Decades of worship

Columbia's First Presbyterian Church marks 175 years
Sunday, November 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

In a back bedroom, Joan Hahn has filled bookshelves with her work on genealogy and now she has a new project: copying old documents to help organize the history of Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church, which celebrates its 175th anniversary today.

Boxes of black and white photos, some too old to identify, sit on a bed in Hahn’s guest room. Crumbling receipts, yellowed newspaper clippings and handwritten correspondences between church members dating to the 1800s cover a card table.

Hahn’s history with the church dates back to her college days. Growing up Methodist in Nebraska, her social life revolved around the church. But when she came to Columbia to go to Stephens College, the First Presbyterian Church was closer in location than Missouri United Methodist Church.

And on the first night she went to the church’s Student Center, she met her future husband, Allen.

“That program was pretty dear to our hearts,” Hahn said. “The Student Center was open every day, but on Sunday afternoons a bunch of us would get together and cook a meal and then we would serve the students that came, and we always had entertainment downstairs. There was a fellow who played the bass and a couple fellows that had a very, very good sense of humor who would entertain us.”

By the time Hahn was getting acquainted with the church in the 1950s, the church had already been around for more than 120 years.

Established in 1828, eight years after Columbia became a recognized town, nine citizens met with the Revs. William Cochran and Thomas Durfee in a log house on the corner of Tenth and Walnut streets to hold a service and organize a Presbyterian Church.

Presbyterianism is a Protestant denomination that has roots in Calvinism. Its name refers to a representative style of church government. Members place emphasis on God’s word in scripture, God’s grace through faith and God’s sovereignty as creator and redeemer of all.

The early years

Even if they have never gone inside the church at Hitt and Cherry streets, many Columbians are probably familiar with its bell — the city’s second-oldest. Purchased in 1850, it was used to call members to service, sound a fire alarm or warn of approaching bushwhackers during the Civil War. It had often been used to ring in the new year or to celebrate a Missouri football win over a rival.

At one point the clapper disconnected from the bell, flew out the window of the belfry and landed in the middle of Tenth Street. The Rev. R.S. Campbell thanked God during that morning’s service that nobody was struck by it because, “so few of the people of this church were prepared to meet their God.”

In 1860, church members bought the first pipe organ in Boone County. It was used until 1893, when it was sold to make room for a new organ purchased by the Ladies Aid Society in 1894 and donated to the church for $1.

The Presbyterians also had a role in the establishment of MU. Thirty-nine members promised to give between $100 and $3,000 to a fund for MU’s location. Church elder John B. Gordon donated 22 acres for the school, where Jesse Hall and other buildings on west campus stand.

First Presbyterian played a part in the histories of Stephens and Columbia colleges as well. In 1834, the president of Columbia College, then Christian College, was installed in the church; and Columbia Female Academy, forerunner to Stephens College, was organized in the church and used it for school purposes between 1833 and 1838.

Early services were held in private homes until 1830, when they were moved to the Boone County Courthouse. In 1833, church member Andrew Hannah went to church elder William Provines and suggested building a church in Columbia with timber from his trees and the use of his son’s sawmill. The proposition was accepted, and work began immediately.

The first church was referred to as the new “meeting house” and was located on the north side of Walnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

In 1846, the Presbyterians had enough members and means to erect a $900 brick building at Broadway and Tenth Street. It served its members until 1893, when it was torn down and a new church was built in its place.

Temporary services were held at Stone’s Music Hall where Walter Williams, former MU president and founder of its Journalism School, taught Sunday school classes and was elected church elder.

The congregations commitment to religion and education in the community continued in 1926 with the purchase of the Garth House and property on Hitt Street. The 1821 Garth House and barracks added later served as the Student Center, church office and pastor’s study and Sunday school space.

In 1953, the Garth House was torn down for the development of a new church “plant,” which took place in three stages: the Student Center, the Activities Building and the Sanctuary. The sanctuary was designed in the style of the Reformation with the organ and choir in the back balcony. Its focal point is a 28-foot walnut cross that commands a presence before a red, yellow and blue mosaic sparkling in the warm yellow light of dangling lamps. The new church opened in 1966.

The church today

Longtime church member, Virginia Etheridge, known to many as “V.A.,” spent 10 years living in the Garth House when her mother, Jessie LaRue, became a chaperone. She came to Columbia in 1923 at age 5 and moved into the Garth House with her family in 1933.

When Etheridge was 12, she formally joined the church and became an active member. Remembering that day, she laughed at her stubbornness in wearing a large straw hat that covered her face, which her exasperated mother tried to change.

“That was just my childhood,” Etheridge recalled. “We were real bad as kids. Our Sunday school teacher would often cry, and it was a badge of honor if you could make her cry.”

The church now has about 750 members. In 2002, members decided to remain downtown, and a task force is under way to evaluate the building and structural needs in order to maintain and improve the church.

At the celebratory service today at 10:30 a.m., the current minister, the Rev. Richard Ramsey, plans a sermon that will address the challenges and hopes of what it means to be the church in 2003.

“In the early church, there were lots of ups and downs from the Civil War to civil rights and it has just held together,” Ramsey said. “That’s the most remarkable thing about this church: From day one through location moves, minister changes and church arguments, people stop and say God is faithful and God is good and he will continue to correct us and guide us.

“The church has to help its people,” he said. “In our Christian tradition, we can help folks understand Christ’s love for them and teach them how to love the people they’ve been given to love and see the world through a faith lens.”

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