September Reverend Reflections

Hello First Presbyterian Church,

I recently was invited to preach at one of Sager Classical Academy’s first chapel services in the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church. Christine Norvell, the Dean of the Upper School, asked me to weave some of the historical background of the church into my homily. In order to do that, though, I needed to do some reading about the history of First Presbyterian Church. It was a lot of fun to learn a bit more about our history and I thought I would use this space to share with you some of what I found encouraging from that research.

There are three pieces of information that I want to share with you. The first two are natural disasters and the third is a list of pastors along with the length of their tenure at First Presbyterian Church. The list begins in 1874 but the church informally began in 1855, so there is a gap of about 14 years where we don’t know the identity of the pastor. The church began in 1855 as a Sunday School class, so there is the possibility there was no pastor per se, or it could be that the records were lost. Speaking of lost records, this brings me to the first piece of information and the first natural disaster in the history of First Presbyterian Church.

First, in 1892 the church (not our present building) was flooded and the historical records of the church were lost in the flood.

Second, in 1920 there was a fire in the church (again, not our present building) that left the congregation worshipping at an alternative location for one year while the fire damage was cleaned and repaired.

Third, and finally, here is a list of the pastors along with the length of their tenure.

  • W.H. Berry was the pastor in 1874, but held the position for only one year.
  • After W.H. Berry, five men took turns preaching on Sunday mornings from 1875-1882. That was seven years of pulpit supply!
  • S.M. Ramsey then became pastor in 1882. He held the position for three years.
  • J.T. Buchanan then held it for 2 years
  • J.D. Rush—three years
  • W.S. Hillis—one year
  • G.A. Henderson—three years
  • G.M. Simpson—one year
  • Two men—T.W. Kittrell and F.T. Charlton then shared the post for one year
  • A.B. Johnson filled the role for two years, but only on a part-time basis.
  • R.W. Dowell was then pastor for 2 years.
  • F.A. Henderson—one year
  • S.L. Hogan—four years
  • W.J. Willis—three years
  • T.B. Haynie—two years
  • F.O. King—two years
  • C.P Browning—five years
  • David Waynick—eight years
  • Marshall Morsey—five years
  • A. Stone—six years
  • Edmund Kornfeld, who actually designed our present Sanctuary space, was here for fourteen years.
  • Basil Ramsey was pastor for eleven years
  • Franklin Stebbing—four years
  • Toney McMillan was pastor for less than a year. He started in 1973. He finished in 1973.
  • Don R. Allen held the position after him for three years
  • Harold Malett for two years
  • Tom West for twenty-six years
  • Breck Castleman for fourteen years
  • And now me, the 34th pastor of First Presbyterian Church—4.5 years and counting.



I read about these three pieces of information—the two natural disasters and the string of pastors with surprisingly brief tenures at the church—and together they seemed to me to tell the story of God’s faithfulness to this church.

I wrote out that long list of former pastors not because I wanted to bore you—even though I was probably pretty successful on that count—but because I wanted to point out that with all these men coming and going there was one who never left, who never worked part-time or called it quits after only two years. I am speaking, of course, of Jesus. This is his church. I am merely the latest in a long line that he has called to serve here for a time, but it is Jesus who keeps his church alive. 

In Isaiah 43 God speaks to us through the prophet and here is what he says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Jesus has certainly kept his promise to this church. He passed through a literal flood with us and indeed the waters did not overwhelm us. He walked through a literal fire with us and again the flames did not consume us. Here we are now, still worshiping Jesus, because Jesus has kept us for himself. The long list of pastors is proof of the credit and glory belonging only to Christ. He never left while men burned out or moved on. 

If Jesus’ faithfulness depended on our strength, success, intelligence, or goodness, even, then we would be in a whole heap of trouble. But thanks be to God, the love and faithfulness of God do not depend on us. God is faithful to us because he is faithful to himself, and to his plan of redemption and renewal. Through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has perfected our stories and he has invited us into his. As long as Jesus is alive, then, we have hope for the future of this church. God is ushering in a new heavens and a new earth—where waters do not flood and fires do not rage—and since 1855 he has given First Presbyterian Church the opportunity to participate with him in the transformation of our lives, the community of believers, and our world. Jesus has given us much work to do and in the end may he receive all the glory for our church’s part within the grand narrative of God’s redemption.

Grace and peace,
Jonathan +