Historical Markers
Rev. John Corbley (1733-1803) Historical Marker
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Rev. John Corbley (1733-1803)

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
At Corbly Memorial Baptist Church, Garards Fort ("Corbly" is now considered the correct spelling)

Dedication Date:
November 15, 1994

Behind the Marker

In 1790, at Muddy Creek, near Pittsburgh, the Rev. John Corbley witnessed a great horror. Walking to church with his family, and "not suspecting any danger," he lingered about 200 yards behind them, when "all of a sudden" he was "greatly aroused with the[ir] frightful shouts." Seeing them under attack by Indians, he ran to within forty yards when his wife screamed that he should save himself. She "had a sucking child in her arms, the little infant they killed and scalped. They then struck my wife several times. . . [and] shot her through the body, and scalped my little boy, and only son all of six years old, they sunk a hatchet into his brain and thus dispatched him. A daughter besides the other they also killed and scalped." Trying to make sense of the slaughter of his entire family, Corbley turned to his faith: the lesson he drew was that God had spared him for a purpose. He resolved to devote the rest of his life "to the praise and glory of His grace."

Corbley had already suffered much for his faith. Born in Ireland in 1733, he had come to Pennsylvania as an indentured servant at age fourteen; agreeing to serve the man who paid his passage for seven years. After completion of his indenture, he moved down the Great Valley to Virginia, where he converted to the emerging Baptist faith. Arrested and jailed with other Baptists who refused to pay tithes to the colony's established Anglican Church, Corbley preached from his jail cell. In 1771, he returned to Pennsylvania, founded the Goshen Baptist Church (now known as the Corbley Church) at Garard's Fort, and established more than thirty churches in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Corbley's story encapsulates much of the story of frontier Pennsylvania. Like many of its settlers, he was of Scots-Irish descent, and like many of the immigrants from Europe - most of them young and single - he did not come to America as a free man. When the French and Indian War threatened the Pennsylvania frontier he joined the southward migration to the Valley of Virginia, and there, like many others, he was attracted to the Baptists. This new faith had a special appeal on the frontier, for Anglican ministers rarely visited the backcountry, and the hierarchical Anglican Church, governed by local vestries of wealthy men, had little appeal to subsistence farmers in remote regions. First rising to prominence during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, itinerant Baptist ministers, who needed neither a formal education nor ordination, circulated freely on the frontier and in more settled regions, and won converts among people who did not believe that high social standing increased one's Christian piety. Corbley became such a preacher. The murder of Corbley's family near Pittsburgh was indicative of just how perilous the Pennsylvania frontier was before General Anthony Wayne crushed the multi-tribe coalition of Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

For Western Pennsylvania's settlers all other issues were secondary to the Indian war. Frontier whites lived in constant fear of the threat posed by hostile Native Americans. The federal government's half-hearted attempt to quell the Indian threat in the failed expeditions of General Josiah Harmar in 1790 and markerGeneral Arthur St. Clair in 1791 only reinforced their disdain for the federal government. Not surprisingly, the connection between Indian depredations and the federal tax on whiskey seemed obvious to them - both were symbolic of the lack of influence the western settlers had among the Eastern political establishment in Philadelphia.

Animosity towards the federal government cut across all social groups on the frontier. About two-thirds of the inhabitants were Scotch-Irish, who were outspoken about their rights and beliefs, especially when bolstered with a few pints of alcohol. German, Swiss, Welsh, English, and Irish settlers composed the other third; ethnic groups who immigrated to Pennsylvania to escape the political and religious persecution of Europe. Proud individualists, they believed that they had a moral obligation to protest an unfair tax. Regardless of the Protestant denomination to which they belonged, these angry farmers joined forces to oppose the whiskey tax and were largely supported by their religious leaders.

In the early 1790s, Corbley eagerly joined his fellow westerners in supporting the Whiskey Rebellion. Why should they pay taxes to a government that failed to protect them? While most of the preachers in the region agreed with the rebels" grievances, Corbley stood out for favoring violent resistance. At the mass public gathering at Parkinson's Ferry in mid-August, he condemned the federal government for passing the excise tax. Because of these remarks, Corbley was among the twenty ringleaders rounded up by federal troops on November, 1794. Imprisoned for a time, he was eventually pardoned by President Washington and returned to markerGreene County where he remained active in the ministry. Corbley lived to see the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, starting around 1800, which resulted in a renewed harvest of souls for the Baptists, and died in 1803.
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