Presbyterians of the Past

John McElhenney, Mountaineer Minister

A pastoral tenure extending sixty-two years is an accomplishment, but serving one congregation for over six decades is remarkable. During his ministry that spanned over three generations, Rev. John McElhenney baptized not only children, but their children, grandchildren, and possibly even their great grandchildren. As those young ones matured he catechized them, enjoyed their becoming communicant members, united them in marriage, and performed the last ministry a shepherd can do, their funerals. He pastored his flock when West Virginia separated from Virginia during the Civil War in 1863. There were some in his congregation that were affected by the war because they enlisted for service, fought, were left with the marks of wounds, and in some cases died. What an experience it must have been for the well-worn shepherd to look out over his flock in his last years and think of all that had gone before, both the good times and those that were not so good, as he contemplated God’s gracious work over the years.

John was not a native of West Virginia but instead was born in the comparative flatlands of the Waxhaws, Lancaster District, South Carolina, March 22, 1781. He was the youngest of six children born to John and Ann (Coil) McElhenney. He entered Washington Academy in Lexington, Virginia, 1802, where he graduated and continued to reside during his preparation for the ministry under the tutelage of George Addison Baxter. Dr. Baxter graduated Liberty Hall Academy having studied under the direction of William Graham. Graham was a Princeton College graduate and Shenandoah Valley Presbyterian pioneer minister and educator. Presbytery licensed McElhenney to preach February 11, 1808, and sent him to minister the Word to remote congregations in the near-by mountains. As he travelled he moved further into the rugged terrain of the Alleghenies preaching as he went. The journey brought him to a breathtaking view of the meandering Greenbrier River and the near-by village of Lewisburg. On Sunday, June 5, 1808, Licentiate McElhenney delivered his first sermon to the congregation in the extant building called the Old Stone Church. The impressive and lovely structure was built in 1796 of local field stone with each one reminding congregants and passers by of the stone which the builders rejected (Psalm 118:22). Satisfied with his ministry opportunity serving in Lewisburg, Licentiate McElhenney returned to Lexington for ordination. The service was held April 23, 1809, in Brown’s Meeting House (Hebron Church) near Staunton. The next summer the new minister was installed by a commission that included his theological mentor, George A. Baxter. Normally the ordination and installation of a licentiate would occur in the church where he is called during the same service, so the reason for separating the ordination and installation in this case is unclear unless it was because the church was a mission church.

John McElhenney was also a churchman, though his participation in general assembly meetings was limited. When he moved to Lewisburg there were about 40 to 50 members distributed among his congregations in the churches of Old Stone, Union, and Spring Creek of Lexington Presbytery. From 1808 to 1834, he served both Old Stone and Union while occasionally supplying Spring Creek. As Old Stone Church grew over the years to over three-hundred members, his ministry supplying other pulpits became less frequent. With the division of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1837, he continued his ministry with the newly formed Old School Presbytery of Greenbrier that was established in western Virginia with fourteen churches from Lexington Presbytery. Rev. McElhenney delivered the sermon in the organizational service for the new presbytery using for his text a portion of Psalm 20:5, “In the name of our God we will set up our banners” (published in Rose Fry’s biography, see Notes). He was the moderator of Lexington Presbytery meetings at Staunton, April 27, 1820 and then in Salem, October 17, 1833, and he was a commissioner to the 1831 General Assembly in Philadelphia. 

Along with his pastoral duties, Rev. McElhenney started an academy where he was a teacher and/or principal for the first twenty years, and then continued his involvement as a member of the board until 1860. One of his prominent students was William Swan Plumer. Plumer was about nineteen years of age when he walked from Charleston, West Virginia, the roughly one hundred miles to Lewisburg to attend the academy. His age earned him the nickname of “Daddy” because the other students were a bit younger. In later years, “Daddy” would become Dr. Plumer and he often returned to fill the pulpit of the Lewisburg Church during his summer vacations in nearby White Sulfur Springs. The two maintained contact throughout the years with Dr. Plumer sending the first copies of his newly published works to Dr. McElhenney; the most cherished volume was, according to Rose W. Fry, a copy of Plumer’s commentary on the book of Psalms.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the minutes of the General Assemblies show that the Old Stone Church continued with the PCUSA. The PCUSA and Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) each had a presbytery named “Greenbrier” during the war. It appears that when West Virginia was established as a Union state on June 20, 1863, it prompted the Lewisburg congregation and most of the West Virginia churches to change their connectional association from the PCUSA to the PCCSA. Following the war, the PCCSA changed its name to Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), and Dr. McElhenney continued with the denomination for the remainder of his life.

As his last few years passed, Dr. McElhenney enjoyed them as a respected minister, citizen, and friend. He could look around the area and travel in any direction in West Virginia and find churches and individuals he had influenced and assisted as the father of West Virginia Presbyterianism. Alfred Nevin’s, Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church, has commented regarding Dr. McElhenney.

[He] was tall, straight, and graceful in all his movements. His fine gray eye told of the brightness of his mind, and nothing escaped its observation. His voice was very pleasant, always reaching the ears of his audience. He sometimes wrote his sermons, but never took a note into the pulpit. His delivery was rapid, but clear and simple. He said as much in fifteen minutes as most men would have done in double the time. Dr. McElhenney exerted a most extensive and happy influence. In the region of his active and useful labors, now well filled with an Industrious God-fearing people, his name is fragrant with precious memories.

Rev. John McElhenney, D. D., died, January 2, 1871. He is buried in the Old Stone Church cemetery. When his wife of sixty-three years, Rebecca Walkup of Lexington, Virginia, died on December 7, 1876, she was buried next to him. Between the years 1809 and 1819, the two were blessed with the birth of three sons—James Addison, and his twin brothers, John Franklin and Samuel Washington— along with three daughters—Elizabeth Ann, Mary Jane, and Susan Emily.

The text of Rev. McElhenney’s grave marker inscription reads as follows as transcribed from the photograph of the stone posted on Find-A-Gravetaken by Leslie Acord on April 10, 2013:

Rev John McElhenney D.D.
March 1781
Died Jan. 2nd. 1871
For sixty two years, the Beloved
Pastor of Lewisburg Church
A faithful servant of God and
a Pioneer of Presbyterianism
in a vast part of Virginia.
And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness
of the firmament; and they that turn many
to righteousness as the stars for ever and
ever. Dan. XII:3.

Barry Waugh

SourcesThe information regarding McElhenney’s moderating Lexington Presbytery was located in the table of meetings compiled in Howard M. Wilson in The Lexington Presbytery Heritage, 1971. Biographical information and the portrait of Dr. McElhenney were found in Recollections of the Rev. John McElhenney, D.D., by the subject’s granddaughter, Rose W. Fry; two other sermons are included with the one mentioned in the biography above. Also, J. R. Cole’s, History of Greenbrier County, was a helpful source. The map of West Virginia after its separation from Virgina is from Appleton’s Atlas of the United States, New York, 1888. The historical development of what is now Washington and Lee University was found at a university web site dedicated to archaeological work on the old campus,, which notes that the name was changed from Liberty Hall Academy to Washington Academy in 1797. Rev. McElhenney’s name is also spelled McElhenny and McElheny in other sources, but the spelling on the grave marker has been adopted which is also the version used in McElhenney’s biography by his granddaughter. George A. Baxter went on in 1831 to be the president of Union Seminary near Farmville. According to Google Maps, it would take 34 to 35 hours to walk from Charleston to Lewisburg, West Virginia. See on this site the post, “West Virginia Presbyterians, Review, Two Books”; both titles are offered by Rev. Dennis Bill. 

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