PC(USA) seal mage

John Knox (1514 – 1572)       John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794)       Sheldon Jackson (1834 – 1909)       Margaret Towner (1925 – )

Four of Immanuel’s buildings are named after these four significant Presbyterian leaders who helped to establish our Reformed faith.

John Knox (1514-1572)

Little is known of John Knox’s (1514-1572) early life. He probably attended St. Andrews University, in Edinburgh, where he may have become acquainted with some of the new Protestant doctrines. However, he entered the Roman Catholic priesthood, which position he held from 1540 to 1544.

In 1545 he closely followed the teaching of the reformer George Wishart. But when Wishart was executed Knox joined the group of Protestant conspirators and took refuge in St. Andrews Castle, where he preached in the parish church. The French forces, strong at that time in Scotland, captured him and sentenced him to 19 months as a prisoner in French galleys. When he was released through the efforts of Edward VI of England, Knox went first to England then later to Frankfort and Geneva. In Geneva he consulted with John Calvin on questions of church doctrine and civil authority.

Through his frequent letters he exerted considerable influence among Protestants in England and Scotland. In 1555-56 he visited Scotland and preached extensively throughout the country. In 1557 the Scottish Protestant nobles, largely anti-French, signed their First Covenant and formed the group known as the Lords of the Congregation. In time, and with the help of English forces, they forced the withdrawal of French troops and won their freedom. In August of 1560 the Scottish Parliament adopted a confession of faith which had been drafted by Knox and some others.   This Parliament also passed laws abolishing the authority of the pope and condemned all creeds and practices of the old religion.

Following the death of the regent, Mary of Guise, in 1560, her daughter Mary Queen of Scots, then 18 years old, arrived from France to assume the crown. Though there were differing opinions, Knox vigorously opposed the young queen and stubbornly defied her authority.

As no provision had been made by Parliament for the organization and administration of the church, Knox and his associates drew up what was known as the First Book of Discipline. It provided for the dedication of the wealth of Church, including the continuation of the tithes, for the support of the ministry, for education and schools and for the relief of the poor. Parish ministers were to be nominated by the people, examined by the learned and publicly admitted to their offices. The superintendents, corresponding roughly to the former bishops but ranking no higher than the parish ministers, had basically administrative functions. The Book of Common Order, adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1564, governed public worship. It showed the influence of reformers such as Calvin and Farel in Geneva.

Despite the ill health of his last years, Knox continued to be an outspoken preacher until his death. It has been said of Knox that “rarely has any country produced a stronger will.” His single-minded zeal made him the outstanding leader of the Scottish Reformation and an important influence on the Protestant movements in England and on the Continent.

John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was the sixth president of the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton University. He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and from 1776 to 1782 was a leading member of the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon was born in Scotland and had graduated from the University of Edinburgh when he was invited to accept the presidency of Princeton. When he arrived he was obviously heartened by the warmth of his reception, but he also reported a number of disturbing conditions in the state of the college. He found far too many students inadequately prepared for college work, which explains the close attention he gave to the grammar school conducted by the college.  Most worrisome of all was the low state of the school’s finances.

With characteristic vigor Witherspoon proceeded to promote the college, first in New York and Boston, and later in Virginia, the first of several tours across the country which resulted in numerous student applications. One of those was James Madison, later President of the United States.

Witherspoon would, despite his Scottish accent, astonish the whole house by the regular arrangement of his ideas, and his command of the language. He was a strong advocate of independence, responding to a gentleman who opposed the measure, “Sir, in my judgement the country is not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for want of it.”   During his service in Congress he was one of its most influential members, serving on over 100 committees, and helped draft the Articles of Confederation He also served in the New Jersey legislature.

Witherspoon’s administration marks an important turning point in the life of the College, as he brought to Princeton a fresh emphasis on the need of the church for a well-educated clergy, a purpose to which the college had been dedicated at the time of its founding.   The founders had hoped as well that the school might produce men who would be “ornaments of the State as well as the Church,” and Witherspoon realized this hope in full measure. His students included, in addition to a president and vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors. Five of the nine Princeton graduates among the fifty-five members of the Constitu-tional Convention of 1787 were students of Witherspoon.

In his support of the American cause there is no occasion for surprise. When John Adams stopped over in Princeton on his way to the first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774, he met Witherspoon and pronounced him “as high a Son of Liberty, as any Man in America.”

But through the later years, too, Witherspoon remained remarkably active and influential. He was a member of the ratifying convention that brought to New Jersey the honor of being the third state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. He contributed greatly to the organization of a newly independent and national Presbyterian Church. In 1789 he opened its first General Assembly with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator. As a divine, an educator and a patriot he is rightly remembered as one of the great presidents of Princeton.

Sheldon Jackson (1834-1909)

The Rev. Sheldon Jackson (1834-1909), an American missionary and educator, was born in Montgomery County, NY, graduated from Union College in 1855 and from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1858.

Following a career as a Presbyterian missionary in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Board of National Mission appointed him Superintendent for Missions for the Rocky Mountain region , probably in 1870.  During that time, when he lived in Denver, CO, he visited the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona, before continuing to the West Coast.  While in Tucson, he helped plant the First Presbyterian Church in 1876, which held its first meeting in the court house. Later on, the church was reorganized as the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Tucson.

In 1884 he went to Alaska to be the superintendent of missions, with oversight of several missions and schools that had already been established in that territory.

In 1885 he became the first Federal Superintendent of Public Instruction for Alaska, with the task of organizing a free school system for Native American, Inuit, and white children. He succeeded in the next 20 years in bringing school facilities to all corners of Alaska. He urged the introduction and raising of reindeer to supplement the dwindling food resources, and in 1882, with government aid, brought the first reindeer into Alaska from Siberia.

He aided in organizing the territorial government and establishing mail routes. He was active in Alaskan politics as the moving spirit in the “missionary” party. He wrote numerous governmental and religious reports and Difficulties at Sitka in 1885(1886).

The Rev. Dr. Margaret E. Towner

The Rev. Dr. Margaret E. Towner (1925 — ), the first female ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, has spent the past 60+ years forging ahead as a quiet pioneer.

She was raised in the Presbyterian Church and was active in her congregation, but ordination was not a goal to which she aspired. When she was ordained in 1956, it was months before she even realized the historical implications of that act. A couple of years earlier she had graduated from Union Seminary in New York and was serving as a Christian educator in Tacoma Park, MD. Women could work in a church in the early 1950s, but they could not be ordained to the ministry. When the Office of the General Assembly confirmed that she was indeed the first female ordained to the ministry in the PCUSA, she was featured in numerous articles and magazines. Despite the attention, Towner said she “chose to avoid the limelight and continue my work as an educator in the local congregation.

Following her historic ordination, she served congregations in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. During her 17 years in Milwaukee she began the shift from Christian education to pastoral ministry. As one of the three co-pastors in a six-church parish, her administrative gifts began to flourish.

Towner listed some General Assembly experiences among her personal highlights. She has attended several dozen Assemblies, serving three times as a commissioner. She was a member of the Assembly’s Advisory Council for Discipleship and Worship for 10 years, and the members of that committee continue to be a strong support system for her. A candidate for moderator in 1981, she lost by a few votes but was named vice-moderator. That year she traveled a great deal throughout the United States and represented the church on an official visit to Korea.

Reflecting on her years of ministry, Towner said it is ironic that our denomination struggles with its diversity, while Christ embraced the differences he saw.

Towner is one among several pioneer ministers who has spoken throughout the Assembly in behalf of women’s ordination. As of this date (2018), she is [semi]retired and living in Sarasota, Florida. Not one to “stay put” in retirement, she is on the Peace River Presbytery’s pulpit supply list at age 93.