From Gunships to God
Spoiler Alert: In light of the season, this piece has a decidedly religious focus.
Most of my friends are well aware of my penchant for genealogy. I’ve been making family charts since I was nine years old, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch interrogating her about her distant aunts and uncles back in Missouri. My children have suffered through many a trek through overgrown cemeteries and musty courthouses, and over the years, without the help of Ancestry.com, I have nailed down most of my ancestors as far back as six to eight generations, some even further. Although that’s fun, like the satisfaction of completing a jigsaw puzzle, one of the more satisfying experiences comes in the form of intriguing and fascinating stories that show up unexpectedly. One of those popped up yesterday about a very distant cousin on my Robinson/Harlan line.
His name was Thomas Gregg and he was born during the American Revolution in 1779 into a Quaker family who lived on the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania; he died in western Pennsylvania in 1857. Between those two dates was lived a life of challenge, success, defeat, surrender, and ultimately peace.
Tom left his home in Delaware to follow his uncle John Gibson to Fayette County in western Pennsylvania around 1799. Sometime after arriving there, he married Margaret Moore and they began their family of either 13 or 18 children–reports differ on the exact number. Tom may have farmed as most settlers did, but he seems to have had a knack for working with metals. He built a nail factory and developed a thriving business, which made him comparatively wealthy for the time.
But Tom wasn’t content to make nails; he was an inventor. In 1814, he applied for and received a patent for an “armor clad warship,” with four smoke stacks and no sails. This was a number of years before the development of the Monitor or the Merrimac and only seven years after the invention of the steamboat. The plans for the ship were recommended by Congress to the Navy, but the Navy wasn’t interested. Much of Tom’s money went into promoting this ship but to no avail.
Tom didn’t rest on this one invention, however. In 1832, he also developed and patented a design for a blast furnace for use with the anthracite coal available in western Pennsylvania. He built a foundry to implement it and devoted himself to producing iron. One family story says that while Tom was away on business in Delaware, his foreman at the factory fled to England with all the designs and paperwork for the furnace, which he then used to make himself and others rich without recognition of Tom’s design. The story may or may not be true, but it is known that Tom’s financial position declined significantly in the fifth decade of the Nineteenth Century.
Up to this point Tom’s story is much like that of many entrepreneurs–boom and bust followed by another boom and yet another bust. But for Tom, it seems, this reversal of fortunes became the source of deep introspection. He thought deep and hard about his Quaker roots as he roamed the rocky hills of Fayette County in solitude, searching for answers to explain what had happened to him. Eventually he came to understand his need for “the salvation of God. He was converted on the 23d of March 1845, upon the summit of a high mountain, near his residence. The spot he afterwards called the ‘rock of faith’” (From the writings of Tom’s son, John C. Gregg).
In commemoration of that event, Tom, clearly not an uneducated man, wrote the following poem, which was preserved by his granddaughter and shared on Ancestry.com by Mark Welchley:
“Burdened with sin with guilt-distressed.
I searched in vain for full release.
But still the weight was on my breasts
I found no joy or lasting peace.
I wandered to one quiet spot
And mused with sadness day by day.
The mercy of my God I sought
And lingered there to weep and pray.
One evening and the sun went down,
The moon and stars came out above.
And wresting there with doubt and gloom
I longed to know a Savior’s love.
A trembling seized upon my frame
In agony I prayed that night
When to my troubled spirit came,
The answer as a flash of light.
With heavenly joy my heart overflowed
My tongue unloosed, began to praise
The goodness of a pardoning God
To Him: this monument-Praise”
Now journeying on in blessed hope
With all my powers to Jesus given
I trust his grace to raise me up;
Redeemed and saved-at last-in Heaven”
Reading this poem, my own heart was touched. I wonder if the Spirit of humility and surrender that Tom Gregg came to know can still change hearts today as He did for this beaten, discouraged man in 1845. I have to believe He can.
A year later Tom joined an Episcopalian church. Two of his sons became ministers, and the story of his genuine conversion is what is remembered by his family more than the “what might have been” of his inventive genius.