Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reverend William McKennan

Headstone of Rev. McKennan, Red Clay Creek Church

Being right in the middle of the holiday season, it seems appropriate to do a post now about a religious figure, so I've picked the one whose name is probably most familiar to area residents -- Reverend William McKennan. He was mentioned before in the post about the McKennan-Klair House, which he occupied for over forty years, but now we'll look a bit closer at one of the most influential and long-tenured men to ever preach in Mill Creek Hundred.

William McKennan was born in 1719 in the north of Ireland of Scotch-Irish descent, much like many of his future congregants. When exactly he emigrated to America seems to be in question. Some sources cite 1730, but I'm inclined to think 1750 is more likely, since there seems to be no record of him here before then. Actually, there doesn't seem to be much information about his early life at all, until he became a Presbyterian minister sometime before May 1752. The Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia it seems had taken responsibility for supplying pastors for churches in what must have then been frontier regions in Virginia and North Carolina, and Rev. McKennan was one of the ministers sent. He spent much of 1752 in the Shenandoah Mountain region of Virginia, near Staunton. In the spring of 1755, he spent three months in North Carolina.

While in Virginia, it's likely that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Wilson of Winchester. I doubt they married while he was down there, seeing as how, if what I found is accurate, she was only 8 years old at the time. More likely, they met (or he met her family) while he was there, and she came up to Delaware a few years later after he had settled down. That settling down began in December 1755, when he became the full-time pastor at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, on the road that would one day bear his name. He was probably married in 1758, as his first child, a son named William, was born that year. Daughter Elizabeth arrived the next year, followed by sons John and James. I don't know where he lived for his first ten years at Red Clay, but in 1765 he purchased John Ball's old house on Limestone Road. He would call this home for the rest of his life.

As was common at the time, Rev. McKennan preached at several different churches during his life. In addition to serving Red Clay, he was also pastor at the Old First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, once on Market Street and now along the banks of the Brandywine. He preached there from about 1760 to 1795, when he asked to be relieved of his duty due to differences between himself, some of the congregation, and another minister. Later in his life, he also served White Clay Presbyterian, probably in the 1790's and early 1800's*. McKennan was also one of the first trustees of the Newark Academy, forerunner of the University of Delaware. This really shouldn't be too surprising, though, seeing as the academy was a Presbyterian school at the time, and most of the trustees were local ministers.

Rev. McKennan served the Presbyterian community in eastern MCH for almost 55 years, in that time becoming one of the most trusted and respected members of the community. It was through his efforts that Red Clay's first church was erected, in 1761. Before long, the little "Church on the Hill" was locally known as "McKennan's Church", which would eventually become the name of the road that led to it. It must have been quite a blow to the congregation when the 90 year old pastor died in May 1809. As his epitaph reads, "He taught the Doctrines of his Redeemer with plainness, simplicity, and sincerity. He never said to the poor and stranger be ye fed and be ye clothed and warmed. His heart was opened to the distressed; his table was spread for the stranger." He was obviously well-loved by all.

Besides the eponymous road, the McKennan name would live on prominently, though, through the next few generations of the family. William McKennan, Jr. was a Captain in the Delaware Regiment during the Revolutionary War, seeing action in numerous battles including Brandywine, Germantown (at which he sustained an injury that would lead to his death in 1810), and Yorktown. He also served in the Delaware Legislature. His son, Thomas McKean Thompson McKennan was a prominent lawyer in western Pennsylvania. He was politically minded, too, and served as a Congressman from PA, was a presidential elector, and served as President of the Pennsylvania Electoral College in 1848. In 1850 he was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Fillmore, but resigned a few weeks later. Finally, his son William was very active in the Republican Party in Pennsylvania in the 1850's and 1860's, and served as a Federal Circuit Court Judge from 1869 to 1891. So as you can see, Reverend William McKennan not only served as an inspiration for his own congregation in Mill Creek Hundred, his descendants carried on his spirit of public service for the better part of another century.

* -- According to a book about the church (which, naturally, I didn't remember I had until after  had finished the post), McKennan was installed simultaneously at White Clay and Red Clay on December 17, 1755. Although his connection with White Clay was never officially dissolved, it seems that he likely never preached there after about 1758, due to the schism going on within Presbyterianism at the time. When he began splitting his time between Red Clay and First Presbyterian in Wilmington in 1760, it was because Red Clay allowed it due to the congregation "Being greatly weakened by several deaths and removals." In other words, the church wasn't big enough to support him full-time anymore.


  1. A note to the Gentleman who emailed me about the McKennan family, if he should happen to see this:

    I wasn't able to find much else, but I did attempt to send you what I could find. For some reason, though, the emails are bouncing back to me. If you catch this, email me again and I'll try to resend them. Thanks.

  2. Which McKennan was the namesake for McKennan Reef in the South China Sea? Please reply to yangguei@hotmail.com

    1. Sorry, I don't know of any connection to anyone from this area.

  3. this is my 6th great grandfather, thanks for sharing!