Humble Beginnings (1856-1911)
First Presbyterian Church was founded in 1856 by eight people, of which two were black slaves. The original eight members included John T. Ball, L.A. Ragsdale, David Vance, Mrs. Julia Drinkwater, Mrs. E.A. Emerson, Mrs. S.E. Hanna, Benjamin Emerson, and Jenny Emerson. Rev. Mr. William Curtis Emerson was the organizing pastor. Mr. Ball and Mr. Ragsdale were the founding fathers of the city of Meridian. The first services were held on the second floor of a store owned by one of the members on the corner of Valley Street and 27th Avenue. All church records up to 1864 were destroyed by General W.T. Sherman during his march to the sea, which occurred during the week of Valentine’s Day in 1864. After his attack, Sherman was recorded as saying, “Meridian no longer exists!” Rev. Emerson was said to have refused to take the pledge of allegiance oath to the U.S. after the Civil War, as he had great contempt for the Union Army. It’s easy to understand, given the fact that the Union army destroyed the records of his first church. We do have his actual hand-written diary in our historical room, which is located adjacent to the Sanctuary, behind what is called the Chapel.
The initial church building was built in 1867 on the corner of 25th Avenue and 7th Street, on a lot donated by Mr. Ragsdale. The pastor was Rev. A. L. Kline, and the church had 19 members at the time. The old wood-framed structure was destroyed by fire on the night of January 24, 1883. By February, 1884, the small congregation had rebuilt the church, this time in brick at the same location. That structure remained at that address until September 25, 1911, when it was sold to the City of Meridian for use as the City Library. That very building is still standing today and is the location of the Meridian Museum of Art.
Our "New" Home (1912-1990)
In 1912, our present church site, at the corner of 23rd Avenue and 10th Street, was purchased. The architect for the new building was Mr. Penn Jeffries Krouse, whose daughter, Mrs. Emily Smith, was a member of our church until her death in 2003. The current church building was built in 1913 and dedicated on March 29, 1914. It cost $60,000 to complete and today takes more than that each year simply to maintain it. The original 1867 cornerstone was again laid here at our present church and contains Rev. J.E. Jones’ Bible. Dr. Jones (1893-1912) was so loved by First Presbyterian that when he died in Macon, they brought his body to be viewed for several days before being moved on for burial in Georgia. In 1938 the pastor was Dr. A.A. Little. He served as pastor of our church for twenty years. A highlight of his ministry was when First Presbyterian hosted the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Church membership during his tenure was at an all-time high of 850 members. In 1951, our educational building addition (used for Sunday School) was completed under the leadership of pastor Dr. J. Kelly Unger. In 1982 the Sanctuary was renovated, with particular attention given to the interior walls. Efforts continue to be made to maintain the same architectural design as set forth in the 1914 structure.
In November of 1990, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church voted to move from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in order to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The majority vote of 78% carried. The Lord has continued to bless and guide our church since that vote, as we have taken a stronger stand on the authority of Scripture in our service of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In October 1996, the adjacent business located to the south side of our church became available for our church to purchase. It became our Administration & Education Building and is presently used for staff offices as well as both Adult Sunday School and committee meetings. A new Fellowship Hall was proposed in 1998, which included a kitchen, basketball court, and fellowship hall for Wednesday nights. The Session put this project on hold in order to make needed repairs to the main church structure, to the stain-glass windows, and to install a new heating and air conditioning system. Plans for constructing a new Family Life Center have been underway since 1996. The Session would like to see this dream become a reality in the next two years.
In 2001, Rev. Robert Horel retired, after almost twenty-three years of service to First Presbyterian. Rev. Horel holds the longest tenure of any of our fifteen pastors. Our current pastor, Dr. Rhett G. Payne, III, was called in June of 2002. Dr. Payne has been with the EPC since its inception in 1981.
lllUnder Dr. Payne's leadership, the Administration Building has been repaired and renovated, including staining the exterior stone to match the Sanctuary Building. Landscaping has been added as well, helping to make both corners off 23rd Avenue, at 9th Street and 10th Street very attractive. In addition, the church entered into a capital stewardship campaign in 2007, called "Expanding Our Vision." This campaign has led to First Presbyterian's first new construction in 56 years! Phase 1 of construction, "A Children's Ministry Wing," was completed in the spring of 2010. Phase 1 included former Educational Building, in order to serve as a connecting point to the new Educational Building. At the connecting point, a new Elevator was added with access to all three floors, making our facility more accessible than it has ever been. The former children's area is now the new Choir Room, complete with changing rooms for choir members.
In addition, the new facility also includes an entire suite of restrooms - complete with a Bride's Room – in the former choir space. Also, for the first time in our history, there is now same-level access to restrooms from the Sanctuary - a plus not only for Sunday mornings, but also for weddings and funerals.
The past for our church gives us a great sense of joy and satisfaction, because the Lord has been at work in our congregation for over 150 years. However, as we look to the future, we are excited, because we know that, at least in our lifetime, the best is yet to come!