Columbus, Georgia Downtown Churches: First Presbyterian Church (Part 3 of 6)
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Sources: Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., Historic Columbus Foundation Archive, The First Presbyterian Church Columbus, Georgia 1830 - 1930 by James J. Gilbert, And Character Produces Hope 1946 - 1995 by Myron Hamilton, and First Presbyterian Church of Columbus, Georgia History compiled by Virginia T. Peebles and edited by Janice P. Biggers and Mimi P. Childs.
An Act to lay out a trading-town was passed by the Georgia Legislature in 1827. The new trading town was to be set along the Chattahoochee River and called Columbus. As you’ve read in the previous two history spotlights on St. Luke and First Baptist – there were four lots provided by the commissioners planning out the new town specifically to be used for religion. Lot A went to First Baptist and Lot B went to St. Luke – both located between 11th and 12th Streets and 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Lot C was granted to First Presbyterian on 8th Street and 2nd Avenue and Lot D was the southern half of the same lot as the Presbyterians to be shared with The Catholic Church. In May 1830, fourteen Christian men and women met in a little room in the lower part of the city and organized a Presbyterian church. This group called the Rev. John Baker of Savannah to be their first minister. The fourteen who were received by letter on June 22, 1830, were: Edward Featherston, William Root, James S. Norman, Richard T. Marks, David Dean, Thomas B. McCreary, John Johnson, Mrs. Jane L. Marks, Mrs. Leah J. Norman, Mrs. Harriet A. Root, Mrs. Miriam Dean, Mrs. Sarah DeGraffenried, Mrs. Eliza Bullock, and Mrs. Rebecca Featherston. The first services were held in the courthouse.
The first church building was on the corner of 8th Street and 2nd Avenue, Lot C. Accounts do vary on this first building. One is that the building was actually moved to the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue, where the Governor granted Presbyterians a lot in October of 1831. The other, and with documentation from the current owner Mrs. Paul L. Hammett, Jr. (Biddy), is that the church was originally a part of what is now her home at 734 2nd Avenue. The late historian Dr. Joe Mahan was called to observe the old construction and inside walls when renovation was underway at 734 2nd Avenue. Dr. Mahan saw the portion of the larger, main structure was not built with square, hewn upright wall studs, but pine poles, some still having bark, in the way the earlier Presbyterian church was constructed. In the oldest structure, foundation supports were built of field stones, subsequently stuccoed over with cement at a later period. Dr. Mahan reported to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Hammett, that, indeed, the back portions of the house had some of the oldest construction he had seen in the city.
In 1832, a new church was built on the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue. It was a low brick structure, 32’ x 42’, with a plastered interior. In the rear was a separate frame bell tower. The bell tower rung to service through all the changes of houses for over fifty years until its last was heard as it crushed through the burning timbers November 29, 1891. Dr. Thomas Goulding, D.D. came in 1836 from Lexington in Liberty County, Georgia. He had founded the Columbia Theological Seminary and was known to preach sermons that lasted two hours long and he had no cooking except coffee on Sunday. All food had to be prepared on Saturday.
The congregation grew rapidly, and in 1843 the building was demolished to make way for a new structure. The new church (pictured below) was dedicated on January 25, 1845. The building cost $4,500 and the organ that was installed cost $2,000. Most accounts do say the 1845 church was the third one on the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue. While the 1845 church was being built, the congregation met in Lyceum Hall, SW corner of Broad and 13th Street.
In 1858, there was a great revival for all congregations and there were 500 new members joining churches. The membership of the Presbyterian church continued to grow and in less than fifteen years, it was decided to move northward as the city was also expanding and growing. At the service on June 6, 1858, sixty-nine people were publicly received into membership including three African Americans. Where First Presbyterian Church is located now, on the NE corner of 11th Street and 1st Avenue, was decided as the desired location. The lot was purchased from Philip T. Schley on October 1, 1858. Captain Schley was a lawyer and commanded the Muscogee Blues during the 1836 Indian Wars. The house on the property was sold and moved to its current location at the southwest corner of 2nd Avenue and 15th Street, known as the Schley-Peabody-Warner House.
The plans and specifications of the 1861 structure were procured from the architect of the Presbyterian Church Board of Church Erection at Philadelphia. Several First Presbyterian committees visited the office of the Board in Philadelphia and visited various churches at different points. Finally, plans for this beautiful and graceful structure were decided upon, and the work begun with the contract awarded to Col. Asa Bates. The architectural style of the building is Romanesque Revival with a one-color masonry structure, stucco over brick, rounded arch windows, and square bell towers. The Civil War was imminent and obtaining building materials was difficult, as one would imagine. This resulted in the interior of the building being finished in a plainer manner than was planned. The mahogany used in the interior work was brought from South America. The building was finished at a cost of over $30,000. It was dedicated on February 2, 1862.
In 1881, during the ministry of Dr. William A. Carter, a lot was purchased at 1029 Fourth Avenue (now Veterans Parkway) to build what the Presbyterians call a manse. It would be used as the home of the pastors of the church until the latter part of 1922 when it was sold. Also, during Dr. Carter’s tenure, the Rose Hill Presbyterian Church was organized by members who realized that there was a field in the northern part of the city which should be occupied by Presbyterians. In addition to the morning Sunday School, a Mission School was conducted for many years each Sunday afternoon in the Sunday School room of the church. The pupils were mainly from the mill boarding houses, mostly located on Front Avenue between 10th and 14th Streets. The attendance of the Mission School ranged from 75 to 125. Many of the children were said to have learned to read because of their lessons at the Mission School.
Rose Hill Presbyterian Church. Located at 2216 Hamilton Road, the church was erroneously identified as the Baptist Church in this c. 1914 view. Built by 1900 and designed by T.W. Smith, it served as a Presbyterian church until the 1930s when it became the Rose Hill
Church of Christ into the 1960s. (courtesy of Gary Doster)
On Sunday, November 29, 1891, at 1:00 PM, just an hour after worship had concluded, smoke began creeping from beneath the roofline of First Presbyterian Church. The fire spread quickly, and the entire fire department was able to reach the scene soon after the alarm was called. Four companies surrounded the outside walls. Two steamers pumped nearly one-half million gallons of water onto the fire by sunset. Precautions were taken to protect the surrounding residences. At approximately 2:15 PM, the wooden section of the 160-foot spire came crashing down. It fell into the middle of 11th Street. By 2:30 PM, with help from the wind, a rain of fire began to fall upon the building across 11th Street. The Odd Fellows Hall, the City Market, and the Springer were in danger. At 4:00 PM, the heavy supports of the church roof, the galleries, the organ floor, and all the pews had fallen into the basement. The firemen never stopped working. They remained on the scene until after 11:00PM that night extinguishing embers still fanned by wind. The men ended up sleeping on the floor of the Springer stage that night because they were too exhausted to return home. Below is First Presbyterian Church soon after the fire.
The church was rebuilt by 1893 with T. Firth Lockwood in charge of the restoration. The spire of the church before it burned never contained a clock, but architecture and space provisions would indicate for one to be placed there. During the rebuilding of the church, the building committee approached the city council to offer use of the tower for a city clock if they would furnish it. The city accepted the proposition, and a Seth Thomas clock was acquired and placed in the spire. The new clock would require winding each week. Local jeweler, Carl Schomburg and later his son, Fred Schomburg, Sr. gave the clock constant care until it was electrified during World War II.
Located at 1100 First Avenue on the northeast corner with Eleventh Street, the congregation was founded in 1830, moved here when this building was constructed in 1862, and rebuilt after an 1891 fire. The church has changed little since this c. 1910 view was published in Germany for the W.A. White Company of Columbus, a major postcard distributor. (Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr.
In 1895, two Presbyterian ladies, Miss Minnie Tillman and Miss Mamie Kivlin organized the Head, Hand, and Heart Society. Another Presbyterian, Mrs. Richard Howard, was Treasurer. The membership also included those from other denominations and was basically an expansion of the original Mission School set up at the church. The objective of the society was to provide a school for the children engaged in carrying dinner for their parents, brothers, and sisters who worked in the mills. No provision was made in the public schools for allowing the children time off from their studies long enough to carry dinner each day, so many did not attend school. The school was first started on the second floor of a building that was located on the southwest corner of 15th Street and 1st Avenue. Mrs. S. P. Tewksbury was the principal teacher. By 1902, this school evolved into the Primary Industrial School and was formally established by the school district. A building was secured on the corner of 1st Avenue and 18th Street, which had been a factory boarding house and 173 pupils were enrolled. Some academic subjects were taught though the greatest emphasis was on industrial training. Average age in day session was ten years old, though the night school had all ages. George Foster Peabody had a large hand in this establishment. The Primary Industrial School stayed in the boarding house for three years. It would later move up Second Avenue to the Kimball Home and then become known as the North Highlands School and finally, the McIlhenny School.
From the First Presbyterian Church Museum: a church picnic at Van Horn Mill at the turn of the century, c. 1898 possibly Elizabeth Kyle, Edith Kyle, Lyra Garrett, Love McDuffie, Emily Ransom, Lucille Woodruff, and Mamie Kivlin. (courtesy Mimi P. Childs)
About 1906, members of the church were encouraged by Dr. L.S. McElroy that there was a need for a Mission in the district east of 10th Avenue and a block or two south of Linwood Drive. With funding assistance from the estate of Charles S. Holt, a lot on the corner of Dudley Avenue and 16th Street in the East Highland neighborhood was purchased in 1908 and a frame structure was built and called Holt Chapel. Later, a house across the street was purchased to be used as a manse for the Chapel. By the 1920s, the congregation of Holt Chapel organized into a church known as East Highlands Presbyterian Church. After several years, it was thought best that the members unite once again with the First Church. Other changes during this time include the construction of a three-story Sunday School wing added to the church in 1916. The new building was funded by Col. William S. Shepherd in memory of his sister, Sarah Porter Shepherd Flewellen, and by E.P. Dismukes as a tribute to those who have worked so faithfully in the school for the past ten years. By 1920, the church also organized the first Women’s Auxiliary.
134 members in the Armed Forces were listed on the church rolls during WW II. At Communion Service on Sunday June 25, 1944, a total of 637 received communion. Sunday School attendance was high with a reported 1,334 in attendance during the month of October that year. During this time, Dr. J. Calvin Reid’s ministry was described as one of inspirational leadership, of service to his own congregation and to the community, and of emphasis on the military members. He was also called the right person for the church, at the right time, when so many of the Church’s sons and daughters were elsewhere in the Armed Forces and in defense-related employment.
c. 1951 - opening of the Fellowship Hall (courtesy of Mimi P. Childs)
From 1953 until 1960 were the turbulent years of Robert McNeill’s ministry and the Civil Rights Movement. The civil rights movements of the mid-twentieth century touched every segment of American society. American churches were one central battle ground. While the idea of racial equality was perhaps ahead of its time for a more conservative, southern congregation in the late 1950s, First Presbyterian Church had some strong, saintly, and dedicated officers with great wisdom and foresight. Today, the right of equality for all God’s children is certainly embraced and taught. First Presbyterian became the “Mother Church” of not only Edgewood Church, but also founded and nurtured All Saints, Morningside, Steam Mill Road, and two Korean Churches all of which were furnished corps memberships from First Church. First Presbyterian also continued to foster and support the early ministries at Holt Chapel, Sherwood Church, Memorial Church, and the Phenix City Presbyterian Church. In 1969, extensive renovations were made to the sanctuary and the “old” three-story education building. Also, during this time in 1972, a new two-story education building was added on Second Avenue. The Church met in the Springer Opera House while this extensive work was being completed.
The Rev. Dr. James V. Johnson, Jr. served First Presbyterian Church as its pastor for twenty-two years (1971 – 1993). His ministry had a great effectiveness, and many initiatives were started under his leadership. The Thursday Worship Break, the Break Bread Program, and an outreach mission as a group of Korean Christians began using the chapel of the church for Sunday services.
Rev. Johnson also let the church through a reconstruction of the church steeple and the church’s 150th Anniversary celebration. He was an able leader, pastor, preacher, and executive for the congregation.
1993 - 1995, construction of the Johnson wing (courtesy of Mimi P. Childs)
Dr. John H. Bell (1994 – 2000) came to First Presbyterian in 1994. He looked beyond the walls of the church to embrace the community. He brought Logos to the church, a program involving children and adults in Bible study and recreation. The Presbyterian Day School was founded, and a relationship was established with the Good News Church in Moscow, Russia. The Rev. Charles R. Hasty, Jr. began his tenure at First Presbyterian in 2002 and he served until 2015. Under Rev. Hasty’s leadership was the Called by the Spirit Campaign which raised over $8 million to completely and faithfully restore and renovate the church building. In the years preceding 2015, doctrinal decisions by the Presbyterian Church (USA) caused divisions within the congregation. Two groups emerged, those who wanted to leave the denomination and those who wanted to remain part of the Flint River Presbytery and PC (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in America. After months of discernment, a vote was taken on April 20, 2015. The proposal for the First Presbyterian Church of Columbus to separate from PC(USA) failed to receive two-thirds majority required.
Following the vote and the split of the church, Associate Pastor Rev. E. Jones Doughton served as the church’s sole pastor for several months. In 2016, Rev. Joel Alvis was called to serve as Interim Pastor for two years. In this short period, Rev. Alvis led the $700,000 stained glass window restoration project. The windows were installed in 1892 and served for 125 years. They were restored by Lynchburg Stained Glass from Lynchburg, Virginia. The Rev. Daniel Dieth became minister of First Presbyterian Church in 2018. In Myron Hamilton’s book, he quotes Romans – “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” That hope has not disappointed the congregations of First Presbyterian Church. Indeed, this church continues to be strong and a force in the lives of its members and the community.
Next Week: Trinity Episcopal Church! If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director