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First Presbyterian Marks 150 Years In City

First Presbyterian Marks 150 Years In City image
Parent Issue
Day
7
Month
August
Year
1976
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Copyright Protected
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Donated by the Ann Arbor News. © The Ann Arbor News.
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The Ann Arbor News. Saturday. August 7. 1976

First Presbyterian Marks 150 Years In City

Editor's note:  First Presbyterian Church's sesquicentennial occurs this month.  Observances marking the church's 150 years are planned this fall.  History Prof. Howard H. Peckham, director of the U-M's Clements Library and a member of the church, has compiled an abbreviated history of the congregation.  It follows.

By Howard H. Peckham

First Presbyterian Church will mark its 150th birthday anniversary on Aug. 21.

It was the first church organized in Ann Arbor and was founded by 17 men and women brought together by the Rev. Noah M. Wells of Detroit.

Five other Presbyterian churches existed in Michigan Territory at that time, but none as far west.  The founders formed both a Presbyterian Society with a board of trustees and a church with elders.

Services were begun by the Rev. William Page first in the log school house at Main and Ann Streets, then in the ballroom of a tavern, then on the second floor of Cook's Hotel, and then in a frame school house at the corner of Washington and Fifth  In 1829 the members built a frame church, 25 by 35 feet, at the corner of Huron and Division, where The Ann Arbor News now stands.

For the new church a bell was acquired and hung in a tree until a belfry was completed.  The bell was given to the county courthouse in 1838, when the Presbyterians built a new larger church on Huron Street between Fourth and Fifth.  It had the biggest auditorium in town and the University held its commencement exercises there starting in 1845.  Incidentally, the church has that first bell again, after various ownerships.

The early church was having an impact on the community.  Page helped organize a temperance society in July 1829 among Ann Arbor's 500 inhabitants.  In 1834 the first Synod of Michigan held its organization meeting at the church.  Two years later 75 delegates from seven counties convened at the Presbyterian Church to form the Michigan Antislavery Society and adopted 14 resolutions condemning slavery and those churches which allowed slave holders to be members.

The Rev. William S. Curtis was installed as pastor in 1842.  Soon afterwards his wife organized the church women into a society of good works, the forerunner of the Ladies Aid Society.

The church was supported not by weekly collections but by the sale of pews, costing from $12 annually to one at $50.  Most of them fell in the $20 to $30 range.

As the town population grew, a large church was needed, and the Presbyterian Society bought back its first site on Huron and Division.  A brick building was started in 1860, but construction was delayed by the Civil War, and it was dedicated two years later.  The building was 65 by 113 feet, and with a balcony seated 1,000.  It cost $35,000.  Not only did the University commencement continue here (until University Hall was erected in 1872), but student-sponsored public lectures were offered in the church.  After Lincoln's assassination, a union service was held, and President E. O. Haven spoke.  In 1972 a church tower was completed, and a new bell procured.  It now sets out on the lawn at the Washtenaw location.  This third building served the congregation for 73 years.

The 21-year pastorate of the Rev. J. M. Gelston began in 1888.  He was an informal speaker who did not use the pulpit,and he preached a liberal theology that aroused the suspicions of the home town pastors of students who attended this church: 320 members in 1890 and 528 in 1924.  A manse for the minister was bought in the 1890's.  The church elders arrayed themselves in favor of prohibition, and in 1915 took a stand against Sunday movies.

When the Rev. Merle Anderson came in 1924, he emphasized the student pastorate.  The church's centennial was celebrated in 1926, and in the same year the late Prof. Isaac Demmon's property on Washtenaw Avenue was purchased for a future building.  The Depression delayed construction plans. 

The Rev. Dr. William P. Lemon was called to the church in 1934 and adopted the building program as his  first interest.  The old brick church was sold to The Ann Arbor News in 1935 and razed.  The Presbyterians held services in the old Masonic Temple while a new stone church was begun on the Washtenaw site in 1936 and completed in January 1938.  A vigorous speaker and pastor, Lemon built up the church membership to 1,000 by 1944.  He was also in charge of student work, carried on through a University Presbyterian Corporation which had contributed heavily to the building.  Dr. Lemon retired in 1951.

When the Rev. Henry Kuzienga came in 1952, the student pastorage was separated from his duties.  His preaching increased church membership to 1,532 in 1955 and three services on Sunday became necessary.  Moreover, a wing was added to the church in 1956.  Three refugee families were sponsored by  the membership and resettled in this area.  When Kuizenga left in 1961, membership exceeded 2,200.

During the pastorate of the Rev. Ernest T. Campbell, 1962-68, the church showed great concern for social action.  It advocated equal opportunity employment, fair housing, racial justice, and provided emergency housing for destitute families.  Two Cuban families were sponsored here, and the Adams house on Hill Street was acquired for development as student center-the Ark.

The present minister the Rev. Robert E. Sanders, came in 1969.  The next year he was confronted by two sit-ins, led by members of the Black Economic Development League, which he met by helping organize what is now the Interfaith Council of Congregations in the city and county.  It now includes some 35 churches, and has raised and allotted nearly half a million dollars for local projects.  First Presbyterian has been a major contributor to this organization.

The congregation also has recently bought out the interest of the student Presbyterian Corporation in the building so as to make full use of the structure.

The women of the church first looked upon themselves as housekeepers of the church building.  They used to clean it annually and raised money for carpeting and furnishings.  Later they turned their interests to local philanthropy and foreign missions.

In 1882 they assisted a local black woman, who was a member of the church and a University student, to become a missionary to Africa and later in the South.  Four years later they helped a woman in the Medical School go out as medical missionary.  They were responsible for the usual church suppers and raised money for the new stone building.  Prayer circles and study groups were always sections of the Women's Association, as they were ultimately called.

 

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