Fighting Parson John Elder

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John Rev. Elder

Also Known As: "John Rev. /Elder/", "John /Elder/"
Birthplace: Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
Death: Died in Paxton, Dauphin, Pennsylvania, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Robert Elder and Eleanor Elder
Husband of Mary Elder and Mary Elder
Father of Sarah Wallace; Ann Stephens; John Elder, Jr.; Mary Wilson; Jane Elder and 11 others
Brother of Robert Elder; Thomas Elder; David Elder; James Elder and Ann Elder

Occupation: Colonel, Presbyterian Parson
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Fighting Parson John Elder

Rev. John ElderRev. John Elder (b. January 26, 1705/06, d. July 17, 1792)

John Elder (son of Robert Elder and Eleanor Gillespie) was born January 26, 1705/06 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and died July 17, 1792 in Paxtang Twp., Dauphin Co., Pennsylvania. He married (1) Mary Baker on August 13, 1741 in Dauphin Co., Pennsylvania. He married (2) Mary Simpson on November 05, 1751 in Paxtang, PA, daughter of Thomas Simpson.

Includes NotesNotes for John Elder:

Note: Graduated from the University of Edinburg where he received aclassical education. Subsequently, he has studied divinity and, in 1732, was licensed to preach the gospel. He came to America as a regularly licensed minister and was received by the Presbytery of New Castle, but on October 5, 1737, was transferred to the Presbytery of Donegal. He served Paxtang Church, organized in 1729, for one year on probation. On April 12, 1738, he accepted a call to this church and, on November 22 of that year, was installed as pastor. Among those who signed his call were John Gray, Alex Johnston, and Alex Johnson. Later, John Elder assumed the pastorate of Derry Church organized in 1714. He continued to serve Paxtang and Derry from the time they were organized until 1736, considered as branches of the same congregation, until April 13, 1791, or two years before he died at the age of 86.

Elder, John, son of Robert Elder, who came from Lough Neagh, county Antrim, Ireland, to Pennsylvania in 1730, was born January 26, 1706, in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland; died July 17, 1792, in Paxtang township, Dauphin county, Pa. He received a classical education and graduated from the University at Edinburgh. He subsequently studied divinity, and in 1732 was licensed to preach the gospel. Four or five years later, the son followed the footsteps of his parents and friends, and came to America. Coming as a regularly licensed minister, he was received by New Castle Presbytery, having brought credentials to that body, afterwards to Donegal Presbytery, on the 5th of October, 1737. Paxatang congregation having separated from that of Derry in 1735, and Rev. Mr. Bertram adhering to the latter, left that of Paxtag vacant, and they were unanimous in giving Rev. John Elder a call. This he accepted on the 12th day of April, 1738, and on the 22nd of November following he was ordained and installed, the Rev. Samuel Black presiding.

The early years of Mr. Elders ministry were not those of ease; for in the second year the Whitefield excitement took a wide spread over the Presbyterian Church. He preached against this religious furore, or the "great revival," as it was termed, and for this he was accused to the Presbytery of propagating "false doctrine." That body cleared him, however, in December, 1740; "but a separation was made," says Webster, "and the conjunct Presbyters answered the supplications sent to them the next summer by sending Campbell and Rowland to those who forsook him. He signed the protest. His support being reduced, he took charge of the Old Side portion of the Derry congregation."

Following closely upon these ecclesiastical troubles came the French and Indian war. Associations were formed throughout the Province of Pennsylvania for the defense of the frontiers, and the congregations of Mr. Elder were prompt to embody themselves. Their minister became their leader their captain and they were trained as scouts. He superintended the discipline of his men, and his mounted rangers became widely known as the "Paxtang Boys."

During two summers, at least, every man who attended Paxtang church carried his rifle with him, and their minister took his. Subsequently, he was advanced to the dignity of colonel by the Provincial authorities, the date of his commission being July 11, 1763. He had command of the block-houses and stockades from Easton to the Susquehanna. The governor, in tendering this appointment, expressly stated that nothing more would be expected of him than the general oversight. "His justification," says Webster, "lies in the crisis of affairsBay at York, Steele at Conecocheague, and Griffith at New Castle. with Burton and Thompson, the church missionaries at Carlisle headed companies and were actively engaged."

During the latter part of the summer of 1763, many murders were committed in Paxtang, culminating in the destruction of the Indians on Conestoga Manor at Lancaster. Although the men composing the company of Paxtang men who were exterminated the murderous savages referred to belonged to his obedient and faithful rangers, it has never been proven that he Rev. Mr. Elder had previous knowledge of the plot formed, although the Quaker pamphleteers of the day charged him with aiding and abetting the destruction of the Indians.

"Colonel Elder under the date of September 13, 1763, thus wrote to Governor Hamilton, "I suggest to you the propriety of an immediate removal of the Indians from Conestoga and placing a garrison in their room. In case this is done, I pledge myself for the future security of the frontiers."

Subsequently, on taking charge of the executive affairs of the Province in October, Governor John Penn replied as follows: "The Indians of Conestoga have been represented as innocent, helpless and dependent on this government for support. The faith of this government is pledged for their protection. I cannot remove them without adequate cause. The contract made with William Penn was a private agreement, afterwards confirmed by several treaties. Care has been taken by the Provincial committee that no Indians but our own visit Conestoga. Whatever can be faithfully executed under the laws shall be as faithfully performed;" and yet Governor Penn in writing to Thomas Penn afterwards used this language: "Many of them," referring to the frontier inhabitants, "have had wives and children murdered and scalped, their houses burnt to the ground, their cattle destroyed, and from as easy, plentiful life are now become beggars. In short. not only in this Province, but in the neighboring governments is the spirit of the people inveterate against the Indians."

John Harris had previously made a similar request: "The Indians here, I hope your honor will be pleased to be removed to some other place, as I don't like their company."

The Rangers finding appeals to the authorities useless, resolved on taking the law into their own hands. Several Indian murderers had been traced to Conestoga, and it was determined to take them prisoners. Captain Stewart, whose men ascertained this fact, acquainted his colonel of the object, who seemed rather to encourage his command to make the trial, as an example was necessary to be made for the safety of the frontier inhabitants. The destruction of the vConestogas was not then projected. That was the result of the attempted capture. Parkman and Webster, following Rupp, state that Colonel Elder, learning of an intent to destroy the entire tribe, as they were about to set off rode after them commanding them to desist, and that Stewart threatened to shoot his horse. Such was not the case. From a letter dated Paxtang, December 16, 1763, written to Governor Penn, he says: "On receiving intelligence the 13th inst., that a number of persons were assembled on purpose to go and cut the Conestoga Indians, in concert with Mr. Forster, the neighboring magistrate, I hurried off an express with written message to that party 'entreating them to desist from such an undertaking, representing to them the unlawfulness and barbarity of such an action; that it's cruel and unchristian in its nature, and would be fatal in its consequences to themselves and families; that private persons have no right to take the lives of any under the protection of the Legislature; that they must, if they proceeded in that affair, lay their accounts to meet with a severe prosecution, and become liable even to capital punishment; that they need not expect that the country would endeavor to conceal or screen them from punishment, but that they would be detected and given up to the resentment of the government.' These things I urged in the warmest terms in order to prevail with them to drop the enterprise, but to no purpose."

Not to be deterred, the Rangers reached the Indian settlement before daylight. The barking of some dogs discovered them and a number of strange Indians rushed from their wigwams, brandishing their tomahawks. This show of resistance was sufficient for the Rangers to make use of their arms. In a few moments every Indian present fell before the unerring fire of the brave frontiersmen. The act accomplished, they mounted their horses and returned severally to their homes. Unfortunately a number of the Indians were absent from Conestoga, prowling about the neighborhing settlements, doubtless on predatory excursions. The destruction at the Manor becoming known, they were placed in the Lancaster work-house for protection. Among these vagabonds were two well known to Parson Elder's scouts."

When the deed was done, and the Quaker authorities were determined to proceed to extreme lengths with the participants, and denounced the frontiersmen as "riotous and murderous Irish Presbyterians," he took sides with the border inhabitants, and sought to condone the deed. His letters published in connection with the history of that transaction prove him to have been a man judicious, firm and decided. During the controversy which ensued, he was the author of one of the pamphlets: "Letter from a Gentleman in one of the Back Counties to a Friend in Philadelphia." He was relieved from his command by the governor of the Province, who directed that Major Asher Clayton take charge of the military establishment. Peace, however, was restored not only in civil affairs, but in the church.

The union of the synods brought the Rev. Mr. Elder into the same Presbytery with Messrs. John Roan, Robert Smith and George Duffield, they being at first in a minority, but rapidly settling the vacancies with New Side men. By the leave of the Synod, the Rev. Mr. Elder joined the Second Philadelphia Presbytery May 19, 1768, and on the formation of the General Assembly, became a member of Carlisle Presbytery. At the time the British army overran New Jersey, driving before them the fragrants of our discouraged, naked, and half-starved troops, and without any previous arrangement, the Rev. Mr. Elder went on Sunday as usual to Paxtang church. The hour arrived for church service, when, instead of a sermon, he began a short and hasty prayer to the Throne of Grace; then called upon the patriotism of all effective men present, and exhorted them to aid in support of libertys cause and the defense of the country.

In less than thirty minutes a company of volunteers was formed. Col. Robert Elder, the parsons eldest son, was chosen captain. They marched next day, though in winter. His son John, at sixteen years, was among the first. His son Joshua, sub-lieutenant of Lancaster county, could not quit the service he was employed in, but sent a substitute. Until his death, for a period of sixty-five years, he continued the faithful minister of the congregations over which he had been placed in the prime of his youthful vigor, passing the age not generally allotted to man that of fourscore and six years. His death was deeply lamented far and wide. Not one of all those who had welcomed him to his early field of labor survived him.

Charles Miner, the historian of Wyoming gives this opinion of Rev. John Elder: "I am greatly struck with the evidences of learning, talent, and spirit displayed by him. He was, beyond doubt, the most extraordinary man of Eastern Pennsylvania. I hope some one may draw up a full memoir of his life, and a narrative, well digested, of his times He was a very extraordinary man, of most extensive influence, full of activity and enterprise, learned, pious, and a ready writer. I take him to have been of the old Cameroninan blood. Had his lot been cast in New England, he would have been a leader of the Puritans."

He had, with one who well remembered the old minister, "a good and very handsome face. His features were regular no one prominent good complexion, with blue eyes He was a portly, long, straight man, over six feet in height, large frame and body, with rather heavy legs He did not talk broad Scotch, but spoke much as we do now, yet grammatically." His remains quietly repose amid the scenes of his earthly labors, in the burying-ground of old Paxtang church, by the side of those who loved and revered him. Over his dust a marble slab bears the inscription dictated by his friend and neighbor, William Maclay, first United States senator from Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Mr. Elder was twice married; married, first, in 1740 Mary Baker, born 1715, in county Antrim, Ireland; died June 12, 1749, in Paxtang; daughter of Joshua Baker, of Lancaster, Pa. He married, secondly, Mary Simpson, born 1732, in Paxtang; died October 3, 1786; daughter of Thomas and Sarah Simpson.

Transcribed by: Lynne Ranieri

rom page 169

1790: The census of 1790 lists only two heads of families in Randolph County by the name of Elder, John Elder and James Elder. John is accredited with four boys under sixteen years old and two females, including the female head.

Known as the fighting parson of the French and Indian Wars.

Famous "fighting parson" and organizer of the Paxton Boys. Born and educated in Scotland, was a pastor of Paxton Church from 1738-179 1. A staunch supporter of the Revolution, he recruited for the army.

John Elder, second son of Robert Elder, Sr., was born in Edinburg, Scotland, 1706. John Elder won distinction as a colonel in the revolutionary war. He received a classical education and graduated from the University of Edinburg. He subsequently studied divinity, and in 1732 was licensed to preach the gospel. In 1836, four years afterwards, he followed in the footsteps of his parents and came to America. The Paxtang Church gave him a unanimous call, which he accepted, but trouble soon arose. The Whitfield excitement or revival spread over the Presbyterian church and Mr. Elder preached against it. He was accused of preaching false doctrine; he was tried by the presbytery, which sustained him. The Whitfield followers separated from him. Following these ecclesiastical troubles came the French and Indian war. Associations were formed throughout the province of Pennsylvania for the defense of the frontiers, and the congregations were prompt to embody themselves. Rev. John Elder became their leader and captain, and they were trained as scouts. He superintended the discipline of the men, and his mountain rangers were known as they Paxtan boys. During two summers at least, every man who attended church carried his trusty rifle with him, also the minister took his. Subsequently he was advanced to the dignity of colonel by the the Provincial authorities, his commission being dated July 11, 1763. He had charge of all the block houses from Easton to the Susquehanna river. At the outbreak of the revolution, when the British army overran New Jersey, driving before them our half-starved soldiers, Rev. Elder went to church one Sabbath as usual. He began with a hasty prayer, then called upon the patriotism of all effective men present and exhorted them to aid in the spirit of liberty's cause and defense of their country. In less than thirty minutes a company of volunteers was formed, Colonel Robert Elder, the pastor's son, was chosen captain, and his son John, then sixteen years old, was the first to enlist; they marched the following day. His son John was a lieutenant and afterwards judge of Mifflin county. The Historian of Wyoming county says that Colonel John Elder was beyond doubt the most extraordinary man of eastern Pennsylvania. He had great influence, was full of activity and enterprise and was a learned, pious, fearless and ready writer. Over his grave is a marble slab dedicated by his friend and neighbor, William Maclay, the first United States senator from Pennsylvania; it bears the following inscription: "The body of John Elder lies under this slab, born 1706, died 1792, aged eighty-six. Sixty years he filled the sacred character as minister of the Gospel, fifty-six of which he officiated at Paxtang."

John Elder House - 2426 Ellerslie Street.

Oldest building in the City of Harrisburg erected circa. 1740 by Rev. John Elder. Served as the 18th Century parsonage for Elder’s Paxton Presbyterian Church in neighboring Paxtang. Church’s roots predate the founding of Harrisburg. Home remains a private residence.

Rev. John Elder, the pastor of the church in Paxtang and Derry congregations, was also the pastor of a congregation in Mecklenburg Co., NC (part of which is now SC), in which the four brothers Robert (Hannah), Samuel (Martha Wilson, widow), Walter, and William Cowden all owned land, and later Rev. John Elder bought land from Robert Cowden, the deed of which wasn't filed until many years after Robert Cowden died. There is also one time in which Matthew Cowden did business with Samuel Cowden, if I remember right, in Rowan or Iredell Co., NC, and Walter Cowden traveled to Rowan to collect for his brother Samuel Cowden who was a merchant. This seems to hint that the families were related in some way.

Elder, John, was born in the County of Antrim, Ireland, in the year 1706. His father, Robert Elder, migrated to America about the year 1780, and settled a few miles North of what is now Harrisburg, Pa. He brought all his family with him, except his son John, the oldest of his children, who was loft with his uncle, the Rev. John Elder, of Edinburgh, to complete his studies for the ministry. He (the son) was licensed to preach in the year 1732; and, some time after, (probably in 1786,) agreeably to previous arrangements, followed his father and family to America. In August 1737, the churches in Pennsboro and Paxton, Pa., applied to the Newcastle Presbytery for a candidate, and Mr. Elder was sent in answer to the request. On the 12th of April 1738, the people of Paxton and Derry invited him to become their pastor; and, about the same time, he was called to one or two other places. He accepted the call from Paxton and Derry, and was ordained and installed on the 22d of November following.

As Mr. Elder resided on the frontier of the Province, the members of his congregation were generally trained as "Rangers" in defense against the Indians. Many a family mourned for its head, shot down by a concealed foe, or carried away captive. The men were accustomed to carry their rifles with them, not only to their work in the field, but to their worship in the sanctuary; and their worthy minister kept his beside him in the pulpit. It was no uncommon occurrence for death to overtake them, as they returned from the public services of the Sabbath to their scattered plantation. In 1750, the meeting-house was surrounded with Indians, while Mr. Elder was preaching; but the spies having noticed the largo number of rifles that the hearers had brought for their defense, the party silently withdrew from their ambush, without making an attack. In 1757, an attack was actually made, as the people were leaving the church, and two or three were killed. During the summer, they had some security by means of the visits of friendly Indians; but, at other seasons of the year, murders frequently occurred, and they found it impossible to discover the criminals. Mr. Elder himself superintended the military discipline of his people, and became Captain of the mounted men, widely known as the "Paxton boys." He afterwards held a Colonel's commission in the provincial service, and had the command of the blockhouses and stockades from the Susquehanna to Easton. His apology for this extraordinary course lies in the extraordinary state of things which led to it. It is not easy to overestimate the suspense and terror in which the inhabitants of that frontier region lived from 1754 to 1703. Elder besought the Governor to remove the Conestoga Indians, because they harbored murderers; and he engaged, if this wore done, to secure the frontier without expense to the Province. This being refused, a party of his Rangers determined to destroy the tribe; and they called on Elder to take the lead in the enterprise. He was then in his fifty-seventh year. Mounting his horse, he commanded them to desist, and reminded them that the execution of their purpose would inevitably involve the destruction of the innocent with the guilty; but their prompt reply was--" Can they be innocent who harbor murderers?"-at the same time, pointing indignantly to instances in which their wives and mothers had been massacred, and the criminals traced to the homes of the Conestoga's. He still earnestly opposed the measure, and at last placed himself in the road, that they might see that they could advance only by cutting him down. When he saw that they were preparing to kill his horse, and that all his entreaties were entirely unavailing, he withdrew and left them to take their own course. The persons engaged in this desperate enterprise, wore chiefly Presbyterians, who resided in that neighborhood, and not a few of them were men far advanced in life. They performed their work thoroughly and mercilessly, destroying in Lancaster and Conestoga, every Indian they could find. On the 27th of January, 1704, Elder wrote to Governor Penn, as follows:

The storm which had been so long gathering, has, at length, exploded. Had Government removed the Indians, which had been frequently, but without effect, urged, this painful catastrophe might have been avoided. What could I do with men heated to madness? All that I could do was done. I expostulated; but life and reason were set at defiance. Yet the men in private life are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful. The time will arrive when each palliating circumstance will be weighed. This deed, magnified into the blackest of crimes, shall be considered as one of those ebullitions of wrath, caused by momentary excitement, to which human infirmity is subjected."

The Indians were at length removed by the Governor, from every exposed place, to Philadelphia; and many apprehended that the "Paxton boys," in the overflowing of their wrath, would pursue them thither.

The Governor issued a proclamation, setting a reward on the head of one Stewart, supposed to be the ringleader, and some of his associates. Elder wrote to the Governor in their defense, stating the true character of the men, and the palliation, if not justifying, circumstances under which they acted. Several pamphlets were published, commenting on the case with great severity, and some of them representing the Irish Presbyterians as ignorant bigots or lawless marauders. But, amidst all the violent attacks and retorts, Elder is never stigmatized as abetting or conniving at the massacre; nor is his authority pleaded by the actors in their defense.

The union of the Synods brought Mr. Elder and the other members of Donegal Presbytery into the same body with the leading members of the "Now Side" Presbytery of Newcastle. For a while, they maintained, ostensibly, union of action; but, at length, the "Old Side" men withdrew from the Synod, on account of dissatisfaction in respect to certain cases of discipline, and formed themselves Into a separate Presbytery. They, however, finally returned, and were scattered, with their own consent, in Donegal, Newcastle, and Second Philadelphia Presbyteries.

Mr. Elder joined the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia, May 19, 1788. In the formation of the General Assembly, he became a member of the Presbytery of Carlisle. He died in the year 1792, at the age of eighty-six; having been a minister of the Gospel sixty years, and the minister of the Congregations in Paxton and Derry, fifty-six.

Mr. Elder was married, about the year 1740, to Mary, daughter of Joshua Baker, who was armorer under King George the Second; and, by this marriage, he had four children-two sons and two daughters. After her death, he was married to Mary, daughter of Thomas Simpson, and sister of General Michael Simpson, of Revolutionary memory, who was a Captain under General Montgomery, at Quebec. 13y his second marriage he had eleven children. The last of the whole number (fifteen) died in April, 1858, at Harrisburg, in his eighty-seventh year.

Abridged from Sprague's Annals of the American Pulpit.

John Elder was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on January 26, 1706 and came to America about 1735. He became a licensed minister and first took up the

pulpit at New Castle followed by a call to Donegal. In 1738 he accepted the call of the Paxtang Presbyterian congregation with whom his fame would

be forever associated. Pastor Elder's early years of ministry were not easy as a reformation was sweeping through the Presbyterian Church. Not a

man to back down from anything, Elder threw himself into the furor preaching against this great revival as it was called but earning himself enemies

within the church. Charges of preaching false doctrine were filed against him with the Presbytery but that governing body cleared him but troubles

within the church would continue to dog him for many years. Along with these troubles came the French and Indian War. The Paxtang congregation

formed their own company for the defense of the frontier. John Elder was elected captain of this company and thus the legend of Parson Elder was born.

Parson Elder, as he was now known, was a strict disciplinarian. His mounted rangers called the Paxtang Boys were a forced to be reckoned with on the

Pennsylvania frontier in 1763. For 2 years every adult male who attended Paxtang Church carried his rifle with him to services. Parson Elder took his,

often propping it beside him in the pulpit to keep it at hand. On July 11, 1762 Elder was promoted to the "dignity of Colonel" by Pennsylvania Provincial

authorities. His command consisted of all the forts and blockhouses from Easton to the Susquehanna River. In the late summer of 1763 there were many

persons killed by Indians around the Paxtang area and feeling against any Indians were running high. A group of friendly Conestoga Indians arrived in

Lancaster seeking protection from roving bands of rangers bent on revenge. The sheriff of Lancaster County not knowing what to do with this unwanted

guests clapped them into the Lancaster County jail. Word of Indians being housed in the jail was received at Paxtang and a body of Paxtang Boys went to

Lancaster. The jail was stormed by the Paxtang Boys that the unfortunate Indians were slaughtered. It has never been proven that Parson Elder had any

prior knowledge that these murders were to be committed but a local legend has it that he did and when he attempted to talk his rangers out of this plot

some of them paid a call on Parson Elder at his farm near the church and told him him that they expected him to accompany them on this raid and that if

he didn't they would kill an extremely fine horse the Parson owned and was proud of. The movie "Light In The Forest" staring James MacArthur,

Carol Lindely and Fess Parker was loosely based on the Paxtang Boys. The Lancaster episode brought Elder at odds with the strong Quaker influence and

he was relieved of his command by the governor of the Province. In 1768 Parson Elder left Paxtang and took up the call of the Second Philadelphia

Presbytery. In a few years he took over the pulpit at Carlisle so he could be closer to his Paxtang holdings but in a few years went to leave from call

to become a farmer. The revolutionary war was beginning and the British overran New Jersey. On a fine Sunday morning Parson Elder showed up as usual

at Paxtang Church but this time he ascended to the pulpit. He gave a call to the patriotism of the men extorted them to the defense of liberty. The

fire of Parson Elder still ran strong and in less than 30 minutes a company was formed. Elder's eldest son Robert was chosen captain. The company

departed for active service the next day. Once again Elder was commissioned colonel, this time by the Continental Congress but he only served a short

time as age was beginning to slow him down. He resigned his commission when the Paxtang Church summoned him to the pulpit for the second time. He took

up the charge on April 12, 1776 where he remained till his death July 17, 1792.

view all 25

Fighting Parson John Elder's Timeline

January 26, 1706
Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
Age 33
June 11, 1742
Age 36
Paxtang, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA
March 9, 1743
Age 37
Paxtang, Pennsylvania, USA
December 3, 1748
Age 42
Paxtang- Dauphin Co, Pa, Pennsylvania, USA
May 2, 1749
Age 43
Lancaster County, Pa, Pennsylvania, USA
October 19, 1752
Age 46
Paxtang- Dauphin Co, Pa, Pennsylvania, USA
October 8, 1754
Age 48
Paxtang, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA