Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

The evening of July 17, 1794, a mob of 700 men descended on the property of wealthy landowner and whiskey tax collector John Neville and burned his whole Western Pennsylvania estate to the ground. 

In a sense, the event (part of what’s now called the Whiskey Rebellion) was about class. The rebels were poor tenant farmers and small-batch whiskey distillers, fighting against their wealthy landlords and the U.S. government for demanding more of their meager resources.

The conflict can also be understood as a political one. The landowners were mostly Federalists who migrated from Virginia, whereas the tenant farmers were Democratic Republicans native to Pennsylvania. Federalists favored a strong central government, which some rural Western Pennsylvanians saw as a threat to their way of life.

And, finally, the Whiskey Rebellion can also be understood in terms of ethno-religious identity: Irish Presbyterians versus English Episcopalians. 

“Everywhere I look, I see these interconnected religious and class and ethnic struggles,” said Peter Gilmore, a historian of early Western Pennsylvania Presbyterianism. 

In what is known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, tenant farmers in Western Pennsylvania violently rebelled against landowners and whiskey tax collectors. It can be understood in political and economic but also ethno-religious terms: many of the farmers were Irish Prebysterians. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Presbyterians on the margins

Today, white Presbyterians are so firmly established in Western Pennsylvania society that it’s hard to imagine them living on the margins. In the decades pre-1800, Presbyterians were often viewed “with dismay and disgust,” Gilmore said. 

Much of that had to do with their ethnicity.

Historian Peter Gilmore, photographed at Sixth Presbyterian Church, is interested in the pre-1800 history of Irish Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania — before they moved from the margins to the center of society. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Although there were exceptions, including a small number of Black Presbyterians, for the most part, at the turn of the 19th century, “to be Irish in Pittsburgh is to be Presbyterian, and to be Presbyterian probably means you’re Irish,” Gilmore said. 

In the 1700s, Presbyterians flocked from northern Ireland to the American colonies. It was a classic “push-pull” scenario, Gilmore said, where immigrants are driven away from and toward something both at once.

In 18th-century Ireland, “religion became key to holding political and economic power,” he said. Only members of the official Church of Ireland could own land or hold political office. That relegated many Presbyterians — at that point, not even legally considered Protestants — to live lives as impoverished tenant farmers. 

When the landowners began increasing the Presbyterian farmers’ rent, many of these farmers decided they’d had enough. They immigrated to the American colonies seeking economic and religious opportunities.

In the colonies, though, to be Irish (and thus also Presbyterian) was to rank low in the social hierarchy by default.

“They were different, they were dissenters, they were prone to violence,” Gilmore said, explaining the common stereotypes. 

Some of that suspicion was justified. Many of the Irish Presbyterians were sympathetic to the cause of the French Revolution and early backers of the idea of an Irish Republic. 

Today, white Presbyterians are so firmly established in Western Pennsylvania society that it’s hard to imagine them living on the margins.

As the Whiskey Rebellion shows, they were also not afraid to use violence to pursue their ends. The “Paxton Boys,” a troupe of Irish Presbyterian vigilantes who brutally murdered people of the Susquehannock nation in the 1760s, cemented that reputation early.

The Irish Presbyterians were also marginalized for being, on the whole, poor. Many had made the trip across the Atlantic as redemptioners, meaning they agreed to a period of indentured servitude upon their arrival in exchange for someone paying their fare. Colonial newspapers from the region bear multiple examples of ads placed to catch runaway Irish Presbyterian servants.

Thus, in a cruel twist of fate, many of the immigrants found themselves in virtually the same situation in the colonies that they’d faced in northern Ireland: A small number of Episcopalians, descended from the Church of England, seemed to hold the land and the power. Much of the population (including Irish Presbyterians but also German Lutherans and Reformed Calvinists, English Baptists and Methodists and, more than anyone, people of African descent) remained on the margins.

Joining the white Protestant center

So how did that dynamic change? How did Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania become mainstream?

The script started to flip as early as 1800, Gilmore said.

Politically, the Federalists, who often shared interests with the Episcopalians, lost power to the Presbyterian-heavy Democratic Republicans, both locally and nationally. In 1816, a Presbyterian became the first mayor of Pittsburgh — a significant sign of that shift in power.

At the same time, the early to mid-1800s brought new waves of immigrants to Western Pennsylvania, including significant numbers of Irish Catholics and German Jews. By the 1880s, that expanded to include large waves of Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews from Eastern Europe and Black migrants fleeing oppression in the South, too. 

In the face of increasing racial and religious diversity, Irish Presbyterians, who had once seemed different, began to seem less so. 

Presbysterians who, a century or more earlier, would have been looked down upon for being Irish were now seen as just “American,” Gilmore said. “Their native birth, their skin color and their religion gave them privileges.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Dalia Maeroff.

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Chris Hedlin

Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...