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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICKSBURG, MS – Part 1

02 Jul
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN VICKSBURG, MS – Part 1

PART 1 of 2

FPC Vicksburg 1One of my favorite churches to visit when I travel through the South is First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, MS. Not only because Vicksburg is so full of history, but also because the people of FPCV and the Pastor, Rev. Tim Brown, are some great folks. Their church dates back to a beginning in 1800 and is recorded in the church’s history publication, “The History of the First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg, MS in the Nineteenth Century” by Frank E. Everett, Jr. Published in 1980, it is a mesmerizing story of the history of the church and the Vicksburg area. The FPC Church History is a great read but unfortunately ends at 1900. The book goes into way too much detail to relate in this summary but I want to share some highlights. After 1900, details become hard to obtain so the last portion of the tale is a little vague. So unless I give credit elsewhere, the various quotes used in this piece can be credited to Frank Everett’s church history book. Relying on FPC Church History and a little research of the rich history of Vicksburg, this blog grew long. So instead of cutting out some interesting and fascinating historical particulars, I post this blog in two segments. I hope you will take the time to read and discover some events of the past.

WALNUT HILLS

The area of Vicksburg where the church is located is called Walnut Hills. The FPC Church History begins with Walnut Hills and the telling of DeSoto’s expedition in 1541 and LaSalle’s undertaking in 1683 venturing into the area. After their initial explorations, France established a fort in the area, along with some Catholic missionaries which were wiped out by the Indians, fort and all, in 1729. With the fighting of and eventual end of (1756 to 1763) the French and Indian War Britain extended its boundaries through the Mississippi Valley, including the Walnut Hills area, and issued land grants in the area for the next twenty years. “Settlement was sparse. There was little, if any, organized religion.”

After the American Revolution, Spain took advantage of England’s loss and moved into the area for the next seven years. Eventually they withdrew leaving a small fort of which Americans became the occupants. In 1799 the first church was organized in the Territory by a young Methodist preacher, Tobias Gibson. One year after Gibson arrived in Walnut Hills, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA sent Rev. James Hall, along with two other ministers to assist him and to explore the area. By horseback, they made their way to the Southwest via the Natchez Trace through Indian Territory and harsh wilderness. They established a “preaching station” in Warren County which may have been the site of the first Presbyterian service in the Mississippi Territory.

Vicksburg 3VICKSBURG

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened vast lands west of the Mississippi to American settlement. Settlers poured into the area by land and from up and down the Mississippi River. In 1805 another Methodist parson named Newitt Vick acquired the lands near Walnut Hills. He built a small frame chapel and mapped the beginning of a town in 1819. Upon Vick’s sudden death from malaria, his son-in-law, Rev. John Lane, continued the work of establishing the town of Vicksburg. On January 29, 1825, Vicksburg was officially chartered. The town grew quickly and in the summer of 1826 “several ‘citizens of Vicksburg’ concluded that the fast growing worldly town should have the ‘ministrations of the gospel by a Presbyterian minister.’” So by invitation from the citizens, Zebulon Butler made his way via the Natchez Trace to Vicksburg to become the first Presbyterian preacher in the town. Butler made very little headway in establishing a church in Vicksburg and after twelve frustrating months departed Vicksburg after accepting an invitation from the Port Gibson Church where he was installed as pastor in 1828. “He faithfully preached there ‘with burning zeal’ until his death on Christmas day 1860.” (Note: Port Gibson Presbyterian Church is now an EPC church as well, but that’s another story!)

FIRST CHURCH BUILDING AND ORGANIZATION

Despite being rejected by their first pastor, the Presbyterians continued to meet together with a series of interim pastors and pulpit supply. A legal entity of First Presbyterian was established and the trustees eventually purchased a section of land at Monroe and East First Streets for $350 cash on June 8, 1831. Construction plans were begun despite the fact “there was no organized congregation and no preacher, only a Board of Trustees.” The church building was completed in probably late 1833. It was the first church building in Vicksburg and a “very creditable structure for its time.” At Christmas of that year, public notice was given of a meeting with the intention to organize a church. Interestingly, Zebulon Butler, now a full-time pastor in Post Gibson, presided over the organizational meeting. “He must have had mixed feelings about the progress made after his departure indicating that his earlier work had not been entirely in vain.” Almost ten years after Zebulon Butler’s first sermon, the church called and installed its first full-time pastor, Rev. John B. Hutchinson, in January 1837.

TROUBLES AND SETBACKS

The church grew during the next decades although there were troubling times in Vicksburg. Two blocks from the church was the notorious Kangaroo Saloon. Author Clay Blount records in his fictional, yet by other accounts historically accurate, novel Birthright:

“The original Kangaroo had been located then, as now, near Glass Bayou just north of town. It had been established in the 1820s – shortly after Vicksburg’s emergence as a city of commerce – first as a whorehouse, then as a saloon, and finally a gambler’s refuge.

Vicksburg’s reputable citizens tolerated the Kangaroo until it encroached on their lives, as in 1835 when, during a Fourth of July picnic, a drunken Kangaroo rowdy interrupted the town’s celebration with outrageous and lewd behavior. He was promptly arrested, but just as promptly released on bail, whereby he returned to the picnic brandishing a gun and a knife. The picnickers subdued him, and he was publicly tarred and feathered. The incident might have been forgotten, but the man’s cohorts from the Kangaroo, ‘the gamblers,’ mistakenly vowed revenge. Public outrage, first at the picnic disruption, and later at the veiled threat from the gamblers, reached a critical level. Two days passed before an ad hoc group calling themselves the Anti-Gambling Society descended on the Kangaroo. Their intent was to roust the gamblers; the gamblers were just as determined to stay. A bloody riot left six people dead, including the Society leader, a prominent city doctor.”

That prominent citizen was Dr. Hugh Bodley. Dr. Bodley, an Episcopalian (although The Saturday Evening Post in the January 12, 1907 issue says he was Presbyterian), was honored with a memorial in front of the Presbyterian Church. The memorial declares Dr. Bodley was, “Murdered by the gamblers, July 5, 1835, while defending the morals of Vicksburg.”

The same Saturday Evening Post reported, “Vicksburg’s people wrecked the Kangaroo. Gamblers were shot, hanged or otherwise disposed of with neatness and dispatch. A few of the less guilty ones were permitted to leave without baggage or sidearms. These were stripped, tarred and feathered, and each man put straddlewise of his own log. The river had brought them, the river took them away. They were cast loose upon the Mississippi and warned that driftwood must not float back.”

In 1837 there was a financial crash which forced the church to sell some of their property in two transactions for a combined total of $2000. Remember the original property was bought for $300…so there was a nice return! The economic trouble reached its peak in 1837 and continued unabated through 1838. “Many residents left for Texas or other places.” But as a result of the economic depression, many people turned to faith and the membership of the church grew. The membership grew to 82 communicants by 1841 when a Yellow Fever epidemic hit the city. “Hundreds died, including many, many Presbyterians. The entire session of three Elders was wiped out.” There was a footnote in the FPCV account at this point that said, “More than 200 deaths in two months meant an average of three funerals every day continuously for sixty days. On twenty of these days, there would be no less than four burials.”

Rev. Hutchinson was dismissed from the pulpit in October of 1842 to answer a call from Oakland College. “The first full-time pastor served the church well. He increased the membership and faithfully led his congregation during troublous times.” After a few more pulpit supply callings, Rev. Samuel M. Montgomery was called as the pastor in April of 1865. Montgomery was the eighth minister to serve the Vicksburg church from 1826 to 1845. The next few years saw growth in the church while they hosted a few special occasions including a speaking engagement by Jefferson Davis for the memorial service to honor the passing of Andrew Jackson.

THE 1850s

Rev. Montgomery resigned in April of 1849 and the pulpit remained empty for a year before a pulpit supply could be arranged. In June, 1851 Harry M. Painter was called as pastor. At the end of 1852 the session approved a pastoral letter addressing the condition of the church. In addition to having 81 members in 46 families, the church added two more Elders to the Session making a total of five. Also commented, “Sunday school was unusually active with 150 scholars and 30 teachers maintaining an average attendance of 115. The library contained 300 volumes and 200 papers. Prayer meeting was well attended and a monthly concert was held in support of missions. Many members were added to the church. On the other hand, the pastor noted that family religion was not faithfully observed and the members in general were afflicted by the ‘cold breath of worldly conformity.’ Also, temperance was much needed.”

The report ended with a belief that a new church building would soon be needed. Plans for a new church building began and moved forward. In April of 1854, property was deeded to the Trustees of Vicksburg Presbyterian Church at the corner of Walnut and Clay Streets for a sum of $2000. Two weeks later, Rev. Painter resigned for an unknown reason. Four months later, Rev. B. H. Williams was called as pastor.

In March of 1855, the old church building was sold for $1590. (It was then resold later in 1866 to the African Methodist Episcopal for $6000.) Three months later in June of 1855, the new church on Walnut Street was dedicated. In September of that same year, Rev. Williams died of Yellow Fever leaving the church again pastor-less and led by pulpit supply. Two years would lapse before Rev. E. H. Rutherford would be received as the full-time church pastor. He would serve the church through many troubled years until 1866.

An interesting part of this era notes that the first black was received into the membership of the church in January of 1855. In March of 1856, “the Session resolved to open Divine service for blacks on each Sabbath afternoon in the basement of the church.” In 1856, the total communicants was reported to be 109. There were eight “colored” members, fifty-three families and one hundred enrolled in Sunday school.

THE QUIET BEFORE THE STORM

By 1859 the church membership was reported to be 158 members (32 “colored”) from 68 families with Sunday school attendance at 85.

Old Warren County Courthouse - Built 1858

Old Warren County Courthouse – Built 1858

Vicksburg reached a period of stability and sound growth. Homes and public buildings reflected the trend. Elegant and fine homes were built, and a new courthouse was built in 1858 at a price of $100,000. The census of 1860 showed a population of 4,500 for the city.

The FPC Church History stated, “These were good days in Vicksburg. It had reached a position of economic and political leadership in the state. A news article appeared in one of the local papers on December 2, 1859, proclaiming that ‘Happy Days are here!’ A glowing and optimistic report was given for the future. All was well on the Mississippi.”

Yet all was not well for the country. The national political weather was changing rapidly but the church continued to steadily grow. Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860. Secession of the Southern states was being discussed and indications of storms ahead were becoming apparent. On December 20, 1860 delegates were elected in the new courthouse that would represent Vicksburg in the state convention to consider secession from the Union. One of those elected was a lawyer, a former U.S. Senator and a Presbyterian, Walker Brooks. Brooks and the other representative to the convention, Thomas Marshall, were instructed to vote against secession, but accepted the overwhelming convention majority’s decision to secede. Brooks also served on the Governor’s Commission to other Southern states seeking a solution to the impending crisis. He would later serve in the Confederate Congress.

The same day that Brooks was selected as a delegate to the Mississippi convention, South Carolina seceded. On January 7, 1861 the convention met in Jackson to consider secession. Two days later an ordinance of secession of Mississippi was adopted. Later that same month, six volunteer military companies were raised in Vicksburg. The following month Jefferson Davis passed through Vicksburg from his home nearby on his way to Montgomery, AL to be inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861. Mississippi ratified the Confederate Constitution and entered the Confederacy on March 29, 1861. The following month, Vicksburg Presbyterian Church reported a membership of 182 members, (41 “colored”) from 76 families and 120 Sunday school attendees. Receipts for the past year came to $2,664.

DIVISION OF THE NATION AND THE CHURCH

On April 13, 1861 news flashed of the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Actual hostilities had started…the war had begun.

An assembly of Confederate States’ churches met in Atlanta on August 8, 1861 to establish plans to form the Presbyterian Church for the Confederated States of America. The Atlanta meeting was attended by delegates from eleven southern Presbyteries. Vicksburg Presbyterian Church chose two delegates to attend the Presbytery meeting in Richmond, LA and the Synod at Oakland College in MS. Rev. Rutherford also attended the Synod. At the Synod meeting it was reported that its Presbyteries had, or were soon going to, dissolve their relationships with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. The Synod also severed their relationship. Five days later, the Presbytery voted to dissolve relations with the Old-School Assembly of the PCUSA and appointed commissioners to the Assembly to be held in Augusta, GA to form a new Southern Presbyterian church body. The Augusta Assembly met on December 4, 1861 and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America was born. “All forty-seven Presbyteries in the Confederacy severed their connections with former Assemblies and sent commissioners to Augusta. The Permanent Clerk chosen was Rev. Joseph Wilson, DD of Augusta, GA, the father of President Woodrow Wilson.” The result of all of this was that Vicksburg Presbyterian Church became a member of the Presbytery of Central Mississippi of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861.

END OF PART 1 – COME BACK SOON FOR PART 2

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