Richard Denton (1596-1672)—Francis Makemie (1658-1708), that flying angel, is often given credit for founding the first Presbyterian churches in America in 1683, but that honor actually belongs to an Englishman, Richard Denton. Denton was a Puritan and a Separatist from Yorkshire in England who studied under Thomas Cartwright, the intellectual leader of English Puritanism, at Cambridge. Cartwright inspired several ministers to look towards America and Denton was among them. Denton viewed the Church of England as difficult, if not impossible, to reform and history has proven his views to be correct. Thus, he was both a Puritan and a Separatist. His Separatist spirit caused him to look longingly towards Long Island in America as the place where he would like to plant a church which he did in 1644 while the Westminster Assembly was meeting in London. That Assembly briefly reformed the Church of England until Charles II returned as monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1660. Meanwhile, Denton was laboring in Hempstead, Long Island with the planting of Christ’s First Presbyterian Church. Cotton Mather wrote about Denton in his incomparable work, The Great Works of Christ in America:
“Among these clouds was one pious and learned Mr. Richard Denton, a Yorkshire man, who having watered Halifax in England with his fruitful ministry, was by a tempest hurried to New England… ‘his doctrine dropped as the rain, his speech distilled as the dew, as small rain upon the tender herb, and as showers upon the grass.’ Though he was a little man, he had a great soul; his well-accomplished mind in his lesser body, was an Iliad in a nut shell.”
That is quite a compliment from one of the greatest Puritan authors in American history.
Samuel Davies (1723-1761)—Davies is considered by almost all authorities to be the very best preacher that America has ever produced. His father was a Quaker by background and his mother was a Baptist. His mother’s excommunication from the Pencader Baptist Church in 1732 for discussing covenantal baptism with a Presbyterian minister led to the family becoming Presbyterians. Davies was converted to Christ when the winds of revival were just beginning to blow on the American colonies and he was a witness to many of the greatest scenes in the spiritual history of this nation. When the Presbyterian churches were split into two branches in 1741, Davies was found among the New Light Presbyterians who were warm friends and supporters of that revival known as the Great Awakening. He was a humble and faithful friend to all, but he was uncompromising on matters of great importance concerning the way of salvation. Davies was not a minister at the time of split of the Presbyterian Church into two branches, nor was he even a student at one of the ministerial academies, but he later wrote a great defense of the New Light or New Side cause. He was also probably the second-best evangelist of his day, next to Whitefield, and the second-best theologian in America, next to Jonathan Edwards. Rarely are great evangelists also great theologians, but Davies was certainly among the rarest of men with the great combination of his gifts.
Daniel Baker (1791-1857)—Baker was an evangelist extraordinaire. While ministering in Savannah, Georgia in 1830, he walked to a cemetery one day and prayed that the Lord would bless his barren ministry with many converts. Baker’s prayer was heard and he became one of the greatest evangelists of the nineteenth century. When the seeds of division began to be sown in the Presbyterian churches as a result of the heresies of Albert Barnes and Charles G. Finney and their ‘new measures’ of evangelism, Baker was initially reluctant to get into the battle. He responded to friends on both sides of the battle who pleaded with him for his support, “I have no horns, I know not how to fight, I am one of the worker ants.” But Baker was not long able to remain on the fence while the denomination was being split apart. He commented on the reason why he eventually cast his lot with the Old School Presbyterians (who held fully to the Scripture and the Confession):
“For certain forms of heresy and wild measures were coming in like a flood, which, if not checked in time, and effectually, would have led to most disastrous results.”
Harry Bennett “Ben” Wilkinson (1932-2016) was one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in America as the Executive Director of Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship (now Reformed Evangelistic Fellowship) which began calling for the formation of a new denomination in 1972-3 due to the erosion of doctrinal purity in the old Presbyterian Church in the United States. Preaching evangelism soon became passe in the PCA and almost ceased altogether in the early 1980’s. Those were challenging years for PEF. Conferences on marriage and family or managing your money became more important than reaching the lost in most American denominations. Is it any wonder that the American churches have left their first love? Ben had the unique ability to listen carefully to what you were saying and then to ask the one question that made you stop in your tracks with your mouth agape and no words on your tongue. Anyone who ever heard him preach, “One More Time Around the Tombstone, Charlie,” will never forget it or him.
Now, the important question is what do all these great ministers of the gospel have to do with Vanguard Presbytery? They stretch from the Puritan period to very recent days, but none of them were or are in Vanguard. That is true, but three of these ministers/evangelists have descendants in Vanguard. TE Ryan Denton, one of the newest members of Vanguard, is a descendant of Richard Denton. TE Al Baker is a descendant of Daniel Baker. TE Rick Light is the son-in-law of Ben Wilkinson, having married his daughter, Evangeline. TE Joshua Light is the grandson of Ben Wilkinson. Those relationships cover the Puritan, the Southern Presbyterian Church, the PCUS, and the PCA periods. I am not a descendant of Samuel Davies, but I did write a biography of him, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia. Moreover, I had ancestors in Virginia who knew him and/or were blessed through his ministry.
There are other connections. Samuel Davies’ daughter, Mary, moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi after her marriage and was a member of the church that Daniel Baker pastored for a few years. The mission board I serve as Executive Director, Church Planting International, was started by Don Dunkerley who once pastored a church in Jamaica, Long Island, close to the one started by Richard Denton. Also, Dunkerley began his foreign mission work with PEF before starting Proclamation International which is now Church Planting International. Those relationships bring together Davies and Baker; CPI and Denton; and, PEF (REF) and CPI.
The more important connections, I believe, are as follows: Vanguard is a Puritan and Separatist denomination inasmuch as Puritanism without Separatism has proved to be flawed because denominations are never effectively reformed from within. True reformation always must go outside the camp where Christ is. Those who try to remain in a denomination to reform it from within have never succeeded in doing so. Vanguard is a New Light or New Side Presbyterian denomination inasmuch as we are warm supporters of true revival. Vanguard is an Old School Presbyterian denomination inasmuch as we hold to the Scripture and the Westminster Standards without exception. It is just my opinion, but I do not state it lightly. I believe that all these men, if they were alive today, would be members of Vanguard Presbytery. Their descendants certainly are.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery
NOTE: Welcome to the Grace Covenant Church in New Braunfels, Texas on their particularization on March 26, 2021. They are the first congregation to move from mission status to the particular status in Vanguard. It was a blessing for Joshua Light, Ryan Denton, and me to participate in that ceremony and to install TE Dick Jones as pastor.
Donations to Vanguard Presbytery may be sent to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.