Fanning the flames of revolution from the Presbyterian Pulpit: John Glendy, Irish and American Revolutionary By Nancy Sorrells

A short while ago I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Sorrells of the Augusta county historical society in America. Next year will be their 50th anniversary and the society has expresed an interest in doing a link up with the Maghera Historical Society and the Maghera and District Genealogy & History Society. I would like to congratulate Denver and the other wonderful people who have put in a great amount of sterling research and work, making these pages such a pleasure. The connection between Maghera and the Augusta Historical society ranges in many ways; Like our own part of the world, they have links to the linen industry and also in the 1700’s many Maghera and district men put down their links in Augusta. One being, the Rev. John Glendy, the Presbyterian minister who became a united irish man and was exiled in 1798, Nancy has very kindly given me permission to publish her artical on Glendy which she spent many years researching. It’s very interesting reading and the Augusta Historical Society are also hoping to visit Maghera next year.

Fanning the flames of revolution from the Presbyterian Pulpit: John Glendy,

Irish and American Revolutionary

By Nancy Sorrells

It must have been an unusual sight: an elegantly dressed man, short in stature, but possessing a powerful air. His hair was fashionably curled and powdered, his complexion pale, and his eyes a piercing blue. The occasion was a presbytery meeting in Washington, D.C. and, as he climbed into the pulpit to deliver his oration, he was annoyed to discover that there was no footstool, something necessary to a man of his stature if he was to deliver a ringing and powerful oration. With little hesitation he reached for the large pulpit bible, placed it upon the floor and was thus able to deliver his sermon while standing on the holy book.
The next morning when he was light heartedly taken to task for such sacrilege by his fellow ministers, he responded in a manner that had come to be expected of the Reverend John Glendy. At the end of a rather long response delivered with “unusual gravity” according to contemporary accounts, “he added that he had stood upon the bible from his early years, almost from his cradle, that it was the basis of all his hopes and that by standing upon the Prophets and Apostles, in a higher sense.”
But John Glendy, an exile from his native Ireland, represented more than simply a lifetime of spreading the gospel. Rather, this pious revolutionary used the foundation of the Presbyterian Church to ignite the hearts of revolutionaries in whatever corner of the world he decided to preach. If indeed it was true that one Glendy descendent recently told me—that her grandmother always said it was that side of the family which had a predisposition for causing trouble—then John Glendy was born at the right time to swim in the current of a changing world when the tides of revolution were sweeping away an old order.
The Glendy (or Glendye) family probably came from the area around Angus in Scotland. The only occurrence of this rather rare surname is in that area. Sometime before 1755 Samuel Glendy had immigrated to Ulster and settled in a small village just outside of Londonderry. Whether Samuel was the immigrant or whether the Glendys had lived in Ulster for a generation or more is not certain. Samuel was John Glendys father; his mother, Mary, was said to be of unusual piety and possessed a keen intellect. From a early age, Glendy was directed towards the ministry. He was sent to Latin school and then to Scotland where he studied at the university of Glasgow. Upon his return to Ulster he made the acquaintance of the lord bishop at Londonderry who was so impressed with the young Glendy that he offered to take him along as a chaplain on a tour of Europe. The proposition came with a attachment: that Glendy forsake his Presbyterian roots and join the church of Ireland. Acceptance of the offer would have ensured Glendy a life of relative ease. A minister in the established church was guaranteed a living supported by through the tithes paid by all the people of Ireland. A mere ‘yes’ would have guaranteed him both political and social power and still given him the opportunity to preach the word of god.
For whatever reason, Glendy declined—a decision that set him on a far different path, one that would lead to revolution. His declining of the offer, however did not mean that he was to stubborn to get his father to pull strings in the Presbyterian circles. He was ordained by the presbytery of Londonderry. The year was a fateful one, 1777, and whispers of revolutionary ideas had been floating across the Atlantic for some time. A year earlier, in 1776, the Belfast newsletter in Ulster had published the “treasonous” declaration of independence which had been written by the continental congress in the American colonies. Samuel Glendy influence had procured john glendy a position as an assistant to the ageing Presbyterian minister, John smylie, in the rural village of Maghera in the county of Londonderry. Samuel had also procured a farm of about ten or twelve acres for his son. There Glendy with his wife Elizabeth Cresswell, set up housekeeping. By by 1780 Smylie was dead and Glendy could settle in to the task of replacing what had been a rather dilapidated meeting house with a new structure, and guiding the spiritual life of the of the community.
But this story does not end with a happily ever after in Ireland. Maghera was a small farming community of several hundred souls. The linen industry dominated the local economy and many in Glendys congregation were weavers. Was it chance of intention that caused Glendy to arrive here on the eve of such profound changes in the world order? One has to wonder. You see Maghera already had a claim to revolutionary fame-one that was certainly known in more educated circles of Ireland if not in Maghera as well. In 1729 Charles Thompson was born in the village, the third among six children. When he was about ten, his mother died. His father took the six children and immigrated to Pennsylvania. As the crossing neared its conclusion, john Thomson died leaving six orphans at the mercy of an unscrupulous shipmaster. The children were split up and Charles was apprenticed to a blacksmith. After running away he was taken in by county Donegal native and Presbyterian minister Francis Allison. Thomson attended Allison’s classical school and then secured work as a tutor in a Philadelphia academy. The president of that was Benjamin Franklin and the two men soon established a life-long friendship. A series of circumstances put Thomson in a position of negotiation with the Indians on the colonial frontier where he gained the respect of both the European and settlers and the native Americans, the latter calling him “the man who tells the truth” even though Franklin was in London during this time, Thomson kept his friend apprised of the situation and sent him letters and documents, which Franklin had published in England under Thomson’s name. In the years before the revolution, Thomson became the “eyes and ears” of the American public for Franklin who was in London. More than once while in Britain Franklin managed to get those letters concerning American thoughts and feelings regarding independence published. Thomson went on to become the secretary of the continental congress during the American Revolution.
So perhaps it was not chance that brought Glendy to the birthplace of one of Irelands more famous revolutionaries. Whether Thomson’s ideas had sprouted in Maghera or under the watchful eye of Allison in Pennsylvania might never be known. However, within a few years it became clear that Glendy was sympathetic toward the same types of ideas possessed by Thomson and his congregation supported his way of thinking as well. In 1780, the year that Glendy stepped into full leadership in the Maghera pulpit, a fear swept through Ireland of potential invasion by the French (who had joined the Americans in their fight against the British). Volunteer militias for homeland protection were created. Fear was not the only factor leading to the foundation of the Irish volunteers. Many were inspired by the American revolution and hoped to initiate democratic reforms such as the repeal of certain Parliamentary acts and the institutions of a secret vote. There were 40,000 members in 1790 and many adopted symbols depicting liberty.
In Maghera the Irish volunteers were established on nov. 12, 1780, commanded by Alexander Clark with Glendy as captain and chaplain. Soon the enthusiasm of the volunteers died down, but it became clear that the revolution that ended so successfully in America was brewing in Europe. By 1789 the French revolution was the headline news. In Maghera and elsewhere the old volunteer corps were reorganized with very strong connections to the French revolution. In Maghera the new militia was called the national guards, a thinly veiled French connection. It was said that Glendy served in the regiment and that he wore a uniform of green broadcloth faced in yellow and black with silver buttons engraved with the harp and shamrock spray and bearing the inscription “national guards of Ireland.”
For John Glendy, the separation between preaching the word of god and preaching revolution against oppression had blurred beyond recognition. Clearly the pulpit was his tool for spreading revolutionary ideas. That fact was born out in a December article in the northern star about one of Glendys sermons:
According to previous notice, sanctioned by the hearty concurrence of the whole worshipping society-a few individuals excepted, on whom the breath of the aristocracy had shed its baneful influence-the Presbyterian congregation of Maghera, assembled at their meeting house where our stated pastor, the Rev. john Glendy, exhibited on this great occasion distinguished abilities in a mainly, disinterested and public spirited manner, having displayed with perculiar energy the signal interposition of heaven on behalf of the French nation.
Although the writer of this article claimed the hearty concurrence of most of the congregation, there were those who were disturbed by Glendys words of what amounted to treason. One man in a nearby village wrote to the authorities:
Glendy of Maghera is tainted with the blackest of principles of revolution to king George the 3rd and all his loyal subjects in this kingdom. His many sermons are but discourses containing treason. We know that he and many so-called members of his meeting attended at mass in full regimentals of a rebel army out of the king’s peace. We have seen him on divers occasions with the popish priest of Magherafelt in that union of the Romish church, with whom he does conspire against this realm. In the delivery of a discourse in the Meeting House, papists were present. On the pulpit was printed in black letters “Vive La Republique,” out of honor to the blood revolution in France.
Glendy was a united Irishman, one whom gave credit for composing that organizations oath. When the 1798 rebellion occurred, glendy found himself accused of treason. Although he vehemently denied taking part in the rebellion itself, he certainly was one of the agitators responsible for fanning those short-lived revolutionary flames the rebellion of 1798 began in may in Wexford and spread across Ireland. Some 30,000 Irishmen were killed before the uprising was squelched. The rebellion manifested itself in Maghera as the battle of Maghera, a short-lived affair consisting of hundreds of united Irishmen, mostly armed with pikes, pitchforks, and spades who held the village on june 7, 1798. the next morning when british troops appeared, the insurgents disbanded. There is no evidence that glendy took part in the battle and, in fact, he denied that he did. Certainly he was responsible for exhorting the rebels the rebels in months before battle. Whether or not he actually raised arms against the British, they targeted him for his inflammatory actions. His house and church were burned and he and his family fled. Legends abound about his escape in woman’s clothing. Eventually he turned himself in, was tried for sedition and exiled. In the fall of 1798, together with his wife and several children, he sailed for Norfolk. Other united Irish sympathizers in his family including his brother, William, his unmarried sister, Ellen, and his sister and brother in-law Nancy and Robert Guy, would follow them to America.
The passage to America aboard a leaky ship was not pleasant. The passengers on Glendys ship were exiles, much like those on the harmony, where:
The greater number of us have been literally transported from his Britannic majesty’s dominions under the sentence of court martial, or obliged to fly to avoid instant death by military execution, which is now carrying on in all parts of that unfortunate Ireland, in order to check the revolution which British tyranny has produced and long insulted humanity has loudly called for.
After an arduous voyage in which the passengers were forced to man the pumps in order to keep the ship afloat, Glendy’s vessel came into port at Norfolk. The grateful captain asked Glendy to preach a sermon of thanksgiving at the local courthouse. There Glendys oratory skills caught the attention of several of the states prominent political leaders. According to a family story, the climate in Norfolk did not agree with mrs. Glendy’s health and the family went to Staunton, in Augusta county, Virginia (in the Shenandoah valley) upon the advice of her physician.
Once in Augusta County, Glendy was appointed by the Lexington presbytery in 1799 to supply the congregations of Bethel, Hebron and Staunton all of which were without ministers at that time. Soon his brother and sister and their families followed and settled in the western part of the County. Glendy purchased a 274-acre farm near Christians Creek, a more central location, and settled his family there. Again the question must be asked: did the Glendy clan come to the Staunton area by chance or was there a known draw? Actually there could be several. It is interesting, for one, that Charles Thomson’s niece, Elizabeth Pilson, was a member of the Bethel congregation, the Pilsons having been established in that area since the 1750s. Additionally, chancery court documents show that members of Glendy’s congregation in Maghera, had proceeded him to the Staunton area. Glendy’s deposition in the case reveal that he knew members of the family in Ireland and of their relatives living in Augusta County. And, although he did not know that man personally in Ireland, he met him in Virginia and understood that he was the same person who once had been a member of Maghera congregation. Additionally, one man in the case, William Campbell, had been Glendys singing clerk in Maghera, had immigrated to Augusta County before Glendy, and was again his singing clerk in Staunton. “the said William came to America some years before this deponent (Glendy). That when the deponent settled in Staunton sometime before the said William the son departed this life, he found him an inhabitant of this Country, and he again officiated as his clerk in staunton.”
Almost certainly it is more than recommendation of a doctor that brought Glendy to Staunton. However, it was his ability at speaking and his use, once again, of his position as a Presbyterian minister that ensured that his time in Staunton would be a brief four years. Although he could only have been in the Shenandoah Valley a few months, Glendy’s reputation as a speaker must have proceeded him because he was asked by local revolutionary war veterans, to give a oration on the death of George Washington on February 22nd 1800. the speech was so well received that several benefactors paid for it to be printed and distributed. It eventually went through two editions.
More than likely it was this speech that caught the attention of Tomas Jefferson although it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the two men had already became acquainted. Jefferson invited Glendy to visit Washington and speak at the capital. That oration drew a great deal of interest and he was invited to speak at the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, recently vacant from the death of the Rev. Dr. Allison (Charles Thomson’s mentor). He was considered a candidate to fill that pulpit, but another was called instead. However, many of the prominent men of Baltimore remembered him and called him to be inducted as pastor at the newly-formed second Presbyterian in 1803. his connections with Jefferson remained strong. At least five letters between the two men survive. The earliest, in December of 1801, is from Glendy to Jefferson. Glendy sends best wishes for Jefferson’s administration, but laments what is happening, by contrast, in his native land. “my heart bleeds for my desecrated country” wrote glendy
In 1805, Jefferson jotted a quick note in response to some inquires made by the minister. In 1814, Jefferson sent Glendy a note by of introduction for a lecturer he sent north on tour, finally, in 1815, Glendy noted that he had just spent the night with U.S. President James Madison and was traveling to Staunton and then Charlottesville before returning to Baltimore. While in Charlottesville he planned to, occupy the bench in the court-house of his town as an itinerant preacher on a Sunday the 8th day of October…could I have the honor of your sitting under my ministry on the occasion.?” Later, Jefferson sent Glendy a note of regret for missing the. Occasion. “the loss of the pleasure of hearing you is the more regretted,” noted Jefferson.
Jefferson’s influence coupled with Glendy’s obvious oratory skill had made Glendy one of the best-known preachers in the nation. In 1806 he was chosen as the chaplain of the U.S. Congress. In 1815 he was selected as chaplain of the to the U.S. Senate as well. In 1822 the university of Maryland gave him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.
Despite his exile from Ireland, Glendy maintained connections to his native land. That was clear in the chancery case when he added in his deposition that he would endeavor to “procure an account of the amount of said estate and transmit the same to Ireland together with the news of the untimely death of the deceased.” Memory of his work in Maghera persisted at least until the 1830s when the ordnance surveyors came through and wrote about him in the Londonderry reports. When Glendy died in 1832, his death was reported in at least two Irish newspapers. The Belfast commercial chronicle noted:
At Philadelphia, in October last, at an advanced age, the Rev. John Glendy. Doctor of divinity for upwards of twenty years minister of the congregation of Maghera Co Derry, and latterly of the city of Baltimore of the united states. In the unfortunate distraction of 1798, he was obliged to leave his native country. He was first settled in America as minister of Staunton, in Virginia, and afterwards removed to Baltimore. In the Country of his adoption, he was highly esteemed by all classes, and could number among his friends and admirers the late President Jefferson, with whom he became early acquainted and who, till the close of his life, uniformly treated him kindness and attention. He was for several years, one of the ministers appointed to preach before Congress. His remains were conveyed to Baltimore and attended to the grave a large number not only of the congregation with which he had been for upwards of 30 years usefully connected, but by a large concourse of the most respectable inhabitants of that city.
From what higher place than the halls of the U.S. Capital could a minister ever aspire to speak about revolution, Liberty, and republicanism? In sixteen years John Glendy went from Irish exile to chaplain of the U.S. Senate and his fame continued until his death. It was a rise that was made possible by standing atop the bible that was his foundation in life. From atop that bible he was able to fan the flames of revolution in Ireland and America.