Monday, September 9, 2019

A Bit of Local Presbyterian History

In 1906, the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC) voted to merge into the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). This vote occurred 100 years after the Cumberland Presbyterians had split from the PCUSA over issues related to the Calvinist language of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

The single largest event that lead to the two groups reuniting was the PCUSA changing the language of their version of the Westminster Confession of Faith to water down the explicit Reformed language regarding the doctrines of grace.

At the time of the merger, the CPC was the third largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. Approximately 1,000 pastors and 90,000 members merged into the PCUSA (a significant minority, about 50,000 members, remained outside the PCUSA and continue as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to this day).

Recently, it came to my attention that the 1906 General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church which voted to merge into the PCUSA met in Decatur, IL, where I live! I wanted to track down the location where that General Assembly met, to see if the church was still standing. I started with a photograph of the Church, First Church, Decatur, IL, provided to me by Wayne Sparkman of the PCA Historical Center.
Photo of First Church, Decatur, Illinois provided by the PCA Historical Center
This photo only names the church as (Former) First Church, Decatur, Illinois. There is also an inset of the pastor of this church, Rev. J. W. McDonald.

I did not recognize the church building, and after comparing it to a few existing churches in Decatur, I went to the Local History room of the Decatur Public Library to see if there was any information on church buildings from that era.

While the library volunteers sorted through archives to see if they could find anything about this church, I pulled the Decatur City Directory from 1905 off the shelf and found a listing for First Cumberland Presbyterian Church located at the northeast corner of Monroe and Eldorado streets.

City of Decatur Directory, 1905

The 1912 City Directory did not list a First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, but there was a listed for a Second Presbyterian Church located at the same place:
City of Decatur Directory, 1912

Next, I checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Decatur from 1908 to see what was at the northeast corner of Monroe and Eldorado, and low and behold, 1st Cumberland Presbyterian Church is shown:
Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Decatur, 1908.

While I was checking these sources, I asked the library volunteer helping me to locate a file titled "Index to churches of Decatur scrapbook in Decatur Herald and Review Library" I had found in the library's catalog.

While there was no information about First Cumberland Presbyterian Church or Second Presbyterian Church, there was a history of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) which still exists today. That history noted that Westminster Presbyterian came about from the combination in 1917 of Second Presbyterian Church and a Mission Sunday School of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of Decatur! The history (see the three pages below) recorded the name change of First Cumberland Presbyterian to Second Presbyterian, and also noted the Rev. J. W. McDonald as the pastor of First Cumberland Presbyterian/Second Presbyterian at the time of the CPC/PCUSA merger.
Page 1 of the History of Westminster Presbyterian Church

Bottom of page 1 of the History of Westminster Presbyterian

Page 2 of the history of Westminster Presbyterian

Now that I knew what had happened to the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Decatur, IL, I drove to the intersection where the church had stood. Here is the northeast corner of Monroe and Eldoradro today:

The intersection of Monroe and Eldorado, 2019.

It was on this spot, where a water-related parts manufacturing company now stands, that one of the largest mergers of Presbyterian denominations in the United States occurred 113 years ago!