The Church of Jesus Christ is a strange mixture. It is a group of persons forming an association for fellowship and the accomplishment of certain tests. At the same time it is the Body of Christ that is totally different from any other association.
In the course of its history the church performs many functions that are quite ordinary and familiar and it often appears as one social institution among others. Yet, always undergirding the familiar is the deeper meaning of the church as that body created by God’s Work and sustained by God’s Spirit. That which is seen contains the evidence of and leads to that which is not seen.
The church often has those fantastic church dinners with tables laden with food, but always there is the realization that its true nourishment is from the Bread of God. The people of the church enjoy their fellowship with one another, yet prize even more highly that mystical communion with God who calls them into being.
As it is with the Church Universal, so it is with a particular congregation; that “divine-human” company called the First Presbyterian Church of West Plains, Missouri.
The story begins in the turbulent period immediately following the Civil War. Traveling Presbyterian preachers, led by the Rev. L.J. Matthews, established preaching stations in Howell and Texas Counties. About 1870 the station at Peace Valley was organized as a church and a building was constructed. But by 1878 the Peace Valley Church had ceased to exist and Ozark Presbytery (district leadership) directed that the building be sold and the proceeds granted to the West Plains Congregation to erect a building. However, by the time the building was finally sold in 1890, the West Plains Church had already organized and constructed its own building.
Apparently the preaching station at West Plains continued as just that until 1884. In that year an unknown Baptist minister from Memphis, Tennessee who was vacationing in the area conducted revival services at the Methodist Church on Washington Avenue where Williams Shoe Store now stands. There was such a religious awakening in the community that both the Baptists and the Presbyterians were moved to begin to organize congregations.
Being satisfied that there was a sufficient need for a Presbyterian Church at West Plains, Ozark Presbytery send a commission to organize the congregation. The Reverend D.T. Putnam, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield, and the Reverend E.A. Hamilton, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church also of Springfield, came to West Plains and officially organized the Church on February 15, 1886 as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Presbyterian Evangelist Dr. Marks, a former missionary to Turkey, was given oversight of the infant congregation of thirty-one members. At the first congregational meeting B.C. Thomas; Dr. W.W. Watkins; and Professor W.H. Lynch were elected as elders to constitute the first Session (governing body) of the church. These three distinguished gentlemen were all prominent pioneer residents of the city. Blackburn Thomas had been one of the founders of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield and was the maternal grandfather of Mrs. A.H. Thornburgh and Miss Bessie Henry of West Plains. Professor Lynch was a widely known pioneer educator of Southern Missouri and was later associated with Southwest Teachers College in Springfield (now SMSU). Dr. Watkins was a prominent early physician of West Plains.
The first worship services of the congregation were held at the Methodist Church. However, these pioneer Presbyterians were determined to have their own building and construction was soon underway. The church building was completed in 1887 at a cost of $4,000, $1,000 of which the Board of Church Erection furnished. The new Baptist congregation had not yet completed their building and shared the Presbyterian church until their own was completed in 1888. This original building at the corner of Aid and Leyda Streets is still in regular use and is the oldest church building in West Plains in continuous service.
Following Dr. Marks’s brief function as organizer of the new church, Glenroi McQueen, a student from the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, served the new congregation briefly. Then for about two years the church was served by various occasional supplies (temporary ministers) including Dr. Marks and his brother J.J. Marks, a retired Civil War chaplain. In April, 1889 the Rev. J.E. Leyda was installed as the first pastor of the congregation and served until 1894.
T.J. Whitmire was the first Sunday School superintendent. Both Mr. and Mrs. Whitmire were devout members of the church and in the early 1940s there was a special observance called the Whitmire Sunday. The program used on that occasion noted that the Presbyterian Church was actually founded in the Whitmire home. The Whitmires were the grandparents of Mrs. Jodie James and Boze Davidson of West Plains.
The West Plains Church was part of the “Old School” branch of the Presbyterian Church which held to the traditional Calvinistic theology. The Cumberland branch subscribed to a modified Calvinism and often congregations of both branches were found in the same town. This was the case in West Plains. The Cumberland Church had been organized in November, 1879 by the Rev. W.D. Hawkins. The two congregations started working together in June, 1896 and merged in 1907. George H. Carter, a pioneer banker in West Plains, was a charter member of the Cumberland Church and was later very active in the united church. He and his brother, B.B. Carter, father of Mrs. Grover Davis of West Plains, were members of the first Session of the Cumberland Church. Mrs. Davis is the grandmother of Joe Davis of West Plains.
The Presbyterian Church in West Plains has continued to grow through the years. In 1910 the congregation added on to their original building, which at that time made it the largest church in town. The two story addition now houses Sunday School classrooms, offices, and the parlor where the Church has a library. The parlor was given in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Caldwell by their son Lee of Indianapolis, Indiana.
A pipe organ was installed in the church in 1932 by the Wicks Organ Company at a cost of $3,150. This fine instrument has recently been restored and continues to be used on a regular basis to enhance the worship of the congregation.
The church celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with many special events in March, 1936. The jubilee program highlighting this celebration was well chronicled in the West Plains newspapers.
Presbyterian jubilee week opened Sunday, March 22nd with a special sermon given by the Rev. F.P. Brewster. Jimmy Cook of Springfield, well known Sunday School missionary of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Missouri, gave some of his inimitable solo numbers. Mrs. Alberta Green also sang. Tuesday the 24th, the Rev. M.A. Prater of Willard gave the sermon. He was a former minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Miss Alberta Tipler [Bohrer] gave a vocal solo.
Wednesday, March 25th, Judge E.P. Mann of Springfield gave the address. His topic was, “A Talk With You About Your Church.” Thursday, March 26th was a memorial service at which time, T.J. Whitmire; J.O. Carter; Mrs. Alice Catron [great grandmother and great great grandmother of current members Sam and Catherine Grisham]; Walter Shepherd; Mrs. Fred Caldwell; and Mrs. Laura Shepherd were honored.
On Sunday, March 29th, there was a candle lighting, consecrating service, directed by Mrs. Wayne Langston, in which a number of people took part. The theme was “Jesus, The Light of the World.” The light of Christianity was pictured as penetrating every phase of life. Musical selections were given by Dr. J.F. Park, Mrs. Alberta Green, Miss Flora Ellen Hill, and Roy Hill. Two selections were played by the church organist Gladys Davis.
The final day of the 50th Year Jubilee was celebrated with a basket dinner in the church banquet hall.
Building improvements have continued through the years. In 1938 the present pews were installed and dedicated, and in 1944 a new furnace was added. In 1951 the 65-year-old $1,000 loan from the Board of Church Erection for the construction of the original building was paid with money set aside from the C.C. Swanson pledge. In 1954 the steeple tower of the church was remodeled with the installation of white grillwork in the top and new green glass windows in the tower. In that same year the 125 pound bell was reinstalled in the bell tower and it rang out for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. Furnace and air conditioning units were added in 1959.
Under the leadership of Pastor Alfred A. Kelsey the church began a major building improvement program in 1977. The original 1888 building was redecorated and the 1910 addition was completely renovated. There was also a new addition to the north of the original structure on land donated by Mrs. Gladys Hollenbeck Davis. This addition contains a large Fellowship Hall, a modern kitchen, and a beautiful nursery. These new facilities were dedicated to the glory of God at a special worship service October 29, 1978 led by Donald J. Glover, who was pastor of the church at that time. The cost of these new improvements and new construction was over $160,000, but the indebtedness was quickly repaid and all facilities are now debt free.
February 16, 1985 marked the beginning of the one hundredth year of the First Presbyterian Church of West Plains. Therefore, Sunday, February 17 was set aside as a day of thanksgiving, celebration and rededication. The morning worship was opened with a festive processional led by Sunday School pupils carrying the Christian and American flags and displaying the banners they had created for the occasion. Then followed the choir and the clergy. The service was led by pastor John M. Coppic who was assisted by former pastor Alfred A. Kelsey. Music director Rob Comstock led the choir and congregation in hymns and anthems suitable to the event. Instrumental music was furnished by church organist Linda Comstock and Elizabeth Grisham playing the new baby grand piano which had recently been given in memory of Dwight F. Richards.
In its centennial year the First Presbyterian Church is a congregation of 150 members with an active program seeking to glorify God and serve the community. It is governed by a Session of nine elders elected by the congregation and installed by John Calvin Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. There is a Board of Deacons to serve the congregation and lead in service to the community. The Sunday School meets each week with classes for all ages.
There are two active Guilds for women - the Westminster Guild meets monthly in the afternoon and the Mary C. Lee Guild meets monthly in the evening. The United Presbyterian Women made up of all the women of the church meets monthly with a program and business meeting followed by a social hour. Each group contributes time, financial help and support to the needs of the community and the world.
The Church is more than a building, more than an organization, more than the 100 year history of this particular congregation. It is the living creation of God, built upon the sure foundation of Jesus the Christ and the labor of love of those who have gone before. Current church members seeking to worship God within this old edifice are brought into fellowship not only with Him and the people who gather today, but with that crowd of witnesses who have built, loved, sacrificed, and labored for many years to make possible what is now enjoyed by all of the congregation.
Today’s worshipper with deep gratitude joins with the Church of the ages singing:
Praise God from whom all
Praise Him, all creatures
Praise Him above, ye
Praise Father, Son and
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