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Piney Creek Church – 250 Years of Continuous Worship

Amanda Woodruff Grant

Historical Information gathered by: Pastor H. Paul Matthews III, Larry Markle, Brian Martin, Sylvia Gross, and Carol Smith.

Piney Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, located between Harney and Taneytown, Maryland, celebrates its two hundred fiftieth year of continuous worship of the Lord. With records of services dating back to 1763, Piney Creek members are celebrating a church that began worshipping one hundred years before the historic Battle of Gettysburg. The church has been blessed to withstand several major events that have shaped this great nation, and the far-reaching words and deeds of these members through two and a half centuries has not been overlooked.

The church as it appeared in a 1925 Christmas Postcard

Reverend J. F. Minor Simpson writes in his book, Monocacy Valley Maryland Presbyterianism, that "There are few rural Presbyterian churches in the whole North American continent which have made their influence more widely felt than has the one at Piney Creek." Simpson goes on to explain his claim, stating that many sons of the congregation have founded other churches throughout the years and direct descendents of the church’s first minister, Revered Joseph Rhea, helped to found the University of Tennessee and brought Presbyterianism to the same state. One of the writers of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Reverend Hezekiah James Balch, was even a supply minister of the church from 1766-1771, and Reverend John Craighead, interim pastor, was a captain of volunteers during the Revolutionary War.

Several current church members trace their own roots in the church back for several generations and many of the senior members recall meetings with the direct descendents of the founders of this influential church. But for all its history, Piney Creek is often only glanced at by travelers on the Harney Road between Gettysburg and Taneytown. Few know the historic significance and the stories interred with the names on the gravestones behind the uniquely shingled walls of the church’s stone cemetery.

Church members in a 1940 photo

The late Pastor William Simonton delivered a speech on July 27, 1876 that was recorded and printed by the congregations in the same year entitled Historical Sketch of the Presbyterian Churches of Emmitsburg and Piney Creek. In describing the founders of both Piney Creek and Tom’s Creek churches, Reverend Simonton reveals those in the area "came from Scotland and the North of Ireland . . . designated Scotch-Irish . . . a moral, frugal, industrious people. They brought with them the characteristics of their native country. Among these were courage, determination, and an exalted spirit of patriotism. Being lovers of liberty and independence, they were pronounced in their opposition to all political tyranny." Fierce supporters of the Revolution, these men and women "carried with them to their new homes in the wilderness, the Bible, the Confession of Faith, and the Catechism, and as soon as circumstances would permit, they reared for themselves a sanctuary." Accordingly, soon after the settlement of the area now known as Carroll County, the church’s history begins.

Simonton states that the mention of these churches begins in 1760, when the Minutes for the Presbytery of Donegal reveal that "Rev. Robert McMordie was appointed to supply at ‘Monokasy,’ on the second Sabbath of September, 1760." As to where exactly this church service occurred, whether Emmitsburg or the Piney Creek area, it is unclear. Adding to the obscurity of this request, Piney Creek was not the name originally used; Pipe Creek was instead the name of the requestors. Although there were a few scattered church services in these early years, Piney Creek’s history was only just beginning.

Reverend Simonton explains that according to the rules of the Presbytery, "’The existence of Piney Creek congregation is to be dated from the time when they first as a collective body supplicated the Presbytery under that name for supplies at that place.’" As of April 13, 1763, Simonton reveals that "The name of Pipe Creek disappears from the record, and that of Pine—then Piney—Creek is substituted." It is possible that the place of worship also changed location, as Pipe Creek would have been at a location east of the current Piney Creek Church. It is believed that Pine Creek and Piney Creek were derived from the area of land known as the Piney Creek Hundred in which the present day church would have been located. This area of land was bordered on its southern boundary by Pipe Creek Hundred, which might explain the previous name and possible location until 1763. Simultaneously, Pine Creek and Tom’s Creek requested a supply. Thus, Rev. Robert McMordie was chosen to preach at Pine Creek on April 24, 1763. Although the church was given a supply minister, they were far from becoming the small brick structure which stands unimposing along Route 134 today.

On February 15, 1771, a deed for two acres of land was drawn up between Abraham Heytor of Frederick County (in the area now known as Carroll County) and Patrick Watson, James Galt, and John McCorkle, also of Frederick County, and to James Barr and James Hunter, both of York County, Pennsylvania. The deed situated the land in Piney Creek Hundred and "a tract of land called Brooke’s Discovery on the Rich Land." Heytor apparently gave the land "for certain pious causes and considerations" which was given "for a seat for a Church or house of Religious Worship and for a Burying place for the use of a Congregation or Society of People called Presbyterians." The transfer of land was for a mere five shillings, and included the two acres of land and the use of a spring of water on the south-east side of the property. Apparently the church building predated the deed, because the deed states that "the Congregation did at their own expence accordingly build or caused to be erected a church or house of Religious Worship." (This very specific wording in the deed would later allow Piney Creek Church to retain its property after severing its ties with the Baltimore Presbytery and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1981 when new regulations removing the church’s freedoms were imposed. At this time, many other churches lost their property to the UPCUSA.)

In J. Thomas Scharf’s book History of Western Maryland, the original church building was described as "a very plain log structure. Its pews were, ‘—Straight-backed and tall, its pulpit, goblet formed, half-way up the wall, the sounding-board above.’" This structure and the transfer of the deed finally provided Piney Creek members with a place to establish a firm foundation for the Lord.

Only a few months after the land was transferred, in April 1771, Piney Creek presented a call to Reverend Joseph Rhea to be the first installed minister of the church, according to Scharf. Reverend Rhea was born in Ireland in 1715 and received a Master of Arts degree from Glasgow University, graduating with honors, Simpson wrote in his book. Simpson explained that Rhea and his family arrived in America in 1769, Rhea joined the Presbytery in 1770, and he was soon offered several different churches in the area. Piney Creek commissioners, Patrick Watson and Matthew Galt, relayed the call to Rhea. As recorded in the "Book of Congregational Affairs," they offered a salary of 110-112 pounds and stated that the church would provide living expenses for him and his family for the first year. At the time, Rhea was wanted by at least four different churches in the area, and disputes between Tom’s Creek Church and Piney Creek prevented the gain of a minister for either church.

Although Piney Creek and Tom’s Creek Churches had been sharing ministers for several years, Scharf explains that there were two main disputes between the two churches that needed to be resolved before a minister could be formally accepted by either church. The first dispute arose from the fact that Piney Creek did not want to be joined with Tom’s Creek, and they wanted their own pastor. The second dispute was around a boundary line between the two congregations, even though this was supposedly resolved in April of 1765. The boundary line disputes can be more easily understood after reading Reverend Simonton’s description of the land during this time period, even though he was writing in 1876. Simonton explains, "The population was then sparse. The still heavily timbered tracts of land far exceeded the clearings. The fields under tillage were yet in the rude stages of cultivation . . . The highways were at certain seasons almost impassable, the streams were unbridged." He goes on to remind his listeners, and later readers, that there were no modern conveniences such as railways or turnpike roads, not to mention "Few newspapers were in circulation, and the family library did not often exceed a dozen standard volumes." Everything was simple and plain, and in general, people only used what they could make or produce on their own. Therefore, boundaries were created quite understandably by natural landmarks, and it was more a matter of which church a person could go to, as opposed to which church a person would want to attend. Nevertheless, these two disputes mattered greatly to the pious church-goers of the day.

In order to resolve the disputes, Simonton explains that records reveal a meeting at Tom’s Creek Church in June of 1771 between the moderator, Mr. Cooper, the clerk, Mr. Duffield, the Commissioners from Piney Creek including Patrick Watson, Abraham Heytor, Benjamin McKinley, James Galt, and James Hunter, and the Commissioners from Tom’s Creek including William Blair, William Shields, William Brown, and Samuel Emmit. The "Extract from the Minutes of a Committee of Presbytery, Held at Tom’s Creek, the Fourth Tuesday of June, 1771," reads, in reference to the former dispute, that the Committee decided, "It does appear best that said congregation should be allowed to act in a separate capacity . . . inasmuch as Piney Creek appears to be of ability to call and support a minister by themselves; at which period according to the most probably and natural construction of said stipulations, they had a right to sue for and obtain a separation; nor does it appear likely that a longer continuance of that union, would, in the present circumstances, be of any general use. The Committee do therefore dissolve said union." As Piney Creek was granted the separation, they acquiesced to the boundary line, as did Tom’s Creek, and the disputes were finally considered settled. Reverend Rhea could be formally called.

Reverend Rhea was installed in 1771 and guided his church members at Piney Creek until 1776. Rhea was interested in the settlers of Virginia and what is now Tennessee. According to Scharf, Piney Creek was unable to pay Rhea’s salary as well, and it was in arrears. Whether more frustrated by the back salary, interested in the welfare of the settlers and Cherokee Indians to whom he eventually ministered, or desiring to be a part of the Revolutionary War effort as a chaplain, it is unclear as to the exact reason that Reverend Rhea submitted his resignation in April of 1776. Simpson explains that Piney Creek appointed a committee to resolve the outstanding debt, but because of his travels the meeting did not occur before, on a brief return home to move his family to his newly purchased land in Tennessee, Reverend Rhea died on September 20, 1777. According to Simonton, there is record in church paperwork dated October 1778 that shows the arrears in Reverend Rhea’s salary were paid to his heirs, "and all the obligations of the congregation to him honorably discharged." Reverend Rhea is buried in Piney Creek Cemetery, but his children moved to Tennessee where they would become famous for various accomplishments within the state.

After various supply ministers, Reverend James Martin, also an Irish-born immigrant, became the second minster to be installed at Piney Creek Church in 1780. Simpson describes Martin as a "strong preacher respected by people of all classes who exerted a powerful influence upon the people of the community." According to the Appendix in Simpson’s book, and from the History of the Presbytery of Huntingdon, by William J. Gibson, D. D., Reverend Martin was a zealous and emphatic preacher who often gave sermons that were at least an hour and a half in length and sometimes much longer. "On a warm summer day, it was not unusual for him to take off his coat, and preach in his shirt sleeves. In the pulpit he was very forgetful of himself and his personal appearance, so intently was he taken up in his subject." Reverend Martin was known to remove his coat, loosen his cravat, "and conclude by taking off his wig, holding it in his hand, and shaking it in the face of the congregation . . . [and] during the course of his sermon, his wig would become all awry, the back part turned to the front, and he all unconscious of the metamorphosis." Unfortunately, the issue of arrears to the pastor’s salary again appeared, Reverend Martin submitted his resignation in 1789, and the congregation worked for several years to clear their debt to the Reverend.

The income of the church was not collected in the way churches receive money today through donations and offerings. According to early church treasury records, people would subscribe to the church, or promise to pay a certain amount of money each year. If they did not pay their full amount of money, the church had to decide whether to collect or forgive the debt. In a small farming community, debts were often forgiven, but the church was still required to pay its own obligations.

In 1801, probably because of the financial hardships and burdens faced by these small churches, Piney Creek and Tom’s Creek once again found themselves joined together and this time they were sharing a minister. Both churches called the Reverend Patrick Davidson and agreed to share his salary. The alliance created by Piney Creek and Tom’s Creek allowed the two churches to flourish and share the burden of the minister’s salary, and prevented the arrears which could too easily occur otherwise.

Reverend Davidson preached at the two churches until 1810, when according to Simpson, he resigned to supply the Frederick Presbyterian Church and become the principal of the Frederick Academy. Once again, Piney Creek would be without a minister and would have Sunday Services by various supplies. Even though the church had been officially holding services for over forty years, there had been many changes during their four decades of worship. Piney Creek members sought a minister who would lead and guide them for years to come, and who would help them to grow their church, not only physically but also spiritually. Piney Creek Presbyterian Church was on the precipice of welcoming in a new age of worship, with a minster whose many years of service to the small but faithful church would be unbroken, even through present-day.

Part II will continue the history of Piney Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in the September issue.

Please go to pineycreekchurch.org for information regarding the various 250th anniversary celebrations occurring throughout the year or to join us in worship.

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