Autobiography of Rev. Isaac James, M.D. (1777-1874)
Written by Isaac James in 1869
Transcribed by Rev. Joseph F. Di Paolo, February 2006
This handwritten account, evidently written in 1869, is in the archives of Old St. George's United Methodist Church, Philadelphia. According to a notation on the cover, it was donated in May of 1871 to the Philadelphia Conference Historical Society, at whose request it was written. Isaac James (1777-1874) was a licensed local preacher and physician. He and his wife Henrietta (1781-1832) are both buried in the cemetery adjoining Radnor United Methodist Church, which his family had been instrumental in founding in the late 1700s.
“I was born in Radnor Township in what was then Chester County, since Delaware, in what was then called the "Mansion House" on the 28th of January 1777. My great-grandfather, David James, came over from Wales. He purchased a tract of land of 253 acres from David Meredith and Rees Price (see deed dated April 14th, 1718). He died 1738 or 39, leaving a will dated March 10th 1738 and proved June 2nd, 1739.
This plantation was bequeathed of Evan James (who is said to have been born on the passage to America from Wales) who married Margaret Jones of Tredyffrin [Township], Chester County, Pennsylvania, on June 8th, 1739 (see marriage certificate). He, Evan James, bequeathed to his son, Griffith James, 78 3/4 acres and the "Mansion House," which house is located on the Old Lancaster Road, on the east side of the valley on the west hill of which the M.E. Church of Radnor Township, Del. Co, now stands.
My father Griffith James married Mary the daughter of Jessele or Jesse Gyger, by whom he had five children, three sons and two daughters. Mary, the eldest, died of consumption about the age of 22. Rachel married Jesse Burrows (one of the class leaders of St. George's Church, Philadelphia) by whom she had two children. Her eldest son, J. Wesley, died some years ago, leaving a widow and five children. Her daughter Mary Ann married Charles Humphreys; they had nine children and who at this date, 1869, still lives at Radnor. David, my eldest brother, entered the itinerancy 1799 (see letter) and was ordained Deacon by Francis Asbury June 3rd, 1801 (see certificate). He married Elizabeth Boehm (a niece of old "Father Boehm") by whom he had five children. He located and finely [sic] settled in Trenton where he died in [blank space]. His children still reside there. Moses died aged about 23.
I married Henrietta, daughter of Thomas and Ana Potts and granddaughter of Rebecca Grace, of Coventry, Chester County, March 26th 1801. She was convicted under the preaching of Rev. Benjamin Abbott (see Life of Abbott, page 112). I took charge of my father's farm, he beginning to feel the infirmities of old age.
ORIGINS OF RADNOR METHODISM
I well remember the first Methodist who came about Radnor. They were two local preachers by the names of Adam Cloud and Matthew Greentree. They preached on Sunday afternoons in "Harford" (Haverford) alternately at Hughes' and Effinger's. Effinger's became one of the regular preaching places for traveling preachers. My father went over to "Harford" one Sunday afternoon to preaching, and invited the above named local preachers to come over the our house to preach, which invitation was accepted. From that time it became one of the regular preaching places. I think this was about the year 1780.
Soon after they organized a society and appointed George Gyger leader. The class met at his house, he being lame from a blow he received on his head as he was running upstairs in pursuit of a cat. It injured his spine, so that he gradually lost the use of his lower limbs. He had a chair on wheels by which means he moved about and attended to business, he being a wheel-wright by trade.
Among the early members of his class were my sister Mary and his daughter Mary. They being young, I suppose about thirteen years of age, they asked the preacher "if children could be permitted to join class." He told them "Yes." (According to a note now in possession of Daniel Gyger in the handwriting of this Mary Gyger, who afterwards became the wife of Jacob White, this event occurred Feb. 27th, 1782).
A HORSE THIEF AT QUARTERLY CONFERENCE
Soon after my father's house became a preaching place, the first quarterly meeting ever held in that section was held in our house. People came from a great distance around the country to attend. The house was so full that accommodations for lodging had to be made on the floor or any available place. Among others was Mrs. Ann Potts of Coventry, who patted me and called me her little white-headed son; which after her death was fulfilled by marriage to her youngest daughter.
I now remember a circumstance that occurred during the time of this quarterly meeting, which for a long time I had entirely forgotten. It helps to illustrate those early times. The visitors and confusion in consequence caused things to be put out of the ordinary domestic routine. I, a little fellow, was allowed to go to sleep in the kitchen on Saturday evening; on being aroused preparatory to being properly put to bed, I went out of doors and, coming in, I asked why they put the horses in the lane. This called attention to the fact, and father was aroused to inquire into the cause. The horses in the stable, those of visitors and all, were put loose among the stalls, except a favorite young bay mare that was at the far end of the stable, where some bars had been put across the stall. She was found missing.
Being late in Autumn, a slight fall of snow had occurred. Father was enabled to track the thief around the barn and along the fence and towards the dam, where he had taken some rails out of the fence and thus got into the road. Father took another horse and followed on up the road till he came to the "Unicorn," the second tavern above, where he noticed a light in the barn. He dismounted and went into the barn and inquired of the man, what he was doing there so late at night. He replied [that] a traveler had arrived and ordered a mess of oats to be given to his horse and he had to winnow some for it. He asked the man where the stranger was. "Asleep in the bar room." "Show me the beast;" which he did. Father immediately recognized the animal as his mare. He told the man it was his, and had been stolen from his barn during the evening.
They went to the house and seized the sleeping thief, tied him and took him farther up the road to the justice of the peace to get a warrant, in order to commit him to prison. He took him home for the remainder of the night. I remember Mrs. Potts was very kind to him in the morning saying, "I always like to treat such persons kindly, for fear they may take revenge." Father could not attend the quarterly meeting that Sunday, as he had to take the thief down to Chester. He valued his mare at only £60, so as not to make the sentence too severe, so he was only pilloried and publicly whipped. If he had valued him at more that £60, he would have been docked or branded.
RADNOR CHURCH IS BUILT
My grandfather Evan James offered the Methodist Society a lot of ground on which to build a meetinghouse. They had their choice: either on the top of the hill on the Lancaster Road; or on the county line at what was called the junction of Gyger's lane. They selected the first named location. The turnpike was not laid out at that time.
It appears by a deed, now in possession of Daniel Gyger, that on the 20th of October 1783, Evan James and his wife Margaret appeared before Justice Thomas Lewis and sold for seven shillings a half acre of ground, on which to build a meeting house for Francis Asbury and his assistants, in which the doctrines of John Wesley as contained in his four volumes of sermons and Notes on the New Testament were to be preached and none other. The names of the trustees were Isaac Hughes, Sen., Edward Hughes, Michel Cline, Griffith James, Abraham Hughes, John Smith, Mark Evans, Jesse Yeokam, Wm. Jennings. Witnesses to the deed John Jones and Aquila McVaugh. Jacob Gyger, brother David and I helped to haul the water from the creek, by means of a barrel on a sled, with which to mix the mortar for the new meetinghouse.
One day as Uncle Aquila McVaugh was at work hauling stone for the new meeting house, one of his acquaintances passed along and called to him, "What are you doing there, Aquila?" He replied, "I am helping to build a meeting house for the Methodists." "Well, there is no use of you doing that; for they will all soon be as cold as cucumbers. There will soon be no more Methodists."
Matthew Greentree, one of the first Methodist local preachers in that section, was a shoemaker by trade. He joined the conference and was sent south, where he married a widow lady with property. Adam Cloud was a weaver by trade; he also joined the conference and was sent into Jersey. By improper conduct he lost his connection with the Conference, but afterward was restored. I remember a visit he paid to Radnor and preached during a woods meeting. The Baptist preacher took offence at such a man preaching and left the ground. Hughes, who opened their house for the first Methodist preachers, not liking this section of the country, returned to Virginia. Effingers became one of the established preaching places. One of their daughters married a traveling preacher and removed to Philadelphia, where soon after she died of consumption. My brother David was present at her death and said it was one of the most solemn scenes he ever witnessed. It seemed as if heaven was all around them. She was buried at the burying-ground at Radnor. As illustrative of those early times, her grave was dug by the father of Jonathan Wiley, one of the early members. The old gentleman did the work bare-footed - not that he was so very poor, for he owned a house with some land and a nice piece of timber attached to it.
Thomas Vasey came over with Rev. Thomas Coke, Rev. Richard Whatcoat and others, who were sent to ordain Rev. Francis Asbury. He was appointed our presiding elder. One day while he was stopping at Uncle George Gyger's, mother took Mary, David, Rachel, myself and Moses the baby all up there and Mr. Vasey baptized us. This was in the year 1785.
When I was quite a boy, twelve or thirteen years old, there was a meeting at our house. I think it was a quarterly meeting. Richard Whatcoat was present, and there was quite a revival, a bench was assigned for those who were seekers. I knelt among the rest. R. Whatcoat came to me and said, "Child, what do you want?" I told him "peace." He said seek on and you will get it. He came to me again and said, "Have you found it?" I said "No." "Why, the Lord has blessed you!" I thought that strange. He afterwards said he has blessed you in giving you a sight of yourself. On the following Thursday, at a prayer meeting, I found the peace I sought. I joined society in 1790. The Society gave me license to exhort about the year 1798. I was ordained a Local Deacon by Francis Asbury April 16th, 1806 (see certificate) and Local Elder by Bishop Morris, April 1st, 1849.
I remember one Sunday Rev. Thomas Vasey was preaching in a very discouraging manner as if the Church had become very cold in religion. The Elder, Richard Whatcoat, followed him in an exhortation. He commenced by saying, "Why, Brother Vasey, we have not all backslidden yet." In a little while he had the congregation shouting and rejoicing. His manner of speaking was slow and deliberate, but when warmed with his subject, he had a great deal of animation.
When I was seeking religion, my cousin Jacob Gyger was also serious, we talked about our feelings, but he concluded he could not seek religion publicly for if he got it, he was afraid the Methodists would call on him to pray in public. I told him I did not care about that. I would try and get religion if here was any for me. My cousin did not get religion till the death of his eldest son George, who died of consumption in his sixteenth year and was instrumental in the conversion of his parents. Having joined the church so late in life, he had no gift for prayer or speaking. I have heard [him] ask a blessing at the table in an undertone.
Rev. Francis Asbury was a very frequent visitor at my house. He always called my wife "daughter" from the long and intimate friendship existing between himself and her mother and grandmother. He never for a moment seemed to forget his great commission. One day as he entered the house by one door, as they met and shook hands, he said, "Son, do you pray three times a day?" I remember at one time having an appointment at Germantown. After I entered the pulpit, he came to the church in company with Brother Samuel Harvey. He would not enter the church till brother Harvey had informed me of his unexpected arrival.
He took great interest in the colored race, especially the slaves of the South. Somewhere he met with an excellent colored man who had some ability as an exhorter and preacher. He took Black Harry with him sometimes on his rounds. At one time, he was exhorting after brother Asbury had done preaching. An old lady in the congregation, not watching their movements very closely, seemed to think somehow the preacher's voice had changed. On looking, she became exceedingly alarmed, for she was sure that Asbury had turned black from the effect of his preaching. I do not know how long Harry was employed by Brother Asbury. At one time something was forgotten; he sent him back for the article, having to pass a tavern. He could not resist the temptation of treating himself. Asbury was so much displeased with him for the offence, that he dismissed him from his service and the church. He went to Philadelphia to live and maintained himself by doing errands and using a wheel-barrow to transport his goods from one place to another. He was afterward reclaimed and became a very acceptable preacher. He visited Radnor at one time and preached from the text, "There remains therefore a rest for the people of God." His discourse gave great satisfaction.
On the occasion of a visit, Brother Asbury put his horse in Gyger's field to pasture, which was occupied by a cow; she, not being pleased with such company, ran her horn between rib and thigh of the horse, being thus lamed by the cow. He brought it down to my house, and wanted to know of me where he could get anther beast. I told him where I thought he could get another beast. I told him where I thought he could get one that very much resembled his. He said he noticed it the day before, and liked its appearance very much, and would like me to get it for him, which I did. He told me he wanted me to keep the [first] horse for him till it got well, and then give it to "Black Harry" as he thought he could make a better living with the horse than with the wheel-barrow. I attended to it till it recovered, and Harry came out to my house one day and got it.
The last time Bishop Asbury was at my house was when he was on his way to Virginia. He was then very poorly, and soon after died. When about to leave he said to my wife "Daughter," bring in your children that they may have the old man's blessing before he dies." After prayer he put his hand upon the head of each one and blessed them.
Bishop Coke was never at my house but once. He was a small man with a clear distinct voice. I heard him preach at the Academy in Philadelphia. During the sermon he made this remark: "Some people's souls are so little that a thousand of them could dance on the point of a cambric needle." Valentine Cook was presiding elder, [and] he put up at Gyger's. One day he said he would go down to James' to see "if the Son of Peace" was there. He preached at Radnor meetinghouse. He began his sermon by saying, "I see a spirit." With this remark, the people looked up to the ceiling and all around the house, and manifested considerable curiosity about the spirit. After a while he said in a quiet tone, "It is a wandering spirit. Look only at me, not at the door or anywhere else, only at me." It was said of him that he set the country on fire through which he passed.
Dr. William Perm Chandler came to my house at one time very sick, [and] prevailed on me to go with him around his circuit. His head being so bad, he preferred traveling at night to avoid the bright sun and heat of the day. Near Strasburg, we came to an acquaintance of his. The family not having yet risen, he concluded not to disturb them. He found a colander about the pump. We procured some water and proceeded to the barn. He directed me to go to the hay mow while he was to stand below while I poured the water over his head. "Now," said he, you must not stop pouring no matter how loud I hallow." I did as he directed me, and he assured me he felt much better for his shower bath.
At Strasburg he was unable to travel farther, so Henry Boehm went with me to the preaching places. One appointment was at a farmhouse. Brother Boehm wanted me to open the meeting for he felt as though he could not. In the meantime, a southern preacher came in and Brother Boehm prevailed on him to preach. The people were not satisfied and said we must stay and preach for them the next night. We had a gracious meeting.
I remember a man at this meeting that was hard of hearing. He had a speaking trumpet which he would put to his ear, and take it away and smile, and hold it up again with great apparent satisfaction. I was at a meeting at [blank space]. Henry Boehm was there, then quite a young man. He was in the gallery, I think. Among those who went forward to seek for pardon was a favorite niece of his, which had so powerful an effect upon [him] that he went and knelt by her side and sought till he found peace. He said afterwards that if one so good as she felt she was a sinner, he knew he was a much greater one.
Rev. Robert Roberts came very unexpectedly to my house on Sunday. Though it was my appointment at the meetinghouse in the evening, I insisted on him preaching in my place. After meeting, a young man from Lower Merion, [he] asked me if I would marry him. I told him as Brother Roberts was staying with me, I would get him to perform the ceremony, and he consented. I hastened on before the company to open and light the house. When we arrived at home Brother Roberts objected, but I finally prevailed upon him. I asked him afterwards why he objected. He said that as he came down the hill in front of the parties, he overheard one say to the other "Why, I did not think of getting married tonight. Did you?" "Why, no! No such thought entered my head when I left home." He concluded there must be something wrong about such a marriage. The way it happened, they were to have been married on the following Thursday evening. The parties who were to have stood up with them, the bridesmaids, groomsmen and all being with them, dared them to be married on that evening and they concluded they would.
CHESTER AND STRASBURG CIRCUIT
I was appointed treasurer of Chester and Strasburg Circuits in 1802. The following are the names of the classes as reported Aug. 7th, Mattson's Class, $5.24; Cloud's, $7.00; Hart's, $2.49; Nelson's, $2.00; Bethel Church, $4.97; Kagey's, $4.00; New Holland, $6.50; Swartzwelder's, $3.14; Mannor, $6.53; Strasburg, $4.52; Coventry, $8.17; Buckwalter's, $6.00; Forrest Church, $8.17; Souder's $6.26; Ballon's, $4.61; Yardes, $2.44; Vandike's, $3; Valley Church, $1.98; Chester, $4.28; Miller's, $5.50; Radnor Church, $12.90; Anderson's $2.
Mrs. Rebecca Grace of Coventry, Chester County, was among the earliest Methodists. She was the daughter of Anna Rutter and Samuel Savage. Mrs. Savage being left a widow, married a gentleman by the name of Samuel Nutt. The stepfather admired his beautiful and accomplished stepdaughter Rebecca so much, that he did not think any of the young gentlemen of their acquaintance in this country suitable for a husband for her. So he sent to England for his nephew, Sir Samuel Nutt.
The marriage was celebrated with a great deal of ceremony. The shoes and parts of the wedding dress are still in possession of the writer, being handed down as heirlooms. The coat of arms which bears the motto, "Sola Boa qua intus Bona," viz, "the only good is that which is the good within," is now (1869) in possession of Miss Anna Grace Potts of Reading, Pennsylvania. Anna Nutt was the only child by this marriage. Both the Mrs. Nutts, mother and daughter, were left widows and during their widow-hood, built the far famed Warwick Furnace.
Mrs. Rebecca Nutt, after remaining a widow a short time, married Robert Grace, who was an intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin. It was in his house in Market Street near 2nd Street, Philadelphia, where the meetings of the "junto" were held. Benjamin Franklin afterward rented this house of Robert Grace and long occupied it as a dwelling and printing office. He also in connection with Franklin and others founded the Philadelphia Library Company. He gave many valuable books to the company. His house was the resort of the men of note of his times. He died in 1766.
It is a tradition in the family that Mrs. Grace was converted by the preaching of Whitefield. In one of his visits to Chester County, he had given notice that he would preach at Warwick Furnace, and when the workmen heard of it, they threatened to kill him if he attempted it. Mrs. Grace, although having no particular interest in the subject, said no preacher should be molested on her estate, and she accompanied him on horseback to prevent the premeditated attack. The dignified presence of this lady, and the profound respect in which she was held, frustrated the outbreak. Being thus providentially brought under the influence of this eloquent minister of the gospel, the Word of God pierced her heart and she became a zealous and ardent Methodist. She adopted Mr. Wesley's views on reading his sermon on "Falling From Grace." Her house was always a welcome home for the itinerant from 1774 till her death. Bishop Asbury cherished her as among his dearest friends, and in his journal laments sadly her death, and longs to be like her in spirit and anticipates a joyous reunion in heaven.
Mrs. Grace liberated all her slaves. The writer has a copy of a manumission paper. No. 5, in which "Rose," a mullato woman, is set free; Simon Meredith and Benjamin Jacobs witnesses. Even after their freedom, they always looked upon her as their best friend. She devoted the latter part of her life to the care of her grandchildren or to such as needed her attention. She died in 1800 in her eighty-second year, and is buried in the family ground [in] Coventry. She bequeathed a lot of ground on which to build a meetinghouse. It is said Mr. Asbury furnished the plan. It was called Grace Chapel in honor of her. Mr. Jonah Stephens wrote to me Feb. 19th, 1816, desiring me to cooperate with Rev. Thomas Haskins in procuring a deed for said Grace Chapel. The following are the names of the trustees: Griffith Griffiths, John Martin, Sarah Rutter, Grace Ann Rutter, and J. Stephens.
Mrs. Grace's only daughter Anna Nutt married Mr. Thomas Potts of Pottsgrove, now Pottstown. The Life of Benjamin Abbot page 112 says, "Her daughter was under conviction. Next morning in family prayer, we had a precious time. The Lord opened the windows of heaven, and the Spirit of God came as in the day of Pentecost; her daughter found peace, and one of the granddaughters was under soul distress, while the old lady was on the wing for glory. [pencil note: "was this in 1780"]. I have in my possession a Methodist Prayer Book, the title page of which reads The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, with Other Occasional Services. London printed in the year 1784; on the fly leaf of which reads, "Anna Potts, her book. Mar. 5th 1787." Thomas Potts discovered the coal of the Pottsville region in 1782, and in connection with his brother and some others, bought a large tract of land where Pottsville now stands. But their efforts to bring the coal into use were frustrated by his death.
It may be of interest to know something of the grandchildren of this "Mother in Israel." There were eight of them. First, Rebecca, who married Robert May, Esq. Second Elizabeth or Betty, who joined the Society of Friends and married Benjamin Jacobs. Third Ruth, who after the death of her sister Rebecca, married her brother in law, R. May. Fourth, Martha, who married Thomas Haskins. He was from Caroline County, Maryland. When studying law with his cousin Governor Bassett, he became a convert to Methodism, having gone to a meeting with other gay young men to scoff, remained to pray. He was very active in the formation of the Union M.E. Church, in the yard of which he was interred, but recently his remains were removed to Batsto, New Jersey. Fifth, Julianna, who embraced religion at Ennals Spring and died of consumption, aged 21. Sixth, Samuel, who married Mary Welsh. Seventh, Henrietta, whom I married march 26th, 1801. [Eighth, (check original autobiography, wasn’t in transcription. JM)]
Camp Meeting was held in the woods on the hill in front of the church. I think it was in 1804, if I remember rightly, Rev. William Colbert was presiding elder. He was middling-sized man, rather slender with dark hair and eyes, with a very clear and musical voice. Often when he commenced to preach, he would say to some brother the farthest off from him, "Did you hear that?" If the person nodded assent, he would not allow his voice to descend below that key. He preached one evening during this camp meeting; as my wife sat on the piazza with one of the children, she heard nearly all of the discourse, although he stood with his back towards the valley. The wind was in that direction.
Camp meeting was held in my woods on the opposite side of the valley from the church, along what is now called the New Road, in 1808. Rev. William Penn Chandler was presiding Elder. In this camp meeting, there came part of young men of some respectability from the lower part of the circuit. They concluded they would have some fun at this Methodist camp. The presiding elder and some others remonstrated with them and ordered them off the ground. They questioned their authority and said no one had a right except the owner of the ground. So they sent over home for me. When I told them I was the owner and one of the managers, and that they must leave, they quietly left. The next time I went to Chester, some of these young men were very shy of me.
TAKING UP MEDICINE
I moved from Radnor in the spring of 1816 to Bloonsburg (now South Trenton), New Jersey. I joined society on Trenton Circuit. A class met at our house, and it was a preaching place for many years. During the winter of 1822 and 1823, I attended medical lectures at the University in Philadelphia, and graduated the spring of 1825 at New York, Dr. Hosick, Dean. The spring of 1826,1 removed to Philadelphia. I connected myself with St. George's Church. The principal places were connected in one circuit. I had my regular appointment on the Local Preachers' plan. I practiced medicine in Philadelphia till after my son David graduated, when I left the practice in the city to him, and removed part of my family back to Radnor, where I continued to practice medicine. My wife Henrietta died there, April 18th, 1832. My daughter Henrietta in her sixteenth year died on the previous February.
The old Radnor Meeting House, being wholly inadequate to protection from inclement seasons, the trustees resolved to rebuild their place of worship. Accordingly, subscriptions were started. My paper was dated February 21st, 1833. Mr. Esra was the contractor. I do not remember the exact time when it was finished.
The spring of 1834,1 removed to Feasterville, Bucks County. There being no Methodist Society at Smithfleld or Somerton, I obtained permission to preach in the school house, and formed a class. My son, Dr. D. James, my daughter Anna, Anna Rhodes, Abby Knox, Phoebe Vanastradlen, Betty Dyer, William Davey and one or two others constituted the first class.