Presbyterians Established First Church
Although the Methodists date their beginning back to 1824, when circuit-riding ministers preached the gospel at two and three day camp meetings held in a grove of trees owned by Wesley Seymour (now a part of the Beekemeyer School campus), the Presbyterians were the first to officially establish a church in the county seat.
John Tillson, a man of means, was responsible for the founding of the church. At a meeting held on March 10, 1828, at Mr. Tillson's new brick home, the church was officially organized by the Rev. John Ellis. Mr. Tillson became the first ruling elder and Mrs. Israel (Margaret) Seward the first communicant member.
The Rev. Solomon Hardy preached the sermon at the organizational meeting. At that time there were only seven Presbyterian preachers in Illinois and 19 established churches.
Four months after the church was formed the first Communion service was held in the first log courthouse, on July 28, 1828. It was so hot the congregation moved outside where the elements were served in the shade of a nearby grove of trees. Four new members joined the church that day.
In 1830 the Rev. Thomas Spilman, whose wife was a cousin of Mr. Tillson, became the first Presbyterian pastor. He held services in the Tillson home, in the courthouse, and at the log cabin meeting place until 1831, when the 53 members of the church voted to build the first of three Presbyterian churches that have stood on the same site.
The church, a one-story brick building 34 feet by 45 feet in size, was erected near the center of a half-acre lot on the southwest corner of Coffey (Main) and Tillson streets which the Tillsons gave to the church. Mr. Tillson not only provided the lot, he also furnished the bricks and most of the lumber used in building the first house of worship. He did not pay for finishing the interior and bad times kept the congregation from doing so until 1837.
When furnishings were acquired that year, 26 of the 32 pews were sold on a reserved-seat basis so that each family could sit in the same place at every service. A total of $1,664 was raised by the sale of the pews and the money was used to install the pews, a pulpit, buy two good stoves, add a square belfry to the building and install a bronze church bell.
The bell, cast by G.H. Hollbrook of Medway. Mass., has called many generations of Presbyterians to worship. It was moved to the steeple of the second church and hangs today in the bell tower of the present church.
Before the bronze bell was hung in place in the first church, Mr. and Mrs. Tillson deeded the site to the church in the name of the then seven trustees, Lloyd Morton, Israel Seward, James Paden, Robert McCord Jr., Thomas Sturtevant, George Harkey and Charles Holmes Jr. Hiram Rountree, serving as circuit clerk, recorded the deed on May 4, 1837, after witnessing the signatures of Mr. and Mrs. Tillson.
Members of the first church helped to organize three other Presbyterian churches, at Waveland in 1847, Litchfield in 1856 and Butler in 1858.
In August 1853, the Rev. R.M. Roberts became pastor at a yearly salary of $400. During his pastorate the trustees, Joseph Eccles, William Brown, William Witherspoon, D.S. Clotfelter, A.L. Clotfelter and L.H. Thom, purchased the lot south of the present Bass Funeral Home, where the Masonic Temple now stands, on which to build a parsonage. The lot cost $300 and the cost of building the parsonage was $1,200. The second parsonage was erected west of the church about 1895.
While Mr. Roberts was pastor a church squabble developed in 1859 over the question of building a new church. It came to a head at a congregational meeting on August 7 when, by a small majority, the members voted to tear down the first church and replace it with a larger two-story structure.
A conflict of interests and a clash of personalities caused the Rev. Roberts to resign in October and 21 members withdrew from the church in November. Those who withdrew joined the Hillsboro Congregational Church.
Joseph Eccles, one of the trustees who favored building the second church, pledged $5,000 toward the cost. The first church was torn down and construction on the second one was started in 1860. It took more than 15 years to complete the second church with its entrance vestibule and widow- walk belfry. The total cost was $13,785.21, plus all additional $400 for dark red cushions for the wooden pew seats.
The church was so arranged that the first floor was used for Sunday school classes and as a meeting place. Two sets of stairways from the vestibule led to the second-floor sanctuary, which was the last part of the church to be completed.
In 1913 the congregation voted to raze the second house of worship and build the present church. Under the guidance of a committee composed of E.T. McDavid, James A. Short, Bliss White and Frank McDavid the church, designed by J.B. Martin of Liverpool, Ohio, was erected. The 90 feet by 90 feet by 90 feet, brick and stone building, including the stained glass art windows and furnishings, cost less than $30,000. The Rev. Robert B. Wilson was pastor when the church was built and he helped dedicate it on September 20, 1914.
In 1968 the building itch struck the Presbyterians again. Instead of erecting a fourth church, the members spent more than $300,000 to enlarge, remodel and refurbish the standing church to make it one of the finest houses of worship in Illinois.
Between 1828, when the church was established and 1984, 26 men served as regular pastors of the church. They were:
The Rev. McClymont was pastor when the church celebrated its sesquicentennial on March 12, 1973. The Rev. Edward “Ted” Jackson became pastor in January 1981 and served until 1988. In 1989, the parish is served by an interim pastor, Dr. Charles E. Hendricks.
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