miles or more. Those from a distance slept in their wagons, in tents, or in temporary structures. At these meeting hundreds would fall down and lie with every appearance of life suspended. There were other strange physical manifestations which increased the excitement and deeply moved the multitude. There were nervous affections which produced horrible convulsions of the countenance.
These camp meetings were the first in the United States and seem to have been inaugurated by the Presbyterians, but a portion of the Presbyterian clergymen opposed the work. McNemar gives an account of the beginning of these camp meetings. The first, he says was held at his own church at Cabin Creek, Ky., beginning May 22, 1801, and continuing four days and nights. "The scene," he continues, "was awful beyond description; the falling, the crying out, praying, exhorting, singing, shouting, etc., exhibited such new and striking evidences of a supernatural power that few, if any, could escape without being affected."
The second great camp meeting was at Concord, Bourbon county, in May and June, 1801, when 4000 were said to be present. The third was at Eagle Creek, in what is now Brown county, Ohio, commencing June 5 and continuing four days and three nights. This was the first on the north side of the Ohio. Following this was one at Pleasant Plain, Ky., and another at Indian creek, continuing a week. The largest of these camp meetings was at Cane Ridge, near Paris, where it was estimated that there were 20,000 persons on the grounds at one time. (To be continued.)

Part II: The Continued Life Story of Richard McNemar

At Turtle Creek Church.

In the spring of 1802, McNemar took charge of the Turtle Creek Church, west of the site of Lebanon. This was then probably the largest and most influential congregation of any denomination in the Miami Valley except the Presbyterian church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The new pastor was a popular and eloquent preacher. His style of speaking was fervent and existing with much vociferation and animation, and, he exercised a commanding influence over the rude audiences he was called on to address. He carried on the work of the great revival at Turtle Creek and other churches in the Miami valley. A.H. Dunlevy, of Lebanon, when a boy often heard him preach, and he records that in the winter time such numbers would attend that no house would hold them and hundreds remaining out of doors would build log heaps and fire them to protect themselves from the cold. Dunlevy continues: "Richard McNemar was a man of singular talent, and as a preacher had great power over his congregation. At the old meeting house, in summer, meetings were usually held in a grove and on sacramental occasions I have seen congregations of two thousand, I should think, gathered around the stand. McNemar would command the closest attention of the whole mass of people, often swaying the multitude as if by magic."
The strange physical manifestations of the revival in Kentucky followed McNemar's preaching at Turtle Creek, and perhaps in a more striking form. Dunlevy says, "On one occasion I witnessed the falling of almost every grown person in a crowded house, and such scenes were not uncommon at the commencement of the revival in this neighborhood."

Tried for Heresy.

McNemar had been accused of heresy before coming to Turtle Creek, but had not been put on trial. A few months after removing to the north side of the Ohio he was arraigned before his presbytery and he became the first heretic tried for his heresy in the Miami country, if not the first in the Northwest Territory. At the meeting of the presbytery at Cincinnati in October, 1802, an elder in Rev. Mr. Kemper's congregation entered a verbal complaint against McNemar as a propagator of false doctrines and desired the presbytery to look into the matter. The accused insisted that the proposition was out of order because the charges were not reduced to writing. But the presbytery proceeded to an examination of the accused to determine whether or not he was guilty. The nature of the serious charge against the popular preacher will appear from the finding of the court which follows:

"Whereas it has been reported, for more than a year past, that the Rev. Richard McNemar held tenets hostile to the standards of the Presbyterian church, and subversive of the fundamental doctrines contained in the sacred Scriptures; and whereas, these reports have daily become more clamorous, notwithstanding Mr. McNemar has been warned of these things both privately and more publicly; both by private persons and the members of presbytery, separately and jointly; therefore the Presbytery have thought it necessary to enter into a more particular and close examination of Mr. McNemar, on the doctrines of particular election, human depravity, the atonement, and the application of it to the sinner, the necessity of the divine agency in this application, and the nature of faith. Upon which examination had, it is the opinion of this presbytery that Mr. McNemar holds these doctrines in a sense specifically and essentially different from that sense in which Calvinists generally believe them, and that his ideas on these subjects are strictly Armenian, though clothed in such expressions and handed out in such a manner as to keep the body of the people in the dark and led them insensibly into Armenian principles, which are dangerous to the souls of men and hostile to the interests of true religion.
"Ordered that a copy of this minute be forwarded by the stated clerk, as early as may be, to the churches under our care."

It is narrated that when this minute was adopted on the last day of the session, the moderator, Rev. Matthew G. Wallace, was absent on account of sickness and that Mr. Kemper moved an adjournment to his house, for without his vote the order could not receive the majority.
Although the majority of the presbytery found that the accused was preaching Armenian doctrines, such as Methodists were proclaiming, and that these principles were "dangerous to the souls of men and hostile to the interests of all true religion," yet they appointed him to continue his preaching in Presbyterian churches, one-half of his time at Turtle Creek,and the other half at various other churches between the Miamis.

The Fastened Nail.

The revivalists continued their camp meetings in the Miami country and McNemar was the most influential speaker at these meetings. The Presbyterian church began to be dividend on the question of the great revival and camp meetings. The revival party opposed the condemnation of McNemar and were in favor of the new methods. Indeed, revivalists, as a rule, are not likely to remain strict Calvinists. It was a custom at this time to encamp on the ground at a communion, beginning on Friday and continuing four days.
McNemar has left us an account of one of these great meetings, held at Beavertown, five miles from Dayton, in June, 1803. Four Presbyterian preachers, two from Kentucky and two from Ohio, were present. Rev. James Kemper, who was in favor of a rigid adherence to the Confession of faith, preached a strong Calvinistic sermon on Saturday, making much of the text, Isaiah 22:23, "And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place." We may well believe that not only fore-ordination, predestination and the fixed degrees of the Almighty, but all the forepoints of Calvinism were made to hang upon this one nail fastened in a sure place.
But on Sunday, when there was a larger attendance, Rev. Robert Marshall, a revivalist from Kentucky, preached on the other side, and based his remarks on the last verse of the same chapter; "In that day saith the Lord of hosts shall the nail that is fastened in a sure place be removed, and be cut down and fall; and the burden that was upon it shall be cut off; for the Lord hath spoken it." McNemar accords that a part of the people were with Kemper but the larger body were on the other side, and that "the contest grew so warm and the exercises so powerful that in the afternoon Kemper and his company withdrew from the meeting and retreated home-ward."

The New Lights.

At a session of the presbytery held at Springfield in April, 1803, a petition signed by sixty members of the Turtle Creek church, asked for the whole of McNemar's time at that church. The large numbers of signers and the fact that this one church felt shows the strength and importance of this congregation. The call, however, was not answered. Jonathan Tichenor and others opposed the call. The presbytery granted the prayer of the petition by a divided vote.
A division in the Presbyterian church was rapidly approaching itself unable to support a minister. The Synod met at Lexington Ky., in September, 1803, and by a majority vote condemned McNemar and disapproved of his being made pastor at Turtle Creek. Thereupon five Presbyterian ministers, Robert Marshall, John Dunlevy, Richard McNemar, Barton W. Stone and John Thompson withdrew from the Synod and formed an independent body. This was the beginning in the West of the new Light, or Christian church.
The New Lights destroyed nearly every Presbyterian church in the Miami country. The Cincinnati church, though not destroyed, was largely tainted with New Light doctrines. Dr. J.G. Montfort, who was a careful student of the history of Presbyterianism in the West, once said to me that if the New Light revival and schism had not occurred, the Presbyterian church would be as strong in the Miami valley as it is in Western Pennsylvania. McNemar continued the leader of New Lights or Christians, and Montfort wrote of him that for a time his influence against the Presbyterian church was almost boundless.

The Shakers.

On March 23, 1805, three Shaker missionaries from New Lebanon, N.Y., arrived at the home of McNemar who was living in a hewed double log house on his own farm, near the Turtle Creek church. He had never before heard of a people called Shakers. On April 24, 1805, he joined the Shakers, and nearly all of his large congregation followed his example, and all gave their lands and other property to the church. Thus was founded the largest Shaker community in the West. McNemar was the first of the former Presbyterian preachers who had been active in the revival to join this strange sect. Soon after, two others, Rev. John Dunlevy and Rev. Matthew Houston, followed. As the New Lights had nearly worked the destruction of Presbyterianism, now the Shakers greatly weakened the New Lights.
McNemar died in the Shaker faith at Union Village, September 15, 1839, aged nearly seventy years. His grave is unmarked. He Was a Presbyterian preacher over six years, a New Light preacher one year and six months and a Shaker thirty-four years.
He was the author of a large number of Shaker tracts and pamphlets. His most valuable publication was his "History of the Kentucky Revival," a volume of 143 pages, first printed at Cincinnati in 1807.

FOOTNOTES: [a place to add additional information that you might want to submit]


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