John Monteith was born August 4, 1788 on a farm in the vicinity of what is now Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Due to his father’s poor health, Montieth carried the burden of supporting his family be runnng the farm. Therefore, he started pursuing rather later than normal, but managed to attend colleges, teach, tutor, etc. in his spare time, before entering the Princeton Theological Seminary.
When Archibald Alexander, the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, received a plea from the frontier outpost of Detroit for a minister from Gov. Lewis Cass and Henry Jackson Hunt, he suggested that John Monteith, one of his students, should accept the offer. Montieth had to make a decision: accept a position as a college professotr or become a missionary. He finally chose the latter, and was licensed as a Presbyterian missionary in spring of 1816 and set out for Detroit.
On June 25, 1816, Monteith disembarked at Detroit from the schooner he had boarded forty hours earlier at Buffalo. In addition to the fifteen hundred soldiers housed at Fort Shelby, his new home had a population of about nine hundred souls, over half of whom were French Catholics. Monteith had been called to serve the Protestant portion of the population and five days after his arrival, he preached his first sermon at the Council House. Although he had been licensed to preach, no church organization was yet contemplated, because Monteith had not yet been ordained as a full-fledged minister of the gospel.
In March 1817, Monteith helped to organize the City Library of Detroit, a proprietary library which was open to anyone who could afford to buy a $5 share. Monteith wrote the constitution and became the institution’s first librarian. Several of the town’s prominent citizens bought more than one share, and by April 6 when Monteith set off on horseback for New York, he had collected $450 to use to purchase books in the east. The three hundred volumes he purchased were consigned for transport to Detroit, and had arrived safely by July 25, when the first issue of the Detroit Gazette announced their arrival.
Returning to Detroit, on August 20, 1817, Monteith was summoned to the quarters of Judge Augustus B. Woodward for “an interview on the subject of a university.” Six days later, the plan for the university was legally established by action of the territory’s executive and judicial officers who comprised Michigan’s legislature. Under the plan, the Catholepistimiad, or University of Michigania, was to be established with professorships in thirteen fields of human knowledge: literature, mathematics, natural history, natural philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, economics, ethics, military science, history, intellectual science and universal science. Initially, John Monteith was to hold seven of the professorships, and Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest, was to hold the other six. In addition, Monteith was to serve as the University’s president and Richard would be its vice president.
The university’s officers had authority over all institutions of public education in the Michigan Territory including colleges, schools, libraries, and museums. The cornerstone of the first building, commonly called “the Academy,” was laid in Detroit on September 24, 1817. By August 1818, a teacher named Lemuel Shattuck was able to open his Lancastrian School in the lower story. So far as is known, no collegiate students were matriculated under Monteith’s presidency and thus his duties as president consisted mainly of making plans and helping to raise funds. On April 30, 1821, a new act was passed, changing the name to the University of Michigan, and abolishing the office of president in favor of a board of twenty trustees. Although Monteith was offered the chairmanship, he soon left to accept a professorship at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. It would not be until 1837, sixteen years after Monteith had left Detroit, that classes would first be organized at the university’s new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nevertheless, the entity formed in 1817 is the direct legal antecedent to today’s University of Michigan.
On May 12, 1817 while on his trip east to buy books for the library, Monteith was ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick, his former professor Dr. Alexander leading the charge. Now fully authorized to conduct marriages, baptize and perform communion, he organized the First Protestant Society of Detroit on March 27, 1818. At first, this society served all Protestants in the city—Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, etc. Gradually, as each denomination gathered strength, it broke away to form its own congregation—the Methodists in 1818, the Episcopalians in 1824. In 1825, the remaining members of the Society formed the First Presbyterian Church of Detroit.
In the year the First Protestant Society was founded, a recession caused the financial support for Detroit’s new institutions to falter, and so, in January 1819, Monteith again traveled to the east, this time to raise funds to build a place of worship. Travelling as far as Washington, D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina, he eventually cleared $1200 on the trip. The building was finished and dedicated on February 27, 1820. On January 20, 1820 he founded the First Presbyterian Church at Monroe, the oldest institution of its denomination in Michigan.
Skipping ahead, Monteith would continue his work in the field of education across several states (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio). Later in ife, he would become an ardent abolitionist. On December 4, 1833, he attended the first convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society at Philadelphia, led by the Tappan brothers as one of eight Ohio delegates. He was one of the founders of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society, which was formed on the principle of total and immediate emancipation in 1833 and in 1835 was the president of the Lorain County Anti-Slavery Society.
According to his son, John Monteith, Jr., “He made no apologies, and used no conciliatory or rhetorical blandishments. He poured out the red facts and hammered them in with his hard faced logic. The whole community came down on him. With the exception of two or three kindred spirits, there was throughout the whole Reserve scarcely a man or woman that dared to be his friend. Persecution started up on every side, and the very air was filled with biting slanders.”
In 1845, he accepted a call to lead the First Presbyterian Church in Blissfield, Michigan. He labored there for ten years before retiring to live with a daughter in Elyria, Ohio. His home, Monteith Hall, now on the National Register of Historic Places, became a stop on the underground railroad. On April 5, 1868, he finally died.
John Comin and Harold Fredsell, “John Monteith, Pioneer Presbyterian of Detroit”, in Public Education in Michigan, Gerald L. Poor and Gladys I. Griffin, Central Michigan University, 1959.
Russell E. Bidlack, The City Library of Detroit 1817-1837: Michigan’s First Public Library, University of Michigan Department of Library Science Studies No. 2, 1955.