Hearing His Call

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

June 11, 2017

Bellevue’s Sesquicentennial Day

Text:  Joel 1:14     Old Testament:  Leviticus 25:10-12, 18-25       New Testament:  Hebrews 10: 19-25


            On June 8, 1867, 33 property owners from Ross Township approached the Allegheny County Court of Quarter Sessions with a petition to incorporate as a borough.  It was a moment of community agreement on God’s call. 

James J. East led the petitioners.  He was from the Methodist Protestant Church.  His ancestors were French Huguenots.  He was born in England and had studied Latin at the King Edward VI Collegiate Institution.  He had left Allegheny City with his wife Annie for Ross Township’s cleaner air and was a church trustee who wrote against slavery and the influence of the saloon.[1] 

Hugh Forrester was a renowned Pittsburg contractor who hailed from Scotland.  Hugh’s 20 acres lay along Beaver Road –  the current Lincoln Avenue.[2]  Five years later he was a trustee of the United Presbyterian Church in Bellevue.[3]

A.W., William, Samuel and Hugh Claney were contractors from the Methodist Protestant Church who were born in County Down, Ireland.[4] 

They joined attorney Thomas Bayne, a Presbyterian colonel who led the 136th Pennsylvania Volunteers at the battles of Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville and saw them decimated at both, William Roseburg, a Bank of Pittsburg cashier, Mrs. Jane Hersperger, Robert Means, manager of Wayne Iron Works, and others.[5]  The group had been planning the petition in J.J. East’s parlor.[6]   

These were not the first to live on the hills along the Ohio River above Pittsburg.  Andrew Jack had built a stone house along a stream that ran into the Ohio.  The Jacks operated a grist mill and piloted steamships down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to St. Louis and New Orleans.   They were originally from France.[7]

Samuel Dilworth’s farm sat beside the Jack lands, to the north.  It extended from the Ohio River to the ridge on which the Beaver Road lay.  He had crossed the Alleghenies in 1797 to settle along the Ohio.  He had but four more years to live after the petition was approved by the court.  

Dilworth had proudly watched his sons become Pittsburg leaders.  One son, William, was a lawyer in the lumber business who supervised the construction of the first bridges over the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers and the Allegheny County courthouse.  He became a state legislator.   Another son, J.S. was in the wholesale grocery trade.  A third son, Joseph, was in iron manufacturing.  A fourth son, F.A., was in the oil business.[8]

The Jackman and the Quaill farms sat south and east of the proposed borough.  They had been the center of Methodist Episcopal worship in the area.  Their homes attracted Methodist circuit riders.  They built the area’s first meeting house for worship, in 1813.  Eventually, the log meeting house was replaced by a schoolhouse on the Quaill farm, until the Fleming Chapel was built.[9]  The congregation would become the Greenstone Methodist Church. 

Country life above the city of Pittsburg had been good to these and other families.  The Methodist Protestants and Methodist Episcopals were ready to join the United Presbyterians, and Presbyterians to be a community.  Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Disciples of Christ congregations had yet to be planted.  But the town along the Ohio River attracted enough stately homes of those escaping the soot of Pittsburg’s mills to have 300 residents needed to incorporate as a borough. 

James East thought so much of the view, he used French for “beautiful” and “view” to name the borough proposed to the Court of Quarter Sessions as “Belle Vue.”  The group concurred with his proposal.

The petition was a civil act.  Attorney Thomas Bayne represented the will of the town’s land owners before the grand jury.  Beneath the legality of the civil code lay their common faith in God, and the teaching of His Son, Jesus Christ.  It encouraged them to unite as one people under the name, “Bellevue.”

Behind the many men were women from Bellevue who supported the petition.  Ella Bayne was a lady of elegant appearance and manners.  As attorney Thomas Bayne’s wife, she was very popular in Pittsburg society.[10]  Amanda Bayne was Thomas Bayne’s sister.  She would marry James Balph, a United Presbyterian lawyer.[11]  Jennie Teece, was another sister of Thomas Bayne, who as a widow would travel to Europe.  Robert Means daughter, Lide, was “a tall blonde beauty, vivacious and fond of society.”  Mrs. William A. Shaw would see her daughter, Maggie, attend Vassar.  The Shaw women would work with Bellevue United Presbyterian’s Ladies Missionary Aide Society.[12]

The petition from our borough’s founders may appear as a secular endeavor for us who have resided or worked here for all or part of our lives.  We daily interact with people from different nations and religious beliefs in Bellevue.      

It’s look at a sesquicentennial celebration from our present secular culture of American progress that motivates people to dream dreams and pursue visions.  Our culture lacks the religious experience of Bellevue’s founding generation.  We aren’t from the world of the visionaries who founded and fulfilled their call to community with which they were inspired.

We simply remember what they did so long ago – primarily as civil leaders and citizens of Bellevue, who live in the same location as Bellevue’s founders.  But let us pause to consider in this time of celebration what the June 8 petition spiritually meant to our borough’s founders 150 years ago.

Those signers of Bellevue’s founding petition who were born in America were the first generation educated in Pennsylvania’s common schools.  The Bible was part of the school curriculum.  It was the source for McGuffey readers’ lessons about morals and citizenship.  The Lord’s Prayer began school lessons.  Many common schools had portraits of Jesus above the school’s chalkboards.  Sabbath day observance was part of the Pennsylvania legal code.  Families went to church each Sabbath day and fathers read from the Scriptures to their families afterwards at home.  Sports and theater were not permitted on Sundays by law.

But in 1867, our nation was emotionally devastated by the Civil War.  Boys never returned home after defending the Union.  Those returned were changed by the carnage they had seen.  Those who lost husbands and sons were in pain.  The Civil War fueled deep political differences over the meaning of community – even for those who were won the war.

Eight months before the Belle Vue petition appeared before the county court, a newspaper known as the Presbyterian Banner was published in Pittsburg.  It carried an article that captured the feelings of the age:

The state of the country is sad to contemplate.  The civil war in which the men of the North and South had been so long and so earnestly engaged, did not terminate until it had greatly demoralized the nation.  The peace which prevailed was not a genuine, hearty, perfect peace, founded on the mutual confidence and love of the people.  It seemed to be nothing more than a prolonged armistice – a cessation of hostilities while old prejudices, passions, and animosities remained.  Everywhere we hear the name of God blasphemed, and witness bold transgression of his holy law.  Increasing multitudes resort to theatres and bar-rooms, gambling-dens, and places of sensual indulgence.  The people are corrupt, and the land filled with wickedness.


It is remarkable this hearty band of community-minded people from Ross Township saw a beautiful vision of unity despite the darkened spirit of the Reconstruction Age.  They would not let worldly-mindedness deter them from their heaven-sent vision.  They were committed to being a community of peace where men and women could live healthy lives, children could play, and community services be established for each other’s personal development.

Bellevue’s petitioners were inspired by a God-given vision of dignity and respect that would grow into more congregations of Jesus Christ, and a multitude of civic organizations that would make our borough’s culture a place of decency and beauty for others to envy.  Picket fences, Victorian architecture, and quaint businesses would join farmyards and fields where the abundance of God’s bounty could be harvested and enjoyed. 

Residents could use their talents in commerce and industry to build their vision of a Godly neighborhood.  They could forget memories and stories of conflict, poverty, isolation, hardship, and difficulty either they, their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents had endured that motivated them to cross the Atlantic from the Old World for the New World’s promise of new life.

They were committing themselves and future generations to work together on committees and pray together in worship gatherings for the greater good of their community.  They forged relationships across denominational and political divides to create a future of promise for unborn generations to appreciate.

They did all this by faith in Jesus Christ – by the faith taught by circuit riders, Sabbath school teachers, ministers, pastors, deacons, common school teachers, nuns, priests, parents, and the civil law.  They sought a new community at peace that represented the Apostle Paul’s teachings about the Body of Christ.  They learned Jesus’ Golden Rule to love their neighbor as themselves and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  They were taught to fear sin and love God.  Or, face the consequence of loving sin and ignoring God.

They created a community where sobriety, honesty, and integrity were common virtues for church, school, and civic leaders to uphold together.  They laid out tree-lined streets with elegant homes where new residents could join them in the daily celebration of God’s blessings. 

They followed the vision of beauty to which God had called them in the Bible – to improve their life together for the benefit of each other.  Street lights, street cars, a community park and public library, a fire and police department, a hospital, banks, schools, more sanctuaries to worship God, a burgess and council to guide the community forward.  This was God’s call to community. 

During an age in which the Presbyterian Banner reported, “The plough share of division was run through the dear old Church,” Bellevue’s children of the greater Church, uplifted a civic version of God’s call to Abraham in the Bible.  Their petition to the county court of Quarter Sessions was their response to Israel’s story of being formed by God as a community in the Promised Land.

The descendants of Abraham built a nation of God-fearing people that became prosperous – the envy of other nations.  They lived as free men and women in the land and gave thanks for their blessings with offerings of praise.   

Israel was called by God to observe a special event to celebrate His blessings.  Leviticus 25, proscribed a Year of Jubilee for Israel every 50 years.  It was to replenish their relationship with God and with each other.   

On the Year of Jubilee Israel refrained from work.  The Israelites lived off God’s natural provisions in the land of milk and honey.  It was a time to reflect on God’s blessing by forgiving everyone’s financial obligations.  Their personal relationships were reset by the Year of Jubilee.  It renewed their unity of spirit by freeing each other to begin life anew through God’s grace and mercy.  It reminded Israel of earlier generations’ faith in God that began their community and united them despite the challenges they faced in being one people under God.

We are being called to a time of Jubilee as the people of Bellevue.  This is a sacred moment of community reflection on God’s blessings that brought us here.

We are called together by God, on the third jubilee of Bellevue’s founding, to replenish our spirit of unity by the power of God’s Spirit.  God’s gift of our community is a sacred trust we have received from His hand.

God is calling us to reconsider the vision of community and promise that motivated 32 men and one woman to petition a judge to become Bellevue, 150 years ago.  This is not simply a civic responsibility.  It is our spiritual responsibility to show gratitude to God from whom all blessings flow.

We’ve seen much change across Bellevue between this jubilee and the last.   Many congregations, civic organizations, and businesses that supported Bellevue’s centennial do not exist.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is gone, along with its influence on our community.  Street car lines are no longer with us.  Other institutions have changed.  The hospital is different.  A few sanctuaries house ministries unlike their founders’ ministries.  Most churches have fewer members.  Educational and judicial philosophy is different from 1967 and especially from 1917.  National courts now debate whether to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  

Many old businesses are gone and new businesses have arrived.   A new generation has moved into the stately homes from the past that line Bellevue’s streets.  The way we live and what is important to us differs from many of the values and beliefs from the past.  Definitions of respect and dignity that were hallmarks from the past have changed.  Borough codes reflect new social attitudes and opinions held by present generations.   

But the Godly vision of a beautiful view that inspired our community’s founders remains alive here.  We see it in the vitality of faces and races that now walk our borough’s streets.  We reflect greater social diversity as a community than when we last gathered together, in 1967.  We are far more diverse than the Bellevue of our founding generation.  We are living the fruit of the cause for which our borough’s founders fought prior to Bellevue’s establishment.

The simple graces that united us in the past have taken on greater complexity amid the culture of our times.  A new beauty is emerging in the variety of people, their hopes and dreams, who now call Bellevue their home. 

We are old enough to remember the more recent past, and new enough to have no idea what the past either meant or means for “Bellevue.”  We’re experiencing blessings we may not fully grasp. 

Those blessings lie in a cultural diversity never experienced by our borough’s founders.  Our “beautiful view” has been found by the world. 

This year’s jubilee is a time for careful listening, respectful understanding, and sacrificial investment in the faith and virtues that unite us in a culture that’s changing faster than we can adapt.  We must consider what is worthy that we share together, stand side-by-side for it, teach it to one another, and carry it into the future so God’s call for a “beautiful view” may continue to grow in this place.

  We’ve inherited a community built by earlier generations whose faith in God crossed oceans, conquered mountains, and bridged ravines. They defended this community in civil, regional, and world wars.  They made sacrifices for the common good so we would be blessed by their self-giving.  We are people with more than faith in ourselves or our opinions to enhance what has been left to us.  We have a sacred legacy to honor with our optimism and efforts. 

God has called us to more than simply a time of jubilee.  We are gathered to do more than remember the past.  God has called us to do more than forgive our indebtedness to the past.  God is calling us for a new commitment to follow His guidance – to never tire of uniting to celebrate His blessings of people, neighborhoods, institutions, and businesses that serve this borough.    We must not let this be the last celebration of our civic inheritance.  Neither ought we tire from gathering together to give thanks for God’s vision that inspires us.

We are called to be God’s community – expanding the “Beautiful View” we have received to make this part of God’s kingdom a shining example of faith, hope, and love for all the world to see.  May we recommit ourselves to meeting together, again and again, to serve this sacred purpose, for the benefit of our community, and the glory of God, in the name of Jesus Christ!  Amen.

[1] Warner, History of Allegheny County, Vol. II, 383.

[2] Ibid., 584.

[3] “Roster of Trustees of Bellevue United Presbyterian Church: 1872-1907,” in Board of Trustees Minute Book, (Bellevue United Presbyterian Church: 1890).

[4] Warner, History of Allegheny County, Vol. II, 532-533.

[5] Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century, 514.  Also, Adelaide Mellier Nevin, The Social Mirror: A Character Sketch of the Women of Pittsburg and Vicinity . . ., (1888), 197.

[6] Warner, History of Allegheny County, Vol. II, 383.

[7] Warner, History of Allegheny County, Vol. II, 386.

[8] Greenstone United Methodist Church History, 12-14.

[9] Memoirs of Allegheny County, 358-359.

[10] The Social Mirror, 195-197.

[11] Warner, History of Allegheny County, Vol. II, 378.

[12]The Social Mirror, 197.