Where are they now?
This day, December 4, in 1973, marks the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America, as the denomination’s first General Assembly met in Birminham, Alabama, December 4-7 at the Briarwood Presbyterian Church.
Some years ago I compiled a list of all the churches that have ever been a part of the PCA. (I think I got them all!) Perhaps we can talk more about that larger list another day, but for now we want to look at a select portion of that list. The obvious starting point for such a list would be the founding churches of the PCA, and those founding churches are the subject of our post today. Working from the Minutes of the PCA’s First General Assembly, we find there were 273 churches that can be called the founding churches of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Of these 273 churches, 182 of them are still in the PCA (though technically, two of those had merged with other churches). Three left for other Presbyterian denominations. One of our founding churches, First Presbyterian of Hueytown, Alabama, left to join the OPC in 1991. The Jackson Street Prebyterian Church of Alexandria, Louisiana (now Grace Presbyterian), joined the EPC in 1997. And Progressive Presbyterian Church, Princeton, North Carolina, joined the Associate Reformed denomination, also in 1997. Over the years, another 16 of the founding churches have left to independency.
Regrettably, 23 of the founding churches have dissolved. Closer study needs to be done to determine the reasons, whether they were small rural churches or whether other problems brought about their closing. Then the final category is for now one of mystery, and more research needs to be done with this group. Here the record is simply unclear for 41 of the founding churches. Most likely these churches were dissolved or perhaps left to independency, yet without proper notation of their action on the roll books. We might find even find in one or two instances that the church is still in the PCA, but its status is obscured by a change of name or location. (I have already discovered one such discrepancy.) In all, those 23 closures and 41 “uncertains” total 64 founding churches effectively lost to the PCA. Nothing is forever in this poor world.
It is interesting to look at those 273 founding churches state by state, and the following list shows the breakdown, The last column in this list shows how many PCA churches and missions now operate in each of those states, so as to show subsequent growth in each state.
Note that last group, “None,” in the list above. That should be understood as “unaffiliated with any Presbytery at the time of joining the PCA”. If you know anything about Presbyterianism, you’ll recognize what an odd thing it was to have churches admitted to the PCA, yet without being on the roll of a given Presbytery. Surely this was a temporary arrangment, but the story of those 9 churches could be interesting.
Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina were numerically the three strongest States for the PCA at its founding. Between those three States, the roles are now reversed, with South Carolina having the greatest growth in PCA churches, followed by Alabama and then Mississippi. Ironically, in six States–Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia–the PCUS maintained a stronger hold on churches and few PCUS churches left in 1973 to join the PCA. However, since that time the PCA has seen strong growth in these same States. The States of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia have remained difficult terrain for church planting and PCA growth there has been slow.
Then looking at the list of founding churches as grouped by the 16 founding presbyteries, we have the following:
Calvary [SC] – 35 churches
Central Georgia – 11
Covenant [AR; MS; TN] – 13
Evangel [AL] – 25
Gold Coast [FL] – 12
Grace [LA; MS] – 31
Gulf Coast [FL; LA] – 8
Mid-Atlantic [MD; NC; VA] – 7
Mississippi Valley [LA; MS] – 52
None – 9
North Georgia – 3
Tennessee Valley – 5
Texas – 4
Vanguard [AL; GA; KY; NC WV]; – 13
Warrior [AL] – 22
Western Carolinas [NC] – 5
Westminster [NC; TN; VA] – 10
Calvary, Grace and Mississippi Valley Presbyteries were, by their size, among the more influential of the newly formed PCA Presbyteries. Covenant, then with just 13 churches, is today perhaps the largest of the 81 PCA Presbyteries.
One interesting story worth following up would be that of First Presbyterian Church, Brookhaven, MS, in Grace Presbytery, and the only church in that Presbytery that lost its property upon leaving the PCUS. By the kind providence of God, most of these founding churches were able to keep their property, but were there others in other Presbyteries that also lost their property at that time, as a result of joining the PCA?
And of course we can expect there might be an interest in which were the oldest of these founding PCA churches? The ten oldest, all still in the PCA to this day, are as follows:
1. 1764 – Bethel Presbyterian Church, Clover, SC [Calvary]
2. 1775 – Lebanon Presbyterian Church, Winnsboro, SC [Calvary]
3. 1786 – Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, GA [Central Georgia]
4. 1808 – Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Rock Hill, SC [Calvary]
5. 1812 – Salem Presbyterian Church, Blair, SC [Calvary]
6. 1812 – Meadow Creek Presbyterian Church, Greenville, TN [Westminster]
7. 1819 – Kanawha Salines Presbyterian Church, Malden, WV [Vanguard]
8. 1820 – Friendship Presbyterian Church, Laurens, SC [Calvary]
9. 1820 – First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, AL [Evangel]
10. 1821 – Lebanon Presbyterian Church, Abbeville, SC [Calvary]
Other churches have joined the PCA since 1973, and the list above is not exactly the same as the list for the ten oldest churches in the PCA today. Top honor, incidentally, goes to Fairfield Presbyterian Church, in Fairton, New Jersey, organized in 1680.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were thirteen of the founding churches that had been organized in 1973, in the months just prior to the formation of the denomination. 3 of these were in Evangel Presbytery and 3 were in Westminster Presbytery. Another 9 of the founding churches were still quite young, having been organized in the 1960’s. Many of these were located in Florida.
And to conclude, while some 55% of the PCA remains weighted in the South, clearly the momentum is moving to expand out across the nation with the glorious Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. In all this work may our Lord God— and He alone—be glorified.