Archibald Stobo, Presbyterian Pioneer

The name of Francis Makemie is well-known to readers of this site as "the Father of American Presbyterianism," and the historical record shows that he was influential in establishing the first presbytery in America, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, in 1705-1706. 

The Hanover Presbytery, established in Virginia in 1755, is often thought by some to have been the first presbytery established in the Southern United States. However, an earlier presbytery was established in South Carolina, not connected to the northern branches of the American Presbyterian Church, in 1722-1723. Presbyteries consist of more than one man, but in this case, the man who was most influential in its founding, Archibald Stobo (d. 1741) is worthy of special mention here. 

He was born in Scotland in the 1670's, and graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1697. As it happened, a plan for a Scottish colony in Panama at the Isthmus of Darien was developing, and ministers were needed for the colony, which was known as Caledonia. The first wave of ministers and settlers arrived there in 1698. Stobo, along with Alexander Shields and Francis Borland, was part of the second re-supply expedition, which arrived in 1699. While serving there, "Three of these ministers, Alexander Shields, Francis Boreland and Archibald Stobo, instituted the Presbytery of Caledonia, the first presbytery in the New World" (Jacob Harris Patton, A Popular History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, p. 89). "The first Presbytery organized on this continent was 'The Presbytery of Caledonia.'" (Benjamin L. Agnew, "When Was the First Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Organized?").

He came with his family, and the expectation was that the second group of ministers would stay for a full year. However, Stobo's wife encouraged him to return home early, and so he was granted leave, and began the return voyage home on the ship, Rising Sun, in September, 1700. Stobo and his family and a few others disembarked after Stobo was requested to preach in town. That very night a hurricane of incredible intensity hit Charleston and sank the Rising Sun with over one hundred souls on board, none of whom survived. The story of that dramatic event is told in much more detail by George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, Vol. 1, pp. 141-142; and Howe, The Early Presbyterian Immigration Into South Carolina, pp. 36-37. In time, Stobo made the decision to remain in South Carolina and forgo returning to Scotland altogether. He became the pastor of the church in Charleston that was "called at various times the Presbyterian, Independent, White Meeting [on account of the color of the building], and Circular Church [on account of the building's shape and design]...the 'Mixed Presbyterian and Independent Church'" (Daniel W. Hollis & Carl Julien, Look to the Rock: One Hundred Ante-bellum Presbyterian Churches of the South, p. 4). (This church today is known as the Circular Congregational Church. In Strobo's day, the congregation consisted of a mix of Presbyterians, Congregationalists and French Huguenots of Presbyterian conviction.) 

"After serving this church for four years, he turned his attention to Protestant Dissenters in the countryside who were particularly strong in the region that stretched southwest of the Stono River to the Combahee. For the next thirty-seven years he was a tireless pastor among these people, establishing churches at Wilton Bluff at Adam's Run on the lower Edisto River, at Pon Pon further upriver, at James Island, and northwest of Charlestown, at Cainhoy among the New Englanders who settled there" (Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion, p. 43).

Stobo was "a man of decided character, and an uncompromising Presbyterian" (Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, p. 32). In 1706, he and 46 members of his congregation signed a covenant binding them to be "a Presbyterian congregation for ever in church discipline, doctrine and government, as set down in the Old Testament. That christnings, marriages and burials shall be among themselves, that their ministers shall come from Scotland, such as he, Mr. Stobo can comply with, that upon Sabbath days they shan't go to other places but the meeting or must meet among themselves rather than by gadding abroad for strengthening others vice and giving offence to one another" (Letter of Le Jau to Mr. Stubbs, dated April 15, 1707, cited in Charles Augustus Briggs, American Presbyterianism: Its Origin and Early History, p. lxvii). It was in 1722-1723 that the efforts of Stobo to unite the various local Presbyterian churches, many of which he planted, bore special fruit with the founding a presbytery (sometimes referred to as the Charles Towne Presbytery, at other times as the Presbytery of James Island). This was the first presbytery established in the Southern United States. 

Thus, Stobo participated in the founding of the first presbytery in the New World (the Presbytery of Caledonia, in Panama, in 1699-1700; and the first presbytery in the Southern United States (Charles Towne Presbytery, or the Presbytery of James Island, in 1722-1723), and is a Presbyterian worthy to be remembered.