Tuesday, August 30, 2011

White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church

White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
 In the early days of Mill Creek Hundred, two religious groups played major roles in the development of the area -- the English Quakers and the predominantly Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. By the early 1720's, the latter group had established two bases of worship in the hundred -- Red Clay Creek Church in the east and White Clay in the west. Since I've been slowly posting pictures of headstones from the White Clay Creek cemetery, I thought it was a good time to look at this 300 year old congregation, currently in its fourth church and second location.

White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church sits on the north side of Kirkwood Highway, at the base of Polly Drummond Hill Road. Before it was known as Polly Drummond Hill, though, the high ground to the north was called Meeting House Hill. The meeting house for which it was named was not where the present church is, but about a mile up the road, on Old Coach Road (actually, it's on an old section of the road now called Coach Hill Drive). As early as 1708, residents near White Clay Creek petitioned the Presbytery to be allowed to set up their own meeting house, but the New Castle church objected, not wanting their congregation to be split.

Finally, in about 1721, the local worshippers were allowed to form their own congregation, and they soon erected a small meeting house near the top of the hill, on land owned by Jonathan Evans. The exact date is unknown, but there is a reference to it being in place in June 1723. The first regular pastor at the church was Thomas Craighead, installed in September 1724. Rev. Craighead remained at White Clay until 1733, when he moved on to a church in Pennsylvania. His son Thomas, Jr. remained in the area, and shortly before his death in 1735, a second, larger meeting house was built on land donated by him. This second church, said to have been 25 by 40 feet in size and built to accommodate the growing congregation, was probably on the south side of the road, directly across from the wooded plot (still owned by the church) that contains the original cemetery.

The next full-time pastor was Rev. Charles Tennent, called to White Clay in 1737. Charles was the son of William Tennent, whose Log College in Bucks County, PA was somewhat of a predecessor of Princeton University. Tennent preached at White Clay for 26 years, and oversaw several major events during his tenure. The first of these events was possibly the largest single gathering in the hundred at the time, when in 1739 evangelist George Whitfield held a revival attended by up to ten thousand people. That estimate, of course, was Whitfield's own, but even if the real attendance was half that, it's still a staggering number for the area at the time.

The next event was a theological one within the Presbyterian Church, and was known as The Old Side-New Side Controversy. Rev. Tennent was on the New Side in the debate, not surprising considering that his father and brother were very much at the center of the New Side split. It was during this schism, which lasted from 1741-1758, that the last major event occurred. In May of 1752, Joseph England (who owned a mill just to the south) gave a plot of land to the supporters of Rev. Tennent for the construction of a new meeting house. This new church, as Scharf tells us, was a simple structure, 36 feet wide by 60 feet long, but would serve the congregation for over 100 years. In 1785, the plastered stone wall around the north and east sides of the lot was added.

The 1752 Meeting House, by Newark College professor Seth C. Brace, 1844
The next pastor at the church was Rev. John McCrery, who served from 1769-1800. The White Clay congregation seems to have declined for a time in the early 1800's, only to rebound by mid-century. Several pastors came and went, until in 1853 Rev. James Vallandigham was called to serve both White Clay Creek and Head of Christiana churches. Early in Rev. Vallandigham's tenure, which lasted until 1875, the congregation again outgrew their old meeting house. In 1855, the 103 year-old church was replaced with the larger, two-story brick structure we see today. It is not that much larger in footprint than the structure it replaced, only 45' x 63', but has the upper story that the old one lacked.

The church in 1958, before the addition of the steeple/elevator
The simple church has served its congregation for over 155 years now, and has seen many of the residents of western MCH and the Newark area worship inside it. Unlike many other churches of its time, this one has had only one relatively minor addition made to it in the past century and a half. In 1996, the tower and steeple were added to the south end of the building, primarily to house an elevator allowing easier access to the church's second floor balcony. With any luck, White Clay Creek Presbyterian's fourth church will continue to serve its community for many more years.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The Old Coach Road on which the first church sat was the original east-west route through western Mill Creek Hundred, pre-dating the "Road from Newark to Cuckoldstown (Stanton)" commissioned in 1768. This road would be laid out approximately where today's Kirkwood Highway/Old Capitol Trail is, and was positioned to go by the recently-built church.
  • I couldn't find anything that stated it specifically, but I got the impression that an Old Side congregation may have remained in the old meeting house after the new one was built in 1752. In fact, it seems that this is when Rev. William McKennan preached here. McKennan may have been the last to preach at the old meeting house up the hill. The "Old Siders" would have then rejoined their neighbors in the new church in 1759, after the reunification.
  • Oddly, like his predecessor Tennent, James Vallandigham also had a very controversial brother. Clement Vallandigham was one of the leaders of the Copperhead movement during the Civil War, and was an outspoken opponent of Lincoln and the war itself. He was eventually arrested for and convicted of "uttering disloyal sentiments". He was first sent to a military prison, then sent to the Confederacy. After his death in 1871 (and you have to read about that to believe it), his brother, Rev. James Vallandigham, wrote a very sympathetic biography of him.
  • The rather brief National Register of Historic Places form for the church states that there were two earlier churches on the present site -- one in 1752 and one in 1785. I've not seen that stated anywhere else, and I think they may have been confused by the stone wall, which was built in 1785.


  1. Scott, Interesting that Jonathan Evans owned the land on which the original church was built. I am fairly sure that this Jonathan Evans was the great grandfather of Mary “Polly” (Evans) Drummond, the woman for whom Polly Drummond Hill was named. She was the daughter of Theophilus Evans, son of Charles Evans, son of Jonathan Evans. She was married to James Drummond (about 1794- 9 JUN 1826) and as you probably know, had a hotel there. Donna P.

  2. Interesting! Now I know why the community of Meeting House Hill located just off Polly Drummond Hill Road has street names linked to the area's history (Old Side Court, New Side Court, etc). It's nice that the developer had an appreciation of local history.

  3. Anonymous -- Ha! Thanks for pointing that out. I know I had noticed there were some family names there, but I hadn't put the New Side/Old Side together (I didn't know about it until researching this). Note in the same development there is also Whitfield Rd, Rankin Rd, and McMechem Ct, among others, All names of families involved with the church. Sometimes it's surprising how many historical clues are buried in the map and in street names.

    Donna -- I had seen a little about Polly, and I'll probably write about her sometime, but I hadn't put her together with Jonathan Evans. Obviously, the family stuck around for a while.

    1. George Whitfield was a vibrant and at the time (1700's) famous pastor who traveled about the country side preaching, and even preached at White Clay. Francis Cooch has a wonderful description of this event in his book "Little Known History of Newark Delaware and its Environs" Wikipedia has a good summary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Whitefield

  4. trying to locate information about Dr. William McMechen and is wife Jennett (Claypoole) McMechen they are bureid in the cemetery. He was born in Ireland and his wife could have been Ireland as well married around 1704 not sure where but buried along with a David McMechen.
    thanks Peggy Boschen pboschen@sbcglobal.net

    1. Peggy, Not sure what you have or need. I have found 2 minor mentions of him in these 2 books:
      Title: History of the state of Delaware
      Authors: Conrad, Henry C., City of Publication: Wilmington, Del. :
      Publisher: The author, Date: 1908
      Page Count: 1316

      Title: Contributions to the early history of Bryan McDonald and family
      Authors: McDonald, Frank Virgil, City of Publication: San Francisco :
      Publisher: Winterburn & Co., printers and electrotypers, Date: 1879
      Page Count: 69
      If you have not seen them I can attach the images to an email. I have found references to his sons, such as: Publication: The Pennsylvania Gazette
      Date: September 15, 1748
      To be RENTED out, THE mills commonly known by the name of McMechen's Mills, upon Whiteclay Creek, all in new repair, and there is also a sawmill besides the two grist mills, well situated, within four miles of Christiana Bridge, which is the landing place. Any person that intends to rent them, may apply themselves to the subscriber, and know the terms on which he will rent them. William McMechen .
      Ther are a couple more later articles regarding this property, if you would like them.

    2. Thank you for such a quick response. and Yes would like a copy . things are confusing when one record has him as a doctor but not clear on what kind. anything you would be willing to share. Thanks Peggy. again email is pboschen@sbcglobal.net
      It is a shame how families move and members are lost from each other.

    3. Hi- I'm also looking for information on William McMechen and is wife Jennett (Claypoole) McMechen. Would love to have access to whatever you have. My email is TAYLORSUZL@verizon.net. Thanks!

  5. Have another question some one mentioned that William McMechen sold property and lived at Christiana Bridge What is this . Is this a town and bridge or a name of a building. I did find there was a bridge of this name.

    1. Christiana Bridge was the old name for the village later (and still) just called Christiana. It's on the Christina River, and in the 18th Century was at the head of navigation. That was the furthest that small ships could sail on the Christina, before having to unload their cargo onto wagons to be taken overland to the Elkton area for connection to the Chesapeake Bay.

      I believe that at least one of the properties in question is the Reese Jones House in Christiana. I took a quick look into this (and am still looking), and the first thing I'll say is that I think a lot of sites are confusing William Sr. and William Jr. William Sr. dies in 1738, but a lot of the stuff I found keeps talking about Dr. William McMechen well into the 1770's. I'm not sure, but there may even have been more than one William Jr. Very confusing.

  6. Here is William McMechen's gravesite;

  7. Very nice account. Is it known if any parish registers survived from the early period 1750 - 1790 or so?

  8. I don't know. You might want to try contacting the church directly, it looks like their general email is wccpc@wccpc.org. Was there anyone or anything in particular you were looking for?

  9. Thanks. I did find some records on the Delaware Archives but it appears there are only transcripts from the 1800's on. I will try to contact the church about the original records as you suggest.

    I am researching the Morrison and Culbertson families, who were in the area in the mid-to-late 1700's, before moving to Greene Co., PA. Robert Morrison married Elizabeth Culbertson around 1773, and her father was supposedly an elder of the White Clay Creek church, so I suppose the Culbertsons arrived before the Morrisons. Their first three children were born - and presumably baptised - there. According to family history, there was a major storm around 1785, and their property was destroyed. This led them to move westward to western Pennsylvania. Some of the Morrison brothers may have stayed in the area, but I have no info on that.