Presbyterian General Assemblies Through a Family Lens
--by William Lake Leonard
William Lake Leonard is a retired attorney and member of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. He was a member of PHS's Board of Directors from 2009 to 2017; he has served on PHS's Advisory Council from 2017 to the present.
One of the highlights of my life as a Presbyterian was serving as a Commissioner to a meeting of the church’s General Assembly. In June of 2002, the 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met in Columbus, Ohio, and I served as an Elder Commissioner representing the Presbytery of Philadelphia. At that time I assumed that I was the only member of my family elected to serve as a commissioner to a Presbyterian General Assembly. However, in the past several years, long after my service in 2002, I discovered that I was at least the fourth.
As I was flying from Philadelphia to Columbus, I was profoundly aware of the legacy of those in the earlier generations of my family who had devoted their lives to the Presbyterian Church. My grandfather, The Reverend William Barr Leonard, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after serving 7 years as pastor in two Presbyterian Churches in Nebraska, served as a Presbyterian Home Missionary to new settlers in Indian and Oklahoma Territories and the newly established state of Oklahoma, the state where I would grow up.
During those same years, Dr. Eliza Ellen Leonard, my grandfather’s older sister, served as a Presbyterian medical missionary in China. During a visit to China in 2001, the same year I retired after 40 years of practicing law, I visited her grave in Beijing, as well as the site of the former Presbyterian mission and hospital in Beijing where she had served.
That visit prompted me to begin in earnest to learn more about Dr. Leonard, my grandfather, and other ancestors. I recently identified members of my family who, prior to my service in 2002, had served as General Assembly Commissioners: William Patterson, a great, great, great grandfather (1837 General Assembly); Nathan Ransom Leonard, the older brother of my great grandfather, William Patterson Leonard (1907); and my grandfather, The Reverend William Barr Leonard (General Assemblies of 1900, 1904, and 1910). In the reading room of the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) in Philadelphia, I reviewed the minutes and reports for each of those General Assembly meetings in which my family members and I served as commissioners. Included here are highlights from those Assemblies that connect to my family history, to historic splits in the Presbyterian family, or to Columbus—the location of the 2002 General Assembly I attended and the scheduled site of this year’s assembly before Covid-19 forced a change of plans.
William Patterson: Elder Commissioner in 1837
My great, great, great grandfather, William Patterson (1775–1845), served in 1837 as an Elder Commissioner from Ohio to the 49th General Assembly that met in the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, coincidentally my church home today. The most significant outcome of that Assembly was the division of the Presbyterian Church into New School/Old School Presbyterian Churches. The New School/Old School schism was caused by differences in views among Presbyterians about theology, church polity, and slavery. As indicated in the names of the two factions, those in the “Old School” held a more conservative traditional and orthodox understanding of Calvinist theology, while the “New School” faction was more open to change, more outspoken against slavery, and advocates of a more liberal view of Calvin’s theology, especially as it concerned the new “Great Awakening” revival movement. The differing views among Presbyterians on slavery finally resulted in the creation of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America in 1861.
This schism of the Presbyterian Church into Old School and New School factions also caused a split within the Leonard family. Nathan Leonard reported that this schism resulted in a lifelong break in the relationship between his grandfathers, The Reverend Abner Leonard, the pastor of the Truro, Ohio, Presbyterian Church, and William Patterson, a ruling elder in the Truro church. William Patterson was a confirmed Old School Presbyterian, and The Reverend Abner Leonard was an outspoken abolitionist who was described by his grandson Nathan as, “a red-hot New School man.” The person caught in the middle of this personal schism was Elizabeth Patterson Leonard, daughter of William Patterson and daughter-in-law of Abner Leonard.
For a more detailed explanation of the relationships discussed above, click here and view Generations of My Leonard Family: 1620-Today.
Abner Leonard’s views probably would have been influenced by his grandfather Caleb (1726-1814), a product of the Hilltop Presbyterian Church in Mendham New Jersey, founded in 1738 by followers of “The Great Awakening” of the 1730’s and 1740’s. Nathan commented on the broken relationship between his grandfathers that lasted for the remainder of their lives: “This separation closed the confidential, and all other relations between the two grandfathers, and I never saw them exchange friendly greetings afterwards. However, their children were not estranged from each other.” The New School/Old School Presbyterians reunited in 1870.
Nathan Ransom Leonard: Elder Commissioner in 1906
Nathan Ransom Leonard, the older brother of my great grandfather, William Patterson Leonard, served as an Elder Commissioner from the Butte Presbytery of the Montana Synod to the 1907 119th General Assembly Meeting in Columbus, Ohio.
During that gathering, the Board on Repairing Presbyterian Churches and Institutions reported on the extensive damage to Presbyterian congregations and schools caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and that $123,000 had been raised to assist in the rebuilding effort. The decision was made to raise an additional $300,000 for this work. Also, it was reported that the debt on the denomination’s Witherspoon Building on Walnut Street (at the time headquarters of PHS) in Philadelphia had been reduced to $375,000. The Board of Home Missions reported that the Synod of Indian Territory had united with the Synod of Indianola to become the Synod of Oklahoma. [The State of Oklahoma was admitted to the Union November 16, 1907.] The list of Home Missionaries included The Reverend William Barr Leonard of the First Presbyterian Church in Beaver, Oklahoma, a church that it noted had 76 members.
The Board of Foreign Missions, established in 1837, reported that $1,160,00 had been appropriated to support foreign mission in the past year, $85,000 more than in the prior year. The North China Mission reported that the church at 2nd Street in Peking had become the nucleus of the evangelistic effort in Peking. There were 70 boys and 10 girls in the mission school in Peking. The new Douw Hospital for Women was open for 11 months in 1906. Dr. Eliza Ellen Leonard, Superintendent of the hospital, reported that there were 94 patients compared to 64 in the previous year. The Peking Station had 5 ordained missionaries, 2 medical missionaries, 4 single ladies, 4 wives, and 26 native helpers.
William Barr Leonard: Minister Commissioner in 1900, 1904 and 1910
My paternal grandfather, The Reverend William Barr Leonard, an 1893 graduate of the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, served as a Minister Commissioner to three Presbyterian General Assembly meetings in the first decade of the 20th Century: the meetings of 1900, 1904, and 1910. I learned of my grandfather’s connection to these General Assembly meetings only last year and only because of a familiar old photograph that had been hanging in my childhood homes. The photograph was in a chipped oak and gold leaf frame and showed a panoramic view of several hundred primarily older men sporting an abundance of facial hair standing on the steps of what appeared to be a large church building. As well as other furniture, carpets, paintings, photographs, books, and miscellaneous household items, the framed photograph had become a part of my parents’ household effects after the death of my grandmother in 1941. There were no markings on the front or back identifying the occasion, people, place, or date.
This photograph and other items from my deceased parents’ home had been shipped in 2003 to my Philadelphia home. I had forgotten about it until the fall of 2021, when I discovered the framed photograph in a storage closet still wrapped in the bubble wrap that had enveloped it for almost twenty years.
Having served as an Elder Commissioner to the 2002 General Assembly, I speculated that the photo might possibly show commissioners to a late 19th or early 20th century Assembly. Jennifer Barr, Reference and Outreach Archivist at PHS, did a quick search and found that The Reverend William Barr Leonard was a Minister Commissioner at the 122nd General Assembly meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, in 1910. Although I was able to identify my grandfather in the photo, it obviously was not taken in front of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier or any other Atlantic City site.
I spent many hours in the PHS reading room reviewing minutes and reports of all of the General Assembly meetings between 1893, the year of my grandfather’s ordination after his graduation from McCormick Theological Seminary, and 1924, the year of his death. What I found was that he had served as a Minister Commissioner to three General Assembly meetings: the 112th 1900 meeting in St. Louis; the 116th 1904 meeting in Buffalo; and the 122nd 1910 meeting in Atlantic City. I was able to confirm by further research that the building backdrop in the photo (shown below) was the home of the Washington & Compton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Louis and the site of the 1900 General Assembly. The building still stands today and houses the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
During that 1900 General Assembly, my 31-year-old grandfather represented the Kearney Presbytery, Synod of Nebraska, as a Minister Commissioner. A highlight of the meeting was a celebration of the national church’s progress during a very eventful 19th century. The minutes spoke of the “gratitude for the mercies of the past and consecration of the opportunities of the future,” observing that membership had increased from about 20,000 in 1800 to over 2 million in 1900. During that time contributions to support Home Missions totaled more than $21 million and contributions for Foreign Missions exceeded $87 million.
The Committee on Foreign Missions reported on the Presbyterian missions in Africa, India, Japan, Korea, China, Mexico, Persia, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, Siam, Laos, South Central America and Syria. Special attention was given to the problems being experienced by the church’s missions in China, including drought, famine, Yellow River floods, and the terrorizing policies of the Dowager Empress. The Peking Station of the North China Mission reported that Dr. Eliza Ellen Leonard experienced a very full year of work assuming the extra responsibility of the women’s dispensary on Second Street because of poor health of another missionary. The report also echoed the problems encountered because of the unexpected revolution in the Qing Dynasty palace and the destabilizing result on the populace as the result of rumors and lawless hordes of soldiers from the “wild west” assailing many villages.
Note: the Boxer Rebellion did not begin until after the date of this report to the 1900 General Assembly. Dr. Leonard and other Presbyterians all over China were caught up in the terror and atrocities of this Rebellion. Missionaries and Chinese Christians took refuge in the British legation during the 55-day siege of the city between June 20 and August 14, 1900, and Dr. Leonard provided medical aid to those wounded during the Boxer rampage.
At the 1904 116th General Assembly Meeting in Buffalo, the Reverend William Barr Leonard represented the Canadian Presbytery of the Indian Territory Synod as a Minister Commissioner. At that Assembly, the Board of Foreign Missions reported on the continuing progress being made by Presbyterian missions, noting that the contribution by women of the church in supporting these foreign missions through women’s missionary boards and societies had been significant and critical to their progress. The Peking Station of the North China Mission reported that the Douw Hospital and Dispensary for Women opened in the fall of 1904 under the care of Dr. Mackey until June, when Dr. Eliza Leonard returned from her furlough in America.
In 1910, after his move to the First Presbyterian Church in Beaver, in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, William Barr Leonard was named once more as a minister commissioner, this time to the 122nd General Assembly that met in Atlantic City, representing the Cimarron Presbytery of the Oklahoma Synod. The first decade of the 20th century was a time of continuing westward expansion beyond the Mississippi River. The Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah were all admitted to the Union between 1889 and 1900. Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona were admitted between 1900 and 1912. The growth of the population of these western states also resulted in the growth of the Presbyterian Church. New churches sprang up in these states literally overnight. Thus, it is not surprising that much of the attention of the General Assemblies during the first decade of the 20th Century was focused on the problems and opportunities of this westward expansion. That focus continued in the 1910 General Assembly. The mission of the Board of Home Missions included the Presbyterian Church’s ministry to the new settlers as well as special communities in need in these western states and territories.
The 1910 Report of the Board of Foreign Missions on the work of the Peking Station of the North China Mission included this update about my grandfather’s older sister:
“The Peking Station includes a Medical College for Men; a Medical College for Women; colleges for both men and women; the Union Theological College; and a Nurses’ Training School. Dr. Eliza Leonard is the Dean of the Medical College for Women and also occupies the chair of anatomy. She reports that the institution is only in its beginning but has a bright future. This is the first year that the Douw Hospital for Women has been self-supporting, and it is an occasion for sincere congratulations to Dr. Leonard. Industrial work, largely conducted by Miss Li, has been managed by Miss McKillican, Miss Ward, and Dr. Leonard.”
William Lake Leonard: Elder Commissioner in 2002
As a commissioner in the first decade of the 21st century, the first thing I learned was that most of the substantive work of the General Assembly is accomplished in the meetings of the various Committees. In Columbus I was assigned to the Polity Committee that deals with church governance and the rules contained in the Book of Order. The committees review and make recommendations for actions by the plenary sessions of the Assembly in response to “overtures” that are requests for action by the various Presbyteries.
The most controversial overtures before the 2002 General Assembly within the jurisdiction of the Polity Committee dealt with the ordination standards set forth in the Book of Order. Those standards since 1978 effectively had prevented the ordination of homosexuals, and in 2002 required that all ordained church officers (ministers, elders, and deacons) “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of Word and Sacrament.”
While in Columbus, I met with a number of people to learn as much as I could about the intricacies of the Book of Order’s ordination standards and the history of the dispute, in order that I might better understand the overtures under consideration by the Polity Committee. That learning experience included several late night meetings over cold pizza and warm sodas with representatives of the Covenant Network.
In the end, the 214th General Assembly did not take definitive action to change the ordination standards. Instead, it called for a year of prayer regarding proposed changes in those standards. Also, it rejected the proposal that it become involved in the judicial action against a New England congregation that was in outspoken disagreement with the current ordination requirements and restrictions. Recognizing the great division in the church on this issue, the General Assembly approved a statement of “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.” As reported by The Presbyterian Outlook, this statement produced “a remarkable calming of the waters.”
In the plenary session of commissioners I think that I must have been surrounded by more Presbyterians in one room than at any other time in my life. However, the commissioners in 2002 were a diverse group in every other respect, including gender, race and ethnic origin. Interestingly, the 2002 General Assembly elected as moderator The Reverend Fahed Abu-Akel, a Palestinian-American pastor from Atlanta. The commissioners in 2002 were quite a contrast to the predominately white, male commissioners appearing in the photograph of the 1900 General Assembly commissioners. I enjoyed conversations with commissioners from all age groups representing rural, urban and suburban congregations. However, I found that, regardless of a wide divergence of views on the controversial issues, the personal relationships were cordial. I shared meals, coffee breaks, and conversation that made me optimistic about the future of the Presbyterian Church.
I also met many new friends. One very special memory I have from those Polity Committee meetings was getting to know The Reverend Margaret Crofton Suttle, a fellow member of the Committee. She was the pastor of a church in Northern California. However, she spoke with a noticeable Southern accent. When I asked if she were from the South, she told me that she had grown up in Jackson, Mississippi. My mother grew up in Jackson, and I told her that one of my mother’s best friends in Jackson was a Virginia Foster who had married a Tom Suttle. Lo and behold, it turned out that her husband was the son of that Virginia Foster Suttle. She was the friend who had introduced my mother to the man who would become my mother’s husband and my father! Her husband, Thomas Suttle, Jr., was with her in Columbus, and we shared a wonderful meal and many Mississippi memories before the General Assembly adjourned.
While in Columbus I also ventured beyond the downtown convention center and hotel to Nelson Park, located east of downtown on the Alum River. That park was originally part of the farm and mill established by another of my ancestors, David Nelson. He was one of the founders in 1806 of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbus and the great grandfather of Catherine Barr Leonard, mother of my grandfather The Reverend William Barr Leonard.
Concluding Observations & Reflections
Attending the 2002 General Assembly meeting and reviewing the minutes of the prior General Assembly meetings, as well as experiencing over my lifetime innumerable other Presbyterian Church meetings, has led me to the conclusion that, regardless of disagreements about theology and church governance, Presbyterians are almost always civil and gracious in their personal dealings with one another. As I confided to a friend recently, not completely in jest, consistent with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:40, embedded in the hearts of Presbyterians must be a “do all things decently and in order” chip--perhaps on the left side of the heart for the more progressive Presbyterians, and on the right side of the heart for those who are more conservative.
It seemed clear to me that Presbyterian General Assembly commissioners and staff over all those years shared a belief in leading lives that are in accord with the teachings of Jesus Christ and sharing those teachings with others throughout the world. In addition to sharing their Christian faith they also shared their support for providing access to education and healthcare to all peoples of the world, especially to those persons in underserved communities. However, it was equally clear that the shared belief by Presbyterians in the Christian gospel has not always translated into a shared belief in how the teachings of Jesus and the example of His life should be applied in the daily lives of Christians.
The arc of history of the Presbyterian Church as it has played out over the 165 years between the General Assemblies of 1837 and 2002 is bookended by two passionately-held views that divided Presbyterians: in 1837 there was disagreement on how Presbyterians should address the issue of slavery, and in 2002 there was disagreement regarding restrictions on ordination based upon sexual orientation. Thankfully, these two issues, for the most part, have been resolved. However, many related issues remain unresolved and continue to divide the church to this day.
For more than 400 years there has been a close connection between the history of my Leonard family and the history of Presbyterian denominations in North America. This connection extends beyond my family's service as commissioners to Presbyterian General Assemblies. Click here for details about how generations of my family connected to pivotal moments in Presbyterian and American history.
Followers of Protestant Reformers John Calvin and John Knox, my Leonard ancestors were Puritans and Separatists who, in the early 17th Century, seeking freedom from religious persecution in England, emigrated to Holland and then to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. After 120 years in the Plymouth area, they were drawn to the “Great Awakening,” a religious movement in the 1730’s and 1740’s inspired by, among others, Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards and British evangelist George Whitefield. In 1740 my Leonard ancestors moved from Massachusetts to the Mendham, New Jersey area, becoming members of the Hilltop Presbyterian Church in Mendham. In the Hilltop Church they joined other Presbyterians inspired by the “Great Awakening.” Subsequent generations have continued to be active Presbyterians serving the church as ministers, elders, missionaries, teachers, and, of course, commissioners to Presbyterian General Assemblies.
That 400-year tradition of my family’s involvement with the Presbyterian denomination appears today to be at a crossroads. Currently neither my children nor my grandchildren are active in the Presbyterian or any other church. While I have no way of knowing what role the church may play in their futures, I do hope that the history of their pioneering Presbyterian forebears and the lives of service of those forebears in the church will be a source of inspiration.
Presbyterian Denominations Family Tree. Presbyterian Historical Society website.
Leonard Family Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society.
Nathan Ransom Leonard, Genealogical and Biographical Sketch of the Leonard Family (1908).
Minutes and Reports of the 1837, 1900, 1904, 1907 and 2002 Presbyterian General Assemblies. Presbyterian Historical Society.
Harriet McIntyre Foster, Lieutenant David Nelson and His Descendants (1908). Indiana State Libraries.
Augustine M. Antrobus, History of Des Moines County Iowa and Its People, Volume I (The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915): Description of how in 1843, in Burlington, Iowa Territory, outspoken abolitionists, including Abner Leonard and other members of the Leonard family, moved from an Old School Presbyterian Church to a New School church that reorganized to become a Congregational Church because the Congregational Church “never at any time failed to raise its voice against the crime of human slavery.” (page 472).
Mayflower Families Through Five Generations, Volume 15 (2013).
G. Allan Vaughan, Leonard Biographies Project (2011).
My thanks to Fred Tangeman, former Director of Communications of the Presbyterian Historical Society, for his valuable editing assistance, and to Kirsten Gaydos, PHS Director of Communications and McKenna Britton, PHS Communications Associate, for their preparation of the blog for publication.