Francis Makemie

Francis Makemie (1658-1708) was the Irish-born Presbyterian missionary who organized the first American presbytery.

Francis Makemie was born in County Donegal, Ireland. He belonged to the population of northern Ireland transplanted by Scottish colonization. His boyhood belonged to the years of turbulent political struggle between Presbyterian leaders and Anglican bishops. The bishops' victory resulted in the Scots-Irish exodus to America at the beginning of the 18th century. Makemie's missionary zeal and lifelong battle for religious freedom can be understood in the light of this earlier history.

Barred from the Irish University because he was Presbyterian, Makemie took a degree from the University of Glasgow. In 1681 he was licensed to preach and in 1682 was ordained as a missionary to America. This was more than a generation before the great migration of Scots-Irish to America. Because New England, particularly Massachusetts, was inhospitable territory for Presbyterians, he preached in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia, combining his missionary work with business, as there was no provision for financial support for a missionary at that time. At some time before 1698 he had become the settled pastor at Rehoboth, one of various churches he had organized; nevertheless, he continued missionary work in Delaware and Virginia.

In 1705 Makemie visited England and interested the Presbyterian Union of London in supporting missionary work in America. Two other missionaries returned with him to take charge of several churches in Maryland. In 1706 he formed seven missionaries working in scattered churches of the Middle colonies into a voluntary association. This became the first presbytery in America, with power to license its own preachers. This was a significant act of churchmanship, making American Presbyterianism independent of external control.

In 1707 Makemie and a fellow missionary, visiting New York, preached in a private house and were discovered, arrested, and brought before Governor Cornbury for preaching without a New York license. Makemie protested that no law justified this arrest. His refusal to promise that he would not preach again resulted in a 6-week jail term. Defended at his trial by three of the ablest lawyers of the colony, he was acquitted, although required to pay complete charges for the prosecution as well as for his defense. This case became widely known throughout America. The recall of Lord Cornbury was an immediate result. The long-range result was a victory for freedom of worship not limited to New York.

Makemie died in 1708. At the bicentennial of American Presbyterianism in 1906, a monument in his honor was erected on the Virginia farm where he is buried.


Further Reading on Francis Makemie

A biography of Makemie is I. Marshall Page, The Life Story of Rev. Francis Makemie (1938). Additional information can be found in the appendix, chapter 3, of C. A. Briggs, American Presbyterianism: Its Origin and Early History (1885), and in Guy Soulliard Klett, Presbyterians in Colonial Pennsylvania (1937).