The Rocky Road to the Meeting House
By Richard Tritt
If you have ever driven from Meeting House Springs Cemetery to our church on the square, you know that the trip begins on a gravel, and at some places rocky road. Once reaching the paved road, the route continues through town on a number of residential and commercial streets with some annoying stop signs and a few red lights. Sometimes there is even a detour for street repairs or water line construction. The move of the early Meeting House Springs congregation to the stone meeting house on the square about 250 years ago was also a “rocky road” in many ways, with many detours. We tend to imagine the move to Carlisle as a simple transition from a rural location to the center of the new town of Carlisle, but in reality the move was much more difficult.
The Meeting House Springs congregation was organized around 1734 by the first Scots-Irish settlers on this side of the Susquehanna. It was barely an officially established church, with a new log meeting house and installed pastor, until things got rocky. Rev. Samuel Thomson was a fifty year old man when he left the Coleraine area of Northern Ireland and came to America to serve the church. He first served the Meeting House congregation as a supply pastor for two years before being ordained and installed as their first pastor in 1739. Soon a division took place within the early Presbyterian Church (1743-1758) and this division was felt sharply within the Meeting House Springs congregation. This schism is known as the Old Side/New Side division. The Old Side believed that clergy should be educated in Europe; New Side felt they could be educated in this country. The Old Side was conservative and wanted traditional worship services and church government. New Side wanted a revival in the way things were done and were open to trying new ideas. It was basically a division between the old way and new way of doing things. These two groups were in discord for many years before their differences were eventually resolved. Samuel Thomson was an Old Side man and the New Side men in his congregation made his years at Meeting House Springs difficult. After a number of serious clashes and incidents, Samuel resigned in 1749 after 12 years with the congregation.
About 1750 conditions in the valley became critical. Encouraged by the French, the Indians who had been given a bad deal, started to seek revenge against the English and the early settlers. Cumberland County was on the border to the west and open to savage and brutal attacks. Many in the area moved to the eastern side of the Susquehanna. Those who stayed took refuge in forts and the men only went out to their farms in armed groups for protection. The church at Meeting House Springs barely survived this period. It was without a pastor and only held services sporadically when a supply pastor was available. This situation continued until the threats lessened after John Armstrong’s attack on the Indian village of Kittanning 200 miles west of Carlisle. The massive Forbes Expedition to the west in 1758 expelled the Indians from the state and peace returned to the valley. The congregation at Meeting House Springs met again more regularly but the Old Side/New Side division had not ended.
In 1758 the members decided to move to the nearby town of Carlisle that had been established in 1751. The move was made, but not as one congregation. The first to leave was the New Side faction who built a church in Carlisle south of the square on the southwest corner of Hanover and Pomfret Streets. They called Rev. George Duffield as their pastor. The Old Side group stayed at Meeting House Springs but soon called John Steel as their pastor. Steel was a military man, having served as a Captain in the Pennsylvania Regiment and later Chaplain. He was known as the “Reverend Captain.” He moved the congregation to Carlisle to a church that they built in 1761 on the northeast corner of Hanover and Louther Streets, where they remained for the next ten years. The two Presbyterian Churches in the town coexisted but feelings between the two pastors and congregations were not good.
Duffield’s congregation had intended to eventually build a new, large, stone meeting house on the Public Square. This project started in 1757 when stones were hauled to build a New Side church but was soon held up because the property had not been officially obtained from the Penns. In 1766 Steel and his trustees applied for formal possession of the Square corner and received it from the Penns. Work began again using a plan that was drawn by noted architect Robert Smith of Philadelphia. After several delays and a change in builders the new meeting house was finally finished around 1770; John Steel and his congregation moved into the building.
In July of 1774 an important meeting took place in the new stone meeting house. It was in response to and in support of the people of Boston whose rights were being infringed upon by the British. A resolution of support was made and a year later 3,000 men were organized and armed to fight for independence. Rev. John Steel was named commander of the leading company of this group. When they left for the war, the congregation was severely weakened because of the number of men who went with him.
During his 20 year pastorate, Rev. Steel guided the church through troubled times: the split of the congregation, the French and Indian War, and the Revolution. He died in 1779 and is buried in the Old Grave Yard with his wife and son. Rev. Duffield had resigned seven years before, in 1772, to take a position in Philadelphia. During these seven years there was a drifting together of the two congregations, one being without a pastor. The union of the two factions eventually took place under the next pastor, Rev. Robert Davidson. In order to accommodate the larger congregation, the interior of the stone meeting house was changed by adding a gallery around the three sides to increase the number of pews. As a reunited congregation, the rocky road from Meeting House Springs to Carlisle was finally behind them.