We’ve Been Dating It All Wrong: Richard Denton And The Arrival of American Presbyterianism

Pre-1700’s Presbyterianism in America is shrouded in mystique. Some would say it did not really exist since there was no formal Presbytery established until 1706. Too often it is made to appear that Presbyterianism suddenly dropped into the colonies out of nowhere, starting with Francis Makemie (1658–1708). Books and lectures on the history of American Presbyterianism rarely detail what the landscape was like before the 1700s, while at the same time occasionally admitting there was movement and church planting going on. This is a major disservice to the pre-Makemie Presbyterians as well as to those wanting a depiction of early Presbyterianism in America.

To correct this problem it will be helpful to consider the earliest and most active Presbyterian in the New World’s infancy.1 The Reverend Richard Denton (1603–1662) was a dwarfish, one-eyed Cambridge Puritan whom Cotton Mather boasted “could sway a congregation like he was nine feet tall.”2 Historian Alfred Nevin says, “In the history of early Presbyterianism in this country the name of Richard Denton should have a permanent and prominent place.”3 Unfortunately, this has not been so. One would be hard-pressed to find any mention of Denton in the more recent treatments of American Presbyterianism, despite the Presbyterian Church of America claiming he was “the first Presbyterian on this continent,”4 which is the same conclusion drawn by Nevin.5 In Denton’s day, he was well-known enough to be included in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, where he is described as follows:

Among these clouds was our Pious and Learned Mr. Richard Denton, a Yorkshire Man, who having watered Halifax in England, with his fruitful Ministry, was a Tempest then hurried into New-England, where first at Weathersfield, and then at Stamford, his Doctrine dropt as the Rain, his Speech distilled as the Dew, as the small Rain upon the tender Herb, and as the Show’rs upon the Grass.6

Earlier in the Magnalia, Mather describes Denton as,

. . . a highly religious man with strong Presbyterian beliefs . . . His well-accomplished mind, in his lesser body, was an Iliad in a nutshell. I think he was blind of an eye, yet he was not the least of the seers of Israel; he saw a very considerable portion of those things which eye hath not seen. He was far from cloudy in his conceptions and principles of divinity.7

Who Was Richard Denton?

Richard Denton was born in England in 1603. Upon graduating from Cambridge in 1623 he ministered at Coley Chapel,8 near Coley Hall, in a small town north of Manchester, where he remained for seven years, then immigrated to New England with his large family.9 The Memoirs of the Rev. Oliver Heywood provide us with a fuller description of Denton’s decision to leave England for the New World:

He was a good minister of Jesus Christ, affluent in his worldly circumstances, and had several children. He continued here about seven years; times were sharp, the bishops being in their height. In his time came out the book for sports on the Sabbath days. He saw he could not do what was required, feared further persecution, and therefore took the opportunity of going into New England.10

Even though “the chapel at Coley was enlarged” under Denton, the vexations of impure worship finally drove him off the continent.11

Presbyterians were founding congregations in the New World as early as the 1630s.12 Denton himself had established “a Presbyterian church” in Hempstead, Long Island in 1641 even though he was preaching “to a Presbyterian congregation from the first arrival, in 1630.”13 He is also found preaching “from time to time to a small group of Puritans” in New York City.14 Once upon American soil, Denton proved not everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended). The “strong Presbyterian beliefs” spoken of by Mather seem to have riled the Independents and Anglicans on more than one occasion. After migrating to the New World with John Winthrop and Sir Richard Saltonstall, Denton tried to settle down in Watertown, Massachusetts: “but the firmness of his convictions—his Presbyterian opposition to the oligarchic rule of the New England Divines—again led him to depart to Hempstead.”15

Dutch ministers John Megapolensis and Samuel Drisius mentioned in a letter to the Classis of Amsterdam, dated August 5, 1657, that “when he [Denton] began to baptize the children of parents who are not members of the church, they rushed out of the church.”16 Ten years prior, while at Hempstead, a conflict over Presbyterian polity “caused some twenty-five families, led by Mr. Denton, to make another move.”17 They didn’t travel far, however, stopping within the Colony of New Haven in a place called Stamford, where he, “followed Presbyterian forms, but not without protests.”18 Among other things, “Mr. Denton’s uncompromising democracy, or Presbyterianism, came in conflict with the New Haven rules that none but church members should vote in town meetings.”19

That Denton was Presbyterian is hardly debatable. In the same 1657 letter to the Classis of Amsterdam mentioned above, it is stated that “at Hempstead, about seven Dutch miles from here, there are some Independents; also many of our persuasion and Presbyterians. They have also a Presbyterian preacher, named Richard Denton, an honest, pious and learned man.”20 The History and Vital Records of Christ’s First Presbyterian Church of Hempstead, Long Island, New York tells us “Denton had been educated in Cambridge University, where the principles of Presbyterianism had been instilled into his mind firmly and aggressively.”21 We saw above that Mather painted him as “a highly religious man with strong Presbyterian beliefs.” In Long Island, Denton went to work building up both the colony and congregation of Hempstead. Alfred Nevin states a whole colony of Presbyterians came with him from “the old country, and followed him till their final settlement on Long Island.”22

Nevin also reports there was an entire “Presbyterian tree planted by the hand of Richard Denton”23 in Long Island, going so far as to call Long Island “a Presbyterian colony” under Denton’s leadership, a fact also preserved by colonial records.24 Two of Denton’s sons, Nathanael and Daniel, “with a number of their Presbyterian brethren,” not only formed a colony in the village of Jamaica in 1656 but “as might be expected, they immediately established religious worship.”25 A memorial of the inhabitants of Jamaica, signed by Nathanael Denton, states: “This town of Jamaica, in the year 1656, was purchased from the Indian natives by divers persons, Protestants, dissenters, in the manner of worship, from the forms used in the Church of England, who have called a minister of our own profession to officiate among them.”26 Thus religious services took place since at least 1656, but more importantly for the history of American Presbyterianism, it can be demonstrated these religious services were Presbyterian. On March 24, 1663, Rev. Zachariah Walker was assigned to the parsonage built the year before, and

from this date to the present day there is a clear record of every minister who has served the church, together with the time of their service. George McNish, the eighth pastor, was one of the original members of the Mother Presbytery of Philadelphia. That this church has always been a Presbyterian church there seems no room for doubt. It is so denominated in all the records where it is named. It has had a bunch of ruling elders from time immemorial.

Historian Leonard J. Trinterud states that although the Presbyterian beginnings under Richard Denton “failed to develop into churches of Presbyterian order, the Hempstead church did contribute to the founding, at Jamaica, Long Island, of what was probably the first permanent Presbyterian church in the new world.”27

The latest major book written on American Presbyterianism confirms that “an organized Presbyterian congregation was established on Long Island by 1662 (Jamaica Church), and there were other Presbyterians throughout New York.”28 The governor of New York reported in 1678 that of all the religious groups on the Island, “Presbyterians and Independents [are] most numerous and substantiall.”29 On November 25, 1700, John Hobbert was “ordained according to ye Rule & way of the Presbyterian way, & it is the unanimous mind of the towne that he be ordained accordingly.”30 In 1702 there were more than a hundred families at the church. It was “the mother church of other churches in the vicinity” and contributed families to the First Presbyterian Church in New York City and Hopewell, New Jersey. Thus, Nevin concludes that “Richard Denton was one of the very first Presbyterian ministers in the country, and the Church of Jamaica, Queen’s county, New York, is the oldest existent Presbyterian Church in the United States.”31 Such historical records leave no doubt regarding the prowess of Presbyterianism in pre-1706 America, and specifically as it flourished through the labors of Richard Denton.

Denton’s Death and Legacy

Another letter from the Rev.’s Megapolensis and Drisius dated October 22, 1657, claims, “Mr. Richard Denton, who is sound in faith, of a friendly disposition, and beloved by all, cannot be induced by us to remain, although we have earnestly tried to do this in various ways.”32 They mention Denton going to Virginia “to seek a situation, complaining of salary, and that he was getting in debt,” but he had since returned.33 Eventually Denton would return to England “because of his wife who is sickly will not go without him, and there is need of their going there on account of a legacy of four hundred pounds sterling lately left by a deceased friend.”34

Denton arrived back in England in 1659, although he left behind a quiver of children who would in turn have big families. “The men were active in the local militias fighting the Indians and they developed excellent military experience that prepared them for officer commissions when they moved to the Virginia frontier.”35 Upon his death in 1660, Denton’s tombstone in Yorkshire would bear the following inscription: “Here lies the dust of Richard Denton. O’er his low peaceful grave bends the perennial cypress, fit emblem of his unfading flame. On earth his bright example, religious light, shown forth o’er multitudes. In heaven his pure rob’d spirit shines like an effulgent flame.”

Denton’s unyielding stance for Presbyterian polity and his unswerving zeal to see it implemented in the New World calls for a reiteration of our initial point: the history of the Presbyterian church in America begins in the wilderness of the 1630s, not Philadelphia in 1706. For those who would dissent, the following must be weighed: without the pioneering efforts of early Presbyterian ministers like Denton, would there have been a presbytery in 1706? The data above would indicate otherwise. This is not to downplay the tremendous efforts of men in the seventeen hundreds, notably Francis Makemie—rather, to point out the vast amount of labor that went into the Presbyterian cause long before Makemie came onto the scene. Denton and Makemie were on the same team, so to speak, and each deserve a place in the history of American Presbyterianism.

Notes

  1. Walter C. Krumm, “Who Was the Reverend Richard Denton,” New York Genealogical and Biological Record, Vol. 117 (New York, NY: New York and Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1986), 163–166.
  2. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The ecclesiastical history of New-England, from its first planting in the year 1620. unto the year of Our Lord, 1698. In seven books … by Mather, Cotton. 1663–1728, Vol. 1 (Hartford, 1853), 398.
  3. Alfred Nevin, Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian church in the United States of America: including the Northern and Southern Assemblies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian encyclopedia publishing co., 1884), 182.
  4. Krumm, “Who Was the Reverend Richard Denton?”, 163–166.
  5. Nevin, Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church, 182: “Richard Denton was one of the very first Presbyterian ministers in the country, and the Church of Jamaica, Queen’s county, New York, is the oldest existent Presbyterian Church in the United States.”
  6. Mather, Magnalia, 182.
  7. Mather, 182.
  8. In those days the chapel was commonly called “St. John of Jerusalem.”
  9. “Richard Denton,” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, Ed. Robert Harrison, Vol. 14 (https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885–1900/Denton, Richard), last accessed: April 21, 2023.
  10. Memoirs of the Rev. Oliver Heywood, B.A. (Rev. Richard Slate, 1827), 20.
  11. Memoirs of the Rev. Oliver Heywood, B.A. (Rev. Richard Slate, 1827), 20.
  12. David Koch, “Long Island Presbyterians: Our Puritan beginnings” (pcusa.org).
  13. Nevin, Encyclopedia, 182.
  14. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949), 23.
  15. http://longislandgenealogy.com/firstPresHempstead/July1922.htm
  16. J. Franklin Jameson, “Narratives of New Netherland, 1609–1664” (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 29–37.
  17. Ed. John Dean Fish, “History and Vital Records of Christ’s First Presbyterian Church of Hempstead, Long Island, New York” (longislandgeneology.com), last accessed: April 21, 2023.
  18. Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 23.
  19. Ed. Fish, “History and Vital Records…Hempstead, Long Island.”
  20. Jameson, “Narratives of New Netherland, 1609–1664.”
  21. “History of Our Church,” Christ’s First Presbyterian Church, Hempstead, NY (Cfpcny.com/history), last accessed: April 21, 2023.
  22. Nevin, 183.
  23. Nevin, 183.
  24. Nevin, 183.
  25. Nevin, 183.
  26. Nevin, 183.
  27. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 22.
  28. Nathan P. Feldmeth, S. Donald Fortson III, Garth M. Rosell, and Kenneth J. Stewart, Reformed and Evangelical across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2022), 145.
  29. Nevin, 183.
  30. Nevin, 183.
  31. Not only does Nevin claim to have “verified by personal examination of the authentic sources here mentioned,” but he also lists the following sources: Thompson’s History of Long Island; Woodbridge’s Historical Discourse; Onderdonk’s History of Queen’s County; McDonald’s Church History; New York State Documents History; Moore’s Early History of Hempstead; Jamaica Town Records. Such accounts show us that there is a Presbyterian “history” in America already underway long before 1706.
  32. J. Franklin Jameson, “Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664” (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 29.
  33. Jameson, 29.
  34. Jameson, 30.
  35. Josephine C Frost, ed., Records of the Town of Jamaica, Long Island, New York: 1656–1751 (Brooklyn, NY: The Long Island Historical Society, 1914), 1:20.

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2 comments

  1. Was he sent by and under the oversight of a Presbytery? Otherwise, I’m not convinced this was not simply independent, elder led, congregationalism.

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