Presbyterians of the Past

Francis L. Patton, 1843–1932

Francis Landey Patton, From Book on Swing Case, 7-28-2015When the island of Bermuda is mentioned it might bring to mind knee-length shorts, plush resorts, a bank haven, or golf, but in the 1840s, it was important for the British Empire as a convenient port because of its strategic location about 600 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The industrial revolution was charging ahead in Manchester and other English cities resulting in the need to export manufactured machinery and goods around the globe. Also, due to needs in Britain, food and other necessities as well as luxuries were being imported from the colonies and other nations. Since the transatlantic crossing by the Great Western in 1838, the use of steam to power ocean-going vessels was increasing, but the tall-masted sailing ships continued to dominate ocean navigation. When Francis Landey was born to Mary Jane (Steele) and George John Bascombe Patton at Carberry Hill, January 22, 1843, he would grow up on a port island of the British Empire with all the salt and sails of the maritime world.

Young Francis learned to read when he was three years old and began studying Latin at the age of seven. After attending Bermuda’s Warwick Academy—which had been established in 1662 and continues today—he moved to Canada to study in a grammar school in Toronto. His education continued in Knox College of the University of Toronto. He left for the United States to prepare for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary entering as a second year student and completing his work in 1865. In June, he was ordained to the ministry by the Presbytery of New York. That same year on October 10, Rev. Patton married Rosa Antoinette who was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. J. M. Stevenson of New York.

Over the course of the next several years Patton served in a succession of short-term pastorates in New York until he moved to the Midwest. He was pastor of the Eighty-Fourth Street Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn until 1867 when he moved about forty miles up the Hudson River to the church in Nyack for a three-year call ending in 1870. The next ministry required a return to Brooklyn for a term of about a year as the pastor elect of the South Church. In 1871, the Pattons relocated to Chicago for Francis to become the Cyrus H. McCormick Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (McCormick Theological Seminary). When Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology  was published in 1872, Patton used it for his class text. A few years after beginning at McCormick he added to his responsibilities pulpit ministry for the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church serving as pastor elect, which he continued for about four years until he was duly installed in 1879.

It was during his Chicago years that Dr. Patton was involved in the prosecution of Rev. David Swing for heresy. The events leading up to the trial began with Patton’s review of Swing’s sermon, “Old Testament Inspiration,” in August 1873 in the periodical titled, Interior. As the events unfolded, Patton brought two charges against Swing before the Presbytery of Chicago. The text of materials covering the trial is available in Francis L. Patton, Nevin, 9-4-2015the book, The Trial of the Rev. David Swing, Before the Presbytery of Chicago, Edited by A Committee of Presbytery. Patton’s first charge was that Swing had “not been zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel; and … [had] not been faithful and diligent in the exercise of the public duties of his office as such minister” (p. 8). The first charge was supported with twenty-four specific items of concern including Swing’s teaching on doctrines such as the Trinity, divinity of Christ, eternal punishment, and justification by faith. The second charge stated that Swing had not sincerely received and adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith as teaching the system of doctrine taught in the Bible (p. 13). To this charge, Patton provided four specifics. Running throughout the several specifications of the two charges was the observation by Patton that he believed Swing was a Unitarian. There was a lengthy trial with many witnesses and when the two charges against David Swing were brought to a vote, he was exonerated by a margin of about three to one for each of the charges. Patton announced his plan to appeal to the Synod of Illinois, North, to which Swing responded with leaving the Presbyterian Church and becoming the pastor of the newly organized and fully independent Central Church of Chicago where he continued preaching until his death in 1894.

Dr. Patton continued his teaching and pastoral ministry in Chicago until he was called in 1881 to Princeton Seminary to become Professor of the Relations of Philosophy and Science to the Christian Religion which had been created specifically for him by a seminary benefactor named Robert L. Stuart. Robert and his brother Alexander had been donors to the seminary over the years including the provision of funding to construct Stuart Hall. Patton continued in his professorship until he was chosen to succeed James McCosh as president of Princeton College in 1888. There was some opposition to his appointment because he was a minister, was thought to lack business experience, and because his involvement in the Swing case was thought too sectarian. However, despite the opposition, he accepted the presidency and served well. Patton surprised even his closest associates when he resigned the university presidency in 1902 and nominated Woodrow Wilson as his successor. Shortly thereafter Patton became the first president of Princeton Seminary while continuing to teach ethics at the college and in the seminary until his retirement 1913.

Francis L. Patton, Grave Marker, Bermuda, 9-4-2015Francis Landey Patton returned to his Bermuda home for his remaining years. He would visit the United States annually and lecture in both of the Princeton institutions and at other locations in the nation. David Calhoun has noted that The Royal Gazette reported regarding Patton’s eighty-fifth birthday that the city of Hamilton unveiled an official portrait of him titled, “Bermuda’s Grand Old Man.” Dr. Patton lost his eyesight in his later years. He died in Bermuda in his ninetieth year  on November 25, 1932 leaving his wife, Rosa, and three of their seven children as survivors. Patton was buried in the churchyard of the Church of Scotland’s Christ Church, which was the church in which he had been baptized so many years before.

Francis L. Patton was honored often during his years of teaching and pastoral ministry. He moderated the PCUSA General Assembly that met in Third Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, in 1878, and when he delivered his sermon as the retiring moderator the following year his text was John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” His honorary degrees included the DD from Hanover College, 1872, and Yale, 1888; the LL D was given by the College of Wooster, 1878, Harvard, 1889, University of Toronto, 1894, Yale, 1901, Johns Hopkins, 1902, University of Maryland, 1907, and Princeton University, 1913, which had also given him an honorary MA in 1896.

Dr. Patton published in 1869 The Inspiration of the Scriptures, and several years later in 1898 he released A Summary of Christian Doctrine. His chief literary production is Fundamental Christianity which was published in 1926 and dedicated to his wife on the occasion of their sixtieth wedding anniversary.


Sources—Other than standard Presbyterian encyclopedias and biographical resources, David Calhoun’s, Princeton Seminary, vol. 2, 94-95, was helpful and the information on Patton’s portrait in Bermuda is from endnote 12, p. 522; the entry for Patton in the Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Dumas Malone, vol. 14, Oglethorpe-Platner, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934, is very helpful but emphasizes Patton’s work at the college while little is said about his seminary work.

Notes—Clarification editing was done by the author on August 5, 2015. The website for Warwick Academy mentions Dr. Patton as one of its “well remembered” alumni. The grave marker picture was located on Find-a-Grave and was taken by Rosalie Ann, Nov. 15, 2013. The Eighty Fourth Street Presbyterian Church no longer exists as a separate congregation because it merged many years ago with another church to form what exists today as West-Park Presbyterian Church at 165 W. 86th Street. McCormick Theological Seminary was renamed in 1886 for its chief benefactor and Old School proponent Cyrus H. McCormick.

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