Historical Markers
John McMillan Historical Marker
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John McMillan

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 19, 5 miles NE of Washington

Dedication Date:
January 1, 1949

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders image of McMillan.
Rev. John McMillan, D.D., circa 1820.
Rev. Dr. John McMillan (1752-1833) was representative of a remarkable generation of Presbyterian ministers who labored to bring reformed Christianity and classical education to the hinterlands of western Pennsylvania. His public ministry parallels that of William and Gilbert Tennent, Thaddeus Dod, and Samuel Blair, each of whom left his an indelible mark on Pennsylvania religious and educational history. Perhaps best known as the father of Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania and founder of Jefferson College, McMillan had a singular influence on educational policy in frontier Pennsylvania.

McMillan was born on November 11, 1752, in rural Fagg's Manor, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Here, in the afterglow of the great religious revivals that had swept through the American colonies during the Great Awakening, McMillan entered an emerging reformed Protestant tradition steeped in the realities of frontier life. McMillan attended the primitive academy established by Rev. Samuel Blair, a graduate of William Tennent's markerLog College at Nashaminy. In the words of one contemporary observer, Blair was a powerful role model, a "profound as a theologian and still more eminent as a preacher" in his own right.

Like Tennent's spartan classical academy, the school at Fagg's Manor was intended to prepare young men for the Presbyterian ministry. After completing his studies, McMillan went on to Nassau Hall, Princeton, where he experienced an intense spiritual epiphany or conversion. While at Princeton, McMillan took the advice of Rev. Robert Witherspoon, another towering figuring in early American Presbyterianism, and accepted the call to ministry.
Exterior of McMillan's Log Cabin Academy.
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John McMillan's Log Cabin Academy, Washington County, PA, as it appeared in...

Following his graduation from Princeton in 1772, McMillan returned to Pennsylvania and another so-called log college, this one at Pequea in southern Lancaster County, where he studied under Rev. Robert Smith. In 1774, at the age of twenty-two, McMillan was licensed in the New Castle Presbytery and embarked on missionary work in Maryland, western Virginia, and western Pennsylvania as a circuit rider, or itinerant preacher, who carried all his earthly possessions on a pack animal as he ventured from settlement to settlement across the frontier.

In Pennsylvania's Washington County, McMillan established mission churches in Pigeon Creek and Chartiers. In 1776, the year of American independence, he was ordained to the Presbytery of Donegal (PA), married, and returned to Washington County with his new bride, where "he lived in a log cabin," one visitor recalled, "and was a stranger to all the luxuries of life."

There, close to his simple home in Canonsburg, McMillan opened his own frontier seminary for young men in 1780, in a small, rectangular log structure only fourteen-feet long, that substituted as a stable when classes where not in session. There is some disagreement whether McMillan's log school was the first educational institution in far western Pennsylvania, but none about its mission or approach.

McMillan based his log school on the Fagg's Manor and Pequea models, themselves copies of William Tennent's earlier log college. McMillan's academy provided a generalized classical education–some called it the Latin School–where young men learned the mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, natural history, Greek, and Latin that the Presbyterian Church required for its educated ministerium.

Jefferson College, Canonsburg, PA, circa 1860.
"In complexion, [he was] abrupt, impatient of formality," one observer wrote of McMillan in 1781, "His look stern, almost harsh, were it not attempered by benevolence." Of those ministers who helped form the Redstone Presbytery that year in southwestern Pennsylvania, McMillan was judged "at once a man of commanding energy and force of character … yet one who sits as a child at Jesus' feet."

That same year a fire destroyed McMillan's log school, and with considerable effort the institution was rebuilt. Records are sparse, but there is every indication that enrollment patterns were irregular. Operating a classical academy while ministering to a frontier congregation proved too much for some of McMillan's peers, some of whom abandoned their outposts for more settled postings. McMillan labored on, however, convinced of the need for an educated ministry as America's population pushed westward across the Appalachian Mountains.

By 1791, when another frontier academy sponsored by the Presbyterian Church opened in nearby Canonsburg, McMillan sent his few remaining students to the new institution. McMillan served on the academy's board of directors and influenced its decision to create what became Jefferson College. Jefferson College later merged with nearby Washington College to create the present marker Washington and Jefferson College.

John McMillan remained active in both church work and education circles in western Pennsylvania until his death in 1833. Born in the years following the first Great Awakening, John McMillan lived to see the dawn of the so-called Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. His life is a reminder of the central role of American Presbyterianism in the formation of American culture, and religion's influence on private education in Pennsylvania at the dawn of the new nation.
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