According to Henry Howe in his Historical Collection of Virginia (1852), Tuscarora Presbyterian Church is “the first place where the Gospel was publicly preached and divine service performed west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” In keeping with that auspicious beginning, Tuscarora has been a beacon of light, spreading God’s Good News to the world for 275 years.
In 1737 all of what is now Berkeley County was part of Orange County, VA. On September 22 of that year, Mr. William Williams, a Presbyterian lay speaker, appeared before the county court at Orange Court House in Virginia and took the oath of allegiance and abjuration required of dissenter ministers and declared his intention to hold meetings at two points in the northern Shenandoah Valley close to the Potomac River. One of these points turned out to be this very spot, later to be known as Tuscarora Church.
In 1737 in all of what is now Berkeley County, there were only a few hundred settlers. There were still a few Indians in the area, enough in fact that the first settlers to worship here felt it necessary to bring their weapons to divine services. The settlers in this area were mainly independent Scotch and Irish Presbyterians, who built a log meeting house, two in fact, which pre-date our present stone structure.
It was not easy to travel to Tuscarora in the early 1700s for Sunday service. One surviving record states, “We left Gerrardstown [10 mile trek] early on Sunday morning, walked to within site of Tuscarora Church, then stopped to put on our stockings and shoes before continuing on.”
Tuscarora officially came into existence in 1740 as a member of the Donegal Presbytery, and Mr. Williams preached to the people of Tuscarora for 23 years before his death in 1760. Before there was a permanent minister, three supply ministers served this congregation: Robert Cooper, John Craighead and John Hoge. But in August 23, 1770, Hugh Vance was ordained and installed as the first “called” pastor of the united congregation of Tuscarora and Back Creek (now known as Tomahawk) for the sum of 112 pounds, five shillings, Pennsylvania currency. The elders who served during Rev. Vance’s pastorate were William Campbell, Joseph McKay, Robert Mercer, John Campbell, Matthew Rippey, Samuel Park, James Riddle and John Hart.
In 1776 something happened that would change the course of history for a long time to come. It was a petition signed by 98 men from Tuscarora and 50 from Back Creek. It was presented to the Speaker and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In essence the petition said that the Presbyterians objected to tax money being used to support the church. They were opposed to a state church. None other than Thomas Jefferson used that petition and others like it to formulate the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which was later used as a basis for the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution that guarantees us, as American citizens, freedom of religion.
Tuscarora Church continued to prosper. The present stone sanctuary of Tuscarora was built in 1803. As originally constructed, there were three entrances: one on the north side, one on the east side, and one on the south side. The pulpit itself was located along the west wall. Sometime during the 1800s the configuration of the sanctuary was changed; the south entrance was walled up, and the pulpit was relocated on the south wall. Two windows were added on the west wall.
Up until 1804 Tuscarora Church was affiliated with the Presbyteries of Donegal and Carlisle in Pennsylvania. In October of 1804, Tuscarora was enrolled in the Winchester Presbytery and remained affiliated with that Presbytery until 1974 when Winchester and Lexington Presbyteries merged to form Shenandoah Presbytery.
At the beginning of the 1800s, new names began to appear in the congregation: names like Snodgrass, Miller, Walker, and Cushwa. These were new people moving into Berkeley County, searching for a place to worship. In the early 1800s other Presbyterian congregations had been formed by the core group at Tuscarora such as Middletown (now Gerrardstown), Back Creek (now Tomahawk), and Falling Waters. The membership of Tuscarora, which numbered in excess of 150 in 1776, was down to just thirty-one in 1809. But there still existed the zeal and willingness to follow the precepts of the Great Commission, and by 1819 membership had risen to 78.
In 1825 Presbyterians established the First Presbyterian Church in Martinsburg, and Tuscarora was left with a membership of just 25. But once again the congregation of Tuscarora rose to 77 after a great revival in 1836.
In 1861 with the War Between the States, more than a few sons of Tuscarora Church rode away to what they thought would be a great adventure, never to return home. After the war, some of these men did return to Tuscarora and later became elders in the church. Sadly, one father had to retrieve his son’s body from a battlefield in Virginia, and he buried the young soldier, David Miller Thatcher, in the Tuscarora Cemetery, not 20 feet from the front door of the church.
The stone structure itself was spared the ravages of war, but families were not. The area was decimated so much that in 1866, one year after the war, Tuscarora reported to the Winchester Presbytery membership of only 25. Once again the congregation had steadfast faith in the Lord, and by 1899 the membership of Tuscarora was up to 49.
In 1890 another change occurred at Tuscarora. The first deacons were elected to bring procedure in line with the Presbyterian form of government. Some more new names begin to appear in the records such as Smith, Catrow, and in the 1920s Noll. Also in the late 1800s Sunday School began on a regular basis, with James H. Smith elected as the first superintendent.
Another change took place in 1901 with the first appearance of organized women’s work. In the session minutes of April 8, 1901, the group makes its appearance as the Ladies’ Missionary Society, the forerunner of today’s Presbyterian Women.
In the early 1920s, Tuscarora installed electrical lights. The original ceiling fixtures remain in the sanctuary today.
In 1940 Tuscarora celebrated its 200th anniversary. At that time the official membership was a mere 45. In 1957, in fact, after the retirement of the Rev. John L. Rogers, who had begun his ministry here 38 years before, Presbytery officials doubted the necessity of Tuscarora continuing as a congregation. But Tuscarora was steadfast. Although Tuscarora was yoked with a small country church, it decided to build a manse, even though the church was without a minister. This is the mark of a congregation willing to take a walk in faith.
In the early 1960s women were elected to both the Session and the Board of Deacons, some of the first in the Winchester Presbytery to serve as such. Also, by the end of the decade, membership had passed the 100 mark for the first time since the 1700s. In 1969 during the pastorate of the Rev. David Coffey, a new educational building was constructed to house a growing church school and provide much-needed office space. A balcony was also added to the sanctuary, as well as an enlarged narthex and air conditioning.
In 1990 Tuscarora celebrated its 250th anniversary. Today we have a congregation which numbers about 150. This church has survived because it has been willing to change, willing to welcome new members, willing to share leadership roles with new members, and willing to take a chance on the future – at the same time keeping our roots deep in the rich history of the past: a history full of danger, war, uncertainty, but with hope in a bright future and faith in our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.