The Death of General Hugh Mercer, 1777

2021-01-11T13:26:52-06:00January 11, 2021|HH 2021|

The Death of General Hugh Mercer,
January 12, 1777

Hugh Mercer was born fighting. His military service ranged over two continents and three different armies, which reflect his devotion to his calling as a doctor and a soldier, and a temporary change of heart regarding his loyalties. George Washington considered Mercer one of the best soldiers in North America and instigated his promotion to Brigadier General in the American Army. Mercer was at the sharpest end in his final battle, commanding the 3rd Virginia Infantry of the Continental Line, helping Washington win the great victory at Princeton at one of the moments of great crisis in the War for Independence.

General Hugh Mercer (1726-1777), as portrayed by his son Hugh, Jr. in a portrait based on a sketch by artist John Trumbull

Hugh was born near Aberdeen, Scotland in 1726, son of a Church of Scotland minister. After a rigorous classical education, he earned a master’s degree and trained to become a surgeon. The Mercer family, though Presbyterian, supported the dynastic claims of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Hugh joined the Jacobite army as an assistant surgeon. The military fortunes of the Pretender’s army declined until extinguished at the Battle of Culloden, where Hugh Mercer escaped the English pursuers and slipped aboard a merchant ship bound for America. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Hugh travelled to the back-country and served as a country physician. He settled in the area now named after him—Mercersburg.

Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788), leader of the Jacobite Rising of 1745

The Battle of Culloden, April 16, 1746, effectively put an end the Jacobite Rebellion

General Edward Braddock had led British troops and American militia to a dazzling defeat at the hands of the French and Indians along the Monongahela River in Western Pennsylvania in 1755, thus opening the frontier to further incursions and war. Dr. Mercer obtained a Captain’s commission from his colony to fight against Britain’s frontier enemies. After an Indian ambush where he was the only survivor, Hugh made his way through a trackless one-hundred-mile wilderness with a shattered arm, and arrived in Philadelphia for treatment. He became a local hero, was promoted to Colonel, and ended up under the command of Virginian George Washington, a fellow Colonel. Mercer was assigned the road-building duties to Fort Duquesne, which eventually led him to guiding the construction of Fort Pitt at the confluence of three rivers, and the Fort at Presque Isle on Lake Erie.

Fort Duquesne in modern-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Mercer served for a time

Following the French and Indian War, Colonel Mercer settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia where he opened a very successful medical practice, especially among the substantial Scottish community. He married into a popular local family and acquired significant property holdings, including George Washington’s Fredericksburg farm. Active in the resistance movement from the start, Dr. Mercer led the Sons of Liberty and commanded a militia company, which became part of the 3rd Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, with Hugh appointed by Congress as Colonel and, within a year, General, under his friend and old comrade, George Washington. The old (age 35) Scottish Jacobite had come full circle and was again in the field against the British government.

General George Washington (1732-1799) under whom Mercer served

Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia—childhood home of George Washington, who sold it to Hugh Mercer in 1772

General Mercer supervised the building of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, both lost to the British in 1776. Some historians believe that the secret attack on Trenton on December 26, 1776 was originally Mercer’s idea, which Washington accepted and implemented. In any event, Mercer successfully led one of the columns in the attack, at the absolute nadir of American prospects, striking a physical and psychological blow that saved the Cause.

Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776

Washington placed Mercer’s Brigade at the point in his maneuver to capture Princeton on January 3, ten days after Trenton. Bypassing the main British forces under Lord Cornwallis, Mercer took 350 men to seize a strategic bridge and cut off the post road—the British regiments’ main avenue of retreat. Spotting the Scotsman making the maneuver in the early morning fog, the British General deployed his men along a fence line and opened fire. General Mercer led his troops in a direct attack, driving the ad hoc group of the 17th Foot Regiment from their position. Mercer fell wounded and in the ensuing melee and retreat of his troops, General Mercer was bayonetted seven times, the British thinking they had killed Washington. Mercer lingered for nine days under the ministrations of fellow-doctor Benjamin Rush, before dying on January 12. George Washington had lost what biographer Douglas Southall Freeman said “was the peer, and perhaps the superior, of [Nathaniel] Greene”, considered second only to Washington himself.

General Mercer is wounded at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777. Mercer would survive another nine days, but eventually die on January 12.

Mercer left a widow and five children. His direct descendants include two Confederate generals as well as General George Patton of World War II fame. Seven counties are named after him, as well as five towns and at least three schools. Three wars on two continents, untold hundreds of medical patients, a patriotic and valorous progeny, and the thanks of a nation are among a legacy that ought not to be forgotten.

General George S. Patton, Jr. (1885-1945), direct descendant of Hugh Mercer

Decian Persecution of the Church Begins, AD 250

2021-01-07T11:14:42-06:00January 7, 2021|HH 2021|

“But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.” —Proverbs 8:36

Decian Persecution of the Church Begins, January 3, AD 250

In the middle of the third century Anno Domini, Decius, a former senator, consul, governor, and now general, from the province of Illyricum in the Roman Empire, an area today within the borders of Serbia, fought and defeated an army of Balkan rebels led by one Pacatianus. The army of Decius then proclaimed Decius Emperor of Rome in response to his successes on the field of battle. When the true emperor led an army against him, Decius defeated and killed him, popularly known as Phillip the Arab, at the Battle of Verona in September of AD 249. Probably to solidify his takeover, as well as perhaps a jealousy of the increase of Christians, Decius decreed to all provincial governors that everyone in the Empire make sacrifices and burn incense to the gods of Rome, as an act of obedience, piety and worship. Christians were split on the issue of going along with the civil decree.

Philip the Arab (c. AD 204-249) Emperor of Rome (AD 244-249)

Trajan Decius (c. AD 201-251) Emperor of Rome AD 249-251

Protestant historian John Foxe in his famous Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, noted that the Decian persecution was the seventh one by the Roman emperors. Church historian Philip Schaff described Decius as “an earnest and energetic emperor, in whom the old Roman spirit once more awoke, resolved to root out the Church as an atheistic and seditious sect.” This persecution, however, exceeded all previous ones since the edict covered the entire Empire. Former persecutions had often been provincial or just local; this one produced more Christian martyrs than all previous decrees and attacks, for “extent, consistency, and cruelty exceeded all before it.” The Emperor set a date for compliance: sacrifice to the gods and receive a certificate of obedience.

Saint Mercurius (d. AD 250), a Christian victim of the Decian persecution

Cyprian of Carthage wrote that many nominal Christians sacrificed to the gods of the State (sacrificati) or procured, illegally from a magistrate, a document (libellatici) stating that they had complied with the government orders. Many thousands of Christians fled to safer areas or simply refused the State’s demand to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Compromisers (lapsi) were often excommunicated. One of those who confessed Christ alone and refused to worship the State wrote to Cyprian, “what more glorious and blessed lot can fall to man by the grace of God, than to confess God the Lord amidst tortures and in the face of death itself; to confess Christ the Son of God with lacerated body and with a spirit departing, yet free; and to become fellow sufferers with Christ in the name of Christ?”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. AD 200-258)

Fabian, Bishop of Rome (martyred January 20, AD 250)

Babylas, Bishop of Antioch (martyred AD 253)

Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem (martyred AD 251)

The Romans martyred the bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Other pastors hid out and the persecutors turned on their flocks for slaughter. Cyprian concealed himself for a time, but was seized and put on trial seven years later, and when accused of being an enemy of Roman gods and laws, replied “Deo Gratias.” He was executed with a sword.

At the same time as the persecution of the Church came a plague which killed up to five thousand Romans per day. Some people called it Cyprian’s plague and redoubled their efforts to punish Christians. Decius also faced new barbarian invasions, especially the Goths. He assembled his army and moved north to drive them away. In the course of campaign, he was killed in battle, the first Roman emperor to go to his eternal reward fighting enemies of Rome, having served as emperor for only two years. The persecution of Christians continued regardless of the political power brokers of the next two imperial administrations.

A Libellus papyrus discovered in Egypt dated AD 250 certifying that the bearer has sacrificed to the gods

The pagan emperors of Rome worshipped the State and its power. Christians believed that Jesus was Lord and the only one to be worshipped. When the State demanded worship or set the rules for worship in opposition to the Holy Scriptures, professing Christians were faced with choices that always had consequences. Some bent to the will of the civil authorities and kept their head out of the noose, at least for a while. Others defied the tyranny over the church and faced fines, arrest, torture and sometimes martyrdom. Within two hundred years, the Roman emperors were professing Christians, and the Church had grown exponentially under persecution. That seems to be a recurring pattern. Someday, the persecution will stop and all the enemies of Christ will be gone. Of His Kingdom there shall be no end.

Map showing the Gothic invasions of AD 250-251

The Death of J. Gresham Machen, 1937

2020-12-28T11:33:06-06:00December 28, 2020|HH 2020|

“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” —Acts 17:11

The Death of J. Gresham Machen,
January 1, 1937

The First World War shattered, for many intellectuals, what remained of the philosophical and theological presuppositions that had undergirded Western Civilization for centuries. While those ideas had been under attack for generations, the utter devastation and slaughter of the War had profound implications for the cultural world that emerged in the 1920s. Liberal theologians, especially in Germany, seemed to have a free field of fire against the orthodox Christian views of the Bible’s authorship, inerrancy, historicity, and accuracy—an influence known appropriately as “Modernism.” Those challenges raged in the late 19th Century and early 20th, and now seemed poised to completely overwhelm the Church. A modest and brilliant champion from Princeton stepped into the lists to defend the Faith in America, John Gresham Machen. He became liberal Protestantism’s greatest nightmare.

J. Gresham Machen, as he was best known, was born to a very devout Southern Presbyterian mother, and grew up in a genteel social milieu in Baltimore, in the last decade of the 19th Century. He graduated first in his class at Johns Hopkins in the classics in 1901, and from Princeton Seminary in 1905. Machen then sailed to Europe to immerse himself in the courses taught by the greatest modernist seminary professors and philosophers in Germany. By God’s grace, he saw through the friendliness and camaraderie of the great liberals, to challenge and refute their heresies and false assumptions.

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

Upon his return to Princeton as Professor of New Testament in 1906, Machen developed a reputation for his challenges to both mainstream American pietistic Protestantism and the deadly cancer of European liberalism. His forthright apologetics came from a historic and Calvinistic foundation based on the virgin birth of Christ and the absolute historical integrity of the Bible. He took a year off to serve in the YMCA canteens in France during WWI. Upon his return, the intellectual challenges multiplied as did the controversies that followed his stands against the liberals.

Princeton Theological Seminary Class of 1922, during Machen’s tenure as Professor of New Testament (1906-1929)

Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1800s

Liberal Protestantism “reduced Christianity to a set of general religious principles regarding the moral teachings of Jesus,” and they emphasized God’s love over all of His attributes, especially justice and man’s accountability for his sin. Machen asserted that liberalism was not just a form of Christianity, but an entirely different religion—not the Christianity of the Bible. His beliefs were rapidly declining in adherents at Princeton and in the Presbyterian Church USA to which he belonged, as more and more biblical doctrines were rejected and replaced by modern philosophical presuppositions. Liberalism penetrated the foreign mission board of the PCUSA, and in response, Machen helped create a conservative but “Independent Board of Foreign Missions,” based on fidelity to the inspired Word of God. In 1935, he was tried in the Church Courts and suspended from the ministry for fomenting “schism” in the Church.

This Fundamentalist cartoon, first published in 1922, portrays Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism

Machen was instrumental in the formation of what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination and the creation of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, to train ministers loyal to the Word of God and uncompromising on the historic Christian doctrines. A number of Princeton theologians joined with him in the endeavor.

Machen Hall, Westminster Theological Seminary—notable alumni of the seminary include Francis Schaeffer, Greg Bahnsen and Alistair Begg, among others

In December of 1936, he came down with pneumonia while preaching in North Dakota and died on January 1, 1937, aged 55. Throughout the post-war era, Machen became the champion of the “fundamentalists” of America for his ability to meet the liberals on their own grounds and bring a scholarly and profound defense of Reformation Protestant theology. While men from other denominations embraced his defense of the faith, his own church proceeded to disavow him and the Word on which he stood. J. Gresham Machen did not fit into the radical fundamentalist rejection of alcohol, tobacco, and other extra-biblical cultural appurtenances, but he fought to the death over the historicity of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, and the Deity of Christ. His bestselling books took their place among Christian classics: The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), Christianity and Liberalism (1923), and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), among several others. With the death of Machen, the Church lost a great champion who was raised up by God in a volatile time for the Church in America.

Machen’s 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism was named one of the top 100 books of the twentieth century by Christianity Today one of the top 100 books of the millennium by World magazine

Resources for Further Study

J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Study, by Ned Stonehouse (Eerdmans, 1954)

Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, by D.G. Hart (P&R, 1994)

<smallImage Credits:J. Gresham Machen ( Class of 1922 ( Theological Seminary ( Descent of the Modernists Cartoon ( Hall, Westminster Theological Seminary ( and Liberalism (

The Martyrdom of Hugh M’Kail, 1666

2020-12-21T11:11:40-06:00December 21, 2020|HH 2020|

“Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.” —Rev. 2:10

The Martyrdom of Hugh M’Kail, December 22, 1666

The roll of Christian martyrs extends back in time to the days following the resurrection of Our Lord. It continues daily in many far-flung nations of the earth. Jesus Himself told the Apostles to expect to die for their faith, a prospect they embraced, not knowing the time, place, or character of their death. Some of the saddest and yet the most triumphant stories of the few martyrs we know by name, are the ones murdered in “Christian” countries by men claiming to be fellow-believers.

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard, 1638
as portrayed by William Hole

Hugh M’Kail was born in 1640, and raised by his namesake uncle, in the midst of the “Second Reformation” in Scotland. The National Covenant had been recently circulated and signed by multiple thousands, the General Assembly had excommunicated the corrupt Anglican bishops in Scotland, the national legislature was filled with Church elders who were in almost total sympathy with the godly transformation of the Church and the culture, as the greatest spiritual revival since the days of John Knox swept through the nation. Hugh joined in the joyous triumph of spiritual renewal, even as the dark clouds of controversy and political disruption ensued in the 1650s.

Charles II of England (1630-1685)

Having lived through the turmoil of Cromwellian occupation and division in the churches, Hugh attended the University of Edinburgh, where he received intense training for taking his place in Scotland among the ministers still loyal to the Covenants. He ardently defended the belief that the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and the Bible determinative of how God should be worshipped. At the time of his graduation in 1660, such a belief was considered treason by the new King of England, Charles II, recently returned from European exile and determined to exert his headship and control over all the churches of the realm through the rule of his bishops, regardless of the resistance of Presbyterian Scotland. Twenty-year-old Hugh was licensed to preach by his presbytery in 1661, and began what would prove to be just one year of public preaching.

A Scottish conventicle (illegal church service)

Hugh M’Kail’s powerful and effective sermons came to an end in the High Church of Scotland, St. Giles, on the Sunday before more than 400 ministers were expelled from their pulpits in Scotland by order of the monarch. They had refused to renounce the National Covenant, at the heart of which was sworn affirmation of the “crown rights of Jesus Christ over the Church”. In his last sermon M’Kail said the Church and the people of God had been “persecuted by a Pharaoh upon the throne, a Haman in the State, and a Judas in the Church”. A party of horsemen were sent the next day to apprehend him, but Hugh escaped Edinburgh and hid out at his father’s house near Liberton, today a suburb of Edinburgh. For the next four years he managed to avoid arrest, for dissenting preachers continued to minister in conventicles (illegal worship services) and were attacked and punished by teams of commandos sent out by the government for that purpose.

“The Boot”, a device of torture, used to slowly crush the leg

In 1666, after a brutal attack on an elderly man in Dumfries, some young Covenanters rescued him and in the ensuing fracas, killed a soldier. Realizing fierce retribution would be coming, the men took up arms and called for others to join them. In the course of a long march to Edinburgh to seek a redress of grievances, the 900 Covenanters, mostly farmers, few with firearms, were met by an army of 3,000 soldiers who were called out to stop them, and a battle ensued at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills. Hugh M’Kail joined the march briefly, although he was suffering from a wasting disease, exhausted and broken down. The day before the engagement, Hugh dropped out and left to return home.

Seized along the way, carrying a sword and mounted, the pastor was taken to Edinburgh and thrown in the tollbooth prison. The “Secret Council” interrogated him, demanding an account of his participation and the names of everyone that he knew who had joined in the armed protest. Refusing to or unable to comply, Hugh was encased in the most painful torture device of the times known as “The Boot”. That instrument destroyed his leg, with no result of information. He affirmed his loyalty to both King and Covenant, and declared his innocence of any rebellion. The Council convicted him of treason, nonetheless, for not agreeing to the Royal Supremacy over the Church and for joining a rebellion designed to overthrow his authority.

Hugh M’Kail tortured with the Boot

The original site of the “Mercat Cross”, High Street, Edinburgh, where many were martyred

On December 22, 1666 Hugh M’Kail went to the scaffold at the “Mercat Cross”, where other martyrs, like James Guthrie before him and Donald Cargill after, were executed. With praise on his lips to be counted worthy of dying for Christ, all of his last words were recorded by his father and cell-mates, as well as the multitude of weeping onlookers, for he was greatly beloved.

Scene of Hugh M’Kail’s execution, December 22, 1666, amid “such a lamentation”, says historian James Kirkton, “as was never known in Scotland before, not one dry cheek upon all the street, or in all the numberless windows in the market-place.”

It is not possible to know how much longer Hugh M’Kail would have lived, given his ill-health and his participation in the conventicles, had he not ridden out to satisfy his curiosity about the protesters marching on Edinburgh. Nonetheless, his forthright testimony, willingness to obey Christ regardless of the unbiblical dictates of the state to conform, and his confidence of his future in heaven, provide a sobering and faithful example for us today.

Resources for Further Study

The Scots Worthies by John Howie

Ratification of the Bill of Rights, 1791

2020-12-21T11:10:02-06:00December 14, 2020|HH 2020|

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” —Micah 6:8

Ratification of the Bill of Rights, December 15, 1791

The creation of the American Republic under the Constitution of the United States, in 1787, came into being through extremely contentious debates and competing visions of the place of a central government in a confederacy of states. The loose union of rebellious states had held together under the Articles of Confederation beginning in 1777, and there were many people satisfied with the arrangement. George Washington was not one of them, nor James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. Representatives of twelve of the states met for four months in a convention to modify the Articles, hoping to make them more unifying and practical, now that the weaknesses of the Articles had manifested themselves in various crises, like tax collection, small domestic insurrections, and disrespect from foreign powers. They met in closed sessions, scrapped the Articles of Confederation, and created an entirely new structure, ingeniously formulated, and unlike any nation previously known in history.

First page of the Articles of Confederation which were debated by the Second Continental Congress in 1776-77 and came into force March 1, 1781

George Washington presides over the signing of the Constitution during the convention which took place in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787

In order to implement the new plan of government, the states elected representatives to attend ratification conventions in each state to review and approve the document. The new Constitution created a tripartite central government, with a bicameral legislature, a President, and a Supreme Court. The Founders hated and vilified the idea of democracy and thus built a republic anchored in a combination of men who served two year terms and staggered six year terms, chosen by the states. Satisfied the new structure of government could handle any contingency by the men of virtue and probity, elected by the people. They hoped that the compromises they had made, insured the solution to any potential strife.

George Washington (1732-1799) was among those not satisfied with the arrangement under the Articles of Confederation

In most of the ratification conventions, resistance to acceptance of the new plan of union found expression in the arguments of men known as the “anti-federalists.” The debates between the contending parties in the State of Virginia perhaps best exemplified the resistance to the new Constitution. On the pro-ratification side stood George Washington and James Madison. Leading the opposition were Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Judge Tyler. The central complaint of the opponents to the Constitution was the absence of guarantees of protection of the ancient rights of the citizens, from potential tyranny of the central government. The “Federalists” won ratification after promising the addition of a bill of rights, to be added soon after approval of the document. The “Bill of Rights” was ratified December 15, 1791 and took the form of ten amendments designed to guarantee the most basic rights inherited from the English Common Law and the Magna Carta.

Patrick Henry (1736-1799)
Delegate to 1st and 2nd Continental Congress, 1st and 6th post-colonial Governor of Virginia, and a vocal opponent of the Constitution who pushed for a bill of rights after its ratification

George Mason (1725-1792)
Principal author of The Virginia Declaration of Rights which served as a basis for the United States Bill of Rights and one of three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution

The first amendment prohibited Congress from establishing a particular denomination of the Church as the State Church, in contrast to what the English government had done with the Anglican Church, and had maintained in several of the colonies before independence. Nor could they prohibit the worship of particular churches. This amendment also guaranteed freedom of speech and the press, and the right to assemble and petition for a “redress of grievances.”

The second amendment recognized the right to organize militias and protected the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

In order to protect the powers of the states, the tenth amendment reasserted that the central government possessed only the powers actually mentioned in the Constitution as their responsibility, and all others were reserved to the states.

First page of an original copy of the Bill of Rights, including the twelve articles of amendment proposed in 1789, ten of which (articles 3-12), became part of the United States Constitution in 1791. What is here labeled as the Third Amendment is actually what we now know as the First Amendment, what is labeled as the Fourth is now known as the Second, and so on.

Since the days of the Founders, other amendments to the Constitution have been added, and the original ten have undergone reinterpretation, especially in modern times. The theory that the Constitution is a “living, breathing document” that changes in meaning with the whims and opinions of each American generation, is the majority view in the law schools today, with only a few exceptions. The interpretive rubric that the words as they were originally intended ought to continue as the basis of the interpretation of the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is known as “original intent,” and is under attack in every case the Supreme Court and inferior courts choose to hear. Attempts to resurrect the true meaning of the Bill of Rights brings charges of racism, anti-democracy, and fascism against the few “conservative” jurists within the judicial system. Perhaps the Founders were correct when they declared that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would only succeed among a “moral and religious people” led by honest and patriotic leaders.

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