Church's programs ever-expanding
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
The beautiful early American style of the First Presbyterian Church at 300 W. Wayne St. has been the familiar appearance since the 1950s of the home of the oldest organized congregation in Fort Wayne.
The church today is a complex of five major units. The education building, sanctuary and office were completed by 1956, and McMillen Chapel was added in 1958. The latest addition, McKay Hall (1967), contains the theater and the art gallery.
These facilities house programs involving religious education, day care, clubs, a prison ministry, refugee settlement, music, drama and the visual arts. When the congregation was first organized, in 1831, it had no building and its ministry's central aim was to provide a regular Sunday worship and a school for children.
For the first decade of its existence, between 1820 and 1830, the town of Fort Wayne had no organized religion. The young community was a rude and often violent place. It was the site of the annual government payments to the Indians and the drunken debauchery that followed. One early Presbyterian minister called Fort Wayne "a Babylon as bad as New York."
But the urge for religion was there for some, and in 1820, Samuel Hanna, then a newcomer, was instrumental in getting a Presbyterian minister named John Ross to visit. But Ross found the town "extremely unpromising," too godless even for ardent missionaries. To a large extent this was only the Protestant preacher's reaction to the large number of Catholics in the community, and perhaps he was goaded by the locals' insistence on calling him "Father Ross."
Allen Hamilton, another fur trader and friend of Hanna, was the delegate chosen in 1828 to appeal to the Home Missionary Society to send yet another, but permanent minister for the Protestants of Fort Wayne. The Home Missionary Society did not provide a resident minister, but did send the Rev. Charles Furnam in 1829 to investigate. This man stayed for six months, and now that the government Indian agency had closed, Furnam found the community quite hospitable and receptive to religion.
The Society was impressed and sent the Rev. James Chute, of Columbus, Ohio, in June 1831 to be a permanent minister. It was Chute who organized the first congregation in Fort Wayne, with 12 members. Chute died unexpectedly in 1835 and the first Lutheran pastor in Fort Wayne, Jessie Hoover, carried on for all the Protestants until 1837. In this year, Alexander T. Rankin came as the second Presbyterian minister, and he undertook immediately to build Fort Wayne's first regular church structure. Prior to this, the congregation met anywhere it could, from a shack on Water Street (today Superior) to the rickety second county courthouse. The new frame church was built on Berry Street between Lafayette and Barr streets, near today's empty lot next to the Historical Museum.
Presbyterian minister Rankin was a fire and brimstone preacher. Yet Hugh McCulloch, who was inclined toward Unitarianism, liked him very much and thought him "decidedly the best preacher I have heard in the West." Rankin left in 1843, and the congregation faced its first real crisis in the confrontation of the "old school" Presbyterians and the "new school" or liberal, anti-slavery Presbyterians. As soon as Rankin left, the nationally known preacher from Indianapolis, Henry Ward Beecher, rushed to Fort Wayne to take over the congregation in the name of the "new school." "Old schoolers," however, anticipated Beecher and called a conservative leader, the Rev. William C. Anderson. Anderson came to Fort Wayne a week ahead of Beecher and succeeded in taking over the congregation.
When Beecher arrived, he announced he had "come to divide your church," and he tried for the next several weeks to win the congregation to his persuasion. But when he failed to win a majority, he formed a separate congregation, which became the Second Presbyterian Church (known today as Westminster Presbyterian Church, 2614 E. State Blvd.)
In 1844, Samuel Bigger, an ex-governor of Indiana, was asked to choose a new site for the First Presbyterian congregation. By 1845, Bigger and his committee had purchased for $600 the lot at the southeast corner of Berry and Clinton streets. The new Greek Revival style church cost $13,000 and had enough pews for 320 worshippers.
The congregation grew between 1850 and 1880 and the building was enlarged and renovated. The sale of pews to the highest bidder, a fund-raiser organized by Samuel Hanna, largely financed the project.
Just before Christmas, 1882, a faulty flue in the chimney caused a fire that destroyed the church. The disaster was felt all over town. Trinity English Lutheran, which had inherited the first Presbyterian church building (and bell), gave the homeless congregation a meeting place for a few months. The congregation of the Temple of Achduth Vesholom, then at Harrison and Wayne streets, offered its building to the Presbyterians for their services. For the next two years, the Jews and the Presbyterians shared a house of worship in an ecumenical spirit not often seen.
The new church was the one familiar to the generations who grew up after the turn of the century and during the Great Depression. This fourth edifice, located on the northeast corner of Clinton Street and Washington Boulevard, was begun in 1883 and but not completed until 1886. In the 1940s, under the Rev. George Allison, the congregation began to redefine itself, its mission and its urban ministry. A new pastor, the Rev. John W. Meister, was called in 1950, and under his leadership First Presbyterian was led to another new building, the first part of which was dedicated in 1956. It is the home of the congregation today.
The many social and spiritual programs of the present-day First Presbyterian Church reflect the fundamental role this congregation played more than 150 years ago in helping to bring stability and cohesion to Fort Wayne in its infancy.
--Nov. 15, 1993