Where to begin when a church has over 250 years of history, has spawned five other Presbyterian churches in the community, and has a deep association with Staunton’s Mary Baldwin University?
The very beginning was in 1804, back when the Presbyterians were welcomed in the Shenandoah Valley even though they were not part of the Established Church (Episcopal). They were tolerated as a first defense against the Indian nations that were inclined to be irritated by the western expansion happening in the colony of Virginia.
During their first fifty years of service, the Staunton Presbyterians met at the Parish Church (Trinity) where a shortage of Episcopal ministers made the welcoming of these Presbyterians possible. It wasn’t until 1818 that the small fledgling church got their own building. It was constructed on what is now the Mary Baldwin University campus and served the growing congregation until 1872, when the current First Presbyterian Church building was completed.
During those interim years, two significant establishments were begun. One was the Augusta Female Institute, founded in 1842, which grew into what is now Mary Baldwin University. The other was the building of a Presbyterian manse in 1846. This is now known as the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace.
Over the years, First Presbyterian has been gifted with remarkable pastors, serving the church in needed ways through the Civil War, the 1st and 2nd World Wars, Korea and Viet Nam. There have been small but significant changes, like the first Christmas tree to appear in Staunton, put up by the Rev. Benjamin Mosby Smith in his new manse in 1846.
It was in 1855 that the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson became the pastor and a year later his first son, Woodrow, was born in the manse and baptized in the church in 1857.
The Rev. William Elliott Baker was the minister who guided the church through 1857 to 1884. Through his long tenure, the church worked through the Civil War and a period of growth after the war. This growth spurred the necessity of a new house of worship, and the current church was completed across the street from the Augusta Female Institute and the small former church in 1872. The man engaged to design the church had previously designed the chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and, though quite a bit larger, similar elements can be seen.
After Rev. Baker resigned, shorter termed pastors ably served the congregation, but in 1893 one of the church’s most influential and long-serving pastors began his tenure. This was the Rev. Abel McIver Fraser, who served the church for the next thirty-six years. Dr. Fraser was able to welcome the President-elect Woodrow Wilson when he visited his birthplace in 1912. Also, during his tenure, an educational building was added next door to the sanctuary to accommodate the growing young congregation. It is now called, appropriately, the Fraser building.
By this time, First Presbyterian Church had helped seed and inaugurate the Second Presbyterian Church and Olivet Presbyterian Church and later, the Third Presbyterian Church, Covenant, and Bethany Presbyterian Churches.
The 1950s were a time of tremendous growth in population all over the country and similarly at First Presbyterian. The church’s Sunday school and other youth groups were at capacity when the Rev, Richard Randall Potter began his service at the church in 1953. The “Potter years” were a time of increasing membership and activities, particularly with the youth. A new building was needed and much appreciated when it was completed. It was named the Potter building in recognition of this beloved pastor whose death after surgery in 1962 had stunned his congregation.
Since the 1960s, six pastors have served the church, including the first female for First Presbyterian, our former pastor, the Rev. Karen Allamon. Highlights from those years include the Rev. Hobbie’s participation in the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, the Rev. Cowan’s three-month pulpit exchange with the Rev. Gordon from South Africa, the sixteen-year tenure of the Pastor Emeritus the Rev. Joseph Henry Johnson Vernon, the arrival of the youthful Rev. Taylor Todd, and the scholarly Rev. Richard Dietrich.
For a more detailed examination of Staunton’s First Presbyterian Church, please see A Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church Staunton, Virginia 1804-1954, by Frank Robbins Pancake and The History of First Presbyterian Church, Staunton, Virginia 1804-2004, by Dorothy A. Boyd-Rush and Katharine L. Brown.