Jacksonian Miscellanies, #40

December 2, 1997

A Log Church and a Preacher's Son on the Erie Frontier

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The next couple of issues are taken from the book whose title page is given below, and presents the early life (through 1841) of a future minister, and minister's son. He was born near the Pennsylvania shores of Lake Erie a few years after the end of the War of 1812, and so grew up hearing tales of the battles on the lake, and the raids, or threats of raids, by the English and their Indian allies, in that part of the country.

The subject of the book was named after "the ... leader of the band of ardent young men who were instrumental in starting that wonderful awakening ... which resulted in the organization of the 'American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.' ", and set his course for the ministry, as his family had wished him to.

The details in the description of the early days in the log church are, I think, particularly interesting.


of the

Rev. S. J. M. Eaton, D.D.,

pastor for a third of a century of the Presbyterian Church of Franklin, Pennsylvania.

by Rev. A. H. Caughey, Ph. D.

Erie, PA.:
Dispatch Publishing Company, Limited.


When a man who has touched in many and important points, and largely influenced in many ways, the community to which he belonged, is removed from his place by the hand of death, it seems fitting that the facts and elements that served to could his life and character should be gathered together, both as a memorial to the man himself, and as a record of value for the training and education of those who shall come after him. The more pure and noble the character of such a man, and the more prominent and beneficent his influence, the more valuable will be the record of his life.

The centre of Dr. S. J. M. Eaton's influence was Franklin, Pennsylvania; but it was felt to a greater or less extent throughout Western Pennsylvania, and more particularly in the region included in the Presbytery of Erie; but it radiated with diminished power into all parts of the State, and was felt in the movements and work of the church at large.

His life and character as a minister of the Gospel, and what he accomplished for the good of the world and the advancement of Christ's Kingdom, are conceived to be worthy of study. With this view the following sketch, concluding with the record of the Funeral and Memorial Services at his home in Franklin, and the Memorial observances in the Chautauqua

Assembly and at the meeting of the Presbytery of Erie at Cambridgeboro, has been prepared, and is laid, with much diffidence on the part of the writer, before the friends and admirers of the modest, earnest, God fearing man who is its subject.

By the use made of his letters and journals (extracts from which are usually distinguished by marginal quotation marks), Dr. Eaton is allowed to tell, so far as practicable, his own story. The reminiscences and thoughts of his intimate friends have also been laid under contribution, and all available means used to present this beloved and greatly lamented man, both as citizen, writer, and preacher of the Gospel, in a just and clear light before the minds of his friends and contemporaries.

Thanks are tendered to all who assisted in this labor of love by their contributions to the record of his life and labors, or by their addresses on the occasion of the memorial services that followed his lamented death; as well as to the many friends who, in the hour of affliction, did what they could, by their letters of sympathy, to alleviate the sorrow of her who for .nearly forty years had been his chief earthly stay and helper, and who remains the chief mourner beside his empty chair.

Erie, July 10, 1890.                                                      A. H. C.


S. J. M. EATON, D. D.



The name given to a child sometimes marks an epoch. The number of "Andrew Jacksons," with which the baptismal registers of the churches in the United States were sprinkled between the years 1828 and 1836, would fill a considerable volume. Few families in this country, in the early part of the present century, were without a George Washington among their sons; and even yet "G. W." and "A. J." are the most common initials found in city directories and on tax lists. Calvin and Luther and Wesley are still made sponsors, at least to the extent of giving their names, to the sons respectively of many a Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist parent.

When a fifth son was born, on the 15th of April, 1820, to the Rev. Johnston Eaton, it was but a year or two after the death of the Rev. SAMUEL JOHN MILLS, the earnest and devoted leader of the band of ardent young men who were instrumental in starting that wonderful awakening in the cause of missions to the heathen, which resulted in the organization of the "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions." Graduated from Yale College in 1809, and licensed in 1812, after a course of theological study at Andover, to preach the Gospel, he went, under the patronage of the Congregational Churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts, on a Missionary tour through the Southern States. He was ordained in 1816, and after two or three years spent among the churches in his own country in organizing Societies, and stirring them to greater zeal and activity in the work of Foreign Missions, he was sent to Africa to select a site for a colony of manumitted Slaves-this being deemed at that time a feasible scheme for securing the Christianizing of the millions of heathen in that great dark continent.

He and his fellow Missionary, Rev. Ebenezer Burgess, sailed for Africa by way of England in November, 1817; and after spending two months on the African coast, and having accomplished the purpose of their visit, they sailed on their return voyage in May, 1818. But Mr. Mills sickened and died before reaching home and was buried at sea. His youth, his zeal and energy, and his consecration to a great work, coupled with his untimely death, made a deep impression on all who had become interested in the cause of Foreign Missions and African Colonization in this country; and the Rev. Johnston Eaton and his pious and devoted wife Elizabeth signalized their admiration of the character and work of the young martyr by naming the first son born to them after his death, SAMUEL JOHN MILLS. His subsequent career showed that the honor was not misplaced.

He was born, as already stated, in the year 1820- a very early date in the history of Presbyterianism in North Western Pennsylvania. His father had settled but thirteen years before near the mouth of Walnut Creek, on the Pennsylvania Shore of Lake Erie, and began to preach the Gospel, being the first permanently settled minister in the region of the Lake; and but twelve years before, his mother, Elizabeth Canon-a niece of that John Canon who founded and gave name to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-as the bride of the young minister, made her way on horseback from Laurel Hill, Fayette county' a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, to the log cabin home her husband had prepared for her. The second war with Great Britain had come to an end but five years before, and was still the exhaustless theme of talk around every fireside, and wherever men and boys were gathered together. For nearly all men and large boys, living within from thirty to fifty miles of Presque Isle Bay (the present harbor of Erie), and able to bear arms, had been called to do service in the garrison at Erie, or to assist in the construction of Perry's fleet at that point; or they had enlisted under the brave Commander and borne their part in the famous victory which he achieved over the British fleet at the Western end of the Lake. This war talk, and the recounting of brave exploits and "hair­breadth'' scapes by flood and field," in due time began to die away; but the children, as they advanced to years of thought, would demand to have the old stories repeated, and so the traditions of the war would be perpetuated.

The whole region of country along the Lake, and for a hundred miles or more South, was in great part still a wilderness of forest trees, but little changed from what it was when the newly licensed young minister, riding solitarily along a bridle­path, came first in sight of the great blue Lake rising majestically against the sky, and sweeping the whole horizon on the North.

The town of Erie was a village of but a few hundred people. Waterford, fifteen miles South, was a mere cluster of houses on the site of the old French Fort, Le Boeuff. And here and there in what is now the county of Erie were clumps of houses that have since developed into the flourishing towns of North East, Girard, Union City, Springfield, Wattsburg, &c. Farms were but clearings of limited space. The roads were but winding wagon tracks through the woods and over the hills and across shallow places in the streams-for bridges were very rare.

Churches were few and far between. There was one at Springfield, another at Waterford, another at North East, one in Erie, and one at Fairview, or the Mouth of Walnut Creek-for the village of Fairview had not then been thought of.

When Samuel John Mills Eaton made his appearance in his father's house, his coming increased the family group to eight, the parents included. There was first Daniel, the eldest, then John, then William, then Martha, Johnston, and finally Mills,-the name by which he was uniformly called by his brothers and sisters, his cousins, school­mates and nearest friends. Isaac and Elizabeth were added to the family in subsequent years.

At the time of Mills' birth his father was preaching alternately in the "Yellow Meeting­House" in Erie, and in the log church, his home church, on the bank of the Lake, ten miles further west. When the pastor was at home the whole family, babies included, went to church. This was in part a measure of necessity; for in those early times there was no "girl" with whom to leave them in charge; so the mother must' either remain at home, or take the entire brood with her.

What this "log church" was like where Mills Eaton, first as babe, then as small boy and larger boy, went to church, is thus described by Dr. Eaton himself, in an address delivered on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the organization of Fairview church: "The meeting­house." he says, "was not at first provided with regular seats, but was furnished with temporary benches, made by placing boards or slabs on billets of wood. This was until such time as the people felt able to have regular pews made. In process of time this was done. Pews were arranged and made in regular order, the workmanship of the wonderful singer (footnote: John Pherrin) - one of their number who was the good genius of the neighborhood, and the leader in all the improvements of the country.

"The pulpit was in the end of the building, about three feet above the floor, entirely boxed in, and about five by eight feet in size. On either side of the pulpit was a row of seats extending back to the walls, while in front the seats were arranged in two rows reaching to the rear wall. They were arranged in this wise: First, on the left of the pulpit, was the pew of the pastor's family. At the head of this sat good old John Pherrin, 'the clerk,' as they called him, ready to rise in his seat, as the reading of the hymn was concluded, and say, 'sing Fiducia'. Next to him on the same seat was the minister's oldest son, then the next to him in point of age, then the minister's wife; whilst the youngest child (unless a babe in arms) found accommodations on the steps of the pulpit."
And here we may imagine the little Mills sitting when two or three years old, taking his first step as it were towards the pulpit to which he was afterwards to ascend, and which, in the generic sense of the word, he was to adorn for so many years.

These were very primitive times. The whole country was still wild and rude. Nature had as yet been only scratched here and there by the hand of improvement. Houses were but cabins in the wilderness, and home comforts and conveniences were few; and the people planned for no more comfort or convenience in the Meeting-House than in the cabin. "At the first," to quote again from Dr. Eaton's discourse, there was no arrangement for heating the meetinghouse. For a time, up at least to 1815, there was a brick hearth laid in the middle of the house, and charcoal from the blacksmith's shop was placed upon it and kindled. This made a generous heat, and modified somewhat the cold of winter; but as there was neither chimney nor flue, the carbonic acid gas was not at all favorable to intelligent hearing, or even preaching, and occasionally a lady would approach so near as to inhale the gas and sink down to the floor unconscious, until carried out into the open air.

"After this a large 'ten­plate' stove, that had been brought from east of the mountains with infinite trouble by one of the settlers, was procured and set up, to the joy and comfort of the worshipers. To accommodate this stove a chimney was made from the attic up through the roof."

To this "log meeting­house" the young Mills Eaton trudged, after he was old enough to walk, through most of the years of his boyhood, along the winding woodland road, every Sabbath-unless his father were absent holding service and preaching in one of his more distant charges. In the winter season, however, services in the old church were often suspended. The distance many of the parishioners ad to travel, over almost impassable roads, unless snow was on the ground, made the effort too severe even for their faith and resolution to endure, - specially when the house, in which they were to worship, at the end of their tedious journey, was scarcely more comfortable than the open forest-"God's first temple" - through which they had passed.

But the old church at length grew too old and too uncomfortable and - although it had been enlarged- was too small for the satisfactory accommodation of the large and constantly increasing congregation. So in 1833, a quarter of a century after it was first dedicated to the worship of God, it was abandoned; and a new and much more commodious building, erected near what is now Swan's Station on the Railroads, was occupied; and thither "Father Eaton," as he was affectionately called for many years, diligently west, with his wife and eight children-at least as many of them as were still at home-every Sunday, and preached the Gospel of the Kingdom for twelve years more.

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