Organized on New Year’s Eve 1871, First Presbyterian Church has for nearly 140 years been a beacon of Christian faith and hope where “cross the crowded ways of life” in downtown Durham. Its first frame house of worship rose at thecorner of Second (Roxboro) and Main streets in 1875-76, only to be supplanted in 1890 by a larger steepled brick edifice needed to accommodate a growing congregation drawn from the residents of the burgeoning industrial city of the New South. An emphasis on spirituality, guided after 1880 by full-time resident ministers, beginning with Henry T. Darnall, combined with reform of the secular environment as well as with evangelizing among both local tobacco and textile workers’ families and the unchurched in foreign lands. The church’s mill missions vastly expanded Presbyterianism in Durham. Its Pearl Mill Chapel became Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church. West Durham Chapel at Erwin Mills became Blacknall Memorial, and Edgemont Chapel became Fuller Memorial. The first church-sponsored foreign mission was planted in 1895 in central Brazil, followed by another at Soonchun, Korea, and others in Africa and Cuba.
The church expanded during the pastorate of Edward Leyburn (1902-19) by virtue of the generosity of tobacco and textile magnate George Watts, in accordance with his religious life priorities: Sunday School (1913); the present sanctuary (1916); the present church house (1923). The enhanced physical plant became a hub of the city’s religious life during the ministry of David Scanlon (1921-1938) when temperance, biological evolution and economic depression became central issues, as did democratization of church government. World War II and the postwar period found the church led by Pastor Kelsey Regen (1941-1960) and church hostess Clara P. Matthis. Together they shepherded the congregation through a strife-torn world and reached out to a flood of soldiers from nearby Camp Butner. Peace found democratic tides coursing through the flagship church when the Session in 1954 overtured old Granville Presbytery to endorse ordination and installation of women as elders and deacons. The challenge of racial integration led the church in 1955 to seat all who sought to worship while continuing its traditional support for Presbyterianism in the city’s African-American community.
Suburbanization also challenged the downtown church and confronted it with a hard choice: retain its historic sacred space in the urban public square or migrate to the hinterlands. The decision was made to stay at the corner of Roxboro and Main–thus, the often-read statement about First Presbyterian Church: “Downtown by history and by choice.” Completion of the Christian Education Building in 1964 attested to the congregation’s resolve. Pastor David Currie (1963-68) promoted a broad-based urban mission outreach. The Christian witness in the city expanded under successors Wallace Alston, Jr. (1969-74), Samuel R. Hope (1975-79), and talented associate ministers, including John B. Rogers, Charles Raynal, David Hester, the first woman associate Carter Smith (1981-84), Arabella Meadows-Rogers (1985-92), and Lori E. Pistor (1993-2003). The church’s day school and the Presbyterian Urban Ministry became the most visible and continuing manifestations of the urban witness.
Pursuit of this witness continues to mark the ministry of Joseph S. Harvard, Pastor (1980-2013) and Marilyn Turner Hedgpeth, Associate Pastor (2004-present). Links have been formed with Durham’s African-American community by establishing a partner relationship with Fisher Memorial United Holy Church and with the larger diverse community through active involvement in the Durham Presbyterian Council and Durham Congregations in Action. As Rabbi John Friedman graciously phrased it, “First Presbyterian Church is the central religious address in Durham.”
Prepared by Peter Fish, Church Historian