“Gone to America.”

Frequent reply to Dr. Samuel Johnson and his companion James Boswell when they inquired where the population was while on a tour of the Scottish Highlands in the 1750s.

It is Pentecost Sunday, 2022 and at the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown at the corner of Tilghman Street and North Cedar Crest Boulevard the members are worshiping in three languages- English, Arabic and Chin Burmese- on this special day to celebrate the tradition recognized by Christians as the moment when the spirit of God through Jesus Christ ignited his followers.

Under the wide canopy roof of the modern sanctuary were folks whose ancestors came to the Lehigh Valley in overcrowded sailing ships forced out of their native Scotland by climate change, war or displacement. Their voyage could take from three to six months on the stormy Atlantic if they survived at all. Others came in the early 20th century from Middle Eastern lands where St. Paul preached and that were then a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Some had ancestors fleeing forced conscription into that empire’s army, arriving in the steerage section of ocean liners at Ellis Island. And then there are the most recent Chin Burmese Christians, an ethnic people fleeing the strife and persecution of the dictatorship of corrupt generals in Myanmar formerly known as Burma. All have found a place here to worship as Christians in their own way.

Allentown’s First Presbyterian Church did not officially exist until 1831. But there were Presbyterians in the Lehigh Valley long before. According to the church’s official history, as early as 1728 a colony of Scots and Scots-Irish (Scots who had settled in northern Ireland) Presbyterians occupied a site within the Forks of the Delaware River. The region was known to Europeans at least since 1700 when William Penn himself admonished in a letter Jan Hans Steelman, a trader of Swedish origins, not to trade furs with Lenape at the Forks of the Delaware “at the Lecha” in exchange for rum without his permission. It is not clear if Penn did not want Steelman not to sell rum at all to the Lenape or if he just wanted him to get a license of some sort first.

By the 1720s, it was known as the “Irish Settlement” or more simply “Craig’s,” after William and Thomas Craig, the early leaders of the group. Exactly what reason these natives of Scotland and Northern Ireland had for coming to what would one day be Easton are unknown. But one does not have far to look for some possibilities. First there was climate change. British historian Geoffrey Parker, in his essential recent book “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe In the Seventeenth Century” notes that the whole world was upended by the climate shift to frigid temperatures brought on by volcanos, El Ninos and other atmospheric events now known as the Little Ice Age. It destroyed crops and upset the lives of simple farmers particularly in the British Isles and northern Europe. “In the Scottish borders, farmers never returned to cultivate the Pentland Hills after global cooling and marauding troops ended the viability of their farms,” Parker writes.

This was coupled with a civil war in England and Scotland that ravaged both countries and led to invasions of Scotland, killing thousands. Attempts by the Catholic Stuart monarchs to return to power in Scotland and the British Army’s successful campaign against them in the 1740s caused many more to flee.

In the 18th century, Pennsylvania was the chief destination of the Scots and Scots-Irish. William Penn had made the area popular in his writings to religious dissidents in the German States and the English Quakers. Good farmland and the promise of freedom to worship without government interference was a big attraction. The territory from the Lehigh River north to the Blue Mountains was particularly popular to the Scots who looked on the land as more bountiful than they had ever known.

William Allen, whose father was Scots-Irish and had come to Philadelphia in the late 1600s, established a thriving merchant business. Allen owned most of the land in the area thanks to his close relationship with William Penn’s son, Thomas Penn. In the 1740s Presbyterian missionary David Brainerd, guided by Lenape Chief Moses Tunda Tatamy, a Christian convert, along with his interpreter, would travel in the region converting others of the Lenape tribe to Christianity. The land was opened to settlement in the mid-1730s and part of it was occupied by Moravians in Bethlehem. Even before that in 1731 the Rev. Eleazer Wales founded the first Presbyterian congregation with Thomas Craig. Unfortunately, most of this land was acquired by Thomas Penn in the infamous fraud called the Walking Purchase of 1737, which enraged the Native Americans and led to much violence between them and the settlers during the French and Indian War.

First Presbyterian Church

At the same time, large numbers of Germans came into the region seeking farmsteads. At least in part due to the Scots’ preference to move on to the edge of the frontier in the hope of acquiring even more fertile land, the Pennsylvania Germans spread on the southwest side of the Lehigh River where William Allen founded what later became Allentown. The German immigrants were primarily Reformed and Lutheran and gradually created their own congregations. Their services were almost exclusively in German well into the 19th century. Apparently the only English language services were Episcopalian in Easton. In the early 1800s, private Episcopal services were held at the Lehigh County Courthouse for the Allen-Livingston family by a minister who traveled from Easton when the family occupied Trout Hall in the summer months.

As English was the common tongue of the Presbyterians, they were in relatively small numbers. In Allentown, at first there was no place for them to worship. It was not until the 1820s that a Sunday school was created in Allentown that attracted English speakers. Though interdenominational at first, the largest number of those attending were Presbyterians. Ministers from the Irish Settlement would occasionally come to Allentown to conduct services. In 1828-29 the Rev. L.F. Leake and the Rev. F.A. Stratle, commissioned by the Domestic Missionary Society of New Jersey, arrived in the community for the creation of a Presbyterian congregation. Over a period of three years, they worked on fundraising and organizing and by 1830 construction began on a lot on the east side of Fifth Street, south of the county jail. The land was donated by Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf, granddaughter of William Allen. It was finished in December and was 40 by 50 feet, a two - story structure with a small auditorium on the second floor. The following September Rev. Alexander Heberton and a congregation of eight formed the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown.

As the only church in Allentown that conducted its services in English, First Presbyterian was popular with the increasing number of English speakers in the community. It underwent both good times and bad, the worst being the collapse of the Northampton Bank thanks to embezzlement of its funds by its president John Rice in 1843. It was a blow to the church but by the 1850s it had gradually recovered. It became known both for its powerful preaching and support for upholding Christian principals in a secular world. Like the rest of the community Presbyterians followed the news of the Civil War. The national Presbyterian church split North and South, a wound that was not healed until 1983.

Like many churches it grew and prospered with the rest of the community. By the late 1800s one of its most prominent members of the church was Frank Trexler, younger brother of Harry C. Trexler, who was to become the leading business figure in the community. General Trexler never joined a church, although he did say he would not want to live in a town without churches. But in 1856, when his parents returned from Easton to Allentown, they joined First Presbyterian. As a child, young Harry most probably worshiped there. Mrs. Trexler’s mother Jane Magee Sauerbeck was a Presbyterian and had been born in Virginia. The senior Trexlers’ obituaries speak of their prominent role in the church. Frank Trexler, who was later to become a leading Lehigh County jurist, conducted the Men’s Sunday School class at First Presbyterian for many years. The 1982 issue of the Proceedings of the Lehigh County Historical Society featured an article about him based on his diaries by First Presbyterian church member, Muhlenberg College history professor and grandson of Trexler, the late Dr. Edwin R. “Ed” Baldrige. First Presbyterian is mentioned often in its pages. Baldridge was a First Presbyterian member, as is wife Georgia.

In a daring architectural plunge in 1902 First Presbyterian decided to replace its earlier sanctuary with a Neo-Classical Greco-Roman temple of a building, most probably designed by S. Addison Weishampel (1865-1916), one of the city’s leading architects. The congregation worshiped here until 1957 when it moved to its current location. That former sanctuary is now part of the Allentown Art Museum.

First Presbyterian Church

It was at the dawn of the 20th century that a new group of immigrant Presbyterians arrived in the Lehigh Valley. They came from the Middle East that was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Since the early 19th century Protestant missionaries had been going to the region, now part of Lebanon and Syria. As the largely Muslim population showed almost no interest and indeed the empire forbid their conversion, they turned their efforts to the Syrian Christian community.

Moufid Khoury is pastor for Arabic language services at First Presbyterian. He came to America from his native Lebanon in 1987 and began Arabic language services at the church in April, 1994. He notes that what is now the American University in Beirut was founded by Presbyterian missionaries under the name of American Protestant College. “But later it became too much for them to handle it, so it was secularized,” says Khoury, who is from Beirut.

Missionaries in the early 20th century set up a school in Amar al Husan, Syria, one of several small towns in what is known as the Christian Valley. Khoury notes that the population was largely Syrian Orthodox and had been Christians for many centuries. As a result of the school a number became Presbyterian. At that time there was much turmoil in the Ottoman Empire as a group of army officers known collectively as the Young Turks in 1905 had overthrown the old sultan and allied themselves with the German Empire. They began a vigorous campaign to revive the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Turkish Empire was known, by forced conscription of large numbers of young men. Khoury notes that many young men fled into the wilderness.

It was at this time that the first Middle Eastern Christian people started to come to the Lehigh Valley. Although many were educated by Presbyterians there was no place in Allentown that had Arabic speaking services, so they joined the Syrian Orthodox Church. But a number still considered themselves Presbyterians. It is the descendants of that group and others that attend the services there today.

More recently the Chin Burmese, an ethnic people who were converted to Christianity by 19th century American missionaries, came to the Lehigh Valley. According to a 2014 Myanmar census 85.4% of the Chin are Christian. Actively persecuted by the current government, they are regularly subject to attacks. The Burmese Army has been known to use them to clear minefields by having the Chin walk ahead of them. The Chin people risk their lives by fleeing the country. According to one source those who do flee are often young families with children. Many who can’t come to America live in the border area with India.

Abraham Pa Cawi is the pastor of the 30 to 40 Chin families that all live in the Allentown area. “The church was very welcoming here,” he says. Both his mother and sister are still in Burma where they live in hiding from the government. “They live in constant fear,” he notes.

When they started to be released from refugee camps to America, Allentown’s First Presbyterian reached out to them and today, having received a welcome, they hold their own services there. They were recently a part of the church’s Homecoming Service where their children’s choir participated along with Abraham. One church member who has worked closely with the Chin has this to say: “They picked up English rapidly and quickly become American citizens, homeowners and taxpayers.”

It is all part of the First Presbyterian Church’s past and present.