As were many of the early Presbyterians that built the denomination in America, John Ross was from Ireland. He was born July 23, 1783, into a Roman Catholic home in Dublin where he was orphaned at a young age. When he was in his late teens, John left Ireland headed for England in hope of better opportunities. He was about eighteen years of age when he arrived in Liverpool where he sought a trade and became a shoemaker’s apprentice. However, his youth and strength made him a good candidate for the British Navy, so he was impressed into its service three separate times. In the first two, he managed to escape and return to Liverpool. By the time he was impressed the third time he had completed his apprenticeship and used his capture for free passage to America via the West Indies. He was able to escape the British ship and conceal himself in an American vessel that landed at New London, Connecticut. John was hatless, shoeless, and broke. The story seems to be straight from Robert Louis Stevenson, but it is doubtful that young John found his impressed work and escapes particularly romantic.
He began his life in the new nation by practicing his trade as a cobbler. Roman Catholicism was his religion by default because he knew nothing else, but through gospel influences of colleagues and friends, he came to understand his need for Jesus Christ for redemption from sin. Through the financial assistance of a local women’s association he was able to pursue the education he needed to be fully equipped academically for his call to the ministry. He first attended Middlebury College in Vermont, and then studied divinity at Princeton Seminary beginning in 1813. He was a member of the second class at Princeton where he enjoyed the oversight of at first, only Archibald Alexander, but then the faculty was doubled later that year when Samuel Miller was added.
After completing his studies in the seminary he married at Stonington, Connecticut, and then went to Philadelphia where he worked for about three months as a missionary in the suburbs. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Redstone in 1817 for his call in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He moved on to work at Gallipolis, Ripley, and the Jersey settlement in Butler County, Ohio, from which he moved on to the church in Richmond, Indiana. During his service to the Richmond Church he moved to a farm where he lived for sixteen years. When he left the Richmond Church after five years, he supplied pulpits as he was able. Even though he is listed in many of the reports to General Assembly as without call, he was not without opportunities to supply churches. He traveled often from his farm and preached in villages, towns, and forts in the area.
It is believed that John Ross was the first Presbyterian minister to preach at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and in those days, it was truly Fort Wayne. Currently, there is a reconstruction of the fort that existed at the time of Rev. Ross’s ministry to the settlement. The original fort was built by Major John Whistler in 1816. At the time, Rev. Ross lead the service at Fort Wayne he found in the settlement about one hundred fifty residents.
Looking back on his experiences regarding that first trip to Fort Wayne in a letter of November 1859, he described the difficulties he encountered in his journey to the settlement. Rev. Ross and Matthias Griggs, who was a trader taking hats and dried fruits to sell to the settlers, set out in a light two-horse wagon. The first night they camped they were disturbed by the continued howling of wolves that surrounded their camp. As the journey wore on they went through a great snowstorm that at first mired the wagon in muck, but the worst was yet to come because the temperature dropped severely and froze their wheels in place. They had to leave their wagon locked in place because they could not strike a fire with their flints to melt the ice. Their goods-laden wagon was guarded by their dog as they went on to Fort Wayne. They could not ride their horses because the wind was too cold, so they walked along side them using them as wind breaks. They made it to Fort Wayne where they were welcomed by Samuel Hanna, who would later become an elder in the Fort Wayne Church. Rev. Ross preached the next day in the fort because it was the most convenient and surely the safest location for a gathering.
He lived to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest minister in the Presbyterian Church of his day. He died in his daughter’s house in Tipton, Indiana, March 11, 1876, in his 93rd year. His life of ministry had been a difficult one on the frontier, but he was remembered in his day as “Father Ross,” because of his ministry to sometimes-remote congregations in the land of Hoosiers. He was greatly loved and admired by many. The ministers of the past who dedicated themselves to ministry on the frontier often had a dangerous and difficult time delivering the Word of God and establishing churches through their missionary efforts. The faithful gospel servants of the past should not be forgotten.
BY BARRY WAUGH
Sources– Clarification editing was done on August 27, 2015. The Princeton Seminary Necrological Report for 1877 was used; Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. With Early Reminiscences of the Place. A Lecture Before the Congregation, March 7, 1860 by J. L. Williams; Contributions to the Early History of the Presbyterian Church in Indiana Together with Biographical Notices of the Pioneer Ministers, Hanford A. Edson, 1898; the information on the “fort” in Fort Wayne is from the Fort Wayne Historic Site website.