John Steel 1715-1779

Reverend Captain John Steele 1715-1779
The ‘Fighting Parson’ of Revolutionary War-era Pennsylvania
compiled by Freddie Steel

Rev. Capt. John Steel

Rev. Capt. John Steel

Reverend John Steel, Sr. Comes To America
1742 | Pennsylvania
Reverend Captain John Steel, Sr.1,2 was born 1715 in Newton, Londonderry, Ireland, and died August 17, 1779 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Pennsylvania3. He married Margaret Hutchison4 About 1742 in Conewago, Lancaster. She was born 1721 in Carrickfergus, Ireland, and died February 1779 in Carlisle, Cumberland, Pennsylvania.Notes for Reverend Captain John Steel, Sr.:[Excerpt from Centennial Biography, Men of Mark of Cumberland Valley Pennsylvania 1776-1876 by Alfred Nevin]

The first notice we find respecting Mr. Steel is in the minutes of the Presbytery of Donegal for May 25th, 1736, when “the principal members” of the congregation of Nottingham “agree to carry into execution a method for supporting John Patton and John Steel.” In 1742 he is called by the commission of the Synod of Philadelphia:

“a probationer from Ireland, who offered himself to our care as a candidate for the sacred work of the ministry, but was under some difficulty with relation to a marriage promise claimed by a young woman in Ireland, as his testimonials set forth, and by reason of some steps taken by him in his marriage in this country. The commission finding in all things that his conduct at home and in this country has been fair and unblamable, those things excepted, do advise the Presbytery of New Castle to defer taking him on trials til December next, and in the meantime desire that both the young man and the Presbytery write to the Presbytery of Londonderry, in Ireland, to see if any further light may be obtained in said affair.”

In the year 1743, “the people of Great Conewago (Hunterstown, near Gettysburg,) supplicate for Mr. Steel, a probationer of New Castle,” and the Presbytery of Donegal accordingly send to him their call, which after some months’ consideration he declined. Next year (1744) the Presbytery of New Castle reported to the Synod that they had ordained him to the work of the ministry. He appears at once have secured the confidence of his brethren in a high degree for his learning and practical judgment, for that same year he was selected by them as one of the trustees of the school under Alison and McDowall, for the education of young men for the ministry, and which afterwards was transferred to Newark, Delaware., where many able ministers received their education; and the next year (1745) he was appointed by Synod on an important committee to report a plan of union wit the Synod of New York.

Fort at Steele's Meetinghouse

Fort at Steele’s Meetinghouse

While he was a licentiate (1743) he was sent to Virginia and to Conestoga, and after his ordination he was probably settled for about seven years at New London, Chester County, near the borders of Maryland and Delaware. In the year 1752, possibly earlier, he removed to West Conococheague, in what is now Franklin county, where he had charge of two congregations which, however, were yet in their infancy and differed from each other on the religious questions ministers of their body to preach and to organize churches in this region, and it is very probable that a division had taken place in the church of Upper Pennsborough. On the organization of Donegal Presbytery, under the re-united church, Mr. Duffield was attached to it and soon afterwards a call was laid before it that Mr. Steel might become the pastor of the two churches of Pennsborough. This call was immediately accepted by him, and his installation took place early in April, 1759.

Fort Steele Marker

Fort Steele Marker

It was a long time in the difficult circumstances of that period before the stone church on the square, in Carlisle, could have been tenantable, and we know that Mr. Steel’s congregation must have had some other place of meeting in town. Tradition tells us of a “two-story dwelling,” two doors north of the public square on Hanover street, in which Mr. S. resided, and some intimations are given that is was used also for public worship. An unhappy state of feeling existed for a long time between these two ministers, and their congregations. Their complaints of each other were not unfrequently before presbytery and Synod, generally referring, however, to matters of minor importance. And yet their congregations appear to have prospered and to have enjoyed evident tokens of Divine favour.

Rev. Steel's Fort

Rev. Steel’s Fort

There are no indications in the history of Mr. Steel’s congregations that his ministry was attended with such powerful revivals as we read of in other churches, but his instructive style of preaching and his faithfulness in cateschising and training the young were perhaps equally successful in keeping up the number of his communicants. Many of his sermons were in the possession of his great grandson, Robert Given, Esq., of Holly Springs, but were unfortunately consumed in a burning of the house which contained them. They were not only remarkable for a neat chirography and careful composition, but for calm earnestness, soundness in doctrine and a high tone of morality. From an instrument, the original of which is in the possession of the Rev. Dr. Wing, it appears that the congregations of Upper and Lower Pennsborough, (Silver Spring,) agreed to pay him each seventy-five pounds on condition that each should receive an equal share of his labours. This was dated April, 1764, and we know that it continued at least three years and perhaps much longer.

Steele's Fort Marker

Fort John Steel Marker

The disorders incident to the period of the Revolutionary War broke up again his more peaceful occupations. His well known intrepidity and public spirit were more than once called into public service in repressing some popular commotions. In February, 1768, he was commissioned by Governor John Penn to visit with some others about 150 families who had settled contrary to law, on the Redstone and the Youghiogeny rivers, and to induce them peaceably to remove. The mission was not altogether successful, but was performed on his part to the satisfaction of the civil authorities. The same year he co-operated with the justices of the county in endeavoring to restrain certain rioters from over the mountain who were rescuing two murderers of Indians from the jail in Carlisle. With a party of men he pursued after them, but was not strong enough to recover the prisoners.

 Fort at Steele's Meetinghouse

Fort at Steele’s Meetinghouse

During the pendency of measures for asserting the rights of the colonies against the mother country, he sympathized ardently with the patriots. A large meeting was held July 12, 1774, in his church, and was presided over by one of his elders, John Montgomery, in which the boldest sentiments were avowed, and active measures were taken to defend their rights. Three thousand men were organized, armed and furnished, and the Honorable George Chambers informs us that “the company which was in the lead was under the command of the Rev. Captain John Steel.” He was however too far advanced in years for protracted service as a soldier, and we have no evidence that he was much in the field. His congregation, however, was almost completely disorganized in consequence of the number who went from it into the service. The common title of “Reverend Captain,” which was given him by the popular voice, was never a reproach, for he was never known to act unworthily of either part of the designation. Mr. Steel was never satisfied with the arrangement of ministers and churches in Donegal Presbytery after the re-union. He and others of what were called the Old Side, on finding themselves in a minority in that body, seceded, and when they found no relief in Synod, they continued for three years in a state of separation. Finally they were united with others of a similar affinity within the bounds of Synod and formed into the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia. His punctuality in every duty would never allow him to be absent, and for twelve years, he was in the habit of journeying, on his own conveyance, at least annually, to the city of Philadelphia, to attend upon ecclesiastical meetings.

John Steele Marker

John Steele Marker

He died in August, 1779, leaving a reputation for stern integrity, zeal for what he deemed truth and righteousness, and a high sense of honour. His remains lie interred in the Old Cemetery of Carlisle. [end of excerpt] [Excerpt from Service of Dedication, Restored Silver Spring Presbyterian Church, Thursday Afternoon, May 23, 1929 at 2 o’clock]

On April 13, 1764, Carlisle and East Pennsborough congregation informed Presbytery that they had agreed to united and enjoy each an equal portions of the labors of Reverend Captain John Steel for which they agreed to pay him £150 annually and requested that this agreement be entered upon records. Captain Steel came to Carlisle in 1758 from Conococheague-Mercersburg-where the church had been burned and the congregation dispersed by the Indians. A promissory note signed by forty-two persons in the congregation was given to Captain Steel, agreeing to pay the £75, his salary. While at Conococheague, and as a reward for his bravery and judgment in repelling the attacks of the Indians, he was commissioned by the Government a captain of the Provincial troops, March 25, 1756, and afterwards commissioned a captain in the Revolutionary War. Under the date April 11, 1756, Captain Steel wrote to Honorable Robert Morris, Governor of Pennsylvania:

“I pray with all possible expedition 54 firearms and as many blankets and a quantity of flints may be sent to me, for since McCord’s fort has been taken and ye men defeated and pursued, our Country is in the utmost confusion.”

First Pres Carlisle

First Pres Carlisle

It was during Captain Steel’s ministry here that the country was excited over the events which led to the Declaration of Independence. He was a leader in everything which tended to uphold the rights of the Colonies, and with such a leader you may be sure the people of Silver Spring had no tolerance of England’s oppression. And when, on July 12, 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, the freemen from the townships of Cumberland County met in Carlisle and condemned the action of Great Britain in closing the port of Boston, we are not surprised that Silver Spring was represented. Jonathan Hoge’s name appears in the proceedings and doubtless Captain Steel and others were there. The religious thinking of the people of that day was not something apart from social and political affairs. They believed that religion has to do with politics and life and the world that now is, and that it should tie together and make a whole of the scattered facts and forces of life, and this made the Church a unit in fighting the battle of freedom. But before the victory was won and independence a reality, Captain John Steel had gone to his reward. He died August 17, 1779, and his body lies in the old burial-ground in Carlisle. He resigned this part of his charge in 1776, and we were supplied by Presbytery from 1776 to 1779. [end of excerpt] [Excerpt from Old Mercersburg by the Woman’s Club of Mercersburg Pennsylvania]

Rev Capt John Steele

Rev Capt John Steele

From its organization in 1738 to 1754 there was no settled minister here. Then they called Rev. John Steel to become their pastor. Mr. Steel was born in Ireland and was licensed by the Presbytery of Londonberry. He came to America in 1742, and was taken under the care of the New Castle Presbytery, ordained and installed pastor of the church of New London in Chester county, Pennsylvania, in 1745, where he continued to preach until he came to Mercersburg, in 1754. He remained here two years, though in most troublesome and exciting times. The whole frontier country was overrun by Indian raids, and as a consequence, the settlement was disturbed and scattered, families broken up, and the congregation for a time disbanded. Mr. Steel, as all accounts of him agree, was a man of great courage and firmness, and of unquestioned soundness in the faith. He carried his rifle with him to the place of worship, and had it by his side ready for use at a moment’s notice during the service. When an attack was feared, it was a common thing for him to gather a company of riflemen together, and lead them with great prudence and courage in pursuit of the savages. Because of the frequency of these attacks the congregation was dispersed, and Mr. Steel left for another field of labor. He was a man of pure and exemplary life, revered and admired by all for his bravery. He was a good preacher, and beloved as a pastor. [Excerpt from The Meeting House on the Square, An Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, Cumberland, Pennsylvania]

First Pres Carlisle

First Pres Carlisle

Rev. John Steel, like Rev. Samuel Thomson, was a native of Ireland. He emigrated to this country in 1742. In 1745 he was ordained by Presbytery of New Castle and in 1753 joined Presbytery of Donegal, becoming pastor at Mercersburg and Greencastle. After six years there, in 1759, he took up his pastorate of the Old Side at Carlisle, but also gave one-third of his time to Silver Spring. There was rivalry and bitterness between Steel and Duffield, which reached Presbytery. During the pastorate of Mr. Steel this stone meetinghouse was built. The congregation was large and prosperous, having many members from the surrounding country. Rev. Mr. Steel served 20 years, until his death in 1779. His home here was probably at the North-west corner of Hanover and Louthers Streets, although he also owned a lot on Hanover Street nearer the meeting house, the third lot North of the meeting house, West side of the street, known as the Haverstick property. He is said to have been a man of financial means who on occasions advanced money to the church. Rev. John Steel had a son, Captain John Steel, who was a prominent member of the Cumberland County Bar and an officer in the Revolutionary War. He is buried in Carlisle Old Graveyard; and his grave is not to be confused with that of his father nearby. He died in December, 1819, aged 68 years. [end of excerpt] [Excerpt from A History of the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania]

The Rev. John Steel is instructed, March 25 1756:

“You will receive a commission appointing you Captain of a Company in the pay of the Province, which is to be made up of drafts of thirteen men out of each of the companies, composed by James Burd, Hance Hamiliton, James Patterson, and Hugh Mercer, to whom I now send orders to make the drafts accordingly; also a commission appointing James Holliday your Lieutenant. You will, therefore, as soon as may be, after your arrival in Cumberland County, send an officer, with my orders to the several Captains, to whom they are directed, when you have formed your Company you are to take post at McDowell’s Mill upon the road to the Ohio, which you are to have for your head-quarters and to detach patrolling parties, from time to time to scour the woods in such manner as you shall judge most consistent with the safety of the inhabitants. You are to inform me from time to time what you do, and if everything material thathappens upon that part of the frontier, and the number and motion of any body of French or Indian that you shall receive intelligence of.” [end of excerpt] [History of Westmoreland County, The Presbyterian Church]

First Pres Carlisle

First Pres Carlisle

Rev. John Steel came here at the request of Governor Penn to try to induce those who had settled here prior to 1769 in disregard of the law which forbade them to settle on lands not yet purchased by the Indians, to remove. Steel was a brave and daring spirit who did not fear the savages. He had been a captain in the expedition under Armstrong against Kittanning in 1756. But, as most of them would not move, Revs. George Duffield and Charles Beatty were sent to Western Pennsylvania by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, to preach to them and to try to found churches. Beatty had been a chaplain not only with Forbes’ army but with Braddock’s ill-fated troops as well, and was therefore well suited to minister to the spiritual wants of the pioneers. Their work was scattered over a wide range of territory, and further than that they busily sowed the seed which afterwards brought forth an abundant harvest, little is definitely known of their work. Soon after this a minister named Anderson was sent here by the Donegal Synod who were to pay him twenty shillings a day for every Sabbath he preached west of the Allegheny mountains. For the year 1769 the same synod ordered that the western frontier be supplied with ministers “for ten Sabbaths.” [end of excerpt] [Excerpt from American Revolutionary Soldiers of Franklin County, Pennsylvania]

Rev. John Steel – Captain, “at McDowell’s Mill,” 1755, and March 25, 1756 in 2nd Battalion, Pennsylvania Regiment of Foot, 1757 as Chaplain, and in same later under Staff Officers:

“And among the first Companies organized in West Conococheague, on the bloody outbreak of the Delaware Indians in 1755, the Rev. John Steel, their pastor, was selected for its Captain. This command was accepted by Mr. Steel, and was executed with so much skill, bravery and Judgment as to command him to the Provincial government, which appointed him a Captain of Provincial troops.”

In the war of Independence Mr. Steel took an active part; he was called the “Reverend Captain” as a title of honor. History of the Silver Spring Presbyterian Church (p. 13). The Rev. John Steel came to Carlisle in 1758 from West Conococheague, where he had been in the midst of perils of Indian depredation. He was pastor at Silver Spring, 1764-1776. He died August 1779. His will–

“Reverend John Steel, Sr., Minister of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Dau. Lydia’s children by Robert Semple; Son John and children; Elizabeth McKindley and her children. Dau. Margaret and her children; To Mary and Sarah; To Robert and Andrew; to Steel McClean; To Dau. Jean 600 pounds and much else; To John my watch and chain; To Robert and Andrew each, one of my fowling pieces, &c. To Steel McClean and son Andrew each a pair of silver buckles.” Dated May 24, 1779–2 Codicils, July 2, 1779. Penns. Arch. 5th Ser. Vol. 1, p. 31, 46, 99, 109, 132. [end of excerpt] [Excerpt from Biographical Annals of Cumberland County Pennsylvania]

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