History History First Presbyterian Church - Pottstown, PA

In many ways, the birth of First Presbyterian Church begins with the promise of a husband to his new wife. In the 1840s, Jacob Yost, a Congressman from Pottstown met a young widow from New York who was a staunch Presbyterian. Shortly after Jacob and Mary Ann Yost were married, he expressed his desire to give up his seat and return to Pottstown. His wife had one major reservation: "I don’t see how I can live in a town that lacks a Presbyterian church." As a result, First Presbyterian Church was born on May 9, 1848 with ten charter members, including Jacob and Mary Ann Yost.

At first, the Presbyterians met for worship at a Methodist church in town. But by 1853, First Presbyterian Church was ready to dedicate its first sanctuary and building at High and Evans streets in downtown Pottstown. President James Buchanan, a Presbyterian and friend of Mr. Yost, contributed to the first building campaign.

The church grew slowly - sometimes very slowly. During the first twelve years, the membership climbed only from ten to seventeen members. But in 1873, a revival scheduled to last only one week was extended for three weeks. Twenty-four persons were welcomed into the church in that short period. Understandably, the Clerk of Session described it as "a glorious day for our little church. To God be all the glory." By 1887, there were 160 members, as Pottstown grew in population, and in 1889 the church dedicated a new building to replace the original one.

In the early days of the church, pastoral leadership was provided by faculty of two private schools in town: Cottage Female Seminary and the Hill School, both of which were started by Presbyterians. While the Cottage school did not last very long, the Hill School continues to educate young men and young women from all over the country and world in the center of Pottstown. Until the Hill School built its own chapel, students would worship at First Presbyterian Church. As a result, the headmaster of the Hill School, John Meigs, an elder and trustee in the church, once confessed to a friend that, since he made the Hill School boys attend church twice each Sunday, "it was incumbent upon me to make their attendance worthwhile by having the services interesting, stimulating, and inspiring." Mr. Meigs took a significant role in bringing Rev. Henry B. Dyckman to the church in 1888.

During Rev. Dyckman’s 17-year tenure, the church celebrated its 50th anniversary and more than doubled in membership. The church also launched a social outreach ministry in partnership with the Hill School through the Bethany Union Chapel. Through the Sunday school program at the chapel, the church reached out to the poor of all races. On April 11, 1910, an especially large crowd gathered at the Sunday evening service to hear Booker T. Washington. According to local newspaper accounts, "Mr. Washington gave an earnest and at oft-times witty address and his audience was deeply impressed with the great work in which he is engaged" at the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama.

Following Rev. Dyckman and two short intervening pastorates, British-born Rev. Arthur H. Simpson arrived in 1915. Rev. Simpson served the church longer than any other pastor to date, 24 years, and during his tenure, the church grew from 276 members to 427 members. Because of the growth, the church made a number of improvements and additions to the 1889 church building. Some of the significant ministries and programs which enriched church life during this era were the Young Women’s Guild, the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society, the Ladies’ Aid Society, the Ladies Mite Society, Christian Endeavor, and the Boy Scouts. Rev. Simpson took particular interest in the Boy Scouts, serving as the first Scoutmaster. At one time, there was even a shooting range in the dirt basement of the church!

Rev. A. Burtis Hallock served the church from 1940-1956. During World War II, Pottstown had a vital role to play in the war with a number of key industrial plants based here. The Session was sufficiently concerned about Pottstown’s importance to the war effort to discuss placing air raid instructions in each hymnal. The church also made special efforts to remember and support the young men serving in the armed forces during the war. Each worship service would begin with a time of prayer for the world situation. A flag in the sanctuary carried stars for each church member who served in the armed forces.

The period following the war was a time of change and growth. The church bought its first mimeograph machine and began using weekly bulletins. The Sunday and Wednesday evening prayer services were discontinued because of changing attendance patterns. The Session was expanded and a Board of Deacons was reinstated. More significantly, the church was bursting at the seams.

After years of study and debate, the church voted in 1955 to move to the north end of town. With a gift of land from a church member and the purchase of an adjoining lot, the church had nearly four acres on which to build. Under the leadership of Rev. William A. Guenther, who served the church from 1956 to 1966, the church raised the money to build the new church. On September 23, 1962, the cornerstone was laid, and on June 2, 1963, the new church was dedicated. The old church building downtown was sold to the YMCA, but the organ, pews and woodwork from the old building were given new life in the new church on Franklin and Evans streets.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the church worked hard to pay off the mortgage on the new church. Special designated gifts made possible the beautiful stained glass windows in the sanctuary which were gradually added to the sanctuary after the congregation had moved into the new church and formally dedicated on September 27, 1970. In 1973, during the 125th anniversary, the church burned its mortgage.

Rev. Richard B. Martin served the church from 1966 to 1978. Reflecting the changing times, serving on Rev. Martin’s installation commission were the first black Moderator of the Presbytery, Rev. Shelton B. Waters, and the first female clerk of Session at the church, Mrs. Marian Jenkins. Earlier, in 1957, the Session went on record to make clear that membership at First Presbyterian was open to all races. In 1960, the congregation elected its first two women elders.

First Presbyterian sought new ways to reach out to the community in the midst of the changing times. On September 19, 1966, the church opened its doors to seventeen three and four year-old children in its brand new weekday nursery school. The "HENS" preschool continues to be an important part of the church’s ministry. In 1971, First Presbyterian was one of the Pottstown churches instrumental in forming Pottstown Interfaith Emergency Services. This organization would later evolve into the "Cluster Outreach Center" and would be an organization where local congregations could work together to meet the emergency needs of Pottstown residents. In 1982, church volunteers began to serve a free dinner once a month to Pottstown’s poor through the Cluster’s "Community Meal" ministry.

After Rev. Martin departed in 1979, the church was ably served by Rev. Carl Rosenblum (1980-83) and Rev. Dana F. Lindsley (1984-1992). The late 1970s and early 1980s were not the easiest of times because of a deteriorating local economy, but the church remained strong. Then, in the 1990s, the church began slowly to grow again. In 1992, the church dedicated a new educational wing, which had been discussed but deferred since the early 1970s.

In 1994, the church called Carter and Kerry Pidcock-Lester as its co-pastors. In 1998, the church joyfully celebrated its 150th anniversary, thankful for the communion of saints who have gone before and excited about the opportunities for ministry that lie ahead. In recent years, the church has begun hosting Community Meals once a week, helped to start a "Habitat for Humanity" chapter, begun a tutoring and mentoring program in two local schools, started sending teams of youth and adults on summer workcamps, expanded the number of adult classes and Bible studies, and watched the Sunday school classes grow in numbers and enthusiasm. As has been true throughout First Presbyterian’s history, music is an important part of the church’s ministry.

Something old, something new - we tell the story of where we have been so that we might better understand where we are going. Recalling this journey of faith reminds us that this church is God’s church, and that the God who has sustained us in the past can be trusted to lead us into the yet unknown future.