The following is a brief history of the spiritual origins of the First Presbyterian Church and the Sunbury Area compiled by Rennold and Anna Ruth Kuttruff in June of 1976.
One of the earliest records of a white man coming to this area was that of a hunter-explorer about 1728. Whether or not he was a Christian, we do not know. He probably was a Christian. The build-up from this time was all from European stock. The heritage was English, German and Scotch most with a firm religious background. Indeed, many came because of their beliefs.
Although there appears to be no record of a particular minister in this area until 1775, we must not forget that most people at that time took the Sabbath most seriously. We must remember that until 1763, this area was a dangerous place because of marauding Indians. In fact, Fort Hunter located where the Fort Augusta replica stood was the only safe haven.
The religious history of the entire Susquehanna Valley begins in 1742 with the arrival of
Count Nicolas Zinzendorf and a party of Moravian Christians under the guidance of Conrad Weiser. It was Count Zinzendorf’s intention to establish a mission at the Indian Capital, Shamokin (Sunbury) and to evangelize the natives. In subsequent years, many of the prominent figures in the Moravian Church came here, John Martin Mack, Christian Frederick Post, Bishop Spangenberg, Bishop J.C.F. Cammerhoff, David Leisberger and John Hagen, who died here in 1747.
Preachers of other denominations also visited the Indian town. David Brainerd, a Presbyterian, left a vivid account of his visit in 1745. One of the best accounts of the Augusta Regiment was written by the Reverend Charles Beaty, Regimental Chaplain. During the twenty odd years that the fort was garrisoned, there was no doubt that services were held there, usually by Presbyterian clergy since most of the garrison were Ulstermen or Scotch-Irish as we know today.
In 1748, Shikellamy, the great organizer of the Indians in the area died. Conrad Weiser and the Moravian Zinzendorf along with Shikellamy had made possible any settlement in this area. Shikellamy’s sons were not as gifted as their father. In 1755, with Braddock’s defeat and the French inciting the Indians, the Indian town of the Shamokin was deserted. Thus, all the work of the Moravians who came through this area to Christianize the Indians came to nothing and the Indian crossroads at the meeting of the North and West branch of the Susquehanna was empty. Something that had been a meeting place for the Native Americans for 10,000 years was gone and all that was left was an empty smithy. However, this desertion of the area did not last for long as Col. Chapham built Fort Augusta in 1757-58. He then was succeeded by Col. Burd.
The first authentic reference to any organized meeting of a religious group is found in the May 1, 1776 minutes of “The Coetus” the governing body of the Reformed Church during the Provincial period.
However, Major Burd, in charge of the fort conducted a short service at Reveille every Sunday morning in winter and two services every Sunday during the summer months.
In 1757, a Dr. Morgan, visiting to take care of illnesses in the fort, also conducted services during the months of his stay here.
In 1768, there were sufficient people and the area was safe enough to lay out the present plan of the City of Sunbury. In 1775, the Rev. Philip V. Fithian from the First Presbyterian group in Philadelphia visited Sunbury and conducted Sunday services at the McCartney home for a number of Sundays. In 1776, this area again became unsafe because of British army units and Indians inciting to wipe out the local people. These unsafe circumstances continued to 1782. From past history, we can be sure that services were still held on the Sabbath by the local people. By 1784, there were was once again a population sufficient for the people to join their interests in a shared worship. From about the period of 1776, the congregations of Reformed, Lutheran and Presbyterian faiths were worshipping together in a schoolhouse on Walnut Street. They had no minister except when an itinerant minister would come. A record indicates in minutes written in 1776 that several congregations in Shamokin, which was Sunbury, asked to have preachers visit this group when they could. When the groups separated each used a different date for having been started independently or incorporated.
In 1791, the Lutherans began the erection of a log church which was completed in 1793 at what is now Third and Church Streets. In 1793, the Reformed and Presbyterian groups, who no doubt had also worshipped in the old schoolhouse, built a Union church at the corner of River and Blackberry Streets, now Second and Chestnut Streets.
In 1794, there were over 100 homes in what was now called Sunbury, located about a half mile south of Fort Augusta. In 1800, the census of the town was taken at 611.
Shamokin, now Sunbury, was again becoming what it had been, the hub of a crisscross of trails running north, south, east and west. The trails no longer were paths. Soon there were macadam, concrete and steel rails, and the contrails of planes could be seen crisscrossing the sky.
The Presbyterians organized in 1785, and the German Reformed Congregation united with them in building the above mentioned church in 1793. They worshipped together until 1841, when the Presbyterians sold their interest in the log church and property to the Reformed Congregation for $500 and bought a lot on Blackberry and Deer Streets. (now Chestnut and Third Streets) Here they built a small one-story brick church.
The motto, “In God We Trust,” on the United States coins that went into the collection plate was originated by James Pollock, Esquire of Milton, when he was Director of the United States Mint. Mr. Pollock, who later became Governor of Pennsylvania, worshipped at the Chestnut and Third Street Church when he was Prosecuting Attorney of Northumberland County.
The brick church was used until 1870. In 1869, the deed for the present church site was executed and building operations began. The church is Romanesque in style. There have been remodeling projects and additions to the church throughout the years until it has become the beautiful church that it is today. In 1909, the church was remodeled. On December 12, 1911, it was nearly destroyed by fire. In 1926, the 130 feet steeple, after standing for 56 years, was condemned and removed. In place of the steeple, a brick tower was constructed on each corner of the front of the building.
The congregation is in possession of the original indenture from Thomas and John Penn to Samuel McNeel, dated February 23, 1755 for the land on which the church presently stands. The bell in the tower is noteworthy in that it is almost as old as the Liberty Bell. This bell hung from a tree at the Third and Chestnut Streets Church and was originally used in the belfry of the old courthouse. The inscription on it reads “George Hedderly, Philadelphia 1794.”
On September 9, 1921, the cornerstone for the Sunday School building was laid. This addition to the church building was at the rear and consisted of a brick building 50 ft by 60 ft, housing an auditorium and Sunday School rooms. This building was finished and dedicated June 11, 1922. It housed the auditorium and classrooms on the first floor and a gallery and a library. The basement contained a large social hall and stage with dressing rooms and a kitchen.
On Sunday, February 29, 1948, the refurbished sanctuary was re-dedicated. A basic change in the sanctuary was the removal of the central dais with its single pedestal and replacing it with a dais on each side. By April 11, 1948, a new three manual Moller pipe organ had been installed in the sanctuary and was dedicated.
On Sunday, December 17, 1972, five Sunday School rooms and the Charles B. Almond Chapel were dedicated. The chapel is fronted by the Anna Louise Becker Lounge. Early the following year, 1973, a Wicks pipe organ was installed in the chapel, a gift in memory of Mary Ripple Williams by the family and friends.
The early records of the Sunbury Church are not in existence. Upon being taken to a meeting of Presbytery at Lewisburg in April 1867, the book of records was torn from the hand of the elder in whose possession it was by a sudden movement of the boat transporting the delegates to the meeting. The book fell into the water and was swept downstream. The bridge having been flooded out in 1865, made it necessary to travel to Lewisburg by boat.
The following are the pastors who have served First Presbyterian Church:
Rev. Hugh Morrison 1787-1804
Rev. Isaac Grier 1806-1814
Rev. Robert F.N. Smith 1816-1819
Rev. William R. Smith 1822-1831
Rev. Wheelock S. Stone 1832-1834
Rev. William R. Smith, Supply 1834-1843
Rev. William R. Smith, Minister 1843-1849
Rev. William Simonton, D.D. 1851-1854
Rev. James D. Reardon 1856-1863
Rev. Josiah H. Young 1863-1865
Rev. Samuel W. Reighard 1865-1869
Rev. Orr Lawson 1869-1870
Rev. Samuel J. Milliken 1870-1875
Rev. Martin L. Ross 1876-1882
Rev. Andrew Brydie 1882-1891
Rev. Oscar G. Morton 1892-1911
Rev. Robert C. Aukerman, D.D. 1912-1918
Rev. Chester W. Todd, S.T.D. 1919-1944
Rev. Charles B. Almond 1945-1969
Rev. Timothy W. Held 1970-1979
Rev. William L. Hartmann 1980-1986
Rev. George B. Antonakos 1987-1998
Rev.Dr. David Wiley 1999-2000
Rev.Dr. Christine & Rev. Kenneth Woods-Henderson 2000-2002
Rev.Dr. David Wiley 2003-2005
Rev.Dr. Margaret Gillespie 2005-2007
Rev. Elizabeth Affsprung 2008-2013
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