William was born to James and Jean (Gibson) McWhir in Moneyreagh Parish, County Down, Ireland, September 9, 1759. James was a Presbyterian elder as was his father. Both parents hoped that one of their sons would become a minister, so much so that contrary to William’s interests, they decided he would be the one. His education was in a local school until he transferred to an academy in Belfast to prepare for college. With the ministry reluctantly in mind, he completed three sessions in the University of Glasgow as was required for ministers by the Synod of Ulster. William at some point professed faith in Christ but pastoral work appears to have been nothing more than an occupation for him. A license to preach was given by the Presbytery of Killyleagh December 24, 1782 and ordination was accomplished September 25, 1783. As a boy, William read books about America and longed to go there, so with his parents’ blessing he sailed from Belfast to Philadelphia and then went to Virginia where he would teach in an academy. The school was in Alexandria and one of its benefactors was George Washington. Two of Washington’s nephews are said to have attended the academy. McWhir was a friend of the Washington family and dined with them at Mt. Vernon.
In 1792, a friend of McWhir’s living in Augusta, Georgia, suggested he visit because the Presbyterians meeting in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in union services were hoping to call their own minister who would also master Richmond Academy. McWhir saw the relocation as an opportunity to live more economically and save for the future, so he mounted his horse and headed for Augusta. He was not happy with what he found in the city commenting, “the affairs of both the Church and the academy were so identified with the movements of political parties, that there was little encouragement to him to remain” (Wilson, Georgia). He did not elaborate on what he meant by political parties but following ratification of the U. S. Constitution by Georgia’s delegates unanimously in January 1788 there were still debates about how the infant nation would develop. It was one thing to adopt the Constitution, but then it had to be applied and there were differences concerning how that would be accomplished.
William knew he did not want to go to Augusta, but he found Georgia an attractive place to live and wanted to relocate. He returned to Alexandria, resigned his schoolmaster position, moved to Georgia, and settled in Sunbury in 1792. The city had been laid out mid-century with a fort through the efforts of Gen. James Oglethorpe to improve fortification of the colony against the Spanish. William’s work included mastering the local academy and establishing a new church in Sunbury which had a seed group from nearby Midway Congregational Church. Congregationalism was important in the Charleston-Savannah region during the colonial era as a dissenting voice challenging the established Church of England. Congregationalists had settled in Charleston as early as 1681 and in Dorchester west of Charleston in 1697. Congregationalists held to the Westminster Confession and were viewed by many Presbyterians as essentially doctrinal colleagues. Within a few years the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) would join with New England Congregationalists in a plan of union for select purposes such as missions. Sometimes it is difficult when studying the history of Presbyterianism in the region to distinguish what is Presbyterian from Congregational. McWhir was a member of presbytery and his services in Sunbury were well attended despite the general assessment in later years that he was a dull preacher, and the academy enjoyed increasing enrollment as students came from some distances because of his skills with the classical languages.
According to the quote that will follows these introductory comments, it was 1812 before McWhir really understood the gospel. He was a minister for 29 years before he grasped what he should believe. Sprague’s biography in Annals, vol. 3, 1858, is a transcription of a manuscript autobiography that was in the possession of Edward J. Harden who was an attorney and judge in Savannah. It is an opinion, but it seems McWhir left the manuscript with Harden as part of his estate and he as executor gave it to Sprague for publication. John S. Wilson either copied Sprague’s biography in The Dead of the Synod of Georgia, 1869, or had access to the McWhir manuscript because his text is the same as Sprague’s. James Stacy in A History of the Presbyterian Church in Georgia, circa 1908, appears to have doubted the account of Sprague-Wilson because his knowledge of the subject was “related to me by the son of one of the Colleague pastors of the Midway Church, who was well acquainted with the history and life of Dr. McWhir.” Having said all this, here is the paragraph of note as in Sprague.
An event now occurred in the life of Mr. McWhir, which, to those who have followed his history to this point, will be a matter of no little surprise. Notwithstanding he had always been a minister, in regular standing, of the Presbyterian Church, he had been, even from the time that he commenced his education, privately a Unitarian. Having occasion to re-examine the Scriptures, about the year 1812, with a view to prove their Divine authority, he was led to take a new view of the doctrines which they contain, and, at no distant period, became thoroughly satisfied that the creed which he had before only professed to receive, really embodied the true sense of the Word of God. This change of religious opinion led of course to a corresponding change in his preaching, which did not escape the observation of those to whom he ministered.
It is a remarkable statement that may explain James Stacy’s use of corroborating evidence for McWhir’s closet Unitarianism. Stacy must have found it hard to believe. As a historian, he knew that something dubious may in fact be so. Presbyterians were supposed to examine their ministers thoroughly for licensure and ordination. McWhir had been educated in divinity, licensed, and ordained in Ireland, transferred to the presbytery that geographically included Arlington, Virginia, and then transferred to the Presbytery of South Carolina which at the time included Georgia. Admittedly, he held his view privately, but how did he get through presbytery examinations without the drastically errant view being ferreted out? It is a perspective that not only transgresses the creeds of the ecumenical councils but is one of the specific heterodox theologies confronted at the Westminster Assembly and addressed by its teaching opposing Socinian doctrine (WCF 2:3; LC 9-11; SC 6). Socinianism is a predecessor of Unitarianism. At the time McWhir turned from his error, the Congregationalists in Massachusetts were in the middle of debates that would result in formation of the American Unitarian Association as a separate entity in 1825. Polemical literature issued for the debate could have been read by McWhir and influenced him in the right direction. One source says that McWhir was preaching a sermon when he realized his error, so the Holy Spirit illumined his understanding by preaching to him with his own sermon. Disagreements about the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are not peripheral issues which one might consider presenting to a presbytery as exceptions to the Standards. Surely, McWhir was guilty of deception and error that by God’s grace was overcome, but this admittedly obscure case points out the importance of thorough examination of ministerial candidates and is a reminder that little if anything should be taken for granted when it comes to trials for licensure, ordination, and transfer of ministers.
November 3, 1821 the Presbytery of Georgia was organized within the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia, and its formation showed the expanding ministry of Presbyterians within the state. It appears that McWhir did not serve as an installed minister at any time during his life but instead supplied Georgia churches in addition to Sunbury such as those in Darien and McIntosh. One of his supply tenures was on the mission field.
Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821 and in May two years later a young licentiate recently graduated from Andover Seminary named Eleazor Lathrop was sent to St. Augustine to work with a group interested in having a church. Even though a modern presbytery probably would not send a licentiate to a distant and particularly difficult field, it was common practice at the time of McWhir. It seems the thinking was, if the licentiate can minister in a rough and remote place he can serve anywhere. The change in climate and culture in St. Augustine was a challenge given Lathrop’s central New York upbringing, but added to his relocation adjustments was conflict with the local Methodist minister. Within a matter of months Lathrop suggested that his group petition the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia for an experienced minister to help. The Synod convened in Second Church, Charleston, in November and Lathrop delivered the petition signed by twenty-six men which led to the appointment of William McWhir to supply the St. Augustine mission. Residents of the community included military personnel in Fort Marion—named at the time for the Swamp Fox, mariners, fishermen, businesses associated with shipping and transportation, and unfortunately, those involved with the business of slavery. St. Augustine was a port town similar to Charleston and Savannah and not the touristy sea-side mecca it is currently. He arrived in May and started to work visiting within the community and holding worship services in a house. The flock increased and the church was organized July 20, 1824 in a service that included celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That evening McWhir preached to a large group that had been swelled because the gambling halls and billiard parlors were closed. Listening to the local preacher was considered entertainment by some in the era, but it was entertainment that could transform the listeners’ lives. The cornerstone for a building was set January 1, 1825 after Lathrop returned to become the minister. The first meeting of a presbytery in Florida was held in the St. Augustine Church in November 1827 when the Presbytery of Georgia convened. It is not clear precisely when other than after organization of the St. Augustine Church, but McWhir is credited with establishing the church in Mandarin (part of Jacksonville now). He returned to Mandarin to lead the dedication service for its new building in 1835. He was the founding minister of the first two organized churches in Florida and should be considered the father of Presbyterianism in the state. It is really a great story of grace considering the Unitarianism he held to for much of his life, yet he was used to take confessional Presbyterianism to Florida.
McWhir continued supplying pulpits in the Liberty County area of Georgia and teaching. He had been hampered for many years by lameness from a fractured hip that resulted from a beating by robbers during a visit to London. At the age of ninety he became a colporteur (traveling literature distributor) for the American Tract Society but gave it up after a short time because he was too weak. William McWhir died January 31, 1851, in Liberty County Georgia at the age of 91. He may have been the oldest Presbyterian minister in the United States at the time of his death. At Sunbury early in his ministry he married a widow named Mary who died in 1819 and they had no children. Neither were there any children by his second wife, but the children from her previous marriage included two daughters, many grandchildren, some great grandchildren, and even a few great-great grandchildren.
A memorialist writing in The Savannah Daily Republican commented that McWhir “never enjoyed much reputation as a preacher, owing, no doubt, to the want of ready eloquence and the almost entire absence of that faculty of the mind called imagination.” But his gifts “seemed to have fitted him for the schoolhouse.” People then tended to avoid speaking ill of the dead, so the author’s slap to the face followed by a back-handed compliment is unusual at best and an insult to his memory at worst. In the day, imagination described one’s ability to think and referred to intelligence rather than its current common use as a synonym for creativity or the ability to fantasize. However, despite his supposed lack of imagination, the Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him by the Trustees of Franklin College about the year 1833. His correspondents included Thomas Chalmers, Sir John Sinclair, Charles C. Jones, and of course, George Washington. His funeral service was conducted by the pastor of the Midway Church, I. S. K. Axson, on February 2, 1851. Dr. McWhir was buried next to his first wife in Sunbury.
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Notes—No, the header is not a Reformed church in a community of Arminians; it is the Castillo de San Marcos (Fort Marion) circa 1910 before it was restored to its current condition. St. Augustine became a tourist and resort destination as a result of Henry Flagler’s Seaboard Coastline Railroad and construction of hotels. The portrait is from the first edition of Stacy’s History of the Midway Congregational Church, Liberty County, Georgia, circa 1899. At the time of Lathrop and McWhir’s work the Florida territory was a mission field and would not have its own presbytery within the Synod until 1841. The Synod of South Carolina and Georgia became two separate synods in 1845. For a brief summary of the work writing and adopting the U. S. Constitution see, “Creating the United States,” on the Library of Congress website. When McWhir transferred to Sunbury the Synod of the Carolinas had 20 ministers with calls (half in the Presbytery of South Carolina), 4 without charge, 11 licentiates, and 62 vacant churches (General Assembly Minutes, 1792). Two works by James Stacy used were, A History of the Presbyterian Church in Georgia, no publisher and no date given; and as edited and revised including the Midway history noted previously is the Reprint Company edition of 2002 edited by Elizabeth W. Quarterman and Margaret H. Cannon (indexer), titled, History and Published Records of the Midway Congregational Church Liberty County, Georgia. Another book on Georgia Presbyterians is Franklin C. Talmage’s The Story of the Synod of Georgia, Atlanta, 1961, but it provides no information about McWhir. The information about McWhir’s youth and education, the Washington family, and his Arlington years is from Sprague’s biography in vol. 3 of his Annals of the American Pulpit, which as mentioned was reprinted in John S. Wilson’s The Dead of the Synod of Georgia, Necrology: or Memorials of Deceased Ministers…[etc.], Atlanta: Franklin Printing Co., 1869. For an account of the history of Sunbury see Charles C. Jones, Jr., The Dead Towns of Georgia, 1878. Turning to Florida, David A. Redding’s, Flagler and His Church, Jacksonville, 1970, was helpful. James R. Bullock’s Heritage and Hope: A Story of Presbyterians in Florida, edited by Jerrold L. Brooks, 1987, provided information about the Mandarin and St. Augustine churches. Karen Harvey’s Florida’s First Presbyterians: A Celebration of 175 Years in St. Augustine 1824-1999, published by Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1998, is nicely done and informative. Because of the current marketing of Florida in the spirit of Jackie Gleason’s description of Miami Beach as “The sun and fun capital of the world,” it is often forgotten it was a slave state. A visit to Kingsley Plantation near Jacksonville is worth the time. And regarding his memorial, see, “Obituary, William McWhir, D.D.,” The Savannah Daily Republican, Georgia, Saturday, February 15, 1851. As with nearly all historical facts, there is debate about where the first church in Florida was located because for part of the state’s history, west Florida, which was most of the panhandle, was separated from east Florida. There is evidence of an early church in west Florida, however, it appears the first viable church was in St. Augustine.