Church History

History of the Presbyterian Church in America

Presbyterian Church Logo

The history of Presbyterianism in America can be traced at least as far back as 1717. That was when there was a great immigration of Scots-Irish to this country. The Scots-Irish are not people of mixed Scottish and Irish blood, but they are Scots who had immigrated to Ireland to escape paying taxes to support the Church of England and to find a better life for themselves in Ireland. But in 1717 and later these Scots from Ireland immigrated to America in search of an even better life. They were not called Scots-Irish until they came to America to differentiate them from the Irish-Catholics who later immigrated from Ireland to America. In Ireland they were known as Ulster Presbyterians. They came to places like New York and New Jersey, but most of them settled in Pennsylvania (which is still one of the most concentrated areas of Presbyterians in the United States). From there they migrated to Virginia and North Carolina and then to Kentucky and Tennessee. Some of those whose ancestors were Scots-Irish Presbyterians are Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

These Scots-Irish Presbyterians were very involved in the founding of this country as a nation independent of England. Indeed, some in England called the Revolutionary War “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” A member of the English Parliament said, “Our American cousins have run off with a Presbyterian parson.” The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian minister named John Witherspoon. The representative form of government of the United States is based on the representative form of government of the Presbyterian Church as opposed to the congregational form of government of the Baptist Church in which every member theoretically has equal power, or the Episcopal or Catholic form of government in which the bishop controls most of the power.

History of The First Presbyterian Church in Somerset

Illustration of FPC Somerset Church

All this is background to the First Presbyterian Church of Somerset. When Presbyterians from Pennsylvania, Virginia and especially North Carolina began to move west into what later became Kentucky they established churches and schools. They established schools because Presbyterians have always believed in the value of education. Usually, schools were started by the ministers because they were the only educated people in the community. Indeed, one of the reasons the Presbyterian Church did not grow like other churches was that in the beginning, the only place a Presbyterian minister could be educated was in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Baptists and Methodists did not require their ministers to be educated.

As Presbyterians moved into Kentucky and established churches in many communities, for some reason they bypassed Pulaski County. For instance, The Presbyterian Church in Danville was organized in 1774, but it was not until around 1800 that some Presbyterians came up from Tennessee to Wayne County to establish a church there. That church did not last long and some of its members joined the Baptist and Methodist churches. But some of them came to Pulaski and established churches. At one time there was a church in Burnside and one at Mt. Victory. As a matter of fact, there was even a Presbyterian boarding school at Mt Victory. A church called the Pulaski Presbyterian Church was established in either 1801 or 1806 depending on which record you read. It later was renamed the Pisgah Presbyterian Church. It was not officially organized until 1828 however. Presbyterians who lived in Somerset traveled to Pisgah to worship. Beginning in 1853, the minister of Pisgah began preaching in Somerset although there was no church building. Around 1860, the members of Pisgah who lived in Somerset decided that six or seven miles was too far to travel to worship so they decided to build a church in Somerset.

On April 19, 1860 Jane Fox Caldwell was paid $100 for a lot on the corner of Columbia and Water (now Vine) Street for a church. A year later, the country was involved in a Civil War and the story is that the members never got to use the church building because during the Civil War it was used as a hospital. During the battle of Mill Springs in January, 1862, wounded soldiers were brought here and to the house next door that now is St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church’s parish hall.

History of The First Presbyterian Church during the Civil War

CIVIL WAR ENCAMPMENT NEAR CHURCH

There is an interesting story related to that in the historical records of the church from 1939: “During the month of October it became necessary to redecorate the interior of the church. In removing paper, layer upon layer, and coming to the plaster an interesting inscription was found which harks back to Civil War times, when this church was used as a hospital. Inscription supposedly was by a convalescent soldier who trying to pass away the tedious hours, decided to display his talent for drawing and expert penmanship, for there in ink and in good state of preservation, beneath the American Seal was inscribed with many flourishes: Sam Luke, Musician of the 180 Reg. 10th Volunteers. Former residence and birth place, New York City. Present residence, Crane Town, PA.”

The first church was a one room frame building. Once the members were allowed to move into the building for services, the minister divided his time between Pisgah and Somerset. The first minutes of the Somerset Church were recorded on September 14, 1861 at 3:00 p.m. Services were held in the original frame building until 1927 when an extensive renovation was undergone. The outside of the building was covered in brick, a basement was dug under the building for Sunday School rooms, and a kitchen with cabinets, stove and tables, bathrooms, a ladies parlor, a coal furnace with steam heat, and plumbing and wiring were added. The steeple was recovered in metal, new gutters were added and six stained glass windows commemorating the original elders were installed. This was all done for $10,937.39.

WORSHIPING AT HIGH SCHOOL

The next renovation was done in the mid 40’s and it was done out of necessity. This is how it is recorded in the Women of the Church minutes by Mrs. F. E. Tibbals, Historian: “An unexpected and unhappy occurrence took place on Sat. Night Jan. 29th, 1943, when fire partly destroyed the church building. To awake on Sunday morning with no church home was most depressing, but the High School Supt. Phoned Rev. Ledford and offered the school auditorium for church services that morning and as long as necessary. This was accepted and at eleven o’clock a large congregation was assembled. This indicated the desire for divine services and loyalty to Christ’s institution – the Church.”

The renovation could not be started until three years later because materials were not available due to World War II. After the war, work began in 1946 which included replacing the pulpit which was in the center with a divided chancel with a pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other. These and the rest of the woodwork were done in walnut. However, the pews were not replaced until the recent renovation. In addition, a memorial window was installed in the back of the chancel with a picture of Jesus with his hands outstretched in a welcoming gesture flanked by symbols of the four gospel writers. The ceiling which had been a flat ceiling with acoustic tile was removed exposing the beams of iron rods which were boxed in with wood to give it the look it has today. New lights were added, and a brass cross, candle holders, and offering plates were purchased. A pipe organ was also installed. Different estimates are given for the cost of this renovation from $17,000 to $28,000. I think the difference is that many of the new items were memorials given by individuals and families and were not a direct cost to the church, but were included in the total. Plus, a lot behind the church was bought for $4000.

During World War II, while raising money for the future renovation, the church had the highest operating budget in its history of $6685.00. In addition it did its part for the war providing a “Soldier’s Service Room” where a lunch was provided for soldiers on furlough who were waiting on a bus or train as they passed through town. The women of the church formed a knitting group which knitted and rolled bandages for the Red Cross. According to Mrs. Tibbals, approximately 15,000 hours were given to this project.

The next building project was done in the mid 1950’s when an educational building was added on the lot bought in 1947. It contained a pastor’s study, a fellowship hall with a stage, a kitchen, bathrooms and class rooms. It was used until the present renovation. An architect had estimated that it would cost $38,000 to build, but according to other sources it was closer to $50,000 by the time it was finished. In 1970 a house and lot behind the church became available which the church bought for $30,000. The session thought that was too high, but it was bought and paid for in just a few years. The house was rented to several families until it was torn down for a small parking lot which was later removed to build the present education building.

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Some interesting information:

  • In 1853, J. C. Barnes was the first pastor supported entirely by the congregation and a “comfortable cottage was reared and finished at the expense of near $200.00.”
  • In 1940, a committee was formed with members from Somerset, Pisgah and Mt. Victory to call R. A. Sykes at the salary of $2000.00. He declined the call.
  • In 1945, the congregation voted to change the name of the church from Somerset Presbyterian Church to First Presbyterian Church of Somerset, Kentucky.
  • In 1951 there was a mission “outpost” at Dahl, a small community east of here, with a Rev. Miller serving there for $12.50 a month for expenses, increased two years later to $25.00.
  • In the 1960’s a school for children with disabilities was held in the church. It was later taken over by the Comprehensive Care Center (now Adanta). After that, the church started an after-school program for children who might otherwise go home to an empty house because their parents were still at work. There was no charge to the families for the use of the program. It was funded largely by contributions from Sunday School classes.
  • In 1962, the congregation voted to increase benevolences (mission giving) by 2 percent a year until it reached 50% of the budget. That worthy goal was never attained, but it reached 38% before it was abandoned.
  • In 1970, Holy Week Services were begun, sponsored by the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal churches. These short services were held at noon in our sanctuary because neither the Lutheran or Episcopal churches had buildings at that time. Later, ministers from the Christian and Catholic churches participated and the services were moved to the basement of First and Farmers Bank where there was a kitchen; people were encouraged to bring their lunch. Then the Baptists and Methodists began to participate and the services were moved to the educational building of First Christian Church with a different church providing lunch each day. Now the Ministerial Association has taken it over and many other churches participate.
  • In 1971, there was an Inter-Faith Campus ministry at SCC sponsored by the Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran and Christian churches. This included a “Coffee House” over the old Kentucky Theater on South Main.
  • In 1971, a Worship Workshop was held jointly with St. Mildred’s Catholic Church in our church. This was the beginning of our creating and hanging banners.
  • In 1971, there was a joint youth group with St. Mildred’s.
  • In 1974, the manse was sold and the minister given a housing allowance. It was a very controversial decision.
  • In 1976, the First Pentecost celebration was held. There was a picnic on Burnside Island on Saturday with games, music and balloons released. A card from one of the balloons was returned to us from West Virginia. On Sunday, breakfast was served and banners were hung. It was also a homecoming for former members from out of town. Since Pentecost is called the birthday of the church, different people gave birthday gifts to the church: scholarships for the youth to attend a conference in Montreat, toys for the nursery, a new refrigerator, song books, craft materials and gifts of time, talent and treasure.
  • In 1978, the first Congregational Retreat at Camp Burnamwood was held. It began on Friday evening and concluded at noon on Sunday. This necessitated having another minister conduct services at Somerset.
  • In 1982, the church developed a Coat of Arms at the Retreat.
  • In 1983, the church developed our Church Creed based on the Coat of Arms at Retreat.
  • In November of 1991, members of Davis Chapel AME church worshiped with us followed by a potluck. In December we worshiped and ate with them.

“As I raise the lid of the chest of memories, I see therein many sad, sweet, beautiful things. Sorrow and tears, laughter and song, face and form of those long since departed – feel again the touch of vanished hands, hear voices mute and still these many years. But among the most beautiful things I see tonight is a vision of the interior of this sacred building as I remember to have seen it more than fifty years ago – when as a small lad I attended church and Sunday School. Here I see a tall old colonial pulpit with steps leading up on either side and on each corner, two crimson and white laps [sic]. In the center a large gilt-edged marble Bible on a stand, the minister standing behind.

Below, a quaint marble top table with the snowy cloth and communion service. In the congregation I see faces and forms of those who worshiped here in the long, long ago: in the rear, as I raise my eyes, I see in the old walnut paneled gallery the dark faces of the faithful family servants belonging to those who sat below.

In reality I cannot now recall one single face that I remember to have seen nearly fifty years ago. Where are they? Dead? No, just sleeping, resting from their labors waiting until the resurrection morn.

Having passed my three score years, I feel that I too am waiting – waiting for a welcome from my Savior on the other shore.”

Excerpt found among the papers of Ben Z. Ingram after his death. He was the son of a charter member of the church and was in his 70's when he wrote it and is probably describing the church as it was in its early years.

Easter Worship Service, April 16, 2017

Rev. Burt McGlawn, First Presbyterian Church, Somerset