A Brief History of First Presbyterian Church

Organized on New Year’s Eve 1871, First Presbyterian Church has for nearly 150 years been a beacon of Christian faith and hope where “cross the crowded ways of life” in downtown Durham. Its first frame house of worship opened at the corner of Second (Roxboro) and Main streets in 1876. That building was supplanted in 1890 by a larger steepled brick edifice needed to accommodate a growing congregation drawn from the residents of the burgeoning industrial city of the New South. An emphasis on spirituality, guided by full-time resident ministers beginning with Henry T. Darnall (1880-1893) and Lennox B. Turnbull (1894-1901), combined with reform of the secular environment as well as with evangelizing local tobacco and textile workers. The church’s mill missions vastly expanded Presbyterianism in Durham. Its Pearl Mill Chapel became Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church; West Durham Chapel at Erwin Mills became Blacknall Memorial; and Edgemont Chapel became Fuller Memorial. The first church-sponsored foreign mission was planted in 1895 in central Brazil, followed by another at Soonchun, Korea, and others in Africa and Cuba.

The church grew during the pastorate of Edward Leyburn (1902-1919) benefitted by the generosity of tobacco and textile magnate George Washington Watts, in accordance with his religious life priorities: Sunday School (1913); the present sanctuary (1916); and the present church house (1923). The enhanced physical plant became a hub of the city’s religious life during the ministry of David Scanlon (1921-1938) when temperance, biological evolution, and economic depression became central issues, as did democratization of church government. World War II and the postwar period found the church led briefly by John H. Marion (1938-1940) followed by Kelsey Regen (1941-1960) and church hostess Clara P. Matthis (1940-1969). They shepherded the congregation through a strife-torn world and reached out to a flood of soldiers from nearby Camp Butner. Peace found democratic tides coursing through the flagship church. The Session in 1954 overtured Granville Presbytery to endorse ordination and installation of women as Ruling Elders and Deacons more than a decade before the Presbyterian Church in the United States approved women as church leaders. The challenge of racial integration led the church in 1955 to seat all who sought to worship, an enduring commitment to inclusion and hospitality to people of different races, nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations.

Industrial decline, urban demolition-renewal, and suburbanization challenged the downtown church and confronted it with a hard choice: retain its historic sacred space in the urban public square or migrate to the suburbs. The decision was made to stay at the corner of Roxboro and Main streets, which led to the oft quoted statement about First Presbyterian Church: “Downtown by history and by choice.” Completion of the Christian Education Building in 1964 attested to the congregation’s resolve to proclaim Christ’s presence in a changing city. Pastor David Currie (1963-1968) came to the pulpit during a decade marked by the tumult of an unpopular war in Vietnam, civil rights protests, and dramatic cultural changes. He promoted a broad-based urban mission outreach including vigorous efforts to improve race relations in the Durham community as manifested by the Session’s reception in 1964 of the first Black member of the congregation in the modern era.

The Christian witness in the city expanded under successors Wallace Alston, Jr. (1969-1974), Samuel R. Hope (1975-79), and talented assistant/ associate ministers, including John B. Rogers (1970-1971); Charles Raynal (1972-1974); David Hester (1975-1979); the first woman associate minister, Carter Smith (1981-1984), followed by Arabella Meadows-Rogers (1985-1992) and Lori E. Pistor (1993-2003). The church’s multi-racial Child Care Center (Day School) opening in 1970 and the congregation’s support for the development of the Urban Ministries of Durham became the most visible and continuing manifestations of a witness to the city.

Pursuit of the church’s downtown mission continued and expanded during the long and fruitful ministry of Joseph S. Harvard (1980-2013) joined by Marilyn Turner Hedgpeth, Associate Pastor (2004-2019) and Samuel R. Miglarese (2006-2019). The decades-long pastorate of Rev. Harvard was marked by the strengthening of links with Durham’s African-American community, the establishment of Iglesia Emanuel Presbyteriano at the former Northgate Presbyterian Church, and support of Habitat for Humanity and Durham Congregations in Action.

Social and cultural changes in society confronted the church as it entered the new millennium. Among them was the acknowledgement of individual sexual orientation and its relationship to changes in ordination standards for clergy, church officers and for hospitality extended to all members and prospective members. To that end, First Church, joined in 2003, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Led by clergy and Elders, old First Church early took a forthright stand on the long running and controversial issue ultimately embodied in a set of “Core Values” (“The Plumb Line”) adopted in 2010. The first “Core Value” boldly proclaimed that “we are called to invite and nurture a diverse and inclusive community.” As the impact of climate change on the environment became more apparent, the church, reformed and ever reforming, would become an Earth Care Congregation a decade later.

First church undertook major renovations of its aging sanctuary when in 2002 it launched a major capital campaign, “Remember, Renew, Rejoice.” That successful campaign resulted two years later in an expanded chancel, elimination of the choir loft, and seating of the choir on risers directly behind the renovated pulpit, lectern and table. The lighting and sound system were also improved and an elevator rendered the sanctuary as well as the church basement and Christian Education Building more accessible.

A new day dawned in February 2016 when the congregation called its first senior pastor in 33 years and its first woman senior minister, Mindy L. Douglas. She was joined by Associate Ministers Mitzi Lesher-Thomas (2020-2022), John Weicher (2019-) and Esther Hethcox (2022-) She thereafter led a church seeking to make a difference by raising a voice in the public square that echoed the inclusive and non-judgmental love of Christ in congregational worship, Christian education, and service to the city and its people, hallmarks of a commitment that led Judea Reform’s former Rabbi, John Friedman, to praise First Presbyterian Church as “the central religious address in Durham.”

In pursuit of the church’s mission, the new ministerial leadership, Session, and congregation acted to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the church’s organization (1871-2021) with an ambitious capital campaign, “Building Beloved Community: A Place of Grace in the Heart of Durham.” The campaign’s goals advanced in 2019 aimed “to improve congregational life and reach out to the community” by extending the Watts-Hill Fellowship Hall in the century-old Church House together with enlarging the adjacent renovated kitchen and restrooms, and necessarily moving and expanding the Memorial Garden.  With plans well laid, the unexpected unfolded.

A world-wide COVID-19 virus engulfed the globe in a pandemic not experienced for a century. By winter 2020, the virus reached the United States and soon engulfed North Carolina. The Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, became the last in-person Sunday service. The following Sunday, worship services, including Easter, were transmitted on line from the sanctuary and from the homes of ministers. Not until June 20, 2021 was in-person worship possible with all congregants required to wear face masks. A new variant of the virus erupted in early 2022; by May, the national death toll had reached one million. Not for another year did the pandemic officially end. By then, church leaders and members had long since persevered and marked the sesquicentennial of First Presbyterian Church’s founding with the acquisition of beautiful new green (Ordinary Time) and white paraments (Holy Days) as well as a custom-made Communion table cloth, all dedicated to the glory of God in worship, music and mission to the city of Durham.

By Peter G. Fish

September 2023


Click here to see our Sesquicentennial Snapshots

Postcard from Archives: Arthur Watts Clark postcard to Dorothy Rankin on the historic meeting on whether to remain a downtown church.

Would you like to read “Downtown By History and Choice: First Presbyterian Church of Durham, NC, 1871-2013,”  our history book by Peter Fish?  Copies of Peter Fish’s book on the history of FPC can be purchased at the church for $25 (make check payable to First Presbyterian Church), or at The Regulator Bookshop ($30) in Durham.

By mail order with discount: Go to the Carolina Academic Press website (www.cap-press.com); click on “Shopping Cart;” enter title (Downtown by History and Choice); click on “Check Out;” on page 1 of “online Order Form” go to box labelled “Discount Code” and enter FPCBOOK (in caps); make payment including shipping charge and sales tax for N. C. residents. Cost is $38.44.

Book is also available through Amazon.com for $65.00.