A Congregation on the Pennsylvania Frontier

In 1729, along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, Derry Township was formed. Populated by the numerous Scots-Irish people who had emigrated from Northern Ireland, in 1729 Derry Township, near present-day Hershey, was very much a frontier settlement; part of the gateway to the American West.

Historic Marker in Derry Township

That same year, in a little grove, the Derry Presbyterian Church was officially established. Tradition has it that the Presbyterians were meeting for worship in the grove, near a fresh-water spring, as early as 1724. In 1732, the Congregation called its first pastor, the Scotsman, Reverend William Bertram, who would pastor the churches in both Derry and Paxtang (Paxton) Townships. At this time, the Derry congregation erected its first Session House. This building was a small affair, built of rough, hand-hewn logs. Its sole source of heat in the winter was a stone fireplace situated along one of the walls. The Session House was never used for worship, per se, but, among other things it would serve as a pastor’s study, a place for Sunday School classes, and other types of church meetings. Also, this small, unassuming log building was used as the first schoolhouse in this area of Pennsylvania where the main course of study was reading.  

In 1741, the land on which the current Derry Presbyterian Church building stands was deeded to the church congregation by John, Thomas, and Richard Penn, who were the sons of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony.

In the 1740’s, a new pastor stepped into the pulpits at Derry and Paxton Church, the Reverend John Elder. Like his predecessor, Rev. Bertram, John Elder was likewise educated in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. With the outbreak of what is known in America as the French and Indian War, and increased conflict between the Scots-Irish settlers and local Native Tribes, Rev. Elder organized a company of local militia from Paxton Township, known as the Paxton Boys. Like most men in the area at the time, it is remembered that Rev. Elder brought his rifle, powder horn, and shot pouch to church services and was known as the “Fighting Parson”. The end of the war brought a tenuous peace to the frontier, but it was fleeting. Tensions between the frontiersmen and Native tribesmen were renewed in earnest in 1763 when Pontiac’s Rebellion spread into Pennsylvania, leading to depredations on both sides. Frustrated by what they apparently felt was a lack of action taken by Pennsylvania’s Colonial Government, Rev. Elder’s company, the Paxton Boys, are best remembered as a vigilante force who murdered around 20 peaceful Susquehannock men, women, and children in attacks that are remembered collectively as the Conestoga Massacre.

Derry Presbyterian Church Cemetary

A colonial-era cemetery stands on the property of modern Derry Presbyterian Church. According to the church records, the earliest grave here dates back to 1735. Within the stone wall surrounding this cemetery can be found the graves of at least forty American veterans; soldiers of the frontier and of the American Revolution. Their graves are marked with small American flags and metal plaques denoting their military service.

Revolutionary War Grave Marker

Over the centuries, other buildings have been erected on the property of Derry Presbyterian Church, but ever faithful, the original Session House, the small log building that played such a prominent role in the early days of the frontier congregation, built in the same year of George Washington’s birth, continues to stand watch. In the early 20th Century, the Session House was recognized as the oldest structure in Derry Township. In order to preserve the building, in 1929, chocolate magnate Milton Hershey had it enclosed in a glass structure that protects it to this day.

1732 Session House

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