The Rev. Abner Reeve – an extraordinary man
Rev. George Borthwick
The Rev. George Borthwick was ordained at the South Haven Presbyterian Church in October 1935 and served as its pastor until 1940. During his tenure, he wrote a history of the community and church, which remained a limited circulation manuscript until published under the auspices of the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church in 1989, during his tenure there.
The following excerpts from the book (pp. 61-73, 84-90) record the life of an extraordinary man, the Rev. Abner Reeve. Note, however, that Borthwick was incorrect in some details. I have identified these with footnotes. My research on Abner Reeve is a work in progress. Visit his entry in the Hamlet People database for additional information.
For over five years, from April 9, 1749, to October, 1754, the church “at the South” [now known as the “Old South Haven Presbyterian Church”] and the congregations at Moriches and Ketchabonock had services irregularly. Presbytery sent out supply preachers at times, and occasionally a minister from a neighboring church would conduct a service for the pastorless congregations. One who made such visits to the church in south Brookhaven was a young man who was later to become its settled pastor. He was one of the most human individuals the church ever had as a minister. He was no pious, long-faced saint, as was typical of the preachers of that day. The point on which he erred was that he was too human. He liked alcoholic beverages too well, and he often let them get control of him. This man, who, years before, had served as a supply minister and who on November 5, 1755, was installed pastor of the church in south Brookhaven, was Abner Reeve.
He was the only native of Long Island who was minister here until the Rev Ezra King in 1810. He was born in Southold, February 21, 1708, the son of Thomas and Bethia (Horton) Reeve and grandson of one of the town’s original settlers. He attended Yale College and graduated with the class of 1731. Returning to Southold, he spent three or four years in theological study under the town minister, the Rev. Benjamin Woolsey. On October 16, 1732, he married Mary Topping, a girl of 18. In 1735, he was licensed to preach by a group of ministers in Southold, and in looking around for a pastorate, saw the young and struggling church at neighboring Nissequogue, a village in Smithtown. Here, for several years, he made his headquarters, moving sometimes to villages in which were the other churches he attended.
Five years after coming here, a church was built “at the South” in Brookhaven Town. Although there is no definite record that shows he preached there, it is quite possible to believe that Abner Reeve was one of those ministers who from 1740 to 1748 supplied the pulpit in connection with another church. There are two reasons which support this conjecture. One is that various historians mention the church at South Haven, or Fire Place, as one he supplied during his pastorate at Nissequogue. For instance, Dr. Epher Whitaker, minister and historian for Southhold, states that “he was for a time laid aside from the ministry, after he had served as a licensed preacher at Smithtown, Fire Place (South Haven) and Huntington for ten or twelve years.” F.G. Mather mentions that he had “pastorates at Smithtown, Fire Place, Huntington. ” The sketch of his life in the Yale alumni biographies says that “Mr. Reeve continued to preach, more or less regularly, in Smithtown and adjoining towns of Brookhaven and Huntington, until about 1748.” It will be remembered that in 1748 was when the first minister whose name is recorded, Nehemiah Greenman, came to the church “at the south.”
The second reason which gives rise to the belief that Abner Reeve preached more or less regularly at the church in south Brookhaven before he became the settled pastor there is the simple fact he lived near it. It was while he was residing in Fire Place that on October 17, 1744, his third son, Tappan, later to add such fame to the family name, was born . The only conclusion we can draw from the fact he was living at Fire Place at the time he was preaching in Nissequogue was that he was also ministering to the nearby congregation “at the South” and wanted to live close to it.
What may have been the relationship between Abner Reeve and the church in south Brookhaven before 1748 is a question. We do know that for thirteen years he was the supply minister at Nissequogue. During his ministry there, his wife Mary died on May 6, 1747, and she left behind three boys: Ezra, Paul, and Tappan . When he married again, we do not know. Nor are we sure of her name. All that is known is that he married a Deborah, and that her home was in Brookhaven Town .
Perhaps to forget his sorrow over his wife’s death he began to drink heavily. It was not considered improper for a minister to drink alcoholic beverages in that day. In fact, the early pastors of the Mattituck Presbyterian Church received rations of rum as a part of their salary. But Abner Reeve was one who allowed his liking for drink to run away with him. His parishioners at Nissequogue objected to seeing their minister intoxicated, and asked Presbytery to intervene. Abner Reeve was suspended from the ministry a year after his [first] wife died, and in disgrace returned to Southold.
For six years he lived there . With the help of the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. William Throop, whom he must have known in college, for Throop graduated two years after he did, Abner Reeve began the slow process of conquering the habit which had such a grip on him. Evidently, the period of rehabilitation was a success.
He began preaching again, this time at Ketchabonock, Moriches, and his old parish, South Brookhaven. Before Presbytery, meeting at Setauket on October 22, 1754, appeared the repentant man with a petition in his hand from the three churches, that he become their pastor. The august body spent the evening in considering “the Case of Mr. Abner Reeve, originally of Southold, who, tho’ formerly a licens’d preacher, had been, for a considerable Time, laid aside, on account of intemperate and excessive Drinking. ” They heard the report of the ministers in Southold which stated that he had “hopefully experienc’d a saving change,” and that they recommended that he be allowed to preach. The ministers then personally examined Mr. Reeve, and because of “hopefull Evidences discover’d of the Reality of his change, and Sincerity of his Desires to preach the Gospel, approv’d of his Preaching.” They also authorized him to continue preaching in the parish vacated by the Rev. Nehemiah Greenman .
So satisfied were the people with Abner Reeve’s work that, to the next meeting of Presbytery, held at Mattituck in the spring of 1755, they sent a committee to request his ordination and installation as pastor. Presbytery acceded to their wishes, and decided to hold the examination and service at the regular fall meeting at Moriches. His “parts for trial” were then assigned to him. He had to make an exegesis in Latin upon this question: “Numerus Electorum siturtus et definitus?” He was told he would have to “preach a Sermon in Publick, previous to his Ordination, upon Ephesians VI, 10,” which reads: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” Was there a subtle suggestion here as to how Abner Reeve could deal with his overpowering fondness for drink?
The examination at Moriches proved satisfactory. Presbytery “adjourn’d to the western Meeting-House, there to meet, at ten o’clock tomorrow morning [5 November 1755].
After incorporating the church, Presbytery proceeded to ordain and install Abner Reeve as pastor. As the record describes it: “The Church being thus incorporated, and they, with the congregation, chusing Mr. Reeve for their pastor, enter’d upon the publick Worship of God, with a view to his ordination.” The Rev. James Brown of the Bridgehampton Church began with prayer.
The Rev. Mr. Throop of Southold, who had helped Reeve during his period of rehabilitation, preached the ordination sermon on the very appropriate text for one who had fallen from grace, of 1 Corinthians 9:27: “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” The Rev. Ebenezer Prime of the Presbyterian Church at Huntington, where Reeve had preached before 1748, propounded the constitutional questions and later gave the charge to the congregation. The Rev. Mr. Park, a missionary who had been sent from England by the London Society to the Indians at Westerly, Rhode Island, and was preaching then at the Presbyterian churches of Mattituck and Aquebogue, made the ordination prayer. Dr. Buell of Easthampton Church gave the exhortation to the minister and people. The Rev. Naphtali Daggett, Abner Reeve’s successor at the Nissequoque, now the Smithtown Branch Presbyterian Church, uncle of Herman Daggett, who half a century later was to be pastor of [the South Haven Presbyterian Church], and future president of Yale College, made the concluding prayer. The Rev. Abner Reeve pronounced the benediction. At the following meeting of Presbytery, held on June 2, 1756, at Southampton, the Second Presbyterian Church of Brookhaven was represented for the first time, and its pastor was chosen clerk.
The second step in the progress of the church “at the South” to the South Haven Presbyterian Church occurred at the town meeting of Brookhaven held on May 3, 1757, when “it was voted and agreed on that ye parish where ye Revd Mr. Reves now preaches at South Shall from hence forth retain ye Name of South Haven.”27 The announcement of this in the NEW YORK MERCURY for Feb. 20,1758, already referred to, reads as follows: “For the information of the Publick. – Notice is hereby given that the place formerly called “Setauket South” (otherwise “Fireplace”) which lies on South Shore of Long Island – that the parish lately erected whereof the Rev. Mr. Abner Reeve is minister, has by a general vote of the last Town Meeting obtained the name of ‘South Haven,’ which new name you are desired to remember in all letters directed to those parts for the future.” Thus came into being the name which is applied to the village in the southern part of Brookhaven Town as a description of the bounds of a parish. The Church which had begun as a branch of the old Town Church now stood on its own feet, just as much a full-fledged Presbyterian Church as its parent, a member of Presbytery in equal standing with the mother-church, recognized as a parish by the Town and world, and dignified by the name “the South Haven Presbyterian Church.”
It should be remembered that during the years he ministered to the “parish at South” Mr. Reeve preached also to the younger churches at Moriches and Ketchabonock . There is no question, from the statements that come down to us, just which of the three churches was considered the most important in the parish. Though the South Haven one was not at the geographical center of the field, it was the one which received the greatest share of the minister’s labor. Here Abner Reeve lived in the manse owned by the church, and here he farmed the lands the people placed at his disposal. On June 30, 1755, he had recorded by the Brookhaven Town clerk the ear-mark of his cattle. The description of it which he gave is this: “mr Abner Reaves Ear mark is a half penny ye under Side ye Left Ear and a Nick ye under Side ye Right Ear.” It is unlikely he would have recorded this where he did had he lived in Moriches, which at that time was not in Brookhaven Town. From this entry we gather, also, that Mr. Abner Reeve was a farmer as well as a preacher. Those early ministers here had to be, if they ever hoped to make ends meet. “Priest” Rose, his successor, was a doctor as well as a farmer and preacher. Hay was contributed as part of the salary by parishioners, as well as vegetables and meat. Some salaries were paid entirely in terms of produce raised and gathered by the church members. The minister, if he needed money with which to buy certain commodities not procurable by exchange, would have to market some of the goods he received. As an instance of this method of paying salaries, consider the case of the Rev. John Taylor, a graduate of Harvard, who in 1680 went to the Town Church at Southampton. Though this occurred much earlier than Abner Reeve’s time, it is very probable that in the young community of South Haven where money had not yet had time to accumulate, this practice too, was observed. The Rev. Mr. Taylor was promised “a salary of £100 and the sole use of the house and land formerly built and laid out for the ministry, together with another end to be built to the said house, and 100 acres of commonage. It was stipulated that the salary of £100 was to be paid in this manner.
“In winter wheat at 5s the bushel.
In summer wheat at 4s 6d bushel.
In Indian corn at 2s 6d bushel
In beef at 40s per cwt.
In pork at 10s per cwt.
In tallow at 3d per lb.
In green hides at 3d per lb.
In dry hides at 6d per lb.
In whalebones at 8d per lb.
In oil at 30s per bbl.
All good and merchantable. To be collected by the Constable.” The last regulation, of course would not apply to the South Haven Parish, as this church, unlike the Southampton Church, was then not closely linked with the town government.
… Abner Reeve began once more to imbibe too freely of what was known in those days as “spiritous liquors.” To the fall session of Presbytery, meeting in 1761 at Smithtown, came “a Number of People, belonging to the eastern Part of Mr. Abn’e Reeve’s Parish” and exhibited to the group “a Letter of Complaint against S’d Mr. Reeve their Pastor respecting his moral character, in which they charge him with having fallen foully into the odious and abominable Sin of Drunkenness.” The church, they claimed, desired “to be freed from, and no longer under his Pastoral Care and Charge, but to have the Liberty of Looking out for, and procuring a Minister among themselves, as a Society distinct from the Western Part of the Parish, with which they are now united.” This was a shocking charge against one who had been taken into the Presbytery on probation, and who had become so respected that he was the clerk of the group, was on the committee which examined candidates for the ministry and had preached ordination sermons. The ministers called their erring brother before them to give an account of himself. He fully acknowledged the truth of the charge, as he had publicly done before his three congregations, and was sincerely sorry for it. He even proposed “to make satisfaction to the several churches and congregations within the Presbytery.” The church fathers asked him to draw up a confession adequate “to his scandalous Sin and Fall” to be read by them from their pulpits. Then they argued about deposing him from the ministry. They very generously decided to give him a last chance, since they thought “it best that Mr. Reeve be continued in the Ministry in Order to further Tryal, hoping he may bring forth Fruits meet for Repentance.” However, should he sin again, he would be thereupon “immediately silenc’d and ipso facto suspended from the work of the ministry.”
In regard to the representatives’ request that their church be made separate from “the Western part of the Parish,” it was determined that this matter should be allowed to wait until the fall meeting, since “the People of the Parish of South-Haven, to which they stand related, ought first to be inform’d of their Proposal and Request.” It was a serious matter to divide the parish which for thirteen years had been united, for it would place a heavy financial burden on the ones that were left. ….
On October 27th, the problem was brought up again at the meeting at Huntington. Presbytery concluded that “they had not sufficient Light to Determine anything at present in so Momentous a Matter,” so appointed a committee to look into the case. This group met at Ketchabonock a month later, examined the evidence presented to them, and decided that since the majority of the people in the eastern part of the parish wanted to be connected with the western part, the relationship should be continued.
In the spring of 1763 Presbytery met at South Haven, “the Unhappy cause of ye Present Session, being an Uneasiness which had lately arose in Mr. Abner Reeve’s Parish, on account of his having lately been guilty of Using Spirituous Liquor in an Intemperate Manner.” Rev. Reeve denied the charge, and gave a defense of himself. However, Presbytery was at the end of its patience, found him guilty “in a Degree, of Intemperate Drinking, Unbecoming the Ministerial and Christian Character,” and suspended him from the ministry until its next meeting. The pastoral relation between Mr. Reeve and the South Haven, Moriches, and Ketchabonock churches was dissolved. Still the Suffolk Presbytery showed some kindness towards this colleague who had fallen from grace, for at a special meeting at South Haven a month later, the group decreed that his suspension from the ministerial work be removed, as they had received evidence of his good behavior.
The last time Presbytery had to deal with recalcitrant Reeve was in the fall of the following year when they granted his request to be transferred to New York Presbytery so that he could become the minister of the Presbyterian Church at Blooming Grove, Orange County, New York, a new community of Long Island people. Here from 1764 until 1770, when he decided to become independent, he ministered to the young church. In the latter year, he received a call to the First Congregational Church of Brattleboro, Vermont. There he held the longest pastorate of this stormy career – one of eighteen years’ duration. During that period, the happiest of his life, he conquered his besetting sin, saw his son Tappan become an outstanding jurist of that day, and witnessed with satisfaction the career of another son, Ezra, who was a Congregational minister. His third wife, Phebe, died in 1790. Eight years later, on May 6, 1798, his life came to a close in its 91st year. Because of his fondness for South Haven, he requested that he be buried here. In 1902, a reporter for the BROOKLYN TIMES states having seen his tombstone in the church-yard, broken and illegible.
Abner Reeve always must have regarded the South Haven parish with particular sentiment. Here was one of the first churches to which he ministered. Here he was ordained. Here, on November 18, 1759, his second wife died, and here she was buried. Her tombstone, in the church-yard west of the meeting-house, bears this inscription:
“Here Lyes Interr’d
The Body of Deborah
Wife of Abner Reeue
Who Died The 18 Day
OF November 1759
Aged 42 Years.”
To South Haven he brought his third bride in 1761, Phebe Foster of Southampton. But most important of all, here was born his brilliant son, Tappan (or Tapping or Topping). This man became one of the most illustrious people to go out of this community. He prepared for college, studied at Nassau Hall, now Princeton University, and was graduated in 1763, the year his father left South Haven. While in college, he became acquainted with the only daughter of the president of the institution, the Rev. Aaron Burr, and in 1778 he married her. She was a grand-daughter of a great New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, and sister of Aaron Burr, who later became the third Vice-President of the United States, and who shot Alexander Hamilton. After acting as a tutor in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for six years, he became an instructor at his alma mater. This he soon gave up for the study of law. He began to practice at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but in 1784 moved to Litchfield, Connecticut. He became a judge of the superior court, and later a chief justice. His fame rests on the law school he founded at Litchfield, which, in the opinion of historians, was the most successful and distinguished one in the country until the establishment of the one at Harvard. For nearly forty years he presided over this school, sending into all parts of the country the largest number of eminent lawyers of any man of his generation. He was the first lawyer of prominence in this country to labor to make a change in the laws controlling the property of married women. On his death on December 13, 1823, his pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher, whom he had heard preach in the Presbyterian Church at Easthampton years before and whom he persuaded to come to Litchfield, said of him: “I have never known a man, who loved so many, and who was by so many beloved.”
It was his sons who made Abner Reeve’s name remembered for generations. Ezra, the oldest, had been educated at Yale, graduating in the class of 1757. He was installed the first pastor of the Congregational Church of Holland, Hampden County, Massachusetts, in 1765 and spent his whole life in the service of those people. He died there April 25, 1818,85 years of age. The second son, Captain Paul, served in the regiment of Col. Josiah Smith, later a member of his father’s church, during the Revolutionary War. He had been a refugee to Saybrook, Connecticut, with his wife, three sons, and two daughters. In 1780 he petitioned the authorities to allow him to return to his estate on Long Island.
Whatever may have been the faults of the Rev. Abner Reeve, and they were many and very evident, he must be given credit for serving so faithfully the South Haven Church during the early years of its growth. Evidently he was a lovable man; else how would you explain his son “who loved so many, and who was by so many loved”? He had gained so much respect to himself, in spite of his past, which was clearly known, that he was a leader in the affairs of Presbytery during his pastorate at South Haven. And even when he erred again and was suspended from the ministry, his colleagues were forced, by their fondness for him, to reinstate him. It is unfortunate that he failed to conquer fully this besetting sin until late in life. His influence as a minister would have been far greater than it was if he had. We think of him as perhaps the first minister of our church. We remember him with certainty as the pastor who guided the church “at the South” through those early years until it became the South Haven Presbyterian Church.