“That realm is best and most stable which is ruled in accordance with God’s will alone,
and the worst and weakest is that which is ruled arbitrarily.”
Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church (FPC) is a prime example of stability. It is located at 1390 North State between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets. The current church, which opened in 1951, began its history 114 years before at the corner of N. President and E. Capitol Streets in Mississippi’s first state house building. Greater Belhaven’s only church was organized on a Saturday afternoon, April 8, 1837 by the Rev. Peter Donan and four persons: Mrs. Margaret E. Mayson, Mrs. Susan Patton and Mr. and Mrs. John Robb. There was a pastor (Rev. Donan), but no elders for two years, no deacons for six years nor an individual house of worship until 1845. In its first two years of existence, the church had but three new members. (1)
The State of Mississippi owned considerable land in the downtown area of Jackson in the early 1800’s. It made land available to religious denominations in the vicinity of Smith Park and First Presbyterian purchased a tract a bit north and east of the original designations at the corner of Yazoo and North State Streets. Its first home edifice was erected on this site in 1845-46. Somehow, it escaped the fiery ravages of General W.T. Sherman 18 years later and was razed in 1891. It was replaced by a small red brick building in 1893 (left) which served the congregation until the opening of the present structure in 1951. The final service in the old church was preached by Belhaven College President Dr. Guy T. Gillespie on August 26, 1951. (2) (3) (4) (15)
The land on which the church rests today (Hinds County MS parcel number 13-38), was owned by a group of developers in 1925. These were early Jacksonians S.S. Taylor, C.E. Klumb, S.K. Whitten Jr., W.N. Watkins and H.V. Watkins. This group sold the land on December 4, 1925 to W. N. Cheney, R.S. Dobyns, Carl L. Faust, W.E. Guild and Stokes V. Robinson. The Pinehaven Realty Corporation purchased the property from this group on March 1, 1927 for $12,700. (5) (6) (7) For the much of the following 23 years, Pinehaven Realty Corporation maintained the land where the church sits today. A single dwelling and out building were shown on the 1925 Sanford Fire Insurance map. The majority of the land between Pinehurst and Belhaven Streets was vacant and remained so until purchased by First Presbyterian Church on September 20, 1950. Prominent Jacksonian and church member Chalmers Alexander was instrumental in this transaction. (8) (17)
According to Jacksonian Judge Swan Yerger, much of this north end of the 1300 block of north state was a field which served as a softball diamond for the older Power School boys who were enrolled in the old Power School on Pinehurst. The spent their recess and many hours after school on this diamond. Since the inception of the church in 1837, First Presbyterian has had only 12 permanent senior ministers. The tenures shown below do not include interim or guest preachers.
Rev. Peter Donan – 1837-41
Rev. S.H. Hazard – 1841-42
Rev. Leroy Jones Halsey – 1842-48
Rev. Halsey built the first church sanctuary
Rev. Isaac James Henderson – 1849-53
Rev. L.A. Lowery – 1853-55
Dr. John Hunter – 1858-95
Dr. James Buchanan Hutton – 1895-1939
Dr. R. Girard Lowe – 1940-52: When this man knelt to welcome little children to Sunday School, he was a giant.
Dr. John Reed Miller – 1952-68: Dr. Miller was active in missions and in 1962, led the church in founding a Winter Theological Institute which was continued as Reformed Theological Seminary. For 16 years his sermons were broadcast on radio and beginning in the early 1960’s, the morning worship services were televised.
Dr. Donald B. Patterson – 1969-83: During Dr. Patterson’s ministry Twin Lakes Conference center was established near Florence and he served as chairman of the steering Committee that formed the Presbyterian Church of America. The PCA was Founded in 1973 and is focused on the infallibility and historicity of the Scripture and the Westminster Standards. According to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of music and media, “We distinguish ourselves by these tenants.”
Dr. James M. Baird – 1983-95: Dr. Baird gave leadership to three new building programs, popularized the Church’s TV ministry and was instrumental in involving the church’s Mission Mississippi movement.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, III – 1996 – 2013: The son of an eighth generation ruling elder, Dr. Duncan recently resigned his pastorate to take over the position of Chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary. (1)
The Rev. David Strain took over the responsibilities of pastor in early 2015. Since that time several other worthy churchmen have helped fill the pews on Sunday morning. Today’s original sanctuary was opened Sunday, September 2, 1951 with the first service preached at 7:30 p.m. by interim pastor Dr. Albert Sydney Johnson. Additions to the original building have been the Lowe Fellowship Hall in 1956 which included additional Sunday School space, Westminster Hall in 1986 and Miller Fellowship Hall which contains the music suite, choir suite and kindergarten. A study center is located on the northeast side of the church which includes a gymnasium and three stories of Sunday School space. The present sanctuary was expanded in 2005-07 and currently seats 1,380. (2) (15) Since its inception 176 years ago, Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church has been housed in but three permanent buildings in three locations. It has been served by 12 elected ministers, for an average of just under 15 years each. This consistency is proof of the stability to which Zwingli alluded and is testimony of the continuity and permanence of this institution.
“And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church;
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
On July 10, 1950, while the present sanctuary was under construction, the church cornerstone, which dates from 1891, was transported from the old building on Yazoo Street to the left side of the new church’s front door. Dr. Girard Lowe oversaw the insertion of documents pertinent to the time. These included a bible, a church history, the church roll, various bulletins, a list of major actions leading to erection of the new building, names of the building committee, a roster of the major contributors up to that time, the departmental leaders and daily newspapers chronicling the event. (9)
The mission of First Presbyterian Church is that which is the answer to the question posed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is man’s chief end?” Man’s chief end and the mission of the church is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Today’s church is composed of over 3,100 members, 2,550 of whom are resident members that represent 1,375 families. Many currently live in the Belhaven neighborhood. There are 105 staff members including those at Twin Lakes Conference Center. The church is governed by a 70 member Session which is made up of elders. The minister’s role is to provide spiritual leadership. Property and care of the church is done by deacons. Ministers belong to the Presbytery. Major decisions are normally made by the Session with senior ministers selected by the congregation. Early growth of the church was overseen by its senior pastors and pioneer Jacksonians such as the Power, Williford and Wells families, Judge Julian P. Alexander, Bob Cannada, George Lemon Sugg and R.E. Kennington. Many leading elders and youth leaders have also contributed to church growth. (2)
“Those who have arrived at very eminent degrees of excellence in the practice of an art or profession have commonly been actuated by a species of enthusiasm in the pursuit of it.”
The Presbyterian ministry throughout its history, which dates back to the Reformation, has been shaped by the knowledge of Christian faith and the principles of the history which surrounds it. Since the Reformation church leaders have placed a high premium on the education of its ministers and laity. A primary source of this knowledge is the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). The RTS was started in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 by five men, four of whom were elders in First Presbyterian Church. Its purpose is to train for the ministry based on a high view of scripture and historic Westminster standards. With ancillary campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Dallas and Washington, DC, it offers advanced degrees in bible studies, missions and family counseling. (10) Belhaven University has received significant support from FPC for a number of years.
A thriving institution today, Belhaven experienced some fallow years in the early and middle 1900’s involving its endowment and accreditation. In spite of the heroic efforts of its third president Dr. Guy T. Gillespie, the school struggled to maintain its viability. The designation of the college as a co-educational institution in 1954 helped the situation but it was its transfer by the Synod of Mississippi Presbyterian Church in the United States to the Belhaven College Board of Trustees in 1972 that ensured its modern independence. FPC elders serve on the College’s board and significant support is provided by the church. (11) FPC has historically supported private academies which base their mission on Christianity and character. Chamberlain–Hunt Academy in Port Gibson has a history that goes back to 1830 at Oakland College in Rodney. Founded as a military school, its fortunes waxed and waned through the years and were quite low in the mid 1990’s due to decreased enrollment. In 1996, members of the First Presbyterian church in Jackson and French Camp Academy in Choctaw County–in which the church also has an interest–purchased from a local bank the historic buildings, over 200 acres of land and the school’s educational equipment. This purchase ensured the viability of the Port Gibson facility at that time. (12)
Twin Lakes Conference Center near Florence was obtained in 1970. It serves as a summer camping facility in warm weather months and an events center the balance of the year. Over the years millions of dollars have been invested in this first class facility which is available for rental by outside groups. (13) FPC is youth oriented beyond Twin Lakes and its regular ministry. It supports the neighborhood Christian Center in the minority community which emphasizes Christian ethics, academic tutoring and breaking the chains of poverty. (2) Other outreach programs include work with Mission Mississippi, world missions, campus student groups and assistance in starting new churches within the PCA movement. The First Presbyterian Day School was established in 1965 and is located in Miller Hall on Pinehurst Street. The day school contains grades k-6 and currently has a student body of about 650. It involves normal school curriculum, which according to Dr. Wymond, “is based on a Christian and world life view.” It is designed so that the school and church complement each other. While this school can present some traffic challenges when taking in and letting out, it greatly strengthens the character of the neighborhood and is an attraction to numerous young families, many of which have remained in Belhaven after their children finish the sixth grade. (14) (2)
Let us not cease to do the utmost so that we may incessantly go forward
in the way of the Lord;and let us not despair of the smallness of our accomplishments.”
When asked of the church’s future plans, Dr. Wymond stated “the First Presbyterian Church is always looking for opportunities to serve and preach the gospel. He further added, “No new projects are scheduled at present except to help the city. We are here for Jackson and as an institution to anchor the neighborhood, to conduct bible studies in the Mid Town neighborhood and be helpful and supportive of the church.” (2) On a rainy Sunday morning on the first day of October 1950, Billy Harvey, age 11, stood before the 400 member congregation in the little brick church on the corner and accepted Christ as his personal savior. He held a bible given to him by his parents and a Shorter Catechism provided by the church. Dr. Lowe asked the congregation to accept him into church membership and, standing, they agreed. Looking back through the prism of 63 years he would joyfully do so again. One hundred and seventy six years ago a pastor and four early Jacksonians met in a statehouse in a tiny city only 15 years in existence. They planted the seeds of a great church and a monument to their faith.
Today the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson rests firmly on its foundation, its steeple soaring toward the heaven we aspire to and towers over the memories of old Power School to the south on State Street and the rambling Green Apartments to the north. It surveys to the west what was at its construction the Hederman home at Marshall Street, the beautiful Vaughan Watkins house at Webster and Beth-Isreal Cemetery in between, ever facing east. Its mission remains the glorification of God. It is not moving to the suburbs. It is not changing its doctrine. It is not going away. Like Peter’s rock, it represents a hallmark of stability and is grounded in the inspiration of its purpose belonging to all as a beacon of faith, a citadel of strength and a cornerstone of our neighborhood.
Bill & Nan Harvey
(1) Church history from web site
(2) Interview with Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media, (09/30/13)
(3) Historic marker, NW corner of Yazoo & State Streets
(4) FPC archives
(5) Hinds County deed records, book 174, page 22, (12/04/1925)
(6) Hinds County deed records, book 190, page 284 (03/01/1927)
(7) Hinds County deed records, book 676, page 87 (09/20/1950)
(8) Jackson city directories 1930-50
(9) Program, Laying of the Cornerstone, FPC, 07/10/1950
(10) Reformed theological Seminary, Internet Wikipedia, (09/04/2013)
(11) Gordon, James F., Jr., A History of Belhaven College 1894-1983, Jackson, MS Belhaven College (1983)
(12) Chamberlain-Hunt and French Camp Academies web sites
(13) Twin Lakes Conference Center web site
(14) Mission Statement, FPC Day School, A Kingdom School, Established 1965
(15) Jackson Daily News, Sunday 8/26/51
(16) Conversation with Judge Swan Yerger (09/29/13)
(17) Sanford Fire Insurance Company map – 1925
(A) Thanks are extended to Dr. William K. Wymond, minister of Music and Media at First Presbyterian Church for his kind contribution of time to explain much of the background of today’s church
(B) Appreciation is extended to Rev. Brister Ware, minister of Pastoral Care for his efforts to coordinate permission and approval of this article
(C) Appreciation is extended to the senior pastor and others associated with the governmental structure of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson for their support and approval of this article.