November 11: John Calvin Barr [1824-1911]

The Rev. John Calvin Barr, D.D. (1824-1911)
by Rev. Dennis E. Bills

Dr. Barr should be remembered for his lengthy pastorate and his conviction that a church is not truly Presbyterian unless it is connected to the larger church. Dr. Barr pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Charleston, West Virginia for forty years. He began in 1868 as an assistant to the Rev. W. N. Geddes, who pastored the Kanawha Presbyterian Church. But in 1872, when Geddes resigned for health reasons and the church called his assistant, Barr demanded the church return to its Presbyterian commitments, which meant that it must choose either the Presbyterian Church in the USA or the Presbyterian Church in the US.

For the previous eleven years—since the start of the Civil War—the Kanawha Church had declined to send representatives to either denomination’s presbytery or general assembly.[1] Like a microcosm of West Virginia itself, the church was filled with supporters of both the northern and the southern causes. But the State had seceded from Virginia nine years earlier, and the war was long over. That the church remained in its mottled, uncommitted condition is testimony that hostilities still simmered beneath the surface long after the war, covered over by the pretense of unity, unaddressed in both pulpit and pew.

In order to have their pastor, the church complied with Barr’s demand, and the twenty-three people who voted to go with the PCUSA kept the church’s name, the manse, and the larger portion of the property. The other 153 took the sanctuary, a smaller portion of the lot, and became the First Presbyterian Church of Charleston (PCUS). By all accounts, the division of church and property was agreeable, orderly, and amicable, if not melancholy. The church had kept itself in limbo for over a decade in order to avoid just such a split. Ultimately, Barr acted upon the biblical truth that the church’s independence was not unity at all. But for all his theological correctness on that point, there is no record that he ever publicly addressed the specific issues that had sparked the war, either before or after the vote. When all was said and done, he himself went with the Southern church and continued as their pastor for thirty-six more years.[3]

Dr. Barr died on September 8, 1911 and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, overlooking the city in which he ministered for so long. Both the First and Kanawha Presbyterian Churches have continued through to the present as prominent congregations in Charleston and West Virginia. Their meeting houses have always been just a two-minute walk from each other, and now they both coexist in the same denomination.


[1] Ruth Putney Coghill, The Church of 150 Years (self-pub, First Presbyterian Church, 1969), n.p. Accessed June 11, 2018. See also Ruth P Coghill, The First Presbyterian Church Charleston West Virginia: A Brief History (n.p., n.d.), n.p. Accessed June 11, 2018. Another less recent account (~1950) speculates that Barr kept out the matter and that the determination to vote boiled up from within the congregation, which may have recently had an influx of new members from the Malden church (HPK, 120-121).  This may be based on an even older account says that “one hundred members of the old congregation, petitioned the Session that Presbyterial relations be resumed.” Katie Bell Abney, History of the Presbyterian Congregation and the Other Early Churches of “Kenhawha” 1804-1900 (Charleston, WV: First Presbyterian Church, 1930), 32. It may be that both are true, that Barr made his wishes known, and the congregation petitioned the session in response.

[2] Cf. Dennis E. Bills, A Church You Can See: Building a Case for Church Membership (New Martinsville, WV: Reforming West Virginia Publications, 2017), 82: “Because particular churches are the building blocks of the visible church, the best opportunity for particular churches to pursue unity within the visible body of Christ is through denominational affiliation.”

[3] More issues than race and slavery were in play in the division between the northern and southern churches.  Twenty-five years previous, the Old School/New School Controversy had already laid out lines of division that were simply awaiting a catalyst. As providence would have it, the Southern Church retained its orthodoxy much longer than the Northern Church. This however, does not justify the moral failures of the Southern Church during and after the war.

Rev. Dr. Dennis E. Bills
Trinity Presbyterian Church
307 McEldowny Avenue
New Martinsville, WV 26155


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