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Francis Makemie: Onancock Resident with an Impact on America

About 1680, Colonel William Stevens in Worcester County, Maryland, who was himself an Anglican, sent an appeal to the Presbyterians of Scotland to send a minister to the Maryland area.  Evidently that call inspired Francis Makemie who was a young man in his twenties, born in Ireland, and studying at the University of Glasgow.  He was ordained in 1682 and booked passage to America the next year.


Naomi Makemie Presbyterian Church

Makemie lived for a while with Colonel Stevens at his home in Maryland.  There he met William Anderson who was quite wealthy and a successful tradesman and landowner.  Anderson partnered with Makemie and established him in a shipping business.   Makemie developed trade relations with Barbados and was there on business for a number of years.  Makemie married Anderson’s elder daughter, Naomi, and the two lived at Onancock in a house given them by her father.  They had two daughters, Elizabeth, who died the same year her father died, and Anne.  Today, the Naomi Makemie Presbyterian Church in Onancock is named for the wife of Francis Makemie; it is a tribute to their service in this town.    


Presbyterian Meeting Place in Onancock

As a Presbyterian minister, the situation that Francis Makemie faced upon his arrival on the Eastern Shore was a challenging one. The Church of England, or Anglicanism, had been the official religion of Virginia.  But the Church had been forced to contend with what were called “dissenters.”  These included the Puritans, the Quakers, and the Presbyterians.  These groups had been active on the Eastern Shore for over 50 years and many were outspoken in their belief that reformation in the Church was required.

Francis Makemie traveled to Williamsburg in the spring of 1699 and the reason relates to the Toleration Act which was passed in England about ten years before that - in the first year of William and Mary’s reign.  Under this Act, protestant dissenters were permitted to be absent from the Anglican Church provided they attend a place of religious worship at least once in two months.  Makemie was in the new capitol petitioning for the same freedom and liberty of conscience in Virginia that was allowed by laws of England.  The General Assembly was considering the application of the Toleration Act in Virginia.  Before he left, Makemie was called into the Council Chamber and was informed by the Governor that all dissenters would have such liberty. While Makemie had been in Barbados, he had registered under the Act; on the basis of this he was granted a dissenter’s license in Virginia.

Later in 1699, Makemie secured from the Accomack court a license to preach at his home in Onancock; it is one of the earliest court records in America of a Presbyterian place of worship.   Although his house is no longer standing today, a plaque commemorates the location of this Presbyterian meeting place in Onancock .  Elsewhere on the Eastern Shore, Colonel Stevens provided land to build a Presbyterian Church at Rehobeth.  Makemie supervised this construction and became pastor of the Rehobeth congregation.  He influenced the establishment of a number of other congregations as well and was instrumental in obtaining additional Presbyterian ministers for this area, including John Hampton with whom Makemie became very close.


First Presbytery in America

Although he lived and labored on the Eastern Shore, Francis Makemie proved to be more of a national than a local figure in religion.  In addition to Makemie and Hampton, there were four other ministers in the region plus Jedidiah Andrews in Philadelphia.  By drawing these ministers and their congregations into a Church Court, others would join and religious tolerance would be strengthened by united action.  This is what Makemie set about doing in the spring of 1706.  A meeting of the Presbyterians in the region was held in Philadelphia and Makemie was elected moderator.  At its second meeting, the group ordained a minister establishing an independence from “old world” controls.  Today we recognize these early activities as the FIRST Presbytery in America (in the polity of the Presbyterian Church, this is a corporate extension of all the Presbyterian Churches and ministers in a given geographic area).


Religious Freedom

Makemie was still moderator at a subsequent Presbytery meeting in December.  From there, he and John Hampton traveled to Boston.  They stopped in New York to visit friends, and despite the strength there of the movement to establish Anglicanism, they were asked to preach.  As a result, both were arrested in January 1707 and, although they produced their licenses to preach from Virginia and Maryland, they were charged with preaching without a license.  The charge against Hampton was later dropped but Makemie was remanded for trial in June.

The Governor of New York was Edward Hyde, also known as Lord Cornbury.  First, Cornbury claimed that Queen Anne had instructed him to issue personal licenses to all dissenting ministers preaching in New York and New Jersey.  In response, Makemie’s attorneys argued that these instructions were not a stipulation of law and, therefore, Makemie could not be held in violation.  Next, Cornbury claimed that Makemie’s and Hampton’s action of preaching without licenses from the Governor was a violation of the Toleration Act.  David Jameson, one of Makemie’s attorneys, answered that since there was no Established Church for that Province from which they should be tolerated, the Act was not, therefore, in force in New York.

Francis Makemie was acquitted, but even so Cornbury ordered him to pay the costs of his prosecution.  The injustice of compelling a man, who has just been declared innocent, to pay for his own prosecution led the New York Assembly to pass a law forbidding such a happening in the future.  The charges against Makemie were groundless, but his case is recognized as a landmark decision in favor of religious freedom in America.

The victory that Makemie gained for the Presbyterian Church by standing trial was his last act on behalf of the young church.  Whether the long and arduous journey from Virginia to Boston together with the six weeks’ imprisonment and the worry and excitement of the trial were contributory causes to his death, we don’t know.  What we do know is that the following year, 1708, he died at fifty years of age and was buried on his farm on the Eastern Shore.

In summary, he was a man of courage, devotion and administrative ability.  These were his gifts.  Francis Makemie is not only the organizer of American Presbyterianism as we know it, he is also one of the Fathers of what became a cornerstone of the Constitution - religious liberty. This is his legacy.


Francis Makemie’s Certificate to be a

dissenter (from the Church of England) preacher .

At a Court held & Continued for Accomack County October ye 5th 1699.

Whereas Mr. Francis Mackemie made applicacon by peticon to this Court that being ready to fullfill what ye Law enjoynes to dissenters that he might be quallified according to Law and prayed that his own dwelling house at Pocomk* & also his own house at Onancok next to Capt Jonathan Livesleys migh be the places recorded for meeting, and haveing taken ye oaths enjoyned by act of Parliamt instead of the oath of allegiance & Supremacy & subscribed the Test as likewise yt he did in compliance wth what the sd Law enjoynes produced Certificate from Barbodoes of his quallificacons there & did declare in open Court of ye sd County & owne ye articles of religion mentioned in ye Statute made in ye 13th yre of Queen Elizabeth except ye 34th: 35th & 36 & those words for ye 20th & authoritys in Controversies of faith weh ye Court have ordered to be registred & recorded and yt ye Clk of ye Court give Certificat thereof to ye sd Mackemie according as ye Law enjoynes.

A true copy from the records of Accomack Circuit Court as recorded in Order Book 1697-1705, page 74

* Note: the Pocomk referenced above refers to Makemie’s land in northern Accomack County known at that time as "Pocomk" Plantation which is the current site of Makemie Monument Park.


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