First Presbyterian Church in Independence this weekend will mark a milestone but is looking to the present and future as much as it is celebrating the past.
The church, one of the oldest in the city, traces its beginnings to at least 1826. Its current building, on Pleasant Street between Lexington and Maple just west of the Square, went up in 1888, and this weekend the congregation will mark its 125th anniversary. There will be tours, and the sermon given by the pastor, Dave Carlson, will be one that renowned preacher Thomas De Witt Talmage gave in the 1880s.
Still, Carlson says the focus today is on being open and welcoming to all.
“I think the outreach that we have to the community and the acceptance of the diversity that surrounds us in the community is a hallmark” of the congregation’s approach, he said.
Even this Sunday’s old sermon – from Isaiah 55: “Seek ye the lord while He may be found” – has a message for now with an emphasis on prayer, Bible study and participation in the church, which Carlson calls “the basics of who we are as Christians and how we live that out.”
And there is a rich history. Nancy Ehrlich, lifelong member who has dived deeply into the church’s history, says she thinks there were commissioning ceremonies for some of the first wagon trains headed west out of Independence in the 1820s. It was gold rush money, she says, that helped the church put up an earlier building – where the post office is today – in 1849. “Colonel” William Southern, who founded The Examiner in 1898, taught the men’s Bible study for years.
The current building would have been new when 6-year-old Harry Truman and 5-year-old Bess Wallace met for the first time, in Sunday school. Her family were members at that time. Ehrlich says she thinks another famous Independence resident – Charlie Ross, a classmate of Harry and Bess and later the president’s press secretary – might have been a member, too.
“I think the Truman connection is the reason we’re on the National Registry” of Historic Places, she says.
Four families, she said, put up $40,000 to get the building put up – about $900,000 today, Ehrlich figures – and it took the church 25 years to pay that back.
The idea for the building, she said, was to be nice but not ornate.
“Things came out of catalogs, and they put things together,” she says.
There was an addition in 1923, and sometime around 1957 or later today’s Westminster Hall, catercornered from the church at Pleasant and Lexington, went up where a Kroger grocery store had been.
That site is used for a variety of activities. One, for example, was a six-week class with Missouri Extension for about a dozen young mothers, teaching them the basics of shopping and cooking.
“This can transform the life of a young family in this community,” Carlson said. Similarly, the church now plans to sponsor classes on job readiness, financial planning and cooking nutritiously on a budget this spring.
Carlson and Ehrlich said much of that work, the ministry of the church, is done through the church itself but much is done by members far beyond the church. Right now, Carlson said, five members are on a mission trip in Africa. The church regularly helps Harvesters and Habitat for Humanity, makes quilts for Drumm Farm and makes clothes for girls in Africa.
There is a common idea, Carlson points out, that churches expect members to act in certain ways that might, for lack of a better term, be called “churchy.”
“And I think this church is one that speaks a voice that is contrary to that,” he said.
Ehrlich agrees that too many are prone to see churches through old paradigms.
“The thing is they’ve bought the church lady image,” she says, referring to the famous Dana Carvey character from “Saturday Night Live.”
Carlson says First Presbyterian is not about that. Come and be involved “as much or as little as you feel led,” he says. “ ... You’re welcome to hang around as long as you want.”