General Sam Houston and his wife were in attendance at our church, for both a morning and evening service, that hot Sunday in May back in1845. So observed the Rev. James Weston Miller, the pastor, in his diary for that day. Miller had arrived in this rugged frontier town of Houston some 6 months earlier. He had been sent down here from Pennsylvania as a "foreign missionary" to the Republic of Texas as pastor to a group of Presbyterians who had been organized back in 1839. They had already built a small place of worship at Main and Capitol, (where the downtown Chase Bank now stands). Constructed of pine and painted white, it was lit with whale-oil lamps. A week after taking charge of his tiny congregation of 13 members, his diary records: "People always ready to attend preaching, always attentive, polite, kind, and confiding whenever met. Thick forests are in the neighborhood. The howling of wolves is often heard...."
A grand new building was dedicated on March 27, 1896 at the corner of Main and McKinney, but then was destroyed in a fire in 1932. A local newspaper reported, "While the water played on the roof of the building, a vivid, gorgeous rainbow appeared in the thick, heavy, black smoke which rolled upward… The rainbow remained for several minutes, and was seen by thousands…" That rainbow of blessing and promise still arches over this congregation.
The Rev. William States Jacobs was pastor during much of the first quarter of the 20th century. During that time, many aspects of the missions and ministries that still define us as a congregation today were developed. The Ladies' Association undertook the daunting task of raising over $20,000 to build a wing onto the local Tubercular Hospital to house indigent patients. Today, First Presbyterian volunteers still minister to indigent patients through our Ben Taub program. Over that same period of time our church sent out the first of its many missionaries, Dr.Allen Hutcheson, as a medical missionary to China, and in the great tradition of adult education, which defines this congregation, we started a Sunday school class for students attending Rice University.
In 1932, Dr. Charles L. King arrived. Within a few years, Dr. King would preside over the Centennial Celebration of 1939. Dr. King began his ministry with three major goals, all of which God blessed and which continue to see fruition in our lifetime: an expansion of the children's Sunday school program, which he rightly termed "the cradle of the church"; the reunification of the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church which had split during the Civil War (Dr. King's work in this area would not blossom fully until 1980); and the planting of additional Presbyterian churches in Houston. Did you know that some of our great sister churches, like Grace and St. Andrew's, and more recently, Trinity, are quite literally "chips off the old block?" Years before Dr. King's arrival, the Session of our church, thinking of the generations to come, had strained the church's finances to purchase our 5½ acre site. So, following the close of World War II, ground was broken on September 4, 1946, here at 5300 Main. The first worship in the new building took place on May 2, 1948. In that very same year, Dr. King helped the Synod of Texas purchase the Mo Ranch property that became our church's beloved "summer get-away" retreat center.
In September of 1961, John William Lancaster stepped into our pulpit to start his ministry here. It was a particularly auspicious beginning, as Dr. Lancaster's first sermon, delivered to a sparse crowd, just happened to coincide with the arrival of Hurricane Carla. Dr. Lancaster affably refers to that day as the one in which "two big winds blew into Houston!" Just as a wind blew through the crowd gathered at Pentecost long ago, signaling the arrival of the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit-filled wind continued to renew and empower this great congregation under Dr. Lancaster's leadership over the next quarter century. This church made a special effort to minister to its youth and the summer mission trips for youth were launched. In 1963 our Wednesday evening program, now known as "CommunityFirst," began to offer midweek opportunities to become equipped for kingdom service and empowered in our faith. First Presbyterian continued to proclaim Christ's name far beyond our walls in the support of our mission activities in places like Korea and Brazil; and in 1967 we began to share our Sunday worship over the television airwaves.
As our sign indicates, there is another great institution that resides at 5300 Main Street thanks to Dr. Lancaster—Presbyterian School. In the Fall of 1989, Presbyterian School opened its doors to offer a distinct educational program for families in the Houston area. The school was founded on the vision that Family, School and Church should work together to educate and support children and their families. Through the years, Presbyterian School has grown from a young, innovative school dedicated to the earliest academic years to a dynamic and respected institution committed to and known for delivering educational excellence to over 500 students two years old through eighth grade.
After the arrival of Vic Pentz in 1991, our church continued its pattern of explosive growth, not just in a numerical sense, but in a spiritual sense as well. Our children and youth ministries expanded; the singles ministry took off with new vision; new adult Sunday school classes were formed; short-term mission opportunities, both here and abroad, were increased; and our Stephen Ministry prepared well-equipped lay caregivers who stand ready to patiently "share the walk" with anyone experiencing pain or transition in their life. All of these ministries continue to grow.
Recognizing that the growth of our existing programs and ministries was beginning to critically impact our space needs, the Future Planning Committee of our Session appointed a task force to document this exciting growth and make recommendations about the not-so-distant future space needs of our seven-day-a-week church. In 1995, on Pentecost Sunday, our church family met together in small, neighborhood groups all across the city to anticipate what God might be calling First Presbyterian Church to be and to do in the years to come. One of the dreams, born out of those meetings, was a multi-use facility for evangelism, outreach, missions, youth, and educational ministries. In the spring of 2000 construction was completed on the Lancaster Center, a place where we can meet the needs of our own congregation and reach out to serve the needs of our community as well.
William Vanderbloemen joined us in January 2002. As a dynamic preacher and creative leader, he led our church to new places. His arrival sparked enthusiasm in our congregation.
In January 2007 we entered a season of transition. On Easter 2007, we welcomed our new Interim Senior Pastor, David McKechnie. Dave was senior pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston for 24 years. He currently serves as President of the Texas Theological Foundation, has been a three-time Commissioner to General Assembly, candidate for Moderator of General Assembly, and served in numerous other positions in the Presbyterian Church and the Houston community.
In October 2009 we unanimously voted to call Jim Birchfield as Senior Pastor. Jim served Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, California, and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California, an active church with over 3,000 members. Those close to Jim describe him as a visionary and a “wonderful, gifted leader” in a way that “lifts up and encourages the potential and development of others.” He has embraced a collaborative style of leadership and values empowering lay leaders. He is an approachable, accessible pastor and an effective preacher.
Here we now stand, upon a sure foundation of faith and faithfulness, because of the First Presbyterians who have gone before us. We invite you to join with us as we celebrate our past, work diligently in the mission and ministry of this present moment, and go forward boldly into the future to which God has called us; a future where we, by the grace of God, fulfill God’s purposes for First Presbyterian, Houston.