Rev. David Steele (1803-1887)

David Steele was born on 2 November 1803 at Upper Creevagh, County Donegal, Ireland, near Londonderry. He was the son of David Steel and Sarah Gailey. According to the History of Adams County, Ohio:

he was the youngest of six brothers, whose father, David Steele, was the fourth-generation from Captain John Steele of Lismahago [sic], near Glasgow, Scotland, and who fought on the side of the Covenanters in the battle of Drumclog, June 22, 1679. Descended from such stock, as might be expected, he was trained up according to the strict order observant in Covenanting families.

As a small child, he moved with his family to a farm in nearby Altaghaderry, where, according to Jim Dodson,

he received his early education in the private and night schools of the vicinity, and labored upon the farm until his sixteenth year. In 1820, he entered the Academy of Londonderry, and pursued the regular course of studies for three years. He came to America in 1824, settling in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where he worked as clerk for his uncle, and prosecuted his classical studies. In 1825, he was engaged as teacher in the Academy of Ebensburgh, Pennsylvania, and the next year entered the Western University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1827. He studied theology under the direction of Rev. Dr. John Black at Pittsburgh, and was licensed by the Pittsburgh Presbytery, April 8, 1830. He was ordained by the Ohio Presbytery, and installed pastor of the congregation of Brush Creek, Adams County, Ohio, June 6, 1831. In 1840, he and Robert Lusk, together with several ruling elders, declined the ecclesiastical courts of the Reformed Presbyterian Church due to ecclesiastical tyranny. They erected the Reformed Presbytery, June 24, 1840. He remained in Adams County, Ohio... until 1859, when he removed to Hill Prairie, Illinois. In October, 1866, he removed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he pastored a small congregation of original Covenanters and established a theological school. In 1885, he removed to Galesburg, Illinois, and in the fall of 1886, returned to Philadelphia, where he died of old age and from the effects of a slight stroke of paralysis, June 29, 1887. In later years, Steele was stricken with blindness, but continued to "remain in the saddle," preferring diligence in ministry to retirement. He was a learned and powerful preacher of the gospel... adept in the ancient languages and a powerful thinker.

The History of Adams County adds:

Thousands of miles he traveled on horseback yearly, having often to ford rivers when he had to get on his knees on the saddle to keep from being saturated with water as there were few bridges in those days.... Although a little below medium in stature, he was possessed of an excellent constitution and this enabled him to bear up under difficulties which would have been too great for others. As a scholar, he was far above most of his compeers, particularly in the ancient classics, as he could read the most difficult Latin and Greek authors at sight. He was thoroughly versed in theology and ... instrumental in training quite a number of young men for the Gospel Ministry. His home was the resort of all educated people, who came to the neighborhood, and hospitality was a marked feature of his house.

David Steele, who preferred to spell his name with the final E, took an interest in family history, and contibuted information on his family to Durrie's Steele genealogy. He visited Ireland in 1853 and in 1864, and maintained communication with his far-flung family. He married Eliza Johnston of Chillicothe, Ohio, on 4 May 1831; they had no children. He died in Philadelphia on 29 June 1887 and was buried in Petersburg, Pennsylvania on 2 July; Eliza died on 3 April 1896. The church he founded is known today as the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanted) or, familiarly, as the Steelites.

In his Reminiscences (1883), David Steele described his early life in Ireland and Pennsylvania, including his interaction with his parents and brothers.

Early Reminiscences

From Reminiscences Historical and Biographical of a Ministry in the Ref'd Presbyterian Church During Fifty-Three Years, by David Steele, Pastor of the R.P. Congregation, Philadelphia. Philadelphia: press of William Syckelmoore, 1420 Chestnut Street, 1883.

I was born on the 2d of November, 1803. The place of my nativity was a village called Upper Creevaugh,[1] about two miles from the city of Londonderry in county Donegal, Ireland. The river Foyle is the natural boundary between the counties Donegal and Derry, yet the city is on the Donegal side of the river; and three miles on that side of said river are called the "Liberties of Derry." I can, therefore, in a similar sense, say with Paul, "I was free born." And here I may remark, that I know not any people who understand liberty better, or are more law-abiding than the Protestant, and especially the Presbyterian population of the Ulster province of Ireland, a love of liberty and law inherited from their Scottish ancestry.

I was the first subject of baptism by Rev. John Alexander after his ordination, and under his ministry were spent the first twenty years of my life. We naturally form a high estimate of the pastors abilities whose ministrations have been engaging: and instructive to us in youth. Mr. Alexander, in my apprehension, was born an orator; his sublime conception voiced in flowing eloquence often thrilled my youthful frame with such delightful emotion as no other speaker has since effected. He subsequently removed to Belfast, where he died.

My grandparents, on both sides of the house, were Covenanters. My paternal grandfather resided in Fauet [Fanet], and the other in Killilastian [Killylastin], where Messrs. William Gamble and William Gibson were competing candidates for the congregation in that vicinity. Mr. Gamble, I have often heard, was chosen "by a small majority." My grandfather, John Steel, had removed from Fauet before my time, to the place of my birth. My father, David, removed about a mile from Creevaugh to Altaughaderry, where he died in February, 1804 [1805?]. My only recollection of him is as he sat at the table with the family Bible, conducting the worship of God. I need hardly say, he also was a Covenanter; and although I had not the benefit of his instruction, being the youngest of six sons, it was pleasing, and I trust profitable to me, to know that his memory was fragrant among surviving friends. Frequently, when our widowed mother, in answer to the kindly inquiry of friends after the names of her boys, would come to me as the last, and say, "He was named for his father," O how pleasant, and I hope stimulating, was the remark, "I wish he may be such a man as his father."

Our leasehold "for thirty years, or three lives," as such documents ran, contained about 140 acres, running up a hill, where abundant turf for fuel was found. The farm afforded sufficient work for us all, with two hired men, one girl, and a herd-boy six months in the year. I took my place on the farm and at school like the rest till my sixteenth year. Our mother was in the best sense, and in the judgment of many, a "strong-minded woman": strong in her convictions of divine truth, the truth sealed by the blood of our martyred progenitors. Family worship and catechizing on the Sabbath evenings were the order of the household. Common school education, if not so expanded as now, was generally more thorough. The civil powers had not then assumed the control of this part of the church's work. In my boyhood, it was customary for a number of contiguous farmers to employ a teacher, most commonly for a term of three months, and in any season of the year. In addition we often had a night-school in Winter. Reading, writing and arithmetic were the most important parts of our education; and I believe as thoroughly taught as they are now in the common public schools. The Bible and the Shorter Catechism were among our text-books; and whether our teacher was Papist or Protestant he "gave out the questions" of the whole Catechism on each Saturday, and the labors of the week were ended at noon. I have a vivid recollection of a pompous pedagogue, who always dismissed us on Friday evening with the solemn charge, "Tomorrow is Satchursday; bring your catechizes with you." About this time some farmers began to suggest the propriety and urge the necessity of adding Grammar to our course of study, and a few wished their sons taught Bookkeeping. Geography was not yet introduced. In connection with Catechism, I committed to memory "Murray's Abridgment;" and under a succession of incompetent teachers, I underwent the drudgery of repeating both for years, when teacher and pupil were about equally skilled in grammar and theology! Another task of similar intellectual discipline was the daily memorizing of a column of Entick's Dictionary; every word to be spelled, the definition given; and especially the parts of speech at some peril, while neither teacher nor scholar could discriminate between a noun and a verb! I was, moreover twice conducted through "Jackson's System of Book-keeping by Double Entry." Such, in brief, is a synopsis of my common school education.

In my seventeenth year, I entered an Academy in Derry, efficiently conducted by a principal and two ushers; and within the first term of three months, besides other studies, I penetrated the mysteries of English Grammar nearly as far as I have been able to do in some sixty years since thanks to competent instructors. How great the value of such to society at large! For a period of three years, short annual vacations excepted, I prosecuted the study of languages and cognate branches in the aforesaid academy. During this period I walked every morning about four English miles to the city and returned home in the evening.[2] Most of my committing to memory was done on the road; and to those years, I look back as among the most happy and healthful of my life.

By this time our large family had been diminished. My eldest brother [Andrew] had married and left us. The third had died years ago. The second [Samuel] and fifth [Stewart] had emigrated to America. These two, after the eldest had separated from us, conducted our domestic worship alternately. The fourth [James], who was more than five years my senior, was now dealt with by our mother to lead in family worship. The urgency of our godly mother was unavailing. He was no infidel. He attended the public ordinances as regularly as the rest, and indeed excelled us all in memorizing the Larger Catechism. He was singularly taciturn and a habitual reader of solid literature, especially civil history. But the reader may have noticed that this fourth brother [James] had already allowed the fifth [Stewart], his junior, to alternate with the second [Samuel] in the worship of the family.

Among the religious books of the household, those which made the deepest impression on my mind and heart in the days of my youth, next to the Holy Scriptures, were Boston's "Four-fold State of Man" and The "Cloud of Witnesses." In the former is clearly and forcibly demonstrated the awful truth, that "childhood and youth are vanity"; in the latter, the principles which make martyrs, sustain and comfort them, are practically exemplified. Pike and Hayward's "Cases of Conscience" were also useful.

A crisis had now occurred in our family, and I was providentially called to bear the cross. The fire must not go out on the domestic altar. Failing to prevail with my much older brother to "take the book," my precious mother turned to me; but oh! how can I describe her tender solicitude and my consequent emotions? As yet only "in my teens," to assume Christ's yoke in this form, my senior brother sitting by, I felt to be overwhelming; yet maternal authority, sympathy and loving encouragement prevailed. And now, when nearing the end of my earthly pilgrimage, I owe it to our Lord as part of a personal testimony, that "his yoke is easy and his burden is light." Those who have made the experiment will endorse the testimony of Jeremiah, "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." During the few following years of my residence in our family, I officiated as I had tremblingly begun. My brother never could be induced to "take the book."[3] On the 19th of April, 1824, I left Moville on the river Foyle in the brig Ceres of Kirkaldy, Scotland, and on the 7th of June following, arrived safely in Philadelphia.

On landing at the wharf, I could distinguish only one person in the crowd whom I had ever seen before. After a day or two, I set out for the town of Huntingdon, some 200 miles west. Four other passengers with whom I became acquainted on the ocean were going in the same direction, but to the then "Far West," in southern Ohio. Details of incidents in this part of my journey must not be inflicted on the reader's patience. One incident only may be mentioned. Five of us having engaged a public wagoner to haul our baggage to Huntingdon, and having paid him in advance, (as he affirmed was customary), when we reached Harrisburg, the team was seized for debt; we got our baggage, but we saw our teamster no more. Thus early were we swindled, not by a Yankee, but by a genuine son of Erin! About two weeks were occupied in reaching Huntingdon; there my companions and I separated and I never saw them afterward. Two of my father's brothers, William and Samuel, were among the early settlers of Huntingdon, and were merchants in that county-seat for half a century or more. I spent nine months with the former as storekeeper, meanwhile prosecuting my pleasant classical studies.

While there the younger of my two brothers [Stewart] who had six years before preceded me to America came fifty miles to see me. From him I learned that both had become citizens. He at once asked me to "file my intentions," etc. Being already not only a naturalized citizen but "a limb of the law," he urged the importance of speedy action on my part, and at once he would attend to the legal steps. This was my second great trial. I desired to know the nature of the oath to be taken by an alien. He immediately procured for me a copy of the Constitution. Wishing to act with deliberation, I succeeded in gaining time to examine the famous document, and we parted for the time. Some months afterward he visited me the second time, confident that I would be fully prepared for the initiatory steps toward citizenship. Our interview was substantially as follows: "Well, I presume you have read the Constitution." "Yes." "Well, what do you think of it?" "Of the greater part of it I think favorably." "Very well, you are now ready to file your declaration of intention" etc. "No, not yet." "Why, what objections can you have?" "I think I have discovered atheism and slavery in this document," as I held it my hand. "But you do not swear to perpetuate these: the Constitution provides for its own amendment." "So I perceive; but I must swear to the document as it is, not to future amendments." He expatiated on the advantages of political influence, lamented and extenuated my scruples, and continued to press the subject "till I was ashamed." At length I closed the discussion by saying with deep emotion: "Brother Stewart, I have resolved that by divine grace, and while I have the use of my reason, I will never swear that oath." We lived in amity thirty-seven years till his death, but he never again proposed to resume discussion of that question. And here with grief I mention, that like too many other Covenanters, these two brothers who had alternately led in our family worship in my boyhood, left this part of their religion in Ireland and forsook the Covenanted Testimony.


[1] In 1864, I saw that both these villages, and others adjacent, had been obliterated "by the march of improvement."

[2] I say, "every morning," for our public worship was in Derry and Faughan alternately.

[3] After an absence of nearly thirty years, I visited my early home and found that brother an old man. He had been many years a ruling elder in the Derry congregation. Finding him regular in family worship I congratulated him on the change. He replied, "Yes, David, you shamed me out of that."

Obituary of David Steele

STEELE. - On the 29th inst., Rev. DAVID STEELE, Sr., D.D., in the 84th year of his age. The remains may be viewed by relatives and friends, on Friday evening, July 1st, from 6 until 8 o'clock, at 2732 Brown street. Interment in Petersburgh, Pa., on Saturday morning, July 2nd, 1887.

Philadelphia Public Ledger--Thursday June 30, 1887

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