A BRIEF HISTORY OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, TUSCUMBIA, ALABAMA
First Presbyterian Church of Tuscumbia was likely begun through the efforts of “Father Stuart,” a church planter from Pontotoc, Mississippi, who had encouraged Presbyterian groups throughout the Chickasaw nation. The Church was organized as a “particular church” through the efforts of the prodigious Gideon Blackburn of Frankfurt, Kentucky. Rev. Blackburn was a church planter extraordinaire. From his base of operations in Franklin, Tennessee, he helped organize churches throughout Tennessee and Northern Alabama, including Nashville, Franklin, Huntsville (1818) and Florence (1821). First Presbyterian Church of Tuscumbia was organized on April 13, 1824, with 13 charter members. It met in the Challen House, an inn overlooking “Big Spring”, now Spring Park in what is now downtown Tuscumbia. Blackburn not only organized the church, but he trained the man who would become its first pastor, Alexander Campbell. The church was united behind the full authority of the Bible as God’s Word and the belief that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms are an accurate statement of Biblical doctrine. It continues in that great heritage of belief today.
The church building was erected in 1827, and stands today as one of the oldest Presbyterian sanctuaries in continuous use in Alabama. In the front vestibule of the church there is displayed a copy of the land grant signed by President James Monroe, along with the deed assigned to the church, dated June 5th, 1827. The main building stands essentially as it was 177 years ago. The walls are solid Tuscumbia clay brick in excess of a foot thick. The ceiling beams are massive hand hewn timbers put together with wooden pegs. Iron bars connect the walls at its apex, placed there due to the effects of a tornado in November of 1874. Its unusual box-like shape and impressive height make it look deceptively smaller from the outside than it is. The sloped sanctuary floor, wrap around gallery, and incredible acoustics make its capacity of nearly 300 an intimate gathering. Changes have occurred to the sanctuary at various times. In the 1860’s the high pulpit, nearly at the height of the gallery, was removed for one just two steps above the floor. The present bell, still used for special occasions, was installed in 1891. In 1904 the memorial stained glass windows were added. The present pews were added in 1905. In 1922 a four rank organ replaced the earlier reed organ, and a 15 rank organ was installed in 1989. The church also uses a grand piano, electric piano, and harpsichord in its sanctuary. The original building is essentially the same in structure as it was, with the exception of an annex which replaced the old session room on the east end of the building in 1918. A two story addition was built adjoining the annex in 1962 for fellowship and education. A third story was added in 1983. In 1995 the church launched a four year refurbishing project which, with the help of noted historical consultant Harvie Jones, renovated the sanctuary and annex in period style, giving a greater sense of God’s work down through the years. The finished work displays carpets with rich burgundy hue and much of the original mill work exposed and refinished. The “Rowland House,” the former home of an historic church family, is now used as the youth house. The church owns two homes for the use of their pastoral staff.
The church has grown and stayed faithful to the gospel throughout nearly two centuries. In its early years two of its most notable events were the special meetings of Daniel Baker, famous Presbyterian evangelist in 1839 and 1843. As many as 100 members were added to the church through the first series of meetings. First Presbyterian, along with most other southern Presbyterian churches, left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1861 to join the Presbyterian Church in the United States, commonly known as the Southern Presbyterian Church. First Presbyterian Church continued, endured, and even grew throughout the next hundred years. In the second half of the 20th century there was increasing concern over the theological decline of the Southern Presbyterian Church. As a result, First Presbyterian left the Presbyterian Church of the United States in 1973. Being careful and judicious, First Church remained independent for several years. The church joined the conservative Presbyterian Church in America in 1988, where it holds membership today. First Presbyterian Church has long been known for its commitment to its Biblical and confessional belief, its lively and strong pulpit ministry, and its deep desire to spread the gospel to all peoples, both here and overseas. It has been responsible for planting two mission churches. The Muscle Shoals Presbyterian Church was started in 1974, and the Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Florence was started with a healthy portion of First Church families in 1999.
The church has been the grateful recipient of God’s work of grace working in godly leaders. There has been a long line of faithful and effective pastors who have served First Church over the years. Though all of First Presbyterian Church’s 26 senior pastors have been loved and respected, several long and fruitful pastorates have left indelible memories. The ministry of J. O. Steadham (1837-1845) took place during years of growth and revival. B. M. Sawtelle (1861-1872) helped the congregation weather the storm of the Civil War and was beloved for his long and fruitful ministry. W. F. Trump (1903-1926) was revered in the church and in the community. He had come to Tuscumbia in 1892 to become the principal of the local school system. He served in that capacity until his installation as pastor in 1903, having been ordained in 1902. He left not only a legacy of faithfulness, but a family from whom generations of First Presbyterian Church musicians have come. In fact, his daughter, Joy Trump Hamlet, and his granddaughter, Adina Joy Stone, have spearheaded a legacy of excellence in music known throughout the region. Special holiday concerts, “Great Music Months,” and visits from nationally known composers and performers have been part of the church year for decades.
Adrian DeYoung (1942-1950) brought new life into the church after some time of struggle, revitalizing the church with his preaching, energy and leadership. His widow, Eleanor, returned to Tuscumbia after his death and was a faithful servant in the church until her death. All three of his daughters married Presbyterian pastors. James Patterson (1955-1967) had a long and fruitful pastorate. He was known for his hard work, his pulpit presence, and his love for the people. Ron Siegenthaler (1969-1985) was a strong presence not only of love and care, but of unwavering belief in the truth of Scripture. His legacy includes the seeds that grew into Covenant Christian School in Tuscumbia. His son Andrew, now pastor in Cullman, Alabama, has graced the pulpit here many times. Andrew is only one of the many “sons of the church” who have gone on to vocational Christian ministry. Albert Sidney Johnson, distinguished Presbyterian minister for over 50 years throughout the south, was likely the best known of many who came from the pew to the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church. Randy Kimbrough and George Robertson join Andrew Siegenthaler as current reformed pastors who hail from Tuscumbia. In addition, Danny Lynch has spent his life in Christian missions and now resides with his family in Zimbabwe.
Many wonderful preachers have graced the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church over the years. In addition to the regular pastors, the people have enjoyed the ministry of several visiting ministers.
Already mentioned was the great revival preacher Daniel Baker. Others who have come to preach were Presbyterian and Reformed notables such as James Henley Thornwell, William “Bill” Hill, John R. Richardson, Robert Strong, Reed Miller, Robert Rayburn, Robert Reymond, Henry Bast, Henry Krabbendam, Frank Barker, John Sanderson, Ben Haden, Jimmy Lyons, Jim Baird, and Harry Reeder.
Several significant families in the life of the Shoals and northern Alabama have been members and officers in First Presbyterian Church. Likely the most famous to those outside of Alabama is the Keller family. Arthur Keller presented his daughter Helen Keller for baptism during the ministry of J. G. Lane in 1880. The Keller family has had representatives in First Church for generations.
There is much more that can be said about the ministry of the church over the years. The church is known for its wonderful Women in the Church Ministry, its missionary commitment, its fine youth programs, and its central role in the life of the community. It continues to strive to be a lighthouse of grace and truth, preaching the same gospel for over 180 years to the glory of God and the joy of its people.