William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
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Gilbert McMaster Autobiography, c. 1854
Rob S. Cox, January 1998
Gilbert McMaster autobiography
McMaster, Gilbert, 1778-1854
Written for his children on the eve of his sudden and unforeseen death, Gilbert McMaster's autobiography is a fascinating account of the life of a Scots-Irish immigrant and his growth as a Reformed Presbyterian minister. The most important section of McMaster's autobiography is undoubtedly that devoted to the events leading up to the eventful General Synod meeting of 1833, and the schism that resulted indirectly from McMaster's antislavery agitation.
Language: The material is in English
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
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The University of Michigan
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Gilbert McMaster autobiography, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.
As a young child growing up in County Down (Ulster), Ireland, Gilbert McMaster (also spelled M'Master or MacMaster) was inoculated with a full measure of austere Presbyterianism and more than a small dose of sympathy for the causes of Irish and American independence. In the home of his maternal grandfather, he was taught the rudiments of reading and writing and provided with a sound religious foundation, and from age eight, he expanded his educational horizons through a succession of local tutors, hired to bolster his skills in arithmetic, Latin, Greek, and other subjects.
Young McMaster's life took a dramatic turn in 1791, when he sailed to America with his parents, James and Mary (Crawford), following in the path of two of James' brothers who had emigrated in 1784. Their initial destination, New Castle County, Delaware, proved disappointing in its pallid religious life, so in 1792, the family elected to join James McMaster's brother, John, in Franklin County, Pa. There, Gilbert sought to resume his studies, though hampered by a shortage of money. He declined an offer from an uncle, John Rodden, to pay all expenses, provided he return to Ireland. With perseverance, and the assistance of his father and uncle McMaster, he enrolled in the Franklin Academy in Chambersburg, working as a teacher to pay his way. The severe discipline at the Academy -- corporal as well as intellectual -- left its mark on young Gilbert, as did the work ethic instilled by the necessity of working to make ends meet. When he assumed charge of a school established by local Federalists to shelter their children from Democratic teachers, McMaster steadfastly and successfully asserted his right to freedom of political thought even in this highly charged setting.
After lengthy soul searching and thought, McMaster committed himself to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1800, with whose affairs he was intimately associated for the remainder of his life. Earning admission to Jefferson College, McMaster began to study medicine, demurring from the ministry from a reluctance to speak in public. Nevertheless, religion was never far from his mind. His years at Jefferson coincided with the first wave of the Second Great Awakening in central Pennsylvania, and although some of teachers at the college "gave too much countenance to the wildfire," as he said, most of the others soberly eschewed the excesses of the camp meeting and revival tent in favor of sound orthodoxy (p. 38). McMaster counted himself among those who disapproved of the enthusiasm, though he adopted a moderate, "luke warm" position, arguing that "in this work there was much to disapprove, and in it, so far as remarkable, nothing to approve," but adding that "during those scenes of wildness many truths of the gospel were preached" and many sinners converted (p. 39).
For two years after college, McMaster practiced medicine in Mercer, Pa., McMaster never lost sight of the ministry. A series of heartfelt discussions with his professors opened him to thoughts of the pulpit, and on October 7, 1807, he received his license to preach. During his probationary year, he supplied pulpits from Maryland to Vermont, earning calls from several congregations before settling on a call to Duanesburgh, N.Y., in August, 1808. Although his preaching was described as "not animated" and his composition, "ponderous," there was no mistaking his desire to live by and preach a strictly pure morality. By the late 1820s, he had imbibed a detestation of slavery, and grew concerned over its relation both to Church and the Federal Constitution.
In the early 1830s, McMaster and his friend, James Renwick Willson, became key figures in a virulent debate in Synod over slavery. In the minority, he says, McMaster maintained that slavery was not sanctioned by the Constitution and argued fervently that Presbyterian participation in civil affairs, even in a corrupt government, was a boon to society and not harmful to the righteous. McMaster was not, however, comfortable with the results of agitation over slavery: a schism in the church over the issue of participation in civic affairs, leading to the cleaving off of what became known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod, which allowed its members to hold office and otherwise participate in government.
McMaster remained at Duanesburgh until 1840, when he accepted a call to Princeton, Ind., and in 1846, to New Albany. He died suddenly of erysipelas, fittingly, on St. Patrick's Day, 1854. Of his four sons and four daughters, two became distinguished Presbyterian ministers and another, James, became a noted journalist and editor.
Collection Scope and Content Note
Written for his children on the eve of his sudden and unforeseen death, Gilbert McMaster's autobiography is a fascinating account of the life of a Scots-Irish immigrant and his growth as a Reformed Presbyterian minister. His recollections of childhood are written with an eye toward his intellectual and moral development.
A man of measured temperament, McMaster's innate tendencies appear to have led him to consider all his actions and usually to adopt a moderate stance. Though hard edged and demanding in matters of morality, he avoided extremes. His comments on the great revivals of 1801-02 suggest that he withdrew from participation partly through reasons of personality and partly for orthodoxy, but despite this, and unlike many of his fellow Reformed Presbyterians, he never condemned them altogether. Even his opposition to slavery was placed within careful bounds -- criticizing the government, but never the Constitution, wishing to see it expunged from the Church, but rejecting the notion that its members were compromised by the sins of their fellow church members or fellow Americans who held slaves.
The most important section of McMaster's autobiography is undoubtedly that devoted to the events leading up to the eventful General Synod meeting of 1833, and the schism that resulted indirectly from McMaster's antislavery agitation. Although this account was terminated by his own untimely death, in conjunction with his published writings on the subject (see below), it provides a relatively full intellectual justification of his stance, and yields some insight into the politics and emotions of antislavery argumentation within a church setting. It is an invaluable document as well for understanding the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.
- Antislavery movements--New York (State)
- Second Great Awakening.
- Irish--United States.
- Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
- Scots-Irish--United States.
- Slavery and the Church.
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Gilbert McMaster autobiography, c. 1854 [series]:
Additional Descriptive Data
Throughout his career, McMaster was an ardent writer, and the Book Division of the Clements Library houses many of his works. Although several of his earliest and latest works are absent, the holdings do contain all of his most significant works pertaining to the church crisis of 1832-33.
McMaster, Gilbert. The duty of nations. [sermon] (Ballston Spa, N.Y., 1810).
McMaster, Gilbert. The embassy of reconciliation. (New York, 1812).
McMaster, Gilbert. An essay in defence of some fundamental doctrines of Christianity. (Schenectady, 1815).
McMaster, Gilbert. The moral character of civil government, considered with reference to the political institutions of the United States. (Albany, 1832).
McMaster, Gilbert. A brief inquiry into the civil relations of Reformed Presbyterians. (Schenectady, 1833).
McMaster, Gilbert. Remarks offered in Illustration of a report on the doctrine of civil government. (Schenectady, 1835).
McMaster, Gilbert. The obligations of the American scholar to his country and the world. (Madison, Ind., 1841).
McMaster, Gilbert. Thoughts on the union of the Church. (Cincinnati, 1846).
McMaster, Gilbert. The great subject of the Christian ministry. (New York, 1852).
Scott, David.Calm examination of Dr. McMaster's letters on civil government. (Newburgh, 1832).
Sprague, William B. Annals of the American pulpit, vol. 9, 5 (N.Y., 1869), p. 46-60.
Antislavery movements--New York (State)Childhood--IrelandDelaware--Description and travelFranklin Academy (Chambersburg, Pa.)Great Awakening, 2ndImmigrants--IrelandImpressmentIrish--United StatesJefferson College--StudentsLongmoore, JosephMcMaster family--IrelandPresbyterian Church--DelawarePresbyterian Church--IrelandReformed Presbyterian Church of North America--ClergyReformed Presbyterian Church of North America--Clergy--Appointment, call, and electionReformed Presbyterian Church of North America--HistoryReformed Presbyterian Church of North America--PennsylvaniaRevivals--PennsylvaniaRoss, JohnSchools--Pennsylvania--18th centuryScots-Irish--United StatesSlavery and the ChurchSwearingUnited IrishmenWillson, James Renwick, 1780-1853