The Dutch Dominie of the Catskills<br>By David Murdoch
I also learned of another piece he had written titled The Doctrine of Caiaphas illustrated by the Presbytery of Chemung, at the close of a nine and a half years’ pastorate; in a letter by David Murdoch, D. D. This is a defense of his conduct as pastor in Elmira from his arrival until his forced resignation in the fall of 1860. I was able to obtain a copy from the Booth Library at the Chemung Valley Museum. I was also able to obtain his obituary, two obituaries of his chief antagonist Tracy Beadle, and several other later items that illuminate the darkness. All of these items are links in this article.
The dispute, that persisted from his arrival in Elmira until his death, possibly concerned in part the “revivalist” movement that was a white hot issue in upstate New York primarily from 1830 to 1850 and spawned the term “Burnt over District” to describe the western New York area.
The early decades of the nineteenth century in upstate and western New York were characterized by enthusiastic religion, periodic revivals, gathering opposition to slavery and predictions of the end of the world. There were even those who set a date, sold their worldly goods and prepared for the end. For many, religion was paramount, and their church the center of their lives. These strong religious feelings seem to also have created substantial divisions within the church populations and of course between believers and non-believers. The peak of the enthusiastic movement was past by the time the Rev. Dr. Murdoch accepted a call to minister to the faithful of the First Presbyterian Church of Elmira in 1851 though the strength of the northern abolitionist movement continued to increase. We now know that just four years earlier at First Presbyterian, motions on the issue of slavery were tabled signaling that the issue was divisive and unresolved at that time. Rev. Murdoch’s later dispute with the church’s Trustees probably derived from such divisions but he never explicitly explains the conflict. We have much later views expressed by both churches and a single un-footnoted quote from his new church to buttress their view. Nerves were frayed then and may remain so today.
When Reverend Murdoch received his call to Elmira, he was then in his tenth year in Catskill at the Dutch Reformed Church, which had recently been destroyed by fire. Why, in the face of local tragedy, he sought to leave isn’t clear. Then, in his courtship with the new church, he became immediately aware of unexplained (to us) divisions. He nevertheless proceeds and the enmity, seemingly ever present, rises through the years until he is driven from the First Presbyterian Church on the eve of the Civil War. In leaving, he takes with him perhaps a quarter of the congregation to form a new church, the Second Presbyterian Church nearby. To explain and defend himself he publishes The Doctrine of Caiaphis in late 1860, perhaps only a month or so before the book that sparked this research was first published (January 1861). His Pastorship at the First Presbyterian Church was to end on June 1st but he seems to have withdrawn sooner. We know from his own words that he was forbidden to administer the sacraments somewhat earlier. On June 13th he is dead. In the Elmira Gazette there is a long obituary on page two. Both of these documents are provided. We also provide excerpts from two documents prepared much later by both the First Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian Churches.