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The Presbyterian and the Transvestite: Francis Makemie and American Liberty

In 1707 the transvestite governor of colonial New York had Francis Makemie thrown into jail. His crime? Rev. Makemie had preached the gospel without a license. But Makemie argued and won his case in court, establishing an important precedent of religious liberty.

  • Roger Schultz,
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In 1707 the transvestite governor of colonial New York had Francis Makemie thrown into jail. His crime?  Rev. Makemie had preached the gospel without a license. But Makemie argued and won his case in court, establishing an important precedent of religious liberty.

The Good

Francis Makemie (1658-1708) is considered to be the “Father of American Presbyterianism.”  Born in Ireland and trained in Scotland, he came to British North America as a missionary in 1683. For twenty-five years, he preached throughout the colonies, established Presbyterian churches, and recruited other ministers. In 1706 he organized Philadelphia Presbytery, the first American presbytery.

Makemie was a vigorous apologist for Presbyterianism. He published works defending Calvinism and the Westminster Confession of Faith. In polemical exchanges, he critiqued Quakers and Roman Catholics and challenged abuses of state authority.  As one who grew up during the “Killing Times”1 of religious persecution, Makemie focused his concern on the liberties of dissenters.

Along the way, he became something of a renaissance man. Makemie read widely, was a successful merchant, and acquired considerable property. He was an American promoter, hoping that other Presbyterians would migrate to the new world to find religious freedom.

 In 1707 the governor described him as a “Jack of all trades” — a preacher, a physician, a merchant, an attorney, and a “Disturber of Governments”!  Makemie was an ardent and versatile Presbyterian pastor, supporting himself while spreading the gospel throughout America.

The Bad

However, Governor Edward Hyde (1661-1723), Viscount Cornbury, was an entirely different creature. A first cousin of Queen Anne, Cornbury served as New York’s governor from 1702 to 1708. He was an unpopular leader with a record of hard drinking, poor financial management, and autocratic rule. One historian argues that he was “an arrogant and bigoted upholder of despotic power.” Cornbury was eager to protect the Anglican establishment and to undercut religious dissenters, especially the Presbyterians.

The Ugly

Cornbury’s most intriguing wrinkle was his transvestitism. According to stories, he opened the 1702 New York Assembly dressed in drag. Since he was in the colonies representing a woman (the Queen), Cornbury explained, it was only appropriate that he dress as a woman. A portrait of the governor, dressed in an exquisite evening gown, still hangs in the New York Historical Society.

(One historian has recently challenged the Cornbury legend. The accounts of cross-dressing, Patricia Bonomi argues, all came from Cornbury’s enemies who wished to undermine him with scurrilous gossip. Bonomi raises legitimate questions, and historians must always read sources carefully. But in trying to rescue Cornbury from his malicious and moralistic enemies, I suspect that revisionist historians are vicariously trying to defend Bill Clinton from his detractors. Cornbury was brought down by gossipy prudes, they hint, in the same way that Kenneth Starr used nasty rumors to impeach the good character of the last president. But I have seen the picture of Cornbury in drag: if it’s not the governor, it is an exceedingly ugly woman!)

While the truth may never be known about his cross-dressing, most historians agree that Cornbury was a pitiful governor. The Queen finally dismissed him because Cornbury was “oppressing His subjects.”  (And shortly after his dismissal, angry New Yorkers tossed Cornbury into debtors’ prison.)   Nothing highlighted Cornbury’s oppressive rule as much as the Makemie affair.

The Showdown

In 1707, while traveling to Boston, Makemie stopped in New York and visited with the governor. He was stunned when Cornbury refused to let him preach in the colony. (Cornbury was authorized to license Anglican ministers, since there was no bishop in the colonies. But he had no jurisdiction over dissenters.)  Makemie wouldn’t submit to the governor’s unlawful demand, and the result was the famous showdown.

On January 19, 1707, Makemie preached in a private home in New York. It was a small service, with only ten people present, but Makemie opened the doors so that the service would be “as publick as possible.”  At Cornbury’s direction, Makemie was arrested and imprisoned.

As the governor put it during the hearing: “You shall not spread your pernicious doctrines!”  Makemie wasn’t formally charged until March 8, and then only because he pursued a writ of habeas corpus.  All told, he spent 46 days in jail.

While imprisoned, Makemie prepared his sermon (“A Good Conversation”) for publication. “This is the sermon for which I am now a prisoner,” he notes in the preface, challenging readers to check for any “pernicious doctrine.” But the Bible texts printed on the cover of the sermon call attention to the main issue: Matthew 5:11 (“Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you ….”) and Acts 5:29 (“We ought to obey God rather than men.”).

The trial came in June. Recognizing that he was on shaky legal ground, the governor hoped that Makemie wouldn’t appear so that the case would be dismissed. Makemie did appear, however, made an excellent defense, and was acquitted by an Anglican jury. But he was assessed exorbitant court costs (equal to a minister’s annual salary). The next year, the New York assembly prohibited charging court fees to an innocent party. The same year, as an aftermath of the trial, Cornbury was dismissed from his post.

The trial emphasized fundamental American liberties. Makemie felt that the English Toleration Act of 1689 guaranteed religious liberties in the colonies for all Protestants. Cornbury argued that the Toleration Act did not extend to the colonies. In a sense, the case involved issues of American liberties that would be finally resolved in the American War for Independence.

Standing Up to Today’s Cornburys

Times have changes over the last three centuries. Modern day Cornburys, who celebrate alternative lifestyles and relish statist power, are growing in influence.  At the same time, Biblical Christians are being marginalized.

On March 31, 2004, Alan Keyes gave a stirring message at Liberty University on “Christian Citizenship.”  Describing the homosexual agenda, the attacks on Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments, and the waffling of so-called conservatives on social issues, Keyes warned that we are at “the end of our rope as a free people.”  Challenging Christians to be faithful, Keyes argued that “we are not called to citizenship at the price of discipleship to Jesus Christ.”  Instead, American Christians must “reverence God’s laws” and make sure “His laws are reflected in our laws.” 

Keyes warned that the United States is “moving toward a day when our Christianity will be fundamentally at odds with our culture.”  He may be right, and there may be a price to pay for maintaining a faithful Biblical witness.

But we won’t be the first American generation to fight for liberty. Francis Makemie led the charge in 1707.

1. To learn more about The Killing Times, read Fair Sunshine by Jock Purves, published by Banner of Truth.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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