The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians

Scotch-Irish Presbyterians From Ulster to Rockbridge

     © Angela M.Ruley 3 October 1993

Rockbridge County was settled mainly by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Those rugged frontiersmen came here in droves, establishing churches soon after their arrival. In 1720, there was the first mass migration from Ireland into America. A second wave of migration began about 1760 and lasted until the outbreak of the American Revolution. Other Scotch-Irish immigrants trickled into Colonial ports at various times. In the 1730's many Scotch-Irish families migrated down the "Great Road" from eastern Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. By 1737, calls for ministers were being sent to Presbytery by the people of Beverly Manor. "Presbyterianism was strict in many ways, but it also stressed freedom of religious thoughts. Conceived as a religion for the common people, it promoted no iron handed and self-serving ruling establishment."1 The Presbyterians believed human eyes were so clouded with sin that divine revelation could only be found in the Bible. They believed it was the duty of all Christians to study the Bible and the need for literacy was stressed. Along with the establishment of churches, we also find they soon established schools in the communities where they settled. In the 1500's many clan wars had taken place in Ireland. Eventually the English crown seized the Ulster lands. In 1602, King James I decided to re-populate these lands with English settlers as the lands had become partially de-populated. This left the native Irish to inhabit the bogs and forests, turning over the choice lands to Protestants, both English and Scottish. Needless to say the native Irish Catholics did not take well to this plan. Thus began the Ulster scrapings which soon turned into religious wars with the Presbyterians becoming the persecuted. From 1608-1697, 200,000 Presbyterians left Lowland Scotland crossing the North Channel to Northern Ireland. Here they took up the productive farm land offered by King James I, and soon developed a flourishing textile industry. The native Irish Catholics soon became hostile. The Ulster Scots and the English settlers teamed up together. Cities soon became fortresses. In 1618, Londonderry was encircled with a twenty-four foot high, six foot thick wall of lime and stone. The Ulster Presbyterians considered themselves superior to their Catholic neighbors. In 1632, Charles I demanded the Presbyterians join the Church of England. All those who disagreed with his demands were called "Dissenters." This policy met with such resistance that an army was raised to force Scots out of Ulster. Some emigrated to America; others went home to Scotland. Those who remained faced imprisonment. The Church of Ireland (same as the Church of England, except in name), laid a heavy hand on the Dissenters as well as the Catholics. Presbyterian ministers could only preach within certain limits, and were liable to be fined, deported, or imprisoned. They could not legally unite a couple in marriage, and at times could only preach at night and in a barn. The "Black Oath" of 1639 required all Protestants of Ulster above the age of 16 to bind themselves to an implicit obedience to all royal commands whatsoever. In 1641, the Catholic clergy decided to wage an all out religious war against the Scotch-Irish. Catholic priests declared Protestants to be devils and deemed it to be a mortal sin for a Catholic to protect a Protestant. The Pope even supported the plan to destroy the Scotch-Irish. On 23 October 1641, Catholic peasants undertook a four month campaign to wipe out Ulster homesteaders. Less than two months later the Scots sent a desparate letter to the English Parliament asking for help. They stated they were in a miserable condition, and the rebels increased in men and munitions daily. All manner of cruelties and torment were brought upon the Protestants. "Cutting off their ears, fingers, and hands, boiling the hands of little children before their mother's faces, stripping women naked, and ripping them up."2 Eventually the Catholic uprising was quelled and bloody reprisals commenced. Some priests claimed as many as 200,000 Irish Catholics were killed. The property of every Catholic landowner became subject to confiscation. Those who were accused of plotting against the English crown were executed; other participants were banished. More conflict arose when King Charles tried to force the Protestants to use the prayer book of the Church of England. In 1638, hostilities broke out. King Charles also enraged English Puritans, who defeated his troops in the first English Civil Wars (1642-45 and 1648-49). In 1649, King Charles was executed and the Puritan general Oliver Cromwell was named as chairman of a ruling Council of State. (He was later called "Lord High Protector"). Scotland tried to break free of English control. Cromwell marched into Scotland, defeating the enemy twice, in 1650 and in 1651. In 1660 Charles II, son of Charles I, was restored to the English throne. Little changed for the persecuted Presbyterians. In the 1680's Charles II dispersed their congregations and invalidated their marriages. Married couples were dragged before ecclesiatical courts and charged with fornication; their children were declared illegitimate. The Presbyterians lost all their property to the Church of England. Ulster Scots again began to emigrate. In 1685 Charles II died, James II, a Catholic, then became King. James II tried to turn Great Britain into a religious state in which only Catholicism could be practiced. He was deposed in 1688, and fled to southern France. In 1689 he tried to re-capture the throne by marching an army of Catholics into Ulster. They laid seige to the fortress city of Londonderry. Protestants were shot in their homes, women were tied to stakes at low tide, so they might drown when the ocean waves came back. The army which beseiged Londonderry was fought off with a desperation. The Ulstermen had no trained army officers, were without sufficient food or ammunition, and faced deadly fevers, yet the invaders were beaten off. James' bid for the throne failed and he was succeeded by William of Orange. Ulster became safe for Protestants. James' downfall became known as the "Glorious Revolution," as it spared Presbyterians almost certain massacre. However, persecution continued. Presbyterians were not allowed to sell religious books, teach anything above primary school, and in 1704, Presbyterians were barred from holding major civil and military offices. Presbyterian minister, William Holmes, returned from America with encouraging news that the New England colonies offered refuge to Presbyterians. In 1718, Governor Samuel Shute of Massachusetts encouraged the Scotch-Irish families to scrape together their savings and head for the New World. Meanwhile the Church of England, which now owned all the lands, continued to pile indignites upon the Scotch-Irish. Presbyterian farmers paid excessive rents and then had to use their profits for tithes (donations to the church). The reasons to emigrate from the Ulster region multiplied. Crop failures in the 1720's, famine in 1741, farm rents soared in the 1770's, and the Ulster linen industry collapsed in 1772. A sermon delivered on the eve of a departing ship stated the Ulsterman's reasons for leaving Ireland: "To avoid oppression and cruel bondage; to shun persecution and designed ruin; to withdraw from the communion of idolators; to have opportunity to worship God according to the dicates of conscience and the rules of his word."3 Emigration continued at such a rate that the British government interceded. In 1803 the British Passenger Act limited the number of passengers which British vessels could carry and greatly increased the minimum supplies of food and water required. These new regulations improved conditions on board ships, but increased passenger fares beyond the reach of many potential passengers. Some ships broke the restriction by secretly stowing away passengers after clearing customs, but the number of emigrants dropped by eighty percent. Upon arriving in the New World, most of the immigrants from Ulster faced economic hardship and intolerance in the colonies established by earlier settlers, many proceeded on to the desolate wilderness frontiers. By 1725, most of the ships carrying Ulster immigrants bound for America had steered from Puritan New England to the more tolerant parts of William Penn's Quaker colonies. The Delaware Shores and particularly the harbor of Philadelphia took immigrants by the thousands. Pennsylvania became the center of Scotch-Irish settlements in the New World and the starting point for the massive immigrant flow to the south and west. In 1728, 5,605 of 6,208 new immigrants to Pennsylvania were Scotch-Irish. Most of the ships left the Port of Londonderry, Ireland and docked at Philadelphia. Many of these immigrants pushed to the frontiers. Many stopped a while in Lancaster and the Cumberland region of Pennsylvania. In 1730, their flow of migration was deflected temporarily by the foothills of the Alleghany Mountains, and their migration took a southwesterly course into western Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and the back country of the Carolinas. Independent communities of Scotch-Irish were in existence in Virginia and North Carolina by 1730. These were tight knit settlements, and generally remained separate from other denominations. Rockbridge County soon became the home of many of these Ulstermen, nearly all of our early churches were Presbyterian. Although the colonies were ruled by England, and the Church of England remained as the state Church, the Presbyterians found the frontiers allowed them to worship more freely. All dissenting ministers were compelled to be licensed and their places of worship registered, but as long as they caused no trouble they were tolerated. John Lewis and his family were the first settlers in Augusta County, settling near Staunton in 1732. They had come from the Ulster region of Ireland, spent a few years in Pennsylvania, then moved on to the frontiers of Virginia. The McDowell family came from Ulster in the "George and Ann" landing in Philadelphia, 4 September 1729, a 118 day voyage.4 They stopped for a while in Pennsylvania then headed for Lewis' settlement in Virginia. Along the way they met up with Benjamin Borden, who offered 1,000 acres to the man who could help locate his large land grant of nearly 100,000 acres. John McDowell agreed to locate Borden’s Grant, the date of their agreement was September 1737.5 Immigration began to flock into the Rockbridge area in the fall of 1737. By 1740, the Scotch-Irish foothold was well established in Rockbridge (then Orange County). The erection and establishment of Presbyterian churches was well underway, and calls were being placed for ministers. The Ulstermen had found a new home on the frontier of Virginia. Although religion was not completely free in Virginia, the Presbyterians found themselves virtually unmolested by the planters of eastern Virginia. Upon arriving on the frontier, the Ulstermen erected crude dwellings with dirt floors as temporary shelters to house their families while they cleared the land and planted the crops. Once the lands were cleared and the crops were in the ground, they undertook the erection of more permanent homes. Roads were soon laid out, mills erected, meadows irrigated, and the settlement began to grow. There was little social intercourse, except within the churchyard. The only newspaper in the colony until 1775 was the "Virginia Gazette" started in 1736 in Williamsburg. The Ulster people founded this county and their influence remains strong today.

End Notes:

1. Robin Brownstein, and Peter Guttmacher. The Scotch-Irish Americans, The People of North America (NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988) p. 23. 2. Brownstein and Gutmacher, The Scotch-Irish Americans, p. 29. 3. Oren F. Morton, History of Rockbridge County, Virginia (Baltimore: Regional Publishing Company, 1980, org. pub. 1920) p. 16. 4. Morton, History of Rockbridge, p. 20. 5. Morton, History of Rockbridge, p. 21.


Acheson, Patricia. America's Colonial Heritage, (NY: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1957). Brownstein, Robin and Peter Guttmacher. The Scotch-Irish Americans, The People of North America, (NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988). Diehl, George West. Old Oxford And Her Families (Verona, VA: McClure Press, 1971). Morton, Oren F. History of Rockbridge County, Virginia, (Baltimore: Regional Publishing Company, 1980, org. pub. 1920). Ramsey, James W. A History of Mount Carmel, 1837-1987 (Verona, VA: Mid-Valley Press, Inc., 1987). Smith, Carter. The Explorers and Settlers, A Sourcebook On Colonial America. (Brookfield, CN: The Millbrook Press, 1991). Smith, Carter. Daily Life, A Sourcebook On Colonial America, (Brookfield, CN: The Millbrook Press, 1991). Wilson, Howard McKnight. The Lexington Presbytery Heritage, (Verona, VA: McClure Press).

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This region was settled by that peculiar people known as the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. They came originally from Scotland, starting in the time of James I, of England, lingering in the north of Ireland, then passing over the ocean and halting a short while in Pennsylvania, they struck the trend of the great Valley between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghany mountains and landed in what is now Rockbridge county towards the close of the first half of the eighteenth century. These people developed their peculiar traits in the troublous times during a series of bloody wars running through a long period of Scotland’s history. They were always proud and self-reliant, jealous of their rights, both civil and religious. Individual independence and physical and moral courage were their striking personal characteristics. They were loyal to the king and the government under which they lived as long as the king and government, of whatever form it might be, respected their rights. When they failed in this the Scotchman fell back upon his own civil rights and the rights of his “kirk” and was ready to fight for them. Under king or commonwealth--in the colony or republic--he has been always the same. He was republican and democratic in religion as well as politics. The close resemblance between the Scotch Presbyterian form of church government and that of our national government shows that the moving spirit underlying each was republican. In this country as well as in the old, the Scotch-Presbyterian was a happy medium between the Puritan and the Cavalier. The reputation for intolerance and bigotry was unjust. They belonged to an intolerant, bigoted and persecuting age, and self-preservation compelled them “in Rome to do as Rome did.” In this country, whilst they stood in the front ranks of the advocates of civil liberty both in forum and field, they were pioneers of religious liberty and freedom of worship as well. The freedom of conscience they demanded for themselves they conceded to others. They were a people of strong and vigorous intellect as well as body. Their minds were strengthened and cultivated in a certain sense by the church. Their ministers were all educated men and they were the people’s teachers in all things. The exactions of their church discipline disciplined the minds of their flocks. The requirement of a through knowledge of their catechisms (“Larger and Shorter,” which had to be committed to memory), and of their confession of faith, and their “grounding in faith” by a through study of the Bible and of their church literature, gave them, old and young, a mental training of no ordinary kind. Their teachings in this respect were not confined to the mere history and common truths taught in the Scriptures, but those of a doctrinal and metaphysical character, and their congregations, even down to their most humble members, were not content with a mild diet for babes, but required meat for strong men. Devoted to their church and strict in the observance of their religious duties they were not saints. The man that smote one of them on the cheek, expecting the Scripture injunction to be obeyed by having the other turned to him, would be more apt to “see stars” than the other cheek. They were quick to resent an injury or an insinuation of the want of courage or honesty. Such were some of the qualities of the men who settled Rockbridge--who felled her forests, built her first churches and school houses. These were the people that builded Old Monmouth and for nearly a century and a half worshipped within the walls of the two churches on its site and the generations of its builders and its congregations through all these years “Softly lie and sweetly sleep” beneath the shadows of its ruins. Up to the time when these sturdy pioneers began to fell the trees and hew the logs for the church at Old Monmouth and other places and to lay the foundations of Washington and Lee University, this region was an unknown land. It is true Governor Spottswood with his “Knights of the Golden Horse Shoe” had penetrated the lower Valley on a big frolic, but when their wine gave out they had returned. Some one else had peeped over the Blue Ridge opposite the Forks of the James, but had not ventured over. The Valley had been given up to the buffalo, the bear and deer, except when the Indians came to hunt them and to fight over their rights in what was then regarded as neutral territory. The Blue Ridge had been the white man’s great barrier to progress westward. A strip along the Atlantic coast extending back no further than tidewater had been settled and for the times was an old country. But these Scotch-Irish settlers of whom we write had overcome this barrier and opened a crevasse in this great natural dyke through which was soon to flow a great tide of immigration which has culminated in creating the Empire of the West. These people were the pioneers in a great epoch in the history of the country that has had no recognition and scarcely a notice. Our histories, state and national, if they notice it at all, dismiss it with a paragraph. The children of these people living on and cultivating the historic grounds of this region scarcely know who their fathers were and what they did. To the ten-year old child in our public schools, Jamestown and Williamsburg, John Smith, Pocahontas and Powhatan are household names. The “Old Virginia Cavaliers” and the “Colonial Dames” are more familiar to them than their catechisms. Wm. Penn and his Indians are old and familiar acquaintances. The Dutchmen who settled New York are well known to them, and Miles Standish, the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock are as intimately associated in their minds as the familiar stories of the Bible which they learn at their mother’s knee and in the Sunday School. But their own ancestors, what they did, what they suffered and who they were, and what influence the work of their arms and of their brains had upon the destinies of the nation is a blank to them.

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The Lexington Presbyterian Church For the County News-1
February 1899


I found recently the original subscription paper for the building of the first "meeting house" in Lexington. How it ever escaped the search of the late Jacob Fuller is a mystery! He not only searched the houses but the minds and consciences of all the old inhabitants for any item relating to temporal, as well as spiritual affairs, of the Presbyterian church in this town. In one of his memoranda, now before me, he gives the dimensions of the first church with so many particulars as to the sounding board, the location of the choir, the occupants of the pews and other matters, that I can almost see Davy Buck limp down the aisle, take hold of the rope, wrap it once or twice around his hand, and then work himself up and down while the little bell in the "loft" called the people into prayers-- and prayers and sermons they were too in those days! The invocation was a matter of fifteen or twenty minutes; then the Psalm, of many verses, read and expounded, and then lined out by the precentor and sung; then the Scripture lesson read and explained-- a matter of thirty or forty-five minutes, and then the long prayer! Well named it was, as even in my day I have heard them last from twenty to thirty minutes with several saving clauses for fear something had been omitted. Another Psalm, and then the preacher faced the congregation for an hour or two, winding up with a prayer which contained a summary of what he had said or intended to say, "if time had permitted;" another Psalm, lined out as the others, then the benediction, the congregation getting home in time to milk the cows before dark. But to come to my find. It says: "For the purpose of procuring in Lexington or its vicinity, where a majority of us may think most proper, a lott of land and building thereon a meeting-house of stone or brick, forty by forty-five feet in the clear, for making the lower floor, galary, doors, windows and roof of said building, we the subscribers do bind ourselves to pay several sums annexed to our names into the hands of the trustees that shall be chosen by the Lexington congregation for the direction and oversight of said building. The payments to be in proportion to our subscription, at such times as said trustees shall think proper to call upon us. Witness our hands this 22nd day of February, 1796." The subscribers were forty-five in number and the amount subscribed £541, 5s, 4p. Here is the list. The subscriptions were made in English pounds, shillings and pence: David Lusk £20; William Ramsey, 6; Arthur Walkup, 50; Talma Keys, 6; Daniel Windell, 5; Benj. Darst, 3; John Cox, 10; Arthur Beaty, 5; William Jackson, 1; John Bowyer, 60; John Moore, Sr., 5; John Moore, Jr., 10; Elizabeth Close, 1; Andrew Hall, 3; John McNutt, 6; Francis Foggy, 6; Samuel Moore, 6; John Moore,10; Samuel Walkup, 3; Matthew Hanna, 45; William Alexander, 30; William Lyle, 45; Jas. Grigsby, 20; James Blair, 6; James Gold, 24; Henry Williams, 6; Bernard Kayton, 4; Robert McDowell, 5; J. Trimble, 8; Samuel McCorkle, 5; James Steele, 1, 1s.; Alexander McCorkle, 2; James McCollom, 3; James Bailey, 6; Cornelius Dorman, 3; Samuel Campbell, 12; Thos. Margrave, 12; James Gilmore, 16; George Edgar, 5; Samuel Mateer, 3; John Galbraith, 18; Robert Scott, 12; Hugh McAllister, 3; Wm. Grigsby, 1, 4s, 4d; A. Reid, to be discharged by building pulpit, 30. A very liberal amount for that day as Lexington had, in 1780, not more than four dwelling houses. And now for Mr. Fuller's description of the building: "It was a substantial brick building, located in the north corner of what was then styled the Presbyterian graveyard. The building was fifty feet square, the foundation of stone, was commenced in 1797. The house being about eighteen feet in height, had a gallery extending around three sides and entered from the outside by two stairways at the south end. The lower floor had five entry doors (afterwards increased to seven), two on each side (right and left of pulpit) and one immediately opposite the pulpit in the south end, the main entrance door being about twelve feet from Main street. From this door an aisle led across the audience room, immediately in front of the pulpit to a door opposite. Another aisle led from the pulpit to the door in the south end. Then there were two aisles extending from the cross aisle to the rear of the building. The pulpit stood in north (or east) end of the house. It was a close box pulpit of the olden time, with a massive looking sounding board overhead. The present front entry gate of the cemetery opens directly in front of the door at the cross aisle and this aisle led to a door on the opposite side of the building, and twenty-five feet beyond was the 'Study' or 'Session House', a brick building of 18x16 feet, erected in 1821." The corner stone of the present building, corner of Main and Nelson streets, was laid June 22nd, 1844. The old building torn down soon afterwards and the material used in the erection of the manse. M.


1. Rockbridge County News, 9 February 1899, p. 1.