About the close of the last century, the state of spiritual religion had reached a very low state, especially in Kentucky and Tennessee. The Presbyterians of that region had fallen into a cold formalism that was truly fearful. A prominent Elder of the Church, speaking of that period, says that he sat for twenty years under the ministry of an able Doctor of Divinity, and in all that time he never heard him speak directly of the work of the Spirit in regeneration. While no body of people, as such, insist more strongly on the necessity of divine power in the salvation of the sinner, yet so many formalists had entered the Church that vital piety was almost extinct.
About this time, Rev. James McGready, who had been preaching seven years, was, by accident, awakened, sought religion and was powerfully converted. From this time, he turned his energies to arouse the Church. The result was a powerful revival of religion spreading over all that region. The Church was divided into a revival and anti-revival party. Some of the revival party could not accept the doctrines of the Westminster Confession touching foreknowledge and decrees, believing that it taught fatality.
The Church was organized February 4, 1810, in Tennessee. Hence, it could not be expected to have spread very far as early as the first settling of this country, in 1819 and 1820, especially when we remember that it had its origin as far south as the southeast part of Tennessee, near the Kentucky line. It is, however, true, notwithstanding this fact, that ministers of this Church found their way into Illinois before the Church was fifteen years old.
The Church in Menard County-The first preacher of this denomination who visited this part of the State was John McCutchen Berry. He was born in the "Old Dominion," March 22, 1788. His education was limited. When twenty-two years of age, he made a public profession of faith in Christ, and united with the C.P. Church. He was a soldier in the war of 1812, and participated in the battle of New Orleans. He was licensed to preach by the Logan Presbytery, in Tennessee, in 1819; and in 1822, was ordained by the same body. In 1820, he had removed to Indiana, but he returned to Tennessee to attend Presbytery. A few years later, he removed to Sangamon County, Ill., settling in the limits of what is now Menard County, on Rock Creek. This section of country was then in the bounds of Illinois Presbytery, and so remained until the spring of 1829, when Sangamon Presbytery was organized. Mr. Berry had organized the Sugar Creek congregation, ten miles south of Springfield.
Revs. Gilbert Dodds and Thomas Campbell had migrated from Kentucky some years before the year 1829; both being licensed preachers when they came; were soon after ordained by the Presbytery of Illinois. Mr. Dodds settled on a farm some five miles south of Petersburg, where he resided until his death.
Synod-Old Cumberland Synod-ordered the organization of Sangamon Presbytery, and, agreeably to this order, the ministers and a few Elders met, at the house of William Drennan, on Sugar Creek, the 20th of April, 1829, and held its first meeting. The ministers were John M. Berry, Gilbert Dodds, Thomas Campbell, David Foster and John Porter, Mr. Berry, by order of Synod, acting as Moderator, and Gilbert Dodds as Clerk. Mr. Berry preached the opening sermon, from Matthew, xvi, 15. The Elders present were: Joseph Dodds, representing Sugar Creek; John Hamilton, from Bethel, and Samuel Berry, from Concord and Lebanon. There were also present, John M. Cameron, William McCord and Neill Johnson, licentiates; Payton Mitchell and Archibald Johnson, candidates. Needham Roach, a licentiate from Nashville Presbytery was received under the care of this. This session of Presbytery also discontinued Payton Mitchell as a candidate under its care.
As Rev. John M. Berry was the first minister of this Church who preached in this county, it is due to history to give a brief description of him. As before stated, owing to his early surroundings, his education was limited; but his natural powers of mind were very far above the average. He was independent in his manner of thought, gentle and kind, but uncompromising in his opposition to all that he thought to be wrong. He was charitable in his feelings to the views of others, but unyielding in his conviction until convinced by the force of argument. As a speaker, he was plain, solemn and unassuming, making no effort at display or show; but possessing a commanding presence and a voice at once full of power and a persuasive attractiveness, he was in every way qualified to exert a great power over an audience. Though usually full of force and logic, yet sometimes, when warmed with the inspiring power of his subject, he arose almost to sublimity, and at such times his solemn and earnest appeals were almost irresistible. His method of argument was of the clearest logical character, and when fully aroused by the importance of his subject, he seemed to carry everything before him. His character, and the estimate in which he was held, can be, to some degree, illustrated by relating an incident in the early history of this country. The reader is doubtless aware of the fact that the lamented Abraham Lincoln was engaged in the grocery trade at Old Salem, in this county, in an early day. A son of Mr. Berry was, for a time, a partner of Mr. Lincoln in the grocery, and it is probable that intoxicants were sold by them; in fact, this is generally conceded to be true. Be this as it may, Mr. Berry's son contracted habits of dissipation in some way, and ultimately became an utter wreck, dying a most horrid death. This was a blow from which the father never fully recovered; but a deep, dark shadow seemed ever after to be cast over his mind. It appears that during the partnership in the store that the father strove hard to dissuade his son from a life of intemperance, but failed. His labors were not lost, however, for the counsel, though lost on the son, made a lasting impression on Mr. Lincoln. Years after the close of the partnership, when Lincoln had reached a position of eminence in the legal profession, a grog-shop in a certain community was having a bad influence upon some men who were married, and whose wives suffered by the evil. These injured wives, on a certain occasion, gathered together and made a raid on the vile den, demolished the barrels, broke up the decanters and demijohns and played havoc with things generally. For this the ladies were prosecuted, and Mr. Lincoln volunteered his services for their defense. In the midst of a most powerful argument upon the evils of the use of, and the traffic in, intoxicating spirits, while all in the crowded room were most intensely interested and many bathed in tears, the speaker turned and, pointing his long, bony finger toward where the venerable Berry was standing, said: "There stands the man who, years ago, was instrumental in convincing me of the evils of trafficking in and using ardent spirits. I am glad that I ever saw him. I am glad that I ever heard his testimony on this terrible subject." This was a higher honor than to have been made the Chief Magistrate of the nation. Such an encomium from such a man speaks volumes in praise of Mr. Berry's influence for good.
Such is a brief sketch of the pioneer of Cumberland Presbyterianism in the State of Illinois. Mr. Berry died as he had lived, with his armor on, in the winter of 1856-57, in the town of Clinton, De Witt Co., Ill., where he had lived for several years. His early colaborers were equally earnest, pious and devoted to their work. Dodds, Campbell and others will ever be remembered with warmest gratitude by the people of that Church.
Some of the old citizens are firm in their convictions that the Lebanon congregation of the C. P. Church, was the first church organized in the county, though the writer is fully convinced that Clary's Grove Baptist Church is older by a year or more. In 1829, the Lebanon congregation, six miles east of Petersburg, and Concord, four miles north, were represented in Presbytery. Lebanon was organized, perhaps, in 1825 or 1826, and Concord a year or two later. The Cumberland Presbyterians were accustomed, from their first introduction in this part of Illinois, to hold camp-meetings every summer. These meetings were held in various communities, as Lebanon, Concord, Rock Creek, Irish Grove, Salt Creek, and various other places. This custom was kept up till some twenty years ago. The Church grew and prospered from the first, and at the present time it, perhaps, has a larger membership than any other denomination in the county. The following is a list of the congregation and Pastors in the county: Irish Grove, Rev. J.T. May; Fancy Prairie, Rev. J.S. Stevenson; Greenview, Rev. James White; Rock Creek, Rev. J. Momire; Petersburg, Rev. R.D. Miller; Concord, Rev. A.H. Goodpasture; besides these there are Tallula, New Hope and Lebanon congregations that, at present, are without Pastors. The following additional ministers of this Church live in the county: Revs. James Knoles and C.B. Parkhurst, who are engaged in teaching. Thus it will be seen that there are nine congregations and eight ministers in the county. Each congregation has a good and finished house of worship, except Petersburg, which, at this writing-July, 1879-has a good and neat brick edifice nearly ready for occupancy. A detail of the history of each of these congregations will be found in the history of the several townships in which they are situated.