Early American Faith: Reverend Abner Reeve and His All Too Human Struggles

EarlyAmerFaithReverend Abner Reeve was the father of Tapping Reeve, profiled in yesterday’s Surname Saturday article.  Abner was born in 1708 in Southold, Suffolk, New York, the son of town blacksmith Thomas and his wife Bethia (Horton) Reeve.

Bethia died when Abner was nine years old and his father remarried in 1719.  In 1731 Abner graduated from Yale University and began studying for the ministry under the tutelage of Reverend Benjamin Woolsey in Southold.  In 1735 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and his first pastoral assignment was in Nissequogue.  He had married his wife Mary in 1732 and was the first minister to ever reside in Nissequogue.  Later he served in various locations — Moriches, Ketchbonock and Brookhaven — as a “supply pastor”.

According to Reverend George Borthwick, pastor of the South Haven (Brookhaven) Presbyterian Church from 1935 to 1940, “he [Abner] 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.”  According to the History of Southold, Long Island, Abner was an “amiable” man and “his scholarship excellent; but his habits were somewhat eccentric, and the social customs of the times led him into the intemperate use of strong drink, so that he was for a time laid aside from the minister.”

Abner Reeve returned home to Southold where he submitted himself to the restoration process under the guidance of Reverend William Throop.  After a time, “he was restored to sobriety and the life of godliness.”  On October 23, 1754, the Suffolk Presbytery reinstated him:

Took into consideration the case of Mr. Abner Reeve, originally of Southold, who, though formerly a licensed preacher, had been for a considerable time laid aside on account of intemperance and excessive drinking. He, having hopefully experienced a saving change, and being very desirous of preaching the gospel to others, the power of which he hoped he had experienced in his own soul, upon proper penitential reflections upon himself, and a visible reformation, was countenanced in his desires, and encouraged to preach by the ministers in Southold, and by them directed to attend this our session for the approbation and advice of the Presbytery. Application being made to us by the said Mr. Reeve, we, upon suitable inquiries made into his case, and hopeful evidences discovered of the reality of his change, and sincerity of his desires to preach the gospel, approved of his preaching. (A History of Long Island, pp. 228-229)

Interestingly, the people of Moriches and Ketchbonock where he had served as a “supply pastor” (this during his period of intemperance), asked him to return and be installed as their official pastor.  At the official installation service, Reverend Throop was asked to preach that day and chose the text of I 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.”

Clearly, he was challenging Abner to keep the faith from that point forward.  Abner remained at Moriches for eight years until 1763.  In October of 1761 another complaint was lodged against Abner – he “having fallen foully into the awful sin of drunkenness, and requested that they might be dismissed from his charge, and set off as a separate parish.”

The Suffolk Presbytery tabled the request for a time to consult other parts of the parish before acting.  In October of 1762 the request for Abner’s removal was repeated, so apparently he hadn’t been successful in his pursuit of sobriety.  When Moriches and Ketchabonock were split into separate parishes in March 1763, Abner was formally dismissed.

He then settled in Orange County, New York, but in 1769 withdrew from the New York Presbytery, having assisted in the organization of the first Congregational Association in New York.  In 1770, Abner moved to Brattleboro, Vermont where he ministered in congregations at Guilford and Brattleboro.  He served there for several years and died on May 6, 1798.

Despite his moral failings, Abner Reeve’s ministry is still revered by many.  Some have wondered what drove him to stray.  I tend to agree with George Borthwick, who theorized that he may have turned to “spirituous liquors” first in response to the sadness of Mary’s passing in 1741.  In 1743 he married his second wife Deborah Tapping and she died in 1759.  His third wife was Phoebe Foster, who he married in 1761; she lived until 1790.  His fourth marriage to Abigail Bacon took place in 1794.  Clearly, Abner Reeve experienced a great deal of sadness and grief in his long life.

He fathered several children, perhaps as many as twelve or thirteen, and as Borthwick notes, “it was his sons who made Abner Reeve’s name remembered for generations.”  Ezra, his oldest child, graduated from Yale in 1757 and pastored the Congregational Church of Holland, Massachusetts from 1765 until his death in 1818.  His second son, Captain Paul Reeve, served honorably in the Revolutionary War.  And, of course, his son Tapping made a name for himself  as a distinguished jurist and judge and the founder of America’s first law school.

His life was filled with many all too human struggles and challenges. It appears that after leaving behind New York and moving to Vermont, Abner was able to find contentment.  According to Borthwick, “he conquered his besetting sin” and lived to see his sons become successful in their chosen careers.

Reverend Borthwick may have been overly-fond given that he was also a pastor of the South Haven church in Brookhaven where Abner served as its first pastor.  Still, Abner Reeve is held in high regard by many, as Dr. Richard A. Thomas, Church Treasurer at South Haven for many years, noted in a 2008 article.

In that article he mentioned an “Abner Reeve Day” that was held in November of 1995 in Brattleboro.  Interestingly, and in a way redemptive, the land that was originally given to Abner to farm when he arrived in Vermont (ministers of that day were often bi-vocational) is now occupied and owned by the Brattleboro Retreat, an alcohol rehabilitation facility.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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