Centennial volume of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, PA., 1784-1884.
Pittsburgh : Wm. G. Johnston Co., Printers, 1884:
No. 1753 Rhode Island Avenue
Washington, D. C., April 10th, 1884.
Rev. S. F. Scovel,
Dear Brother: On the 5th instant, at my request, my son DAVID R. McKEE acknowledged the receipt of your letter of the 28th ultimo, conveying the kind invitation of the Session of the dear old First Church of Pittsburgh, to participate in its centennial anniversary on the 13th, 14th and 15th instant. I then feared that my physical condition would debar me from the pleasure of joining you on that interesting occasion, but sent word that I would write definitely in a few days. I write now to say that I think it will be dangerous to my health to make so long a journey in the present unsettled state of the weather. I am still suffering somewhat from the effects of a fall on an icy pavement; but chiefly from the fact that a cataract has almost wholly darkened the window of my earthly tenement.
If time served, and I were not apprehensive of wearying you, I could detail many incidents touching the early history of the church and congregation which might be new to the present generation. I must, however, be very brief.
I am now in my eighty-fourth year and my life has been a busy and eventful one; but its courses and chief activities undoubtedly have been laid, shaped and directed greatly by the influence existed upon me as a young man by the pastor and members of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. I was born at McKeesport, December 7th, 1800. My father died in February, 1807, and in the fall of that year my mother removed her family to Fort Pitt. My recollection is that the First Church had then for minister the Rev. Mr. Steele, and that the congregation worshipped in a log building on Wood Street, which was not taken down until the walls of the new brick church were erected around it; and that Dr. Herron soon afterwards arrived from Cumberland County and assumed the pastorate. Passing over the intervening nine or ten years, which I partly spent on the farm of MY UNCLE McCOY, in Washington County, and in the service of Messrs. Hugh & James Jelly, merchants, in Pittsburgh, I came to the most important epoch of my life, when in the winter of 1817-’18 I was arrested in a career of worldliness and frivolity - born again, as I believe, and under the ministry of my dear old pastor, Dr. Herron, was admitted to the communion of the church. Thenceforth I seemed to live in a new world, and became desirous to serve a loving and compassionate Master.
(Pg. 242) At this time I was the bookkeeper of J. L. Thompson, a merchant on Market Street. Soon after this, Dr. Herron and his Session selected three young men to be educated by the church for the gospel ministry; of which number I was one. The other two were William McComb and Wells Bushnell. After anxious and prayerful consideration, and frequent consultation with my friends, I reached the conclusion that the ministry ought not to be my future vocation. The other two brethen accepted the invitation of the Session, received a collegiate education at Canonsburg, a theological training at Princeton, were in due time licensed to preach the gospel, and for many years, as I am informed, served the Master in Ohio and Northern Pennsylvania. Thus “two were taken and one was left.” Among the friends with whom I consulted on this important question, besides Dr. Herron, were the venerable and beloved Rev. Joseph Patterson, James Cooper, Samuel Thompson, James Clow, Hugh McClellan, James Brown and Robert Beer.
In 1818, Messrs. Southmayd Scovel and Thomas L. Pierce, of Zanesville, Ohio, contracted with the manufacturers of salt on the Kanawha River for all the salt made or to be made during several years, at one dollar per bushel, and established a depot at Wheeling, in connection with a mercantile store. For the management of this important concern I was most unexpectedly selected. By the advice of my brother and other friends, I accepted the appointment, and in July of that year removed to Wheeling, where I resided for upwards of thirty years.
Wheeling was then a small town of about 1,000 inhabitants; but being the western terminus of the great National Road, was destined to become a city of importance. Its moral status was, however, vastly different from that of the city from which I had recently come. The Sabbath was a day of recreation and ordinary business pursuits. There was no permanent church organization of any kind, and there was little attention paid to the education and religious instruction of the youth. The town was considered within the bounds of the “Forks of Wheeling Presbyterian Church,” six or seven miles distant, and was visited by the pastor of that church, the Rev. James Hervey, once in two weeks. He lived on a farm some four or five miles distant; rode in on Sabbath mornings and preached to a limited number in the old court house, and then rode home. There were several respectable families in the town, called Presbyterians; but on inquiry I could find but one man and some five or six old ladies who were communing members of that church. The missionary labors of Mr. Hervey had not resulted in the establishment of either a Sabbath School or weekly prayer meeting.
To me the change was very great and discouraging, but Providence had evidently sent me there, and, young as I was, I felt it incumbent upon me to do something to better the morals of the place. In this I was greatly blest. In the fall of that year, 1818, I established the first Wheeling Sabbath School (the first, I think, in Western Virginia), and was superintendent of it for twenty-five years following. About the same (pg. 243) time, or soon after, Wednesday night prayer meetings were established, and in two or three years the Presbyterians were formally organized as a congregation, and in 1823 as a church, by the Rev. Mr. McCurdy, and the services of Rev. William Wylie were secured for alternate Sundays. From this time forth the church grew with the prosperity of the city, and before I left Wheeling there were four churches of our order in the city, with regular pastors. By the grace of the Great Head of the Church, the “little one had become a thousand.” Elected an elder in 1823, I was called frequently to attend meetings of Presbytery and Synod, and in 1823 served my first term in the General Assembly.
In 1827 I was elected by the General Assembly a member of the first Board of Trustees for the location and organization of the Western Theological Seminary. After careful and prayerful consideration of the various sites proposed, this honored school of the prophets was finally given to Allegheny City. It was my privilege to attend the semi-centenary of that school, in 1877, at that place. Dr. C. C. Beatty and myself were then the only survivors of the original Board of Trustees. He had since gone to his rest, and I alone remain.
In 1850 I was appointed by President Fillmore to be one of three United States Commissioners to California, to settle the Indian difficulties then existing. In this we were happily successfuly, and I had the honor of locating six hostile tribes on the first reservation ever alloted to Indians on that coast. At the end of my term of service I concluded to remove my family to California, which I did, in 1852.
It would extend this letter to an unreasonable length were I to detail my participation in the establishment of Sabbath Schools and churches on the Pacific coast. I will mention, however, that the eminently prosperous Calvary Church of San Francisco was organized in 1854, and from its start I have served, in my feeble way, as a ruling elder through the highly successful pastorates of Dr. Scott, Dr. Wadsworth and Rev. Mr. Hemphill, and still retain my ecclesiastical connection with that church. About the organization of the Theological Seminary of the Pacific coast and the unexampled growth of the Presbyterian church in that part of the country, and about church matters in different sections of the country in which I have been intererested, including the organization of the great American Tract Society in New York, * and my service during five sessions of the General Assembly, I am admonished to forbear further detail.
In conclusion, I beg you to do me the favor to communicate to the meeting a brief summary of the foregoing, and to express my grateful remembrance of the guidance and assistance I received from the pastor
* In 1877, at the Semi-Centennial of the American Tract Society, but four of the founders were known to be living. Three were present, of whom MR. R. McKEE was one. Now, August, 1884, MR. McKEE is the only survivor of the four. MR. McKEE has also received the honor of honary membership in the Cliosophic Society of Princeton College, because of his pioneer work in behalf of education in West Virginia, Missouri and California.
(pg. 244) and members of the First Church in my youthful days. My prayer is that their successors of the present day may be equally instrumental in advancing the cause and kingdom of the Savior in the time to come.
Very sincerely yours,
(signature of REDICK McKEE)
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