First Presbyterian Church
The First Presbyterian Church of Laurens gives credit for its beginning to God’s power and to the work of the Reverend Samuel B. Lewers, who met with a small group at the Laurens County Courthouse in March of 1832 and began its organization with fourteen charter members. Mr. Lewers served as pastor of this young church from 1832 until 1850.
There was no church building in the early years, but at least part of the time the members worshipped not too far from where the old depot on East Main Street once stood.
By 1840, the membership had increased to sixty-nine, and a few years later, Negro slaves were admitted as members. At this time observance of the Sacraments was only once a year. Meetings began on a Thursday evening and continued through Sunday evening, with the Ordinance of Baptism administered on a week day and Communion taking place on Sunday afternoon. Services closed with a sermon on Sunday evening at Candle Lighting.
By 1850, the congregation had its first building, an oblong brick place in which to worship in the pines on Church Street. The Reverend Samuel B. Lewers gave the dedication in a service which closed his ministry in Laurens.
The church, however, was not long without a pastor. From 1851 until 1860, the Reverend David Wills served not only as minister but also as a professor for the Laurensville Female College. During his tenure, the church’s membership reached one hundred and seventy-six, forty-six of whom were Negro slaves.
The Reverend John R. Riley, the third minister, served the church for seventeen years until 1877. Work on the first manse began in 1860 but was interrupted by The War Between the States and was not completed until 1865. The last house in Laurens to be built by slave labor, it was located on East Hampton Street.
The church felt the weight of the war. In 1863, the congregation voted unanimously to send its minister to the war, after his having already been appointed chaplain in the Confederate Army by a committee of the General Assembly of the Church. The members also voted to continue his salary and to furnish him an outfit of suitable clothing.
Hard times followed. In the church there was evidence not only of the impoverishment of its members but also of the loss by death of male members and by a gradual withdrawing of its black members. Those who remained helped raise their pastor’s salary by paying rent for their pews. They left some free pews for non-members, but families sat together and supervised their children during services.
On January 8, 1870, elders and deacons met to endeavor to find ways of raising the pastor’s salary. They divided the deacons into teams representing the four wards of the town and assigned a deacon from each team to be responsible for collecting money for his ward.
It was in the time between 1878 and 1886, when the Reverend J. Y. Fair served as minister, that the church purchased on Sitgreaves Street a house which was to remain the manse until 1922, when a brick house, to be used as a manse, was built on a lot to the west of the church. This manse was demolished in 1981 to make room for a new educational building and fellowship hall. During Mr. Fair’s ministry the church celebrated, on December 31, 1882, its fiftieth anniversary.
The Reverend H. O Frierson succeeded Mr. Fair as minister, serving only a short period until his death in 1889.
During the ministry of the Reverend A. C. Wardlaw, the sixth minister, who served the church from 1890 until 1895, the present church edifice was built. It is one of the landmarks of Laurens and stands on land deeded to the church for $800, in payment of a debt owed by the Laurensville Female College. The men of the congregation did much of the work in the erection of the building. The first service in the church took place on April 26, 1893, and there was a large attendance made up of congregations from all churches in the town.
Dr. Robert Adams, who later resigned to become President of Presbyterian College in Clinton, became the church’s seventh pastor, serving until 1907 when the Reverend C. F. Rankin took over as the eighth minister. He remained with the church until 1917.
In 1918, the Reverend Charles T. Squires became the ninth pastor and served until 1924. It was in the fall of 1918 that the terrifying epidemic of influenza struck the town. Meetings of the Session were postponed for over three months. World War I had come also, causing young men to leave home and church to serve their country.
On November 25, 1924, the Reverend E. D. Patton preached his first sermon to the congregation. Having come as the church’s tenth pastor, he remained to serve until 1938. During his pastorate the church observed its centennial on April 3, 1932.
It was in 1939 that the Reverend John J. Hayes became the eleventh pastor of the church. He served until 1945. During his tenure the church organized an outpost Sunday School at Bethany Church near Clinton. Work was carried on here for more than two years until the coming of World War II brought restrictions on gasoline and tires that caused the work to be turned over to the Men’s Bible Class of the First Presbyterian Church in Clinton. During World War II there were sixty-five members on the Service Roll of the Church.
The twelfth minister to the church arrived in June 1945. He was the Reverend Thomas C. Cook, who was to serve the church for nine years. During his ministry the church sanctuary was renovated with recessed lighting, air conditioning and new furnishings. Plans for a new educational building began in 1954. The church then had a membership of over four hundred. Wayside Outpost Mission, which had begun in 1943, became Wayside Church in 1954, with several families leaving the mother church to become a part of the outgrowth of the mission. Sullivan Street Sunday School for black children was another outpost of the church during Mr. Cook’s tenure.
In 1955, the Reverend Chalmers McCutchen became the church’s thirteenth pastor, and the following year the work of enlarging the Sunday School space began. By 1957, the new building had become a reality. The kitchen and basement were also modernized with the new fellowship hall, once the old basement, having a seating capacity of two hundred and fifty.
In 1957, the church observed its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary. Dinner was served in the fellowship hall after the morning church service, followed in the afternoon by a tour of the building. At 7:00 in the evening, members of the Sunday School presented a pageant portraying the history of the church.
Dr. Ben F. Ormand became the fourteenth pastor of the church in 1965 and served until December 1968.
The fifteenth pastor, Dr. George L. McGill, Jr., served the church for 22 years, from 1970 until December 1992. A new manse was built on Sherwood Drive for the pastor, his wife and two children.
In 1980, Wayside Presbyterian Church was closed, and some members rejoined First Presbyterian Church. The property was returned to the Presbytery.
When the church was first organized it was governed by ruling elders who were elected for life. A few years later deacons were elected to look after church property and to minister to certain needs of the congregation.
In 1972, the church elected its first two women elders: Louise Hunter Brown and Ellen Gray Nicholson Williams, and the congregation voted to replace life elders with a system whereby elders served six years with an opportunity to be reelected after two years of inactive service. In 1982, the office of deacon was eliminated in favor of the unicameral system of government, one body of officers called elders. At present, the Session is composed of 27 elders who serve 3 years with 9 retiring and 9 elected each year.
With the advent of young families joining the church, additional educational facilities were needed. The educational building and fellowship hall now known as Hunter Hall was planned in 1980, built in 1981, and dedicated at the sesquicentennial celebration in 1982. Beginning in 1986, the church operated a Child Care ministry in Hunter Hall; however, the facilities were not large enough to maintain a successful program, so it was reluctantly closed in 1997. In 2001 a private residence at the back of the church was demolished, additional parking was added, and a children’s playground was given in memory of T. D. Todd, Sr., by his family. In 2002, the front steps on West Main Street were redesigned through a gift from Mae Wham, and in 2007, the old Men’s Bible Class in the basement was renovated through the generosity of the Milam family to be used as a multi-purpose room.
For the two years of 1992-93, while a search committee worked to find a new pastor, the church had an interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Blumer, of Easley. The manse on Sherwood Drive was sold during this time, and the Session began an investment fund with the money from the sale. In 1994 the church called as its sixteenth minister the Rev. Marcus Graham Coker. At the time of his installation, Rev. Coker had been a chaplain in the SC National Guard since 1986. In 2004, he retired as colonel and senior chaplain.
In 1994, one of the church families donated funds which were used to provide an extensive renovation of the basement kitchen and restrooms.
In 1998, the church undertook a capital funds campaign, the theme of which was, "To Witness & to Serve: a Vision for the 21st Century." The goal of the campaign was $500,000, however, because of the hard work and dedication of all the members, the final total was $770,872.68. These monies were used for major repairs, updating equipment, and a significant addition to the Endowment Fund.
In 2005, the church called its first associate minister, the Rev. Blair Henderson Beaver. In a paradigm shift, the position of Director of Christian Education was replaced with that of an ordained minister with educational responsibilities.
Over the years the church has been active and blessed to lead and participate in a wide variety of missions within the community.
The music program includes a senior choir (Chancel Choir) and youth and children's choirs of varying ages. A 4-octave handbell choir has been in operation since 1989. In 1990, the Reuter Company installed a new organ, using six ranks from the old organ and adding eighteen more.
Sunday School classes over the years have included the Bessie Todd Class, the Men's Bible Class, the Ladies' Bible Class, the Special Studies Class, the Biblical Insights Class, the TNT Class, the Covenant Class, the Commitment class, and various age-appropriate classes for youth and children. With the increase in the number of young children in recent years, the church organized a midweek Play and Learn class for children ages 2 to 5 and their parents to participate in Bible stories, games, and musical activities.
The Stephen Ministry was begun in 1998 when four members and the minister received training as Stephen Leaders in Orlando, Florida, and were commissioned to train others in the ministry. Since that time, 31 persons have been trained as Stephen Ministers, and 8 persons have been trained as Leaders.
Presbyterian Women, formerly known as the Women of the Church, is constituted of varying numbers of Circles, which meet at various times and provide monthly Bible study for the women of the congregation. The many diverse projects sponsored by Presbyterian Women continue to be a blessing to the church and to the entire community and beyond.
Men of the Church count in their membership all the male members of the congregation. In the recent past, they have enjoyed a breakfast meeting-program on the first Sunday of each month. Today, the Men of the Church have as current projects the sponsorship of the Scout troops and the cooking of the Easter Sunrise breakfast for the community. They always stand ready to provide any needed service.
Congregational fellowship activities have included day trips enjoyed by the Roads Scholars, monthly Family Night supper-programs, annual Advent Festivals and the Hanging of the Greens. Several members of the church have created beautiful banners that are used for special seasons and occasions, as well as chrismons to decorate the sanctuary tree during the Christmas season. Over the years, the Session has approved the purchase of vans and a bus to transport church members.
Today, celebrating its heritage during our 175th anniversary year, First Presbyterian Church, Laurens, is grateful for the opportunities given it to be a symbol of God's grace to us, and it looks forward to the future-- witnessing and serving in the community, the state, the nation, and the world.
Compiled by David and Laura Zimmerman
Revised April, 1993
Revised April, 2007 by Anne Sheppard
A Celebratory Resolution
WHEREAS citizens of Laurensville, South Carolina, desiring a Presbyterian church for worship and study of the Word, and
WHEREAS they petitioned the Presbytery of South Carolina to organize a congregation, and
WHEREAS South Carolina Presbytery, confirming the petition, on April 1, 1832, established Laurensville First Presbyterian Church with Rev. S. B. Lewers organizing minister, and fourteen professing communicants comprising the congregation, and
WHEREAS the vision of this initial congregation expressed in the closing prayer: “...nourish it with the dews of divine grace, and cause it to grow and spread and flourish,” and
WHEREAS in the ensuing years, through periods of civil and religious strife, sixteen ministers, one associate and several interim ministers have been called to challenge and lead the congregation in fulfilling its vision, and
WHEREAS, in 1998, First Presbyterian Church reconfirmed its commitment to study, worship and the Lord’s work with the theme—”To Witness and To Serve—A Vision for the 21st Century,” and
WHEREAS this day is the 175th anniversary of the organizing of First Presbyterian Church,
Now Be It Resolved
We rejoice as a worshipping community of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
We confirm our seeking to welcome, equip, transform and serve.
We look forward to continuing to witness as a family of faith.
We celebrate the love of Jesus Christ in our midst.
Resolved: April 1, 2007
Rev. Marcus G. Coker, Senior Pastor
Lonnie Bixler, Clerk of Session
The elegant script of the first records of First Presbyterian Church, Laurens, dated 1832, describes the first, formative steps taken by the fourteen charter members, who met at the Laurens County Courthouse in March of 1832. Included in early records is a prayer that put into words the hopes and dreams of this young congregation:
"O God of Hosts, look down from Heaven, and visit this vine which, we trust, Thy right hand hath planted.
Watch over, protect, and defend it. Nourish it with the dews of divine grace, and cause it to grow and spread and flourish. Dwell in each heart of those who compose this little band of Thy disciples and add to their numbers daily such as shall be saved."
Nearly 170 years ago, this fledgling congregation of First Presbyterian Church found itself at a crossroads, and its members faced that first challenge with courage and conviction--just as they have responded at each subsequent crossroads. That founding congregation grew in numbers and flourished in faith, and, in doing so, the members laid a foundation on which future generations would build.
There was no church building in the early years. The first services were held in a building near East Main Street. By 1850, the congregation had its first building, an oblong brick place in which to worship in the pines on Church Street.
Work on the first manse began 1860 but was interrupted by The War Between the States and was not completed until 1865. Among the greatest challenges that this church has faced have focused on the very facility in which the congregation worships, learns and serves one with another.
On April 26, 1893, the first service took place in the present sanctuary. The building is one of the landmarks of Laurens and stands on land deeded to the church for $800 by the Laurensville Female College. The men of the congregation did much of the work in the erection of the building.
The education wing was constructed in 1957 and was completed in time for the observance of the church's 125th anniversary. In 1978, the dream began to take shape for the structure known today as Hunter Hall. That building was built in 1981 and dedicated at the sesquicentennial celebration in 1982.
Throughout its history, the church has supported various ministries including an outpost Sunday School at Bethany Church near Clinton, the Wayside Outpost Mission (later becoming Wayside Church), Sullivan Street Sunday School for black children, a child care program and the Child Outreach Program.
In 1998, First Presbyterian Church of Laurens stood at the brink of a new millennium facing a new challenge. The congregation completed a Capital Funds Campaign to provide funds for maintaining the remarkable facilities entrusted to First Presbyterian Church and for continuing ministry, witness and service into the 21st Century.
Each time a challenge; and each time, a challenge overcome. The congregation of First Presbyterian Church has taken the challenge to step forward "To Witness and To Serve - A Vision for the 21st Century."