Almost two centuries ago, our neighborhood Reformed Church was the Market Square Church, one of the earliest (1733) German ReformedChurches in America. However, the services there were spoken in German. There was high hope on the part of some that the nextpastor would preach in English. But another pastor from Germany hadagreed to come, and the older members if the Church stipulated that itmust be on condition that all services be in German.
This situation had much to do with the origin of First Church, for young people at this time no longer knew German very well and therefore had littleparticipation or interest in the Market Square Church. The idea oforganizing an English speaking Calvinistic Church quicklycrystallized. There was already a definite constituency for such aChurch since some more years a group had been meeting at the home ofRev Samuel Blair, on Sunday afternoons for the benefit of hisexpositions of the Scripture.
Dr. Blair was a distinguished clergyman (born 1741) who, at the age of 25,had been a colleague of Dr. Sewell of the Old South Church in Boston.Because of poor health, he gave up his Pastorate in Boston and came tolive at his wife’s home in Germantown. While at Boston, he had beencalled to the presidency of the College of New Jersey (PrincetonUniversity), but resigned in favor of Dr. John Witherspoon of Scotland.
No account of an actual organization of our Church can be found. There is a record in the Presbytery’s Minutesfor October 10, 1810, when Rev. Thomas Dunn, a Baptist lately forEngland, was received by the Presbytery, that since he had “for of thepeople, it was agreed that he should be regularly appointed to preachfor the new Church.” Because of this record, it was decided at ourCentenary Celebration in 1909 to take October 17, 1809, as the date ofour organization.
Earlyin 1811 subscription books were circulated in behalf of a churchbuilding. A site was chosen on Germantown Avenue, between Haines andRittenhouse. Ground was broken on August 5th and the cornerstone laidSeptember 10th. The total cost of property and building was $17,000,for which the group was not prepared. They had “over built” and seriousindebtedness hung over their shoulders for 27 years. The Presbytery wasasked several times for financial aid, but none was forthcoming.
Under the leadership of Rev. William Neill, the Church secured a new Charter (1832) in which the Church received its present name,”The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown.” And in 1836 we became”free from all debt whatever” – for the first time.
The Rev. J. Frederick Dripps (pastor 1870-80) came to us at a time when there was great quickening of spirit on Presbyterian Churches. He devised ourPastoral Aid Society, which was an original plan for women’s Churchwork, and which was adopted by many other Churches. It was at thebeginning of Dr. Dripp’s ministry that our Church sold its GermantownAvenue property and established itself at our present location, withthe construction of a new house of worship. All pew rents wereabolished, and a budget with voluntary subscriptions successfullyestablished. Committees from the newly modeled Pastoral Aid, organizeda Sunday School at Pulaskiville in 1870 (which became the WestsideChurch in 1892); and at Somerville in 1874 (which became the Church ofthe Covenant in 1910).
During the pastorate if Rev. Charles Wood,1886-97, our membership passed the 1,000 line and grew so rapidly thatan enlargement of the church auditorium became necessary. In 1888 theWest Transept was built followed by the East Transept in 1892 to furtheraccommodate the growing needs of the Church.
Rev. Charles R. Erdman, was a pastor with strong
Christian leadership and influence, from which many of us today havebeen greatly benefited.
In 1894 he began his Sunday Afternoon Addressesto Railroad Men at the Penna. R.R. Y.M.C.A. This volunteer servicecontinued for 15 years, as he inspired thousands of young men.
The long and distinguished pastorate of Rev. William Beatty Jennings, 1906-35, is still very real to many of us, the highcharacter of our Church in being confirmed in the course which we arestill pursuing. A big event of Dr. Jennings early years was theCentennial Anniversary Celebration of the founding of First Church withenthusiastic participation of the entire congregation. The beloved Rev. John Clark Finney, who came to our church in 1928 as an Associate Pastor with Dr. Jennings, gave 28 years of devoted service until his retirement in 1956, at which time he bacame our first Pastor Emeritus.
During the pastorate of Rev. Sherman Skinner,1936-47, First Church continued to expand, its membership reaching anew high of over 2,000. Because of its location and its growinginfluence in the community it became known as the “Church at theCrossroads.” Dr. Skinner’s ministry brought new life to the work andwitness of First Church and in testimony to his leadership much of theprogram and many of the organizations which he encouraged are still animportant part of the life of the church.
Radio and Television
Withthe coming of Rev. D. Reginald Thomas, from Wales in 1955, our Churchexperienced ever increasing opportunities to witness to a far greatercongregation though out the area. Overflow crowds at the worshipservices led to the use of radio and television and Dr. Thomas becamewidely recognized through an active radio ministry, “The Bible StudyHour.” During his ministry, 1955-65 First Church received widerecognition for its outstanding music program under the direction ofRobert Cathwithen, creating a tradition which continues to set apartthe program of First Church in this community.
In1967, the call to the Rev. Aaron E. Gast, brought to First Church acontinuing high standard of preaching and a new awareness of the roleof the Church in the community. During his fourteen year ministry, in1972, the Westside Presbyterian Church merged with First Church. This significant union, initiated by the minister of Westside, the Rev. Gordon L. Roberts, and through a cooperative spirit on the part of both congregations, produced a strong, cohesive church. Through the joint leadership of Reverends Robers and Gast, roots off the two congregations grew together to nurter a new witness. During this time, leadership was representative of both original congregations, and the traditions of both became the traditions of all.
For the next two decades,Dr. Griffin and later Dr. Simpson continued the traditions ofmeaningful worship, outstanding music, community involvement andpastoral care to the congregation and community. Various new forms of worship have been used and both traditional and contemporary church music has been enjoyed during worship.
Today: urban ministry, integrated worship, active faith
TheFirst Church, today with the vision of Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Muth, hassteadily developing urban ministry and an increasingly integratedcongregation. It is changing from being a church with a primarily whitemiddle class membership to one with members and leaders coming from thevarious social and racial groups of the immediate neighborhood.