Fahan Presbyterian Church

Jesus is Lord - Romans 10: 9

From Alexander Stewart

Correspondence about Rev. Joseph Rhea, 1715 (?) - 1777
November 7, 2005


From Professor Alexander Stewart, University of Aberdeen
and Ed Foley, author of The Descendants of Rev. Joseph Rhea of Ireland

Dear Mr Rhea,

I hope you will not mind a member of a rival clan intruding upon your family history, but you have an open website with integrated genealogical links which I have looked through with interest and admiration. I am writing from Scotland, where I am a retired Intellectual Historian affiliated to the University of Aberdeen. I am looking to make contact with a direct descendant who still bears the family name of the Revd Joseph Rhea (died 1777), and yours is the most visible website for this purpose. I would, however, be happy for you to share this message with others who may be working on the family history. The link page headed "Rhea Family Tree" invites comments and corrections, and what I write here may be considered as a response to that invitation.

As part of my scholarly work I have become interested in your ancestor, Joseph Rhea, and his activities before his emigration to America. In this connection I would like to ask some questions and believe that I can, at the same time, offer some further information and correction to your website. I am not concerned with Joseph's American years, for which the family obviously has documentation that is not available in Britain or Ireland; but I may be able to help you to better information on some matters on this side of the Atlantic. Joseph Rhea is a representative of the Scots-Irish culture that has long been one of my research interests. I have published and lectured on aspects of Irish Presbyterianism and have contributed entries on British and Irish Presbyterians to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and other reference sources.

A connected interest, which I share with several colleagues, is in the arts curriculum of the Scottish universities in the eighteenth century. Three of us are collaborating on the curriculum studied by the students at Glasgow during the period that includes your ancestor's studies there. Glasgow was the nearest and the commonest educational venue for the Scots-Irish, who always constituted a sizable portion of the student body. I appreciate that you work in a very different line of business and that our concerns may seem - as perhaps they really are - rather exotic, but I hope the family connection will engage your interest. I shall explain our specific interest in Joseph Rhea's student period, and why we need to contact a direct descendant, in a second message in another day or two. For now, let me just stay with the family biography.

I would guess that active research on the family history probably goes back for about a century - I have seen something of Anne Bachman Hyde's researches from that period - and it may be difficult now to reconstruct where individual details in the family tradition have come from. Is it known where the report of Joseph Rhea's birth date originated? All the reports I have seen say 1715, so they are drawing on a common source. Do you by any chance know what source this is, or do you know someone who does? Is there still some eighteenth-century document, of which a photocopy can be obtained, or is it now just a family tradition? And likewise, the Rhea Family Tree page indicates that some of the record on the founder of the family is "legend" but it is not clear to me how much is being acknowledged as legend. Is the information that the Reaghs came from Scotland, and that they were originally Campbells, part of the legend or part of the proven record? Does it go back to existing records from the period concerned, or when does it surface? In any historical enquiry, knowing the source of the information is quite important for assessing its credibility.

Eighteenth-century numerals, to take an illustration, can be misread by those unfamiliar with the script, and there are reasons why a birth date of 1715 for Joseph Rhea is puzzling. One is that he would have been aged 24 when he was admitted to Glasgow University in 1739. This is quite late to be going to college in that period, when students completed the arts course earlier than now and many had completed it by the age at which we would now start it. Those who went into the ministry would continue on to a course of what we would now call postgraduate training, and most of them would have completed that and be coming up to ordination about the age that Joseph Rhea is said to have only begun his undergraduate studies. So there is a bit of an anomaly here, and yet there can always be exceptions. Some illness, or something about the family's financial circumstances, could have been a factor.

If Joseph's education is looking rather late, however, the reverse is true of his birth. He is described as the ninth child in 1715 of a father, Matthew II, born about 1689 and therefore aged only 26, who had already had to court, marry and bury one wife and court and marry a second. At what age is it supposed that Matthew first married, and is this realistic? Unless the dates in the Rhea Family Tree are serving inconsistent purposes, it appears that Joseph was born as the youngest child of the second marriage ten years before the birth of the youngest child of the first marriage, as well as seven years before an older sister by the second! I think there has to be something unsafe about the dates on this page, and perhaps about Joseph's place in the ordering. The same page also has two generations of Williams between Matthew III and Robert, which does not seem compatible with the stated facts about Robert's marriage to a near cousin. Another link page, which is headed "Rev. Joseph Rhea 1715-9/20/1777", lists only one intervening generation. I think that is more likely, don't you?

I have alluded to Joseph's time at college, and this is something on which I have more biographical information that may interest you and your family. The description in the Rhea Family Tree is a bit imprecise about the university's record, which can still be read in the original register at Glasgow. Joseph signed his name, and only his name, in the matriculation register in late 1739, spelling the family name Reah. The presiding professor then added family details alongside this in Latin. Most of the Latin words are abbreviated, so let me fill them out here in brackets: "Mathaei F[ilius] in Par[ochia] Taughboine in Comit[ate] Donnegal in Hibern[ia]", meaning that Joseph was "son of Matthew in the parish of Taughboyne in County Donegal in Ireland". Joseph matriculated in the "second", meaning one before the final, class. (The final year was called the "first" class.) This shows he skipped the first years of the curriculum which were devoted to Latin and Greek and went straight to the study of philosophy that constituted the final years. But the philosophy courses assumed knowledge of the languages. We can therefore work out that he had attended a tutor in Ireland before he went to Scotland. In this, he fits a common pattern for Irish students at Glasgow.

Taughboyne (or Taboyne), which is identified here as his place of origin, is easily located on a historical map of Irish parishes and is not many miles from Fahan (pronounced Fawn), the scene of Joseph's subsequent ministry. But the information appears to conflict with the Rhea Family Tree which says he was born in "Parish Longhorn (Laughlin)". Despite a thorough search in gazeteers and an enquiry to the regional archives, I have not been able to trace this anywhere in Ireland. I am wondering where the name was found and would be interested to know whether your genealogist located it on a map.

Mrs Hyde appears to have found an old letter among the masses of "Draper" Manuscripts in the Wisconsin Historical Society, in which the correspondent says that Joseph Rhea was "accounted one of the finest scholars in the north of Ireland". Have you ever seen this quotation? I wonder if anyone now knows where it comes from. The date will be important. Mrs Hyde does not seem to have recorded either the correspondent or the date, and to find it now will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I cannot do it from this distance.

On your own webpage, you identify Joseph as minister of "the Fahan and Inch Presbyterian Church". May I suggest that you cut out Inch? The information must have entered the record some time between 1896 and 1974, because that was the only period - long after Joseph's time - that there was a joint pastorate of Fahan and the nearby island of Inch. The compiler of the other Rhea Family Tree did not know whether Joseph had any other pulpit before the Fahan one. I can help to answer this. The Presbyterian Church of Ireland's records show that Joseph was on probationary trials for the ministry under the Presbytery of Derry in 1747 and was ordained at Fahan in 1748. A minister is ordained only once, on being installed at his first settled charge; therefore he had no previous charge before Fahan.

I am a member of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, and the next time I go to Belfast I will be happy to see if the relevant Presbytery minute books survive for the right period. If they do, they should fill out our information on Joseph's career at Fahan a little more. There was also a regional grouping of Presbyteries called the Sub-Synod of Derry, and their records may survive. The records of the General Synod of Ulster, the overall governing body of the Presbyterian church in the northern counties, have been printed. They show Joseph very rarely attending the Synod, but he attended in 1769 when he resigned his pulpit. His insupportable living conditions and his decision to emigrate are minuted, and he sought to withdraw the payments he had made into the Church's recently established widows' fund. The Synod had a fixed policy of making no reimbursements, but they were compassionately moved by Joseph's plight and organized a collection from all the congregations in the Synod to assist his and his family's passage to America.

The quotation from Oliver Taylor's Historic Sullivan on the Rhea Family Tree page is interesting as firsthand corroboration of the General Synod's record. It is significant for Joseph's own testimony about his earnings. These were below what had already been the recognized minimum wage a hundred years earlier! The web page appears to give only an extract, and Taylor's publication is not available to me in Britain; nor is Edward Foley's published Rhea genealogy, which may be a source for some of the other information. Is it possible to discover where Taylor found the letter from which he quotes, whether it still exists, and if any other original letters by Joseph are known in America that bear on his period prior to emigration?

On your own webpage, you note that his congregation at Fahan "fell on hard times". You might also consider the possibility that they had never had any better times. There are records of only one previous minister at Fahan, which was a long way west, so it was perhaps still a relatively new settlement. The story of poverty that Taylor transcribes is one that recurs throughout seventeenth and eighteenth-century Ireland. All too often on a minister's death there were substantial arrears of salary still unpaid, and widows were desperate to rescue these before a new minister arrived and pocketed the little that there was. The situation must indeed have been bad at Fahan, because after Joseph left they did not get another minister for eight years. The salaries were rarely set above bare subsistence level, and rarely reached in practice the level at which they were set, except in the few larger towns where they were supported by a successful Presbyterian merchant class. Out in the countryside where many of them lived (Fahan is a rural coastal area hemmed in by hills, and in those days was probably more easily reached by sea than by land), Presbyterians and Catholics alike suffered under a punitive law known as the tithe law. This obliged them to contribute in money or produce to maintain the Church of Ireland's (the Protestant Episcopal church) often absent ministers, before they could begin to support their own religion. Too often, the sums did not add up.

I hope this information will be of interest to you and that you don't mind my questions. I can go on with more details and will be happy to do so, should you want it.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander Stewart

Hon. Research Professor in the History of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen

Prof. Stewart, 

The internet is a wonderful thing! 
It has been 10 years since my book 'The Descendants of Rev. Joseph Rhea of Ireland" was published and every now and then a new gem appears.  Your letter to Randal Rhea is one such gem!  Your observations are very insightful.    Although I have not spent much time looking recently at the details and documents we have concerning his life, you e-mail and new information has engergized me to pull out those old files. 

I have attached a PDF file of the page of Oliver Taylor. 1909, reprinted 1988, Historic Sullivan, Overmountain Press, Johnson City, Tennessee.  This is the page which has the transcript of the letter of resignation.   I have not seen the letter. There are a number of papers from the family in the Archives here in Nashville Tennesse, including the journal of Rev. Rhea from the voyage to America, but the only transcription of the Fahan letter I have seen. 

I beleive that the date of 1715 for the birth of Rev. Rhea comes from his tombstone in the church at Piney Branch, Maryland.  I came to later discover that the current tombstone was commissioned much after his death by a later descendant. 

The references to Matthew 'the Rebel' Rhea, Rev. Rhea's grandfather, are contained in the memoirs of the son of Joseph Rhea, John Angus Rhea, the first US Congressman from Tennessee.  This and the connection to the Campbells which John Rhea recites have not been proved.   

The remaining details of the family referred to you your e-mail I will look into when I have more time this weekend.  



Nashville, Tennessee  

P.S.  Oliver Taylor was born and grew up in a house on the Main Street of Blountville, Tennessee, near where the Rhea Rhea family settled.  Members of the Rhea family have owned that house on and off during the years since it was built in 1795.  My wife and I now own the house and this year completed