First Presbyterian Church (FPC) has a long and rich history as a worshiping community in the bluegrass region. As one of the oldest congregations in the area, the church worshiped together long before it found a home in the building on it’s current site in the heart of downtown Lexington. The congregation that gathers here today draws on these strong roots in our mission to glorify God by engaging in worship, pursuing justice and nurturing all who enter our doors.
First Presbyterian Church was founded in 1784 when Lexington, Kentucky, was a frontier town composed of thirty cabins and a stockade. Originally named Mount Zion Church until 1790, this congregation has had several famous pastors fill its pulpit.
We hope you enjoy the topical outline of FPC’s history below.
FPC – Buildings and Locations
Mount Zion Presbyterian Church was established at the current site of Scovell Hall (the old UK Experiment Station) on South Limestone. It was likely a log house.
A frame building was constructed, which faced Mill Street between Main and Mill about 100 feet north of Main Street. It measured 50 feet long, 40 feet wide, and was 22 feet high with a gallery 15 feet wide round three squares of the building. The building was not completed all at one time, but in 1799 the gallery and a cupola with bell were added.
The building was torn down 17 years later on September 2nd, 1807 because the church trustees determined that it was too close to the town’s business center.
The same year in 1807, the congregation constructed a brick building on the southwest corner of Second and Broadway. A design drawn by famed architect Benjamin Latrobe arrived too late to be used. The new location provided sheds to shelter the congregation’s carriages and horses during services (parking lot). Also included was a session house, because churches at that time were one-room affairs. The bldg measured 80 x 50 feet and was two stories high. It had a steeple and spire that reached 104 feet from the ground. The building was torn down in 1857 because it was in great need of repair.
A new building was constructed on the same site. It was dedicated by Robert J. Breckinridge and remained in hands of church until the Civil War caused a split in Lexington’s Presbyterian Churches.
FPC during Slavery
Dr. David Rice, the Father of Presbyterianism in the West, spoke against Article IX of the State’s constitution in 1792—the provision which enabled slavery in Kentucky. His speech, “Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy,” was the first anti-slavery tract published in Kentucky.
Robert J. Breckinridge, First Presbyterian Church minister from 1847-1853, was a leader of those in the state who favored gradual emancipation. Lexington was the center of the state’s largest slave-holding section and its leader was Robert Wickliffe, the state’s largest slaveholder. Before he assumed the pastorship at First Presbyterian Church, Breckinridge had engaged in a series of vitriolic pamphlets and newspapers against Wickliffe. By 1849, Lexington was the center of the state’s conflict over slavery, but when the attempt to replace the state’s constitution with a new one (including a provision abolishing slavery) died, so did much of the city and state’s opposition to the institution of slavery. By this time, Lexington had also become the central slaveholding market of the upper south. Pastors who opposed the institution risked splitting their congregations or inviting attacks on their property, family, or persons. The underpinning of much of Lexington’s economy depended on the slave trade or upon black laborers, who worked in factories, as day laborers, bricklayers, masons, blacksmiths, butchers, vegetable vendors, carpenters, carriage or wagon drivers, street or sewer workers, horse or liverymen, or household workers and servants. Even many gradual emancipationists who had slaves did not free them. Many in the congregation, regardless of political party, had significant investments tied up in slaves.
FPC during the Civil War
At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, even though many owned slaves, most members of First Presbyterian Church did not favor secession although there were many who did. With the exception of a brief two-week period during the fall of 1862, when Kirby Smith occupied Lexington, the town was garrisoned by Union troops. Gradually, opinion in central Kentucky shifted. Factors involved in this change included: Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation and the recruitment of African-American troops, the command in Kentucky of union general Stephen Burbridge and his repressive measures, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the institution of marshal law by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. After the war, Kentucky was the only border state not to ratify the 13th Amendment.
The Congregations of both the First and Second churches were split by the war into pro-southern and pro-northern churches. On September 18, 1866, the Presbytery of West Lexington was divided into the Northern Presbyterian Church and into the Southern Presbyterian Church. For approximately the next two years (1866-1868), both churches maintained split congregations with their own pastors. At First Presbyterian Church, Reverend John D. Matthews initially headed the church’s southern contingent, while Reverend Richard Valentine served as his counterpart for the northern congregation.
From the latter part of 1866 through 1869, Dr. Robert G. Brank, minister of Second Presbyterian Church from 1854-1866, gathered the pro-south congregation from both churches and preached to them in the courthouse.
An agreement was reached in 1869, consolidating the northern groups who assumed the Second Presbyterian Church properties. The southern congregation continued as First Presbyterian Church.
FPC – 1872 Building
In 1870, First Presbyterian Church sold its building and land to the Main Street Christian Church for $15,000. For the next two years, the congregation was without a permanent home holding services in Melodeon Hall which still stands and is located on Main Street. (It is the attractive building at the corner of Main and Upper with the iron façade.) At the same time, the congregation purchased the land between Mill and Market Streets and erected our current building—an edifice designed by architect and elder Cincinnatus Shyrock and modeled after Trinity Church in New York City. Shyrock was the younger brother of Gideon Shyrock who brought Greek Revival architecture west of the Appalachians. Through Gideon and his own partner John McMurty, Cincinnatus traces his training through Philadelphia’s William Strickland to Benjamin Latrobe. Thus, in a manner, Latrobe influenced a First Presbyterian edifice after all.
The spire is 180 feet and the cost was $50,378.72. Originally, it had four bays. A fifth was added in 1897 to accommodate a new organ.
The interior sanctuary woodwork (including wainscoting, pews, pulpit, pulpit steps, and gallery front) was stained in oak and walnut finishes. The pews were upholstered in crimson rap and curled hair and the floor was covered with a double English Brussels red and black carpet. A huge chandelier equipped with thirty gas burners hung from the 30 foot ceiling and natural light filtered through a series of lavender and green “vine” stained traceried glass windows which could be opened to provide cross ventilation. The church was heated by two large coal-burning furnaces.
In one account, which appeared in the Lexington Observer, a reporter described the building as the “neatest, prettiest church in the city.”
FPC – Later Additions
An 1897 Renovation:
(1) added a fifth bay to house a larger organ.
(2) a new organ, a 35th Kimball produced by Kimball Organ Co. of Chicago (organ rebuilt in 1936, had carillonic bells added in 1945, was renovated in 1976, and rebuilt in 2007). Today, it has about 15% of its original parts.
(3) added rooms for Sunday School and church societies, new furnaces, electric lights and plumbing.
The original traceried windows were replaced.
The Tiffany window depicting Christ at Gethsemane was added sometime in the 1880s or 1890s.
Other Stained glass windows were installed as memorials during the tenures of Rev. Miles and Rev. Gardner (1933-1964).
1929 – Gillig Bldg – classrooms and offices
1959 – Gratz Building – classrooms and storage
1967-1969 – The Henry Clay Law Office dispute
Office purchased by state in 1969
1994 – Renovation of sanctuary and offices, reacquisition of Henry Clay Law office and addition of the chapel
2007-2008 – Renovation of sanctuary, acquisition of apartments
2009 – Acquisition of parking lot, renovation of apartments
In 2000, First Presbyterian Church called its first female pastor, Rev. Dr. Lee W. Bowman. Dr. Bowman ushered new life into this church community with intentionality toward worship and spirituality that faithfully fed the congregation and guided us to a greater understanding of and commitment to mission. During her tenure, we came together under a $3.2 million renovation of the sanctuary and new Music Center, acquired the neighboring Market Street Apartment building to be renovated as a ministry to provide low cost, high quality urban housing for fixed income families and the Mill Street Parking lot that would assure growth for years to come. In September 2010, we welcomed Mark Davis to be our pastor, who has continued this commitment to worship, spirituality and mission.