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John Elder

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 palliathig, 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 armourer 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.

Source: An authentic history of Lancaster County, in the state of Pennsylvania; Lancaster, Pa.: J.E. Barr, 1869, 813 pgs.

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