As we fight against the tides of increasing apathy and contempt towards religious liberty in America, the past can serve as a powerful weapon in informing our present and guiding our future. The Rev. Francis Makemie is an inimitable giant of that past.
Born in Northern Ireland, Makemie attended Glasgow University, where he was convicted by the Holy Spirit into a life-long, zealous love of Jesus. He was ordained into the clergy in 1681, and followed a missionary calling to North America, where he established Rehobeth Presbyterian Church, the first and oldest Presbyterian Church in America. He continued to travel across the mid-Atlantic colonies, starting several Presbyterian churches and communities along his way. Although Anglicanism was the official religion in Virginia and Maryland, two states he frequented, Makemie had a license to preach as a dissenter.
He structured seven Presbyterian churches committed to the Westminster Confession between 1683 and 1705. Contemporaneously, he spent two years pastoring in Barbados and sheltered Irish ministers persecuted for their Calvinist faith. He faced continuous opposition by the Church of England, who characterized him as a loon propagating subversive doctrine. This culminated in January 1707, when Lord Cornbury, Governor of New York, arrested him for “spreading his Pernicious Doctrine and Principles” without “having obtained My Lincense for so doing, which is directly contrary to the known laws of England.”
Makemie’s wisdom was beyond his years. He could have easily left Cornbury’s territory. Instead, in one of the earliest tests of free speech in the colonies, he stood his ground. An Anglican authority indicted the Irish Calvinist. Makemie believed that if freedom of religion could not be obtained in one colony, it would endanger the flourishing of all of them. Throughout his trial, he reminded Cornbury that Parliament had granted authority and liberty to preach under King William and Queen Mary in 1688. Furthermore, he argued, this act’s jurisdiction extended beyond Great Britain into all her territories. He showed certificates from Maryland and Virginia courts that gave credence to his work. The English Toleration Act of 1689 applied directly in all “her Majesties Dominions”. Was New York, then, not under her dominion?
The two rivals continued arguing back-and-forth in a chess match filled with legal technicalities. Makemie masterfully utilized his reason and faith to demonstrate the necessity of freedoms of speech and religion in New York. In his words during his trial,
[I]t will be unaccountable to England, to hear, that Jews, who openly blaspheme the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and disown the whole Christian religion; Quakers who disown the Fundamental Doctrines of the Church of England and both Sacraments; Lutherans, and all others, are tolerated in Your Lordships Government; and only we, who have complied, and who are still ready to comply with the Act of Toleration, and are nearest to, and likest the Church of England of any Dissenters, should be hindered, and that only the Government of New-York and the Jersies. This will appear strange indeed.
Cornbury finally capitulated and despairingly confessed, “You Sir, know Law.” He was acquitted, in a colossal, groundbreaking victory of free speech and free expression of religion. In yet another victory, Makemie advanced liberty for Presbyterian churches the following year when a Maryland court certified the establishment of a Protestant Dissenter Church justified by an act of Parliament.
Makemie’s influence cannot be overstated. His tireless personal investment in dozens of Presbyterian pastors trickled down into academies and colleges that developed some of America’s finest leaders. Future college founders, senators, representatives, and even signers of the Declaration of Independence walked through these doors. His writing, which focused on the importance of strengthening communities through the ministry of the Church, continues to educate and inspire so many. His vigor for the Lord only increased as he aged. More churches, stronger communities, and deeper spirituality followed him until he was welcomed into Heaven on August 4, 1708.
A bulwark of American Calvinism and Christianity at-large, Makemie was instrumental in entrenching the vibrant heritage of our rights to free expression and free worship. We are free to worship because he fought for our freedom. His long-term vision and yearning for a truly free country places him among the great heroes of our history. A father of religious freedom in America, his legacy reminds us all to be ever vigilant in defending, sustaining, and further developing this foundation that we have so providentially inherited. As Christian Americans, we should pray that his trailblazing spirit and ferocious courage would be inculcated in our hearts and that, like him, we would engage the injustices of our government with unwavering faith.