Rev. Alex S. Renton
17th Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton 1959 - 1972
Rev. Alex Salmond Renton (1905-1995)
Rev. Alexander Salmond Renton was the 17th pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton. Rev. Renton was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 25, 1905. He graduated from the New College at the University of Edinburgh with a Master of Arts degree. New College is renowned for its postgraduate Theology and Religious Studies program. The following year he received a a teaching degree from the same school. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh on June 15, 1930. That same year he married Elizabeth Oliver Sneddon (1905-2000). After marrying, the Rentons served for three years as missionaries, from 1930-1932, in India. First in Chingleput, at a leper settlement in the state of Madras. Mr. Renton said the area was beautiful and after the initial impact, “you feel very little fear of lepers.” By 1935, Chingleput was the largest leper settlement in Madras with 750 patients. The Renton’s first son, Dr. Alexander “Lex” J. Renton (1932 - 2012) was born in Madras, India. Rev. Renton’s next assignment in India was in Conjeevaram (now Kanchipuram), a holy city and a place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It is home to many temples. Here Mr. Renton said in a 1959 East Hampton Star interview, “there were more Gods than people”. He also said it was one of the hottest places on earth. Mrs. Renton recalled traveling in India by: train, bus, ox cart, rickshaw, and a Model T Ford. Once Mrs. Renton reported they were each carried across a stream on the backs of men in a fireman’s hold.
The Rentons returned to Scotland where their second son was born, Robert Ian Renton, in 1936. Rev. Renton served first at a small church, and was then called to a larger congregation as pastor of St. Andrews Church in Bellshill, Scotland, where he served for eight years from 1938 to 1945. Tragedy struck the church in 1941, when St. Andrews church was destroyed by fire (St. Andrews church was not reopened until 1950.) Rev. Renton’s next church was St. John’s Church of Scotland, in Dunoon, Scotland, where he served for six years. Dunoon is a seaside town on the shores of Western Scotland.
Rev. Renton then crossed the Atlantic, to accept a call at the First Presbyterian Church in Verdun, Canada, near Montreal. He served in Verdun from 1952-1958, where he was credited with “building up the church to a remarkable degree.” As Rev. Renton was not able to travel from Scotland to Canada for an interview, he submitted a cassette tape. The Canadian church hired Rev. Renton after listening to a single tape recorded sermon mailed from Scotland. Subsequently, Rev. Renton received his “15 minutes of fame” as the story about the minister hired by a congregation who only heard his voice, was carried in over 55 newspapers across the United States. The article carried various headlines: Tape Recording gets Job for Pastor, Tape Recorder Used to Decide on Pastor, and Tape Recording Brings Pastorate.
Rev. Renton was invited to East Hampton and gave his first sermon as a guest preacher on July 13, 1958. At that time he was filling in for a vacationing minister at the Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. The Pastor at Rutgers was another Scotland native, Rev. George Nicholson, who had been pastor at the Amagansett Church. Rev. Renton accepted a call from the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton on November 27, 1958. While he was able to preach twice in March 1959, and lead Easter services in April, he was traveling back and forth between East Hampton and Canada, his arrival in East Hampton delayed, due to his wife needing surgery and a recovery time in Canada. He was installed in an “impressive service” on a Friday evening, May 1, 1959. A reception in the Session House followed the following Sunday afternoon.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, Rev. Renton had finished his sermon for the upcoming Sunday, when word of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was reported. He threw the prepared sermon away and started anew, finishing a new sermon at 2am Sunday morning. The East Hampton Star felt Rev. Renton beautifully captured the Nation’s bereavement and reprinted his sermon in the newspaper, reporting “he said what so many of us feel, but could not say so well”, (the sermon is available in a link below). Under Rev. Renton’s pastorate, the church exterior was transformed from a double tower to a single spired church. This was the third church to be renovated under the pastorate of Rev Renton. He oversaw the construction of a church in Scotland, one in Canada, and the renovation of the church in East Hampton. He was active in fundraising campaigns and in improvements to the church sanctuary, including a new organ, communion table, pulpit and lectern. One Sunday School child from the 1960’s recalled as an adult, when Rev. Renton came for dinner “it was like the President of the United States was coming over!” A 1966 East Hampton Star article reporting on Rev. Rentons ability to entertain a crowd at a Senior Citizen’s Christmas Party in Guild Hall, described him as “a short, sparky Scot”. For a time, in the early 1960’s, Rev Renton also led services at the Springs Chapel. In 1971, he assisted with the reorganization of the Springs Chapel into an independent church, The Springs Community Church, in 1971. He was the first to preach in the newly organized church. A member of the East Hampton Clericus, Rev. Renton served as it’s president in 1971. Mr and Mrs Renton held an annual “at home” or open house every New Years Day. In a 1959 sermon, Rev. Renton, speaking of East Hampton, said, “This town is more generally lovely than any I have known in three continents.”
Rev. Renton retired on November 24, 1972, just shy of 14 years in the pulpit at East Hampton. To help fill the pulpit in East Hampton, Rev. Renton continued preaching after his retirement for 6 months. The Rentons built a house in the Barnes Landing area of The Springs, in East Hampton, and split their time between The Springs and Key Coral, Fl. In retirement he led services in the First Presbyterian Church in Greenport and the Burnt Store Presbyterian Church in Punta Gorda, Fl. Rev. Renton and his wife also served as hospice caregivers in Florida. He was described by his wife as a “real church man”. His friend said his greatest gift was helping others. Rev. Renton died on April 26, 1995 in Bradenton, Fl at the age of 89.
Obituary, Rev. A. Renton, East Hampton Star. May 4, 1995
Rev. Renton’s Sermon after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, The East Hampton Star., November 28, 1963, p. 9 & 11