On June 26, 1833, twenty-five Congregationalists and one forceful Presbyterian founded a Presbyterian Church in the fledging community of Chicago. That staunch Presbyterian, Philo Carpenter, had already been preaching against the social ills of the day – especially the abuse of alcohol – when Rev. Jeremiah Porter, First’s founding pastor, arrived with the reinforcements to the garrison at Fort Dearborn. In 1833, Chicago consisted of the Fort, a few hastily assembled log cabins, and encampments of American Indians waiting for the payments from the Federal Government as part of the settlement of the Black Hawk War. Rev. Porter bemoaned what he saw. He said, “The Sabbath by multitudes is most shamefully abused; twenty stores and groceries are dealing out liquid death, while there are but two real temperance stores in the place and those kept by members of my church.”
In January of 1834 the small but growing congregation built its first building at Clark and Lake Streets. This small building, which one visitor to Chicago described as “God’s barn,” not only served the worship needs of several denominations but was also used as the classroom for the first publicly supported school, and functioned as a court room and a community meeting place for concerts and lectures.
The congregation quickly outgrew this meeting house and relocated to a larger building at Clark and Washington Street. The congregation did not, however, outgrow its concern for its neighbors and the social problems of the day. Porter’s successor, the Rev. Flavel Bascom, was president of the Anti-slavery Society of Chicago. Church members included the publisher of Chicago’s abolitionist newspaper. Philo Carpenter and other members hosted Underground Railroad stations in their homes and businesses. Through the years such abolitionist and civil rights leaders as Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglas, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken at the church.
In 1858 members of the congregation began organized community outreach through a Railroad Mission which began as a Sunday school in two abandoned railroad cars. The program included education programs, a community newsletter, a gymnasium, kindergarten, and community gardens. The Railroad Mission continued to serve the south side of Chicago at various locations until 1916. In addition to the Railroad Mission, the congregation began to address the needs of the nearby Chinese community by sponsoring a Chinese Sunday School, staffed by a teacher and translator, in the 1890s.
Members of First were leaders in the founding of many important cultural, civic, and philanthropic organizations throughout Chicago. These organizations include Presbyterian Hospital (now part of Rush University Medical Center), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Presbyterian Home. Rev. John Henry Barrows was a leader in the organization of the first World’s Parliament of Religion which met during the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
In 1926, after a merger with Woodlawn Park Presbyterian Church, the congregation moved to its current location at 6400 South Kimbark Avenue in the Woodlawn community. The church house continued to serve as a beacon for community members. During the 1940’s, the congregation welcomed into membership Japanese-Americans who had relocated from the internment camps, and the African Americans who began moving into Woodlawn after World War II. In 1953, under the leadership of Dr. Harold Bowman, the congregation voted to remain in Woodlawn rather than following many of the white congregants to the south suburbs. By 1956 the congregation had achieved a multiethnic character which was dramatically manifest in the interracial co-pastorate of Ulysses B. Blakeley and Charles T. Leber. First Presbyterian continues to be a multicultural congregation.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, First worked with community leaders and other clergy to preserve and promote the Woodlawn community. The congregation was instrumental in the founding of The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.) which worked on housing issues, education, youth gang outreach, and community development. Under the leadership of member, Mary Lou Todd, and pastors, John Fry and Harold Walker, the first Headstart Program in the city of Chicago was started at the church. The Headstart, along with the after school programs that served Woodlawn for over thirty years were closed in 2007 because of declining enrollments and inadequate funding.
In the 1970’s Rev. Art Smith worked with the Woodlawn Ministerial Alliance to start a food pantry to address community hunger needs. The food pantry and a weekly hot meal program continue to this day, with the support of partner congregations. These programs meet the needs of 300 neighbors each week. Additionally, the congregation has donated some of its land to serve as community gardens for residents of Woodlawn and Hyde Park. Currently First Presbyterian is working with The Angelic Organics Learning Center, The Abundance Project, and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), to engage the needs of our community and city.
In October of 2009, the congregation welcomed Rev. Reggie A. Weaver as its pastor. We remain committed to witnessing God’s word to the world and seeking justice for all.