Chicago's First Church - Organized 1833

The Frontier Church (1833-1860)

The First Presbyterian Church was organized in June of 1833, two months before Chicago was incorporated. We were the first church in Chicago, and we remain the oldest continuously operating institution in this city.

The church’s first building was shared with the carpentry shop in Fort Dearborn. 25 Congregationalists and one Presbyterian were in the original congregation. That Presbyterian (Philo Carpenter – also Chicago’s first pharmacist) convinced the assembly to adopt his denomination’s affiliation and polity. 

The church’s founding pastor, Jeremiah Porter, was a staunch abolitionist. First Church organized the first abolitionist society in Illinois, and Porter had a reputation for preaching against the evils of slavery. First was also known for its role in the local temperance movement. Its anti-alcohol meetings attracted people from all over the territory. Once, a member of the Blackhawk tribe came to a meeting at First. After listening to a speech about temperance, he surprised everyone by pulling a bottle of whiskey out of his pocket, placing it on the table, and smashing it with his tomahawk.

First Church was the site of the first regional public school, founded by Eliza Emily Chappel, who later married Rev. Jeremiah. In addition to being the first public school teacher in Chicago, Chappel educated settlers in natives in joint classes, aided the wounded in the Civil War, participated in the Underground Railroad, and taught freedmen.

In October, 1845, the elders of First Church rocked the Presbytery of Ottowa with a resolution denouncing slavery as a “heinous sin against God,” and urging the Presbytery to be prepared to withdraw from the denomination if they refused to make a clear stand against slavery. A segment of First’s congregation was very upset by this move, urging that “such matters were not in the church’s province,” and split to form the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago.

In the 1850s, the elder Philo Carpenter organized an “underground railroad station” which aided more than 200 runaway enslaved people. When the Fugitive Slave Law forbade aid and comfort to runaway slaves, the Session of First Church publicly resolved to disobey the law. 

Abolition continued to be First’s primary concern until the Civil War, but it was not their only concern. Eliza Chappell’s legacy could be clearly seen in their mission to education as well. In 1957, First Church founded The Railroad Chapel, a school with classrooms in converted train cars. In its first year, there were 15 students including “American, Irish, German, and colored boys.” It is likely that this was the first integrated school in the area. By the end of the year, 200 more students had enrolled in the school.

Persistence Through Crisis (1861-1899)

Zepheniah Moore Humphrey, First Church’s fourth pastor, guided the church through the crisis of the Civil War. During his pastorate, Moore’s second cousin John Brown led his famous rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. Moore was just as radical as his cousin, though his tactics were described as more “gentle and refined.” He focused on the spiritual dimension of the national division.

Humphrey was succeeded by Arthur Mitchell, who pastored the church through the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire destroyed the church and the Railroad Chapel, as well as the homes and businesses of many members. The congregation built its fifth church on 21st Street, continuing its trend of moving further into the south of the city.

Following the Great Fire, Chicago went on an economic binge that climaxed in 1893 with the World’s Fair. First’s sixth Pastor, John Henry Barrows, organized the first Parliament of the World’s Religions. This was a conference to foster dialogue among leaders of the world’s faiths. Delegates included prominent Jainists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Bahá’í, and Spiritualists. The Parliaments continue to this day and are a model for progressive interfaith dialogue. There is some irony that Barrows has this legacy of fostering pluralism, as he was an avowed Christian supremacist and intended the Parliament to prove that Christianity was “the best religion,” because it contains “all that is true in all the faiths.”

As pastor, Barrows focused First Church’s mission on outreach to immigrants and foreigners living in Chicago. So many Chinese immigrants joined First Church in 1894 that the church had to hire an interpreter to translate the service for them.

First Church in Woodlawn (1926-1955)

In the first third of the 20th century, First Church was preoccupied with a number of mergers with other churches that continued the church’s gradual move southward. In 1926, First merged with Woodlawn Park Presbyterian Church, and a new American Gothic cathedral was built at 64th and Kimbark Avenue, in the heart of Woodlawn. This is still the building where First Church meets nearly a century later. In its heyday, First Church was a preeminent society church for Chicago with its own publishing operation and a membership that exceeded 2,200.

However, First Church’s move to Woodlawn had complicated intentions. Though the church had retained a significant Asian-American membership, it resolutely would not admit Black members. The move to Woodlawn (at that time a white community) was probably part of the larger trend of white flight from the urban centers where demographics were rapidly shifting. The church’s benevolence extended to European refugees escaping political oppression, but many members balked at the Black refugees escaping Jim Crow who were arriving in the early waves of the Great Migration.

After World War II, federal housing policies encouraged property owners in South Side to divide apartments into smaller units to accommodate war-time population pressures. This drove down housing costs and allowed families with lower incomes to move into the area. First Church’s pastor, Harold Leonard Bowman, sensed the imminence of a racial change in Woodlawn and began preaching and teaching to prepare the congregation for integration. 

In spite of the church’s record of radicalism on issues of racial justice, there was significant resistance to integration. Some elders on Session felt that the acceptance of “colored members” should be delayed “six months or longer, pending further education of the congregation.” Bowman strongly rejected this half-measure. A faction of members openly called the church to flee the “destructive influences of the community” and move further south into the suburbs.

Despite these currents of covert and explicit racism in the church, Session voted in 1953 that the church should remain in Woodlawn and invest in the future of the community and the people who were moving there. That year, the first Black member was receive into First Church, and by 1956 the congregation had a significant Black membership. The church faced consequences  for its decision – by 1957, half of the congregation had left, taking much of the church’s resources with them.

The Return to Radicalism (1956-1964)

In 1956, three years after accepting its first Black member, First Church called an interracial team of co-pastors, Ulysses B. Blakely and Charles T. Leber, known to the community as “Buck and Chuck.” 

Community morale was low. Investors had abandoned the neighborhood, and many believed it was inevitable that Woodlawn would be bulldozed to make way for the expansion of the University of Chicago. Blakely and Leber collaborated with other local clergy to organize the community for action. They invited Saul Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundation into the community. With generous grants from the Presbytery of Chicago and a Roman Catholic foundation, Alinsky launched the Temporary Woodlawn Organization in 1960.

Alinsky frequently led community meetings at First Church, which made the church a target of bitter controversy. Many members left in protest, stating that such an “overtly political” move was outside the church’s proper sphere of activity. The University of Chicago’s publication Maroon blared, “Church Supports Hate Group!” and the Christian Century magazine branded the project as a Catholic conspiracy to maintain a segregated neighborhood. Blakely and Leber remained committed to their approach in the face of this opposition. The Woodlawn Organization still exists today, and it has been an important base for organizing and mobilizing the power of Woodlawn residents.

First Church remained on the front lines of community action after Blakely and Leber left. Harold Walker, an interim pastor, wrote: “As in the past, First Church had again found her place in the midst of the struggle for human dignity and at the heart of the city’s life.”

First Church on the Front Lines (1965-1972)

First Church’s mission in the following years was defined by striving “to be a witness for human brotherhood against racism and violence; to be an advocate of self-determination for all oppressed people, and to expose and resist repression.” In 1965, this mission led to engagement with the major youth gang in Woodlawn, called the Black P Stone Nation. The SCLC (the civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr.) had assigned staff to work with the Rangers and attempt to involve them in the Civil Rights movement.

First Church’s new pastor, John Fry, shared this view. He and the church saw the Rangers as an indigenous, well-organized source of Black power for the South Side of Chicago. They observed that the Rangers’ violent tactics were increasing in proportion to the repressive tactics of the police. As a result, the church decided to devote resources to buffer the organization and urge its leaders to fulfill their responsibility to the community at large.

The program was controversial but had numerous positive effects. The Rangers surrendered more than 100 weapons to the church in the presence of police and  Treasury Department agents, which were placed in the church’s walk-in safe. The Rangers met in the church’s third-floor gym and the church secured federal War on Poverty funds to pay Rangers for organizing the community. 

The Rangers apparently took their call to build and protect their community very seriously. They maintained truces with their rivals, the Disciples. When Martin Luther King was murdered and riots sparked all around Chicago, the Rangers patrolled Woodlawn and kept violence at bay. They have also been credited with keeping drugs and sex trafficking out of Woodlawn.

The partnership between First Church and the Rangers also had a creative side. In 1967, the Rangers collaborated with Oscar Brown Jr. on a groundbreaking Northern Soul musical called Opportunity, Please Knock. Eight thousand people came to First Church to see the production in its opening, and it garnered outstanding reviews in many national publications.

However, Fry was also gaining a reputation for speaking out against the tactics of local police, and this led to escalating tensions. The police raided First Church, harassed the Rangers and church staff meeting there, destroyed furniture, and “discovered” the cache of weapons they had helped to establish. The raid made national news, and led to a Senate Investigation, at which Fry testified. The church was accused of harboring guns and ammunition, approving the use and distribution of narcotics, and hosting orgies. Fry was even accused of passing on a murder command. These allegations were investigated thoroughly by the Presbytery of Chicago, and Fry and the church were completely vindicated in a 2,500-page report. But the troubles continued. In 1967, a sabateur deliberately flooded the church. A year later, during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, there was a serious fire in church.

Though these events had the highest visibility, First Church also used other tactics to combat local poverty during this time. The Community Education Program gave Woodlawn residents a preschool program which the community could design and steer. A Headstart program (the first in Chicago) served 120 children. A daycare center provided important support for struggling families in the neighborhood. A highly popular Sisterhood Program fostered a loving network of women who supported and mentored one another.


The Church's New Roots (1972-1985)

Because of First Church’s reputation as a radical church, it had a hard time finding a pastor to replace John Fry. Several years passed in which the church was ably led by its well-organized congregation, in partnership with a few supply pastors. In 1974, a church member, worker, and seminary student, wrote that the absence of a full-time pastor was a “blessing in disguise” for First Church. The empowered congregation embraced their ownership of the church’s mission.

Arthur Smith became First Church’s pastor in 1976. The landscape of Woodlawn had changed dramatically in the decade before his arrival. In a three-year period, 362 buildings in Woodlawn were reportedly destroyed by arson. The crack epidemic had a crippling effect on the neighborhood, and residents with means fled to the suburbs. This left Woodlawn with large patches of empty lots which the city was auctioning off for cheap.

First Church decided to buy up some of these lots and return them to community use. Three lots on the site of a burned-down Episcopal church were bought and turned into a thriving community garden (now the 65th and Woodlawn Garden). In 1978, First Church began working with the Center for Neighborhood Technology on plans for a solar greenhouse, which was built in 1981. These projects fostered greater resilience in the community’s food system and provided abundant sources of fresh produce.