A Brief History of First Presbyterian Church
On April 20, 1825, the Rev. Nathan Harned became the first settled pastor. Mr. Harned had been educated for the ministry in the Baptist Church but had changed his theology, united with the Presbyterian Church, and was licensed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The Erie Presbytery ruled that the Warren church must share its new minister’s services with the Sugar Grove, Lottsville, and Great Brokenstraw churches. Although Mr. Harned stayed in Warren only one year, the church enjoyed his ministry, and he was able to establish the first Sunday School.
During the next six years, either temporary ministers served the church or laymen (and it was layMEN in those days) read the sermons. The membership increased gradually until 1831, when there were twenty-six members. At that time, Cyrus Tanner, who was considered an eccentric, urged a revival meeting. With his own hands, he made additional benches for the schoolhouse. As he worked, people asked questions and laughed at his enthusiasm and belief that more seats would be needed. Cyrus Tanner would not be discouraged and continued his efforts. Rev. Samuel Orton, a noted evangelist, and the Reverend Mr. Jones of Mayville, New York, were invited to conduct the services. The meetings which followed have since been called “The Great Revival.” The event lasted two weeks and the large crowds proved that Cyrus Tanner had been right, even though he had been ridiculed for his idea. Forty-two new men and women were added to the membership, and were to become faithful workers and leaders of the church.
Now that the congregation was growing steadily, the members decided to build a church home of their own, even though they had no resident pastor. The site chosen consisted of lots #133 and #136 on Market Street, where the parking lot of the First Baptist Church is now located. This first church was a wooden structure surmounted by a cupola and a bell. The front door was reached by a flight of steps from the street and opened to a vestibule running the entire width of the church. Four pews and forty-six slips, which are long narrow bench-like pews, faced the two sanctuary doors and the high pulpit between them. There was a gallery on three sides and a basement below. Started in 1831, the building was completed in 1833. It is said that when the roof was finished, the Reverend Mr. Stone, a Congregational supply minister, climbed high into the rafters and was heard in a loud voice invoking the blessing of God upon the structure. Later in 1833, Rev. John McNair became the second resident pastor and officially dedicated the church.
It was decided to meet the cost of the new church by the sale of the pews and slips. Each pew owner was given a deed which was recorded in the court house. This policy later led to serious discord when it was necessary to assess these same pews with an annual rental in order to be able to pay the minister and other church expenses.
The session, though small, must never have been idle. In a single meeting, five cases for discipline were presented – two for intemperance, two for neglect of ordinance and one for dancing. In the early history of the church, discipline was rigidly enforced. Many acts now tolerated were strictly forbidden at that time.
Within the next twenty years there were periods in which the church was without a pastor and had many financial problems. Ministers came and went with regularity, which was understandable considering the small salary and discord among some of the members. One minister, Rev. Absalom McCready, is said to have annoyed some church members because he prayed with his eyes open, viewing his congregation and noting latecomers.
In 1837, the National Presbyterian Church was split between the Old School and the New School teachings. The local church was against such a division and became a part of the Old School group. On January 18, 1842, the congregation adopted a Constitution under the sponsorship of Lansing Wetmore and S.P. Johnson. It was incorporated on March 23, 1842, under the laws of Pennsylvania, and recorded in the Court of Common Pleas of Warren County. This occurred during the pastorate of Rev. Hiram Eddy, who was very well liked and was remembered for his wonderful sermons. It was also during 1842 that another revival was held, resulting in fifty-three new members for the church.
In 1847, Rev. Miles T. Merwin, pastor of the church at Irvine, was invited to supply the pulpit of this church. While he officiated, the Sunday School, which had ceased to exist because of the lack of firewood and superintendents, was revived with Ephraim Cowan as its new superintendent and a staff of all women teachers. During the ministry of Mr. Merwin, the records of the church were lost. These included the session and trustee books, and papers concerning the building of the church and sale of the pews. All efforts to locate these records have failed.
The next pastor, Rev. John Sailor, served from 1850-1855. One of his first actions was to encourage the elders to recreate the early records of the church, to the best of their ability, so that those coming after would know the history of the church. Later during Mr. Sailor’s pastorate, the church had difficulty paying his salary, and this caused him to leave.
Rev. Charles L. Hequembourg, a scholarly progressive man, began a turbulent five year pastorate in 1856. The bitterness between church members in the preceding years had not abated, and he was confronted with this unpleasantness and a need to restore harmony. Still being hotly debated were the conflict between the Old School and the New School teachings and the assessment of the pews which had previously been sold. Mr. Hequembourg, who was unwilling to be involved in the pew controversy, soon developed his own problem as his advanced religious thoughts were upsetting to some members of the congregation and the session. The bickering over all these matters resulted in protests being formally lodged in the courts of the county, and also in a petition being sent to the Presbytery of Buffalo asking that the local church be admitted to their care.
In June 1861, the situation worsened. For a few weeks the trustees closed the church for regular services and only permitted Sunday School to be held. During this period, Rev. Robert Taylor, a licentiate of the Presbytery of Erie, preached to the Presbyterian congregation at the Baptist Church. Mr. Taylor was then asked to become the permanent minister, but Mr. Hequembourg would not vacate the pulpit when church reopened for services the following Sunday. Those who wanted to hear Mr. Taylor adjourned to the Baptist Church, and a smaller group stayed to listen to Mr. Hequembourg. This ended Rev. C.L. Hequembourg’s pastorship in Warren. Even through these difficulties, he was considered “a big-souled, great, warm hearted man, genial and pleasant, with remarkable kindness,” and only with some of his interpretations of Scriptures was there disagreement.
In the following weeks, Rev. Robert Taylor officially succeeded Rev. C.L. Hequembourg and new church officers were elected. The church entered a period of peace and growth.
Rev. William A. Rankin began his work as minister in May 1866. With vigor and ability, he served the church which at his coming had endured almost a half century of battle for existence. During his sixteen years, he did much to advance the work of the church and to improve the relationship of the members. Church membership grew from 84 to 418 during this time.
The idea of a new building had been considered for several years, and at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on March 21, 1866, it was resolved to build a new church on the site of the first church and a most impressive structure was built. The high roof of the main building was accentuated by a steeple eighteen feet square and rising 148 feet into the air. The new church cost an estimated $26,000, and was described by Mr. Ephraim Cowan, editor of the Warren Mail, as “a commodious and elegant edifice, fashionable and good enough for town or city.”
The sincere and dedicated men and women who worked so hard for the building of their church in 1866 probably never would have believed that by 1890 the congregation would outgrow the capacity of the building, and that it would be impractical to enlarge it to meet the needs of the growing church. The former home of Thomas Struthers, at the corner of Market and Third Avenue, was secured as the site for the new church. The total cost of the building, grounds, and furnishings was $72,960. On Wednesday, March 31, 1897, the church was dedicated by Dr. J.W. Smith, whose pastorate was to continue until 1920 and be the longest in the history of the church at twenty-nine years.
In 1922, the Centennial year of the church was celebrated with a week-long series of services. At the close of the first century, membership numbered 1,178 under the pastorate of Rev. Raymon M. Kistler. Following Dr. Kistler were:
• Thomas S. Dickson 1928-1937
• Harold C. Warren 1937-1947
• Robert S. Steen 1948-1955
• Donald H. Spencer 1956-1970
• Ross W. Porter 1970-1984
• Harold D. Kelley 1985-1998
• David E. Leininger 2000-2008
• Mary Eleanor Johns-Kelley 2010 – 2013
Three times since its dedication, the present church building has gone through periods of renovation. In 1925, the “Rebeautifying of the First Presbyterian Church” took place. This major program included repair of the entire roof, replacement and repairing of the art glass windows, upgrading the heating system, new carpeting, and general cleaning. In addition, the interior was painted with three coats of lead and oil, with all walls and most ceilings receiving a fourth coat of transparent glaze. In 1956, the sanctuary was remodeled and redecorated, and the sliding partition between the sanctuary and the large Sunday School room was replaced by a permanent wall. In 1959, the old Sunday School addition was completely rebuilt to provide the present Christian education facilities, offices, Memorial Parlors, Fellowship Hall, and kitchens.
In 1977 the new chapel was dedicated. Located in a room adjacent to the sanctuary, the chapel is open for prayer and meditation. Baptisms, communion, weddings, and funerals also take place here.
Major unplanned repair work was required on two occasions in recent years. In 1979, the bell tower suffered extensive damage from a fire caused by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. In 1995, a water leak on the second floor resulted in major repairs to classrooms, offices, and hallways. Fortunately, both situations were covered by insurance.
During the church’s second hundred years, several anniversaries have been commemorated. Special services were held in 1922, 1942, 1972, 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007. At each celebration, it has become increasingly more apparent that the struggles of the church’s founders and early members have not been in vain, and that the many generations since have further enriched this legacy.
First Presbyterian’s history has been carefully and lovingly compiled by Connie and Jim Henderson.