Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Brief History of First Presbyterian Church (1)

The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi (1837), is one hundred seventy years old this year, and celebrating the completion of the fourth house of worship in its history. As such, this gives us the opportunity to learn a little about God's providence over the course of our history and to reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from our past "for the living of these days."

Presbyterianism came to Mississippi long before Mississippi became a State (on December 10, 1817). One immediately thinks of, for instance, the old Salem [now Pine Ridge (PCA)] Church in Natchez that dates from 1807 - the oldest extant Presbyterian Church in the State. Within twenty years of the first Presbyterian missionaries in the territory, the Synod of Kentucky constituted the original Presbytery of Mississippi on March 6, 1816.

But there were Presbyterians and Presbyterian churches here even earlier. For instance, the Presbyterians of the New York Missionary Society (of the Presbyterian Synod of New York) had sent missionaries to work among the Choctaw Indians while Mississippi was just barely a territory (established April 7, 1798), in 1799. In 1801, the Synod of North Carolina sent three missionaries who came by way of Nashville, and down the Old Natchez Trace. They established Presbyterianism in the Natchez area (the Bethel [1804], Salem and First Natchez [1817] churches all resulted from their ministry).

In general, Presbyterianism in Mississippi has spread eastward and north out of the southwestern corner of the old territory, from what is now Adams County. Meanwhile, back in the east-central region of the State, the early influence of Presbyterians from North and South Carolina can be seen in the name of the Carolina Presbyterian Church (1841) in Neshoba County.

Presbyterian churches existed in Edwards and Clinton before Jackson. In 1826, the Bethesda Presbyterian Church was founded in Edwards, and the old Mount Salus Church was established in Clinton, prior to the organization of First Church in Jackson. The Bethesda Church is the oldest church in the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (PCA).

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson began its history on a Saturday afternoon, April 8, 1837, by the Rev. Peter Donan and four persons: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton, and John Robb and his wife, Marion. The organizational meeting was held in "the Old State House," Mississippi's first capitol, a small two-story structure on the northeast corner of East Capitol and North President Streets.

The organizing pastor (what today we would call a "church planter") was Peter Donan. Donan studied at Princeton Seminary under Charles Hodge and Samuel Miller, continued as the church's pastor for four years. There were no elders for two years, no deacons for six years, and no meeting house for nearly nine years. In the first two years of its existence, the church had but three new members.

Several things are interesting about the timing of the church's founding and the facts of its humble beginnings. Let me elaborate on a few.

First, the church was established just scant months before the Old School-New School division in the Presbyterian Church. Interestingly, Mississippi's representatives to the 1837 General Assembly sided with the New School party. Now there's a story to tell sometime!

Second, the church's organizing pastor, Peter Donan, studied under leading Old School theologian Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary, who trained over 2000 student during his long and distinguished teaching career (from 1822-1878). However, Donan eventually left Presbyterianism for a sect! Yet another tale to share.

Third, the slow growth in the beginnings of First Presbyterian Church needs to be considered in light of her long-term impact. Starting with four members, growing by only two members in its first two years (Jackson probably had only about 1000 citizens then), 170 years later First Church is home to about 3100 members, is the largest Presbyterian congregation in the state, one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the United States, a flagship congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is itself the largest conservative Presbyterian denomination in the English-speaking world. Furthermore, God has chosen to use ministers, elders and members of First Church to play a significant role in establishing the PCA, Reformed Theological Seminary (a leading theological training center for evangelical ministry with campuses in Jackson; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Orlando, Florida), and Reformed University Ministries (a nationwide collegiate campus fellowship), as well as significantly supporting Belhaven College, French Camp, Palmer Home, Chamberlain-Hunt Academy and more.

"Do not despise the day of small things," is surely one of the messages we can learn from the modest beginnings of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi... Thanks for sharing information with us..nice blog..

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