180th Anniversary: 1st Presbyterian has the oldest church building in Cleveland

Posted 11/10/17

The first organized religious group in Cleveland was the Presbyterians. For 180 years, First Presbyterian Church has continued its mission based on the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”The church’s “guiding hand is to teach people to fish rather than to simply provide food.”

The church will be celebrating its 180th anniversary in its morning service today with a focus on its history and its future, according to the Rev. David Horne, interim pastor.

The local church is part of the mainstream Presbyterian Church of USA

Church history notes the petition to form a Presbyterian Church in Cleveland was granted in 1837.

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180th Anniversary: 1st Presbyterian has the oldest church building in Cleveland

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The first organized religious group in Cleveland was the Presbyterians. For 180 years, First Presbyterian Church has continued its mission based on the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The church’s “guiding hand is to teach people to fish rather than to simply provide food.”
The church will be celebrating its 180th anniversary in its morning service today with a focus on its history and its future, according to the Rev. David Horne, interim pastor.

The local church is part of the mainstream Presbyterian Church of USA. 
Church history notes the petition to form a Presbyterian Church in Cleveland was granted in 1837.

On Nov. 11, 1837, the small group of Cleveland residents met in the log courthouse to organize First Presbyterian Church. The organizing committee included the Rev. R.E. Tedford, R.L. Morrison and 14 charter members.

The congregation met in a log house on the southwest corner of the courthouse square until it built its “house of worship” on West 32nd Street.
The first building was used until 1856, when a lot on Ocoee Street was sold to Dr. George E. Ford for $600. Construction on the building began on March 3, 1856.

The church was officially dedicated on Oct. 22, 1858, with the Rev. James N. Bradshaw of Chattanooga’s First Presbyterian Church delivering the sermon.

Built on simple Georgian lines, the First Presbyterian Church was the first church building built in Cleveland. Entrance to the church was originally through a portico, which had two square brick columns and four heavy double doors.

The church history shows “the original sanctuary consisted of a main auditorium and a gallery, where slaves, free African Americans and other minorities were seated.” After the Civil War, the gallery was enclosed for storage space and two vestibules formed.

“The History of Bradley County” notes an interesting aspect of the church was for “three decades before the War” several black individuals, some of them slaves, were listed as members of the church.

First Presbyterian Church became known as “the mother church of Cleveland.” The congregation allowed the Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists to use their building while construction was done on their facilities.

During the Civil War, Cleveland was considered a “pro Union” town. However, Confederates occupied the town until the fall of Chattanooga in 1863.

First Presbyterian’s building was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops. The church history says it was used as a hospital by both sides. However, activity around the church was not always peaceful. This is made evident by bullet holes in the brick building and on the steeple. In the Brown Narthex, two historic balls taken from the steeple after a lightning strike in 2001 show several Minié ball holes from Civil War action. Some of the bullet holes in the brick are also easily identified in the Narthex wall. 

The church history notes First Presbyterian was slow to recover from the Civil War. The Presbyterian Church was divided into Northern and Southern assemblies.

A story from Dr. Thomas McCallie, who had unofficial oversight of the Cleveland church during and after the war, shows the confusion and struggle of the church.

The confusion and struggle of the church is reflected by this story about McCallie in the church history:


“After the war, some of the locals did not want services to be held at First Presbyterian Church, as it sided with the South. When Dr. McCallie arrived for services, he was met by several people, some would not let him enter the building. So the Gospel was proclaimed on the sidewalk. It was said to be such a wonderful sermon, he could walk into the church without protest and almost all the crowd followed him in. The same afternoon, a large worship service was held for the African-American community.”

As the healing began from the Civil War, the church also began a slow growth.
The church was completely remodeled in 1919. Stained glass windows were added between 1915 and 1920. Today the beauty of the windows is still evident inside the church, but the exterior windows have become clouded.

Horne said the church plans to have a complete restoration of the windows in the coming year. This work on the church will also include maintenance from the hail damage done to the building this year.

In 1935, a three-story addition was built to the building, which included Sunday school rooms, offices and a place to prepare meals. Mrs. Richard Berry donated a pipe organ to the church in 1942.

Serving as pastor in the 1940s was the Rev. E.D. Visor, who resigned in 1943 to enter the U.S. Army as a chaplain. The church history notes out of a congregation of 150, there were 33 men on active duty during World War II.

The Rev. Samuel C. Bowles, who was called as pastor in 1952, was leading the congregation toward “a remodeled sanctuary” when he died suddenly. The Rev. Herbert L. Laws continued the vision. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the church added an educational building.

In 1974, the Rev. Frank Holsclaw served as pastor. It was under his leadership the J.O.Y. School was organized as a summer program for special needs children. The mission was to give “continuity and help the children keep learning” during the summer.

In 1984, the Rev. Joseph R.R. Tanner was called to pastor the church. He oversaw the addition of the church to the Register of Historic Places. It was during his tenure, addition of the Brown Narthex (a two-story open area), Fellowship Hall, offices and kitchen, a Memorial Garden and a new children’s playground were erected.

Tanner retired as pastor in 2016 after 32 years. Horne has been serving as interim pastor since September 2016 and hopes to lead the transition for the next pastor.
The Ladies Aid Society or the Ladies Missionary Society has been very active in the church. Horne noted they have books showing projects of the ladies in the 1890s.

Horne said the church continues to grow. “There are lots of children for a church our size.” He noted there was a wide range of ages and ethnicity.

“It’s a very friendly and supportive congregation,” Horne said. “It is very mission connected and very active. It’s open and accepting. …. It’s an exciting place to be a pastor.”

The church supports a variety of community activities. Among them are:

Cub Scout Pack No, 3075, which has 20 to 25 cub scouts participating.
Boy Scout Troop No. 75, with from 12 to 14 scouts attending, meets each Monday.

The Y-Cap program, which is sponsored by the YMCA and the congregation’s giving, offers schoolwork tutoring and an evening meal to youth of varying ages.

Office and consultation space for the Speech and Hearing Center is provided.

Regional Intervention Program has an office and consultation space in an annex building of the church. This program offers an “Intervention program for problems existing between parents and youth.”

During the year, the church also holds a vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, PEP Pageant, Emmas Walk Closings, Easter egg hunt and other programs.

The church is also involved and financially supports the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. They have been involved in support of foreign mission trips to Vietnam, Brazil, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

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