The colonial historical fiction novel I’m currently writing is set in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1777. Because I want my book to accurately reflect the Scot-Irish Presbyterians who lived in that area during the colonial time period, I have visited a number of local historical sites. Come along with me as we visit the 179-year-old Warrior Run Presbyterian Church and learn about Pennsylvania’s Scot-Irish settlers.
By the early 1700s, large numbers of Scot-Irish Presbyterians began emigrating from Northern Ireland to the American Colonies. Many of those who arrived at Philadelphia or several ports in Delaware began moving into Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In addition to building homes there for themselves, they established Presbyterian churches which remain to this day.
In June, 1769, land in Northumberland County was made available for purchase. Many of the Scot-Irish sold their Lancaster County properties and bought land in this new area – then the unsettled frontier of the colonies. And being a godly people, they brought their Presbyterian faith with them.
The original Warrior Run Church was built about 1775. It was a log building situated next to where the Warrior Run Creek emptied into the Susquehanna River near present day Watsontown, Pennsylvania. In 1779, British-allied Seneca Indians burned down the log structure during the “Great Runaway” – a terrifying time in central Pennsylvania when settlers ran away from the area to escape marauding Indian war parties.
Once the threat of Indian attacks in Northumberland County had passed, the congregation rebuilt the church, but on land farther away from the creek and the river. This second building, also a log structure, was large enough to hold 300 worshippers. It burned to the ground in 1833, cause unknown.
Two years later, the congregation built the current building just feet away from where the second structure had stood. The congregants meant for their third building to last. Constructed with a limestone foundation and red brick walls, the one-story building is in the Greek Revival style.
Each of the church’s 13 windows contains 28 individual panes of original glass – a lavish expense when the rural church was built in 1835. As I looked through the windows, I noted the delightful bubbles and waves found in old glass.
The exterior shutters are functional. They were designed to be opened during warm weather to help cool the sanctuary and closed during winter to help keep the building warm.
The floor of the four-columned front portico is made from bricks and edged with limestone blocks.
Notice the herringbone pattern on the portico’s floor. Because limestone is plentiful in this section of Northumberland County, it was used as a base for the church’s foundation and porch.
On Sunday mornings, the congregants entered the large church via the two front doors.
The interiors of the old Presbyterian churches are austere. Because Presbyterians wanted to focus on worshipping God, their sanctuaries were devoid of “decorations” that could distract the people sitting in the pews.
Notice the lack of lighting inside the sanctuary. The Warrior Run Church never had electricity—or heat—installed. While the church is still used for special occasions, services are mostly held during the daytime in warmer months.
During the early 1800s, many members of rural Presbyterian churches actually paid rent in order to have their own pews. One of my Scot-Irish ancestors, Colonel John Kelly – a Revolutionary War officer from Northumberland County, rented Pew 33 in the nearby Buffalo Crossroads Presbyterian Church.
The main characters in my novel are Scot-Irish Presbyterians who purchased land in Northumberland County after leaving their home in Lancaster County. Their lives on the Pennsylvania frontier were fraught with danger. At times, it was difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy. In such a sparsely populated area, the lines between right and wrong, good and evil could easily have been blurred. When the Indians massacred their families and friends, no settler would have been criticized had they decided to quit and leave. But along with their unwavering Presbyterian faith, the determination to succeed that had accompanied their fathers from Scotland to Northern Ireland had traveled with the sons across the Atlantic. These new Americans brought that same persevering spirit with them when they moved into Pennsylvania’s wilderness – and when they chose to fight for American independence from Britain. During that dangerous and frightening era, the Scot-Irish Presbyterians set an exemplary example for us to follow in today’s unsettling times.
As we leave Warrior Run Presbyterian Church, please look in the background of the final photograph for a glimpse of the adjacent cemetery. In August, I will discuss how I found the names for the characters in my novel by walking through this cemetery.
Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter
Historic Warrior Run Presbyterian Church is located at 246 Warrior Run Boulevard, Turbotville, Pennsylvania.