Francis Makemie was born in Ramelton, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1658. In February 1676, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow. He was ordained in Northern Ireland in 1682 by the Presbytery of Laggan at the call for a minister/missionary by Col. William Stevens from Rehoboth, Maryland. Makemie came to the American colonies and traveled in North Carolina, Maryland, Virigina, and New England.
In 1683, Makemie established four Presbyterian congregations, located in Rehobeth, Snow Hill, Princess Anne (Manokin Church) and Salisbury (Wicomico), Maryland. Since Makemie was under the Presbytery of Laggan's direction, these churches often are claimed to be the first Presbyterian churches in America.
There were earlier churches established on Long Island under the Dutch colony's jurisdiction during the 1640s. These churches were founded by Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers and members. Many became Presbyterian in reputation and were finally organized into the Presbytery of New York in 1716.
In 1687, Francis Makemie purchased land in Accomack County, Virginia, which is on the Eastern Shore. He engaged in shipping and trade to make a living, while traveling to the small congregations of Presbyterians. William Anderson, a successfull businessman and landowner, helped Makemie become established. Francis married Anderson's daughter, Naomi, around 1685. They had two daughters, Anne (circa 1697) and Elizabeth (circa 1700). Elizabeth died before her father, while Anne outlived him and was married three times.
In late Fall 1696 and early 1697, Makemie was in Barbadoes preaching.
On October 5, 1699, Makemie appeared at the Accomac County court to request a license to preach and hold religious meetings in Virginia as a Presbyterian at his houses in Pocomoke and Onancock. Previously, he had preached and organized churches in Maryland and Delaware, as well as holding services in Virginia. The official church in Virginia was the (Episcopal) Church of England. Passage of the Act of Toleration by the English Parliament in 1689 gave new rights to religious dissenters, allowing them to register their meeting houses and license their ministers to preach. In 1699, Makemie got the Virginia legislature to accord similar freedom in the Commonwealth. The court gave him a license on October 15, 1699.
In 1706, Makemie helped bring together Presbyterians ministers and elders to establish the Presbytery of Philadelphia. This was the official birth of American Presbyterianism. Makemie was elected the first moderator of the Presbytery.
While traveling in January 1707, Makemie was arrested by Lord Cornbury (aka Edward Hyde), the Colonial Governor of New York, for preaching without a license. Though Anglicanism was the official religion, there were many dissenters who preached different doctrine, including Puritans, Quakers, and Presbyterians on Long Island. Makemie had a license to preach as a dissenter in Virginia, Maryland and Barbadoes. After spending 6 weeks in jail, Makemie was aquitted in June 1707. His defense was based on the English Toleration Act of 1689. Though he was found innocent, he was ordered to pay the very expensive cost of his prosecution. This case is considered a landmark case in favor of religious freedom in America. It caused the New York legislature to enact legislation to prevent such prosecution again in the future.
Francis died in the Summer of 1708. He was buried on his farm on the Eastern shore.