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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WABASH AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
When does a particular local church originate? When the first spadeful of consecrated earth is turned, or the first trees and brush are cleared off? Not at all, for the church is not merely a building; it is a group of Christian believers, large or small. Our Lord said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.
We cannot be too certain, then, just when that first local church of Presbyterian label was formed. It may have been in December of 1821 or 1822. Accounts differ; but southwest of Crawfordsville about two miles, in an unfinished cabin built by Mr. John Cowan, a simple religious service was held on Sunday morning. The preacher was Rev. Charles Beatty. That same afternoon the group met again to witness the wedding of one of Mr. Cowan’s daughters to Samuel D. Maxwell. Both family names have since been significant in city, county, and state history.
On Sunday, June 20, 1824, the Presbyterian church of Crawfordsville was duly constituted by Rev. Isaac Reed, sent for this purpose by the central State group in Indianapolis. Crawfordsville Presbytery began to function in 1829; but the Synod of Indiana was not organized until 1882. These early home missionaries such as the Reverends Mr. Beatty and Mr. Reed were commissioned to work in this “Western Country” by the General Assembly. Ministers were scarce - only 43 in all Indiana in 1825 - and most of the churches were served by these itinerant preachers of circuit riders. All of the meetings were evangelistic in character, and the rigidity of rules as to the conduct and morals of members was most pronounced.
Charter members of this earliest organization included such well known family names as Dunn, Linn, Cowan, Kerr, and Miller. With the founding of Wabash College on November 21, 1832, the concurrent histories of the church and the college indicate the continuing close relationship between developing church and the college, the ministers of the early church frequently serving as trustees and faculty. Many a family name - Tuttle, Elston, Ristine, Thomson, Ellis, Robinson, Gilliland, et. al. - became important in both church and college.
No building was erected for several years. A Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian group met irregularly in the early 20’s in either the log courthouse or the town’s first school house, which stood near the north end of Washington Street. When the Baptist’s built their first edifice in 1823 in the “Old Town” section, they generously permitted other denominations to hold worship and evangelistic meetings in their building. In one such service, the Presbyterians added no less than 40 members to the flock.
In 1829 a Presbyterian church building was begun, completion coming in 1832. It stood where the City Building now stands at Water and Pike Streets. It was remodeled in 1852, and was replaced by a larger, more elegant brick structure in 1871. The total cost, including site, was $18,000.00. An additional $3,508 was spent in 1911 for redecorating, refurnishing, and installing automatic central heating from the municipal heating plant. In 1925, when it was no longer being used by the Presbyterians, it was sold to another denomination, and was later razed in 1931 after a glorious history of 60 years.
Sharp dissension and schism plagued this struggling church. Influenced by the somewhat more liberal faculty and first graduates (e.g. Class of 1838), the church membership split into two groups. The Old Light or Old School group adhered to strict biblical and creedal interpretation, while the New Light or New School group allowed for individual reasoning and more latitude of interpretation of the “articles and confession of faith.”
The contention became so heated that Rev. William A. Holiday, a minister from Indianapolis sent to fill the pulpit, startled the congregation and the whole town by announcing that the Rev. James Thomson (pastor since 1827), Mr. Elihu Baldwin, President of Wabash College, and all of the other faculty members, together with their families, were “now and from this day forward no longer considered members of the Crawfordsville Presbyterian Church.”
The Rev. Mr. Thomson, four of the eight elders, and nearly one hundred members thus “thrown out” began to meet independently, and in a short while obtained temporary space for their services above a downtown establishment at Main and Washington Streets. The Old School group, under Mr. Holiday, continued as they were but changed their name to First Presbyterian Church.
It was not long before the New School group, with no church home of their own and over one hundred adherents, became restive and thought about building. The reason is not a matter of record, but they called their church the “Center Church,” and it was so incorporated by the State of Indiana in 1839. The initial Center Church building (The Old White Church) was erected in 1840 on the northwest corner of Pike and Washington Streets, the corner now occupied by the Joel Building. This wooden church was marked by a tall central spire and high stairway approach, facing east, with another lower entrance off Pike Street to the basement and Sunday School rooms. This place of worship served for forty years; but y 1879 the increase in interest and membership indicated need for a larger and better house of worship.
As so frequently happens, it was the women’s organization that first began to make plans. They sewed and baked, sold and saved, to support their agitation for a new church home; and, as one of the dear ladies wrote: “All worked with hope and with God’s blessing,…Wonderful how we were brought through.” Since some of the other churches of the town had by now begun to replace original structures with brick ones, Center Church went up at the present located on Wabash and Washington Streets as a much more imposing and elegant edifice. Some of the wealthier citizens of the community were now connected with this congregation and became interested in planning and contributing. The original building cost $30,000; the 1914 addition - the kitchen and social room on the west - called for $9,000 more. These costs, including stained glass, leaded windows, and slate roof, seem remarkable in the light of present material and labor costs.
Rev. Alexander Thomson preached at the final worship service in the Old White Church on Sunday, December 26, 1880. On the very next Sunday, January 2, 1881, the new sanctuary was formally dedicated.
Faithful ministers served faithful people in each of these churches over many years. They existed for 83 years as separate organizations, one served by 21 pastors and the other by 15. Changes in the membership of the Sessions were infrequent, there being no rotary system in those days, and a strong, opinionated incumbent could maintain a strict status quo position for many years. It would be very interesting to know just what those men did talk about and what transpired in their meetings; unfortunately, the records are not complete.
Final chapters in the history would highlight the events of 1921, 1951, and 1961. Time and the Spirit of the Lord are marvelous healers, and the two Presbyterian congregations, growing more and more like-minded and persuaded in large measure by their respective pastors, agreed to consider uniting. The Rev. William E. Hunter at First Church and Dr. Chester W. Wharton at Center Church were the last pastors of the two churches. As early as ten years previously some joint local services and some joint committee meetings had been suggested and held for the discussion of union. Walter Johnson and Chester Wharton at the one, and S.K. Piercy and William Hunter at the other, urged and preached union from the two pulpits. Both Mr. Hunter and Dr. Wharton offered to resign from their respective pulpits should the sessions and congregations consider union feasible.
In October of 1920, the Synod of Indiana met in Crawfordsville and took cognizance of the need for union of the two churches. On Thursday, March 24, 1921, call congregational meetings were held simultaneously in the two churches and the majority of the members voted for union. The current pastors not only resigned but willingly served alternatively to supply the pulpit of the newly constituted Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church until a new pastor could be called. The Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church, then, dates only from April 20, 1921. The first pastor, Rev. John R. McMahon, was called six months later and began to preach in November.
In 1960-61 an education building housing offices, classrooms, and a parlor was erected at a cost of $285,000, with formal dedication May 21, 1961. The original church building was renovated in 1973, inside and out. Additional renovation was done in 1996. Our people have responded to these challenges splendidly for the maintenance and improvement of the facilities, and still have raised and paid increased amounts towards the General Mission and benevolence programs. The latest improvement is the addition of parking space that will provide room for more cars.
What of the future? That of course is in the hands of God; but the challenge to us, to our children, and to our children’s children, lies in prayer and in unstinting stewardship.
Donald Thomson, author
Thank you to Bill Stieg for additional contribution
Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church ● 307 South Washington Street ● Crawfordsville, IN ● 47933
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