C h a p t e r 6
The Second century Until the Reunion of First and Second Churches
The death of Dr. T.P. Stevenson, pastor of First Church
If we considered Dr. J.M. Willson’s service as pastor of First Church as a long pastorate, then Dr. Stevenson’s is amazing. First Church was indeed Dr. Stevenson’s first church. It was his only pastorate, one that lasted forty-nine years. He and the congregation of First actively supported the ongoing Jewish Mission which had been begun by Second Church. When he was Moderator of Synod in 1881, he had not quite reached the halfway mark in his years of service. The National Reform Association listed Dr. Stevenson as one of the founding members, and he also edited the Christian Statesman for many years. One could easily say that Dr. Stevenson did a lot of good things, for many years. Church historian Rev. Owen Thompson notes, “The London Times at one time ranked him as ‘the foremost religious editorial writer of the world.’ ”. Dr. Stevenson also had a national reputation as an, “… eloquent speaker and for his scholarly and masterful presentation of the truth.” Furthermore, not only did he and his congregation survive one relocation, but they survived a second. In 1900 First Church moved to temporary quarters, until a new edifice was completed at Fortieth and Sansom. And in many ways, the second move was similar to the first. The first service in the completed building was not held until October 3rd, 1909. At the time of his death the congregation of First Church had one hundred and sixty-four communicant members. Second Church had a communicant member roll of one hundred and eighty.
First Church calls M.M. Pearce (1913-1919)
The minutes of Synod of 1913, which recorded the death of Dr. T. P. Stevenson, also noted that the Philadelphia Presbytery had sustained the call of Rev. McLeod Milligan Pearce to serve as pastor of the First congregation. First Church would have a new pastor in a little over one year after Dr. Stevenson’s death.
M. M. Pearce was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on July 16th, 1874 to William and Margaret (McKinney) Pearce. He united with the Covenanter church of First Beaver Falls in 1887. In 1896 Mr. Pearce graduated from Geneva College, and then took up theological training at the Allegheny Seminary. Graduating from the seminary in 1899. While completing his seminary training, he was licensed to preach by the Pittsburgh Presbytery on April 12th, 1898. Having received a call from the Reformed Presbyterian congregation of St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Pearce was ordained and installed as their pastor by the Illinois Presbytery on July 12th, 1899. Carrie B. McKaig of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and Rev. Pearce were married in 1900. After twelve years of faithful service, Rev. Pearce resigned the charge of the St. Louis congregation in order to take the call of the East End, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania congregation. On April 28th, 1911 he was installed as their pastor. A short while later, Rev. Pearce received a call from the First R P. congregation of Philadelphia, and was installed there on September 30th, 1913. (During his pastorate at Pittsburgh, the RMS Titanic sank sending shock waves throughout the nations, reminding Twentieth Century civilization that man is the creature, owing service to Almighty God.)
For six years, Rev. Pearce served as pastor of First Church in Philadelphia. A growing Sunday School movement soon took him away from the congregation as pastor. Responding to the growing influence of the American Sunday School Union, Rev. Pearce resigned his charge at First Church on May 6th, 1919 in order to devote his attention to the work of that organization. In 1925, Rev. Pearce served as Moderator of Synod. He remained active in the Editorial Department of the Sunday School Union until 1923. At that time, Rev. Pearce took up the Presidency of Geneva College. Geneva College awarded him the Doctor of Divinity degree. Dr. Pearce served the college faithfully for twenty-five years until his death on November 22nd, 1948. Under his leadership, First remained at about one hundred and seventy communicant members. Second remained within the same range of communicant members at that time as well. While pastoring the First Church of Philadelphia, Dr. Pearce would face one of the most nightmarish events of modern time. Together with Dr. McFeeters of Second Church they would minister to flocks whose nation would go to war and whose city would suffer immensely in 1918.
Comrades in Arms – The Great War and the Flu Epidemic of 1918
America declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917 – two years after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7th, 1915. The war was by that time three years in length. Dovetailed with the American war effort was the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Both of these events involved members of the First and Second congregations of Philadelphia. It is not the purpose here to discuss the First World War in detail, nor the flu epidemic. Such a discussion would be quite tangential. What is purposed is to briefly discuss the position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America regarding the declaration of war and subsequent draft as it affected the Philadelphia churches, as well as the epidemic of 1918.
Covenanters continued to dissent from the established government. They pointed out that the opening words to the preamble of the Constitution of the United States had come to be understood by many to mean that “We the people do ordain and establish”, not just a legal document, but that “ …‘We the people,’ are declared to be the source of all authority in civil government.”. As war loomed on the horizon, Covenanters were duly reminded of the duty of church members to abstain from being naturalized, or if they were born citizens, to refrain from voting. Synod, initially opposed to American involvement in the war, endorsed President Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany. They encouraged Covenanters in the service of their country. This was based on the understanding that the soldiers’ oath did not call for a pledge of allegiance to the Constitution. Officers however, were under that obligation, which Synod sought to remedy by a modification of the oath. During the war, the devastation of which was bewildering, many needs arose for the care of wounded. The Philadelphia congregations, together with many of the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of North America, Ireland and England worked to fill what needs they could.
Philadelphia congregations and the Great War
The Philadelphia congregations organized women’s groups to knit afghans to be used in ambulances. Further help for the wounded was in the form of three ambulances, purchased with the gifts of many Covenanters throughout the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. In cooperation, the Irish Covenanters were able to assist in the procurement and delivery of these ambulances – largely through the generous efforts of Robert Holmes and Mr. Foster of the Ballymoney congregation. These ambulances were donated to the Red Cross, labeled, “Gift of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America”, two of them also bearing the “Blue Banner”. It was in one of these ambulances that David Metheny, from Second Church was awarded the Croix de Guerre (one of France’s highest military decorations) for his courageous efforts in transporting the wounded during an artillery attack of “poison shells” on October 30-31, 1918. Many others from the Philadelphia Churches also served, among them, Miss Agnes Archer (as a nurse in France) from Second Church, Ellsworth Erskine Jackson, Ralph Rutherford Jackson, and William C. Jackson – all three from First Church. While war raged in France, a new enemy arose.
Philadelphia Churches and the Flu
The Philadelphia Churches would have the dubious honor of being in the city which had the highest mortality rates in October of 1918 – from the Spanish flu. Doubtless, the dispensary at the Jewish mission saw many victims pass through its portals. It was a pandemic. The entire world seemed to be dying from this new and terrible disease. At its height, a victim, once diagnosed was often dead within twelve hours. Undertakers had coffins everywhere in their homes. The dead could not be buried quickly enough because so many were sick. As a result, they just piled up. Philadelphia’s only city morgue was equipped to handle thirty-six bodies. It ended up with several hundred, piled throughout the facility. Strangely, the statistics of Second Church show eleven deaths in the previous year, which are virtually unexplained in the Report of the Philadelphia Presbytery. In 1919, Philadelphia Presbytery (consisting of First, Second, Third, Baltimore and Conococheague) recorded eight deaths for Second Church and three for First Church. Between 1917 and 1919 there were a total of twenty-nine deaths in the two congregations. Whether or not these were all flu related is speculative at best. Philadelphia had 706 flu deaths in the first week of October, 1918. The second week, the number of deaths rose to 2,635. In the third week of the epidemic, 4,597 died. Finally, in the fourth week, the deaths began to decline – 3,021. In the midst of this, quite literally after the horse was out of the barn, city officials ordered the closing of public buildings – churches included. Ironically, the report of the Philadelphia Presbytery to Synod of 1918 had only this to say:
"Our churches were closed for three weeks, by order of the City Board of Health because of the epidemic of influenza. Though the regular services were thereby suspended, yet the people were deeply earnest in waiting upon the Lord in their homes and in small prayer meetings.”
Thus, Revs. Pearce and McFeeters led First and Second congregations through some of the most trying times the nation had yet seen. First Church lost the benefit of the care of Rev. Pearce, as previously noted. Second continued under the watchful eyes of J.C. McFeeters. There had by now been a considerable decline in the size of the congregations. Soon, legislation would be passed in Congress strictly limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. That, combined with the congregations’ seeming inability to keep its younger members, would cause the membership to decline further as the new century progressed. Yet, the gospel was preached in earnest, and the essential truths of Scripture were upheld – as other Presbyterian bodies began to waver and give in to what those with itching ears preferred to hear.
First Church calls S. J. Johnston (1920)
Samuel James Johnston was born to John McLean and Sophia (Guthrie) on November 22nd, 1874 in Hopkinton, Iowa. He attended Lenox College and then transferred to Geneva College, from which he graduated on June 10th, 1895. He entered Allegheny Seminary in 1896 and graduated in 1899. The Iowa Presbytery licensed Mr. Johnston to preach on May 4th, 1898. Margaret H. Ward and S. J. Johnston were married on October 18th, 1906. Johnston had a series of short pastorates at Superior, Nebraska; Sparta and New Castle, Illinois; and just before coming to First Church of Philadelphia, he was at Clarinda, Iowa. Rev. Johnston was installed as pastor at First Church on March 5th, 1920. (M. M. Pearce had resigned on May 6th, 1919 in order to work for the American Sunday School Union.) The congregation had been without a pastor for only ten months. Yet, Rev. Johnston’s charge over the congregation would last only a short time. Compared to the longevity of his predecessors, his time at First was barely a blink of the eye. Only seven months had passed before Rev. Johnston’s relationship with the congregation “…was dissolved and he ceased preaching in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.” He and his family moved to Orlando, Florida when his pastorate at First Church ended.
The death of Dr. James C. McFeeters
While away from Second Church for a season of ministry at Hetherton, Michigan – at the age of eighty-one – Dr. McFeeters died at the home of his niece. He had been serving Christ His King for over fifty years, thirty-two of them as pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. On December 24th, 1928 Dr. McFeeters went home to be with our Lord. At the time of his death, the congregation had about one hundred and thirty-five communicant members.
Continuation of the Jewish Mission
The Jewish Mission was still active. It had been temporarily closed down when Rev. E. J. Feuersohn and his wife resigned in May of 1913. Rev. R. A. Blair and Miss Annie Forsyth were appointed by Synod to continue the work. John Edgar observes that the make up of the Jewish community had begun a transformation from poverty-stricken immigrants, to working class families who were adjusting to the American culture. This could well explain the opposition that Rev. Blair and Miss Forsyth encountered when the work reopened. Those who attended the mission were persecuted by a Jewish group which had been formed to prevent the work from reopening. In 1916 Rev. Blair resigned from the work. Due to the lack of an ordained minister to lead it, the mission seemed to be waning in effectiveness. Three women had dedicated themselves to the work in the years just before Dr. McFeeters’ death: Annie Forsyth, Emma McFarland and Elizabeth Forsyth and were diligent in their labors. It seemed that their most effective outreach was through the day care they provided during lunch and after school for the children in the vicinity of the mission. At the time of Dr. McFeeters’ death, only Annie Forsyth and her sister Elizabeth were assigned to the work. (Miss McFarland had resigned in 1925 because of ill health.)
At this time, and for the first time, both First and Second congregations were without a pastor. God upheld the congregations by the oversight of their sessions and the steady preaching of visiting ministers – as he had done for each one separately in the past.
Second Church calls Frank Lee Stewart, Jr. (1921-1948)
Frank Lee and Sara Rebecca (Huheey) Stewart had a son born to them on September 19th, 1892 in Covington, Kentucky – Frank Lee, Jr. He made his profession of faith at thirteen in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1921 he graduated from both the University of Cincinnati and the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh. Having been licensed to preach by the Pittsburgh Presbytery on May 11th, 1920, Mr. Stewart was ordained and installed by the Philadelphia Presbytery as pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church on September 28th, 1921. Hattie Sebastian and Rev. Stewart were married on June 29th, 1922. For twenty-seven years he served the congregation faithfully. During his time in Philadelphia, he guided his flock through the Great Depression and then the Second World War. Under his leadership, Second Church continued its active support of the Jewish Mission and the camp at White Lake, New York which he managed for eleven years. Surely he drew comfort from this portion of a report of the Jewish Mission to Synod:
Shortly ago, there was a conference in Philadelphia of workers among the Jews in the eastern part of the United States. One of the outstanding speakers was a minister in charge of the work among Jews in Buffalo. He, himself, says that he received his start in the Christian life at our mission under Miss Forsyth.
The work at the mission by now was basically day care and out reach to mothers. Still, God blessed these efforts and women and children came to know the gospel, some becoming believers. Some of the Jewish mothers were even bringing Gentile mothers to the weekly meetings held at the mission.
Resignation from Second Church and later death of Dr. F. L. Stewart
On December 3rd, 1948 he was installed as pastor of the Olathe, Kansas congregation, having resigned the charge of Second Church in Philadelphia. Geneva College awarded him the Doctor of Divinity degree in 1950. Rev. Stewart would be the last pastor of Second Church to work with the Jewish mission. Yet, the mission was continued by Synod until 1955, largely under the guidance of the pastor of Third Church, Dr. Findley McClurkin Wilson. Dr. Stewart suffered a life-threatening injury while pastor of the Olathe congregation, which forced his retirement. God called Dr. Stewart to his rest on March 3rd, 1970 in Santa Ana, California. When he resigned his charge of Second Church in 1948, the communicant roll was eighty-three. First Church had a roll of sixty communicant members. The congregations were not keeping the young members and post war prosperity gave further cause for resistance to the call of the gospel on the part of those being evangelized. Yet, there was sound, reformed preaching from the pulpit of Second Church (as well as First) all these years.
First Church calls Samuel Edgar Greer (1922-1950)
Shortly after Rev. Frank L. Stewart began his ministry at Second Church, the congregation of First Church was blessed with their sixth pastor. During the preceding century and a quarter, First Church had had only five pastors. One hundred and eight of those years were accounted for by three of these men, Drs. S. B. Wylie, J. M. Willson, and T. P. Stevenson. God had graciously provided steadfast leadership of this flock (as He had for Second) throughout some troublous times. This is worthy of reflecting on with great thanksgiving, as He, our Great Shepherd, continues to supply gifted men to lead the flock.
Samuel Edgar Greer was born to James and Margaret (McNeill) Greer on January 7th, 1875. His parents had come to America from Ireland, possibly around the time after the Great Potato Famine. They settled in Hopkinton, Iowa and became long and faithful members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church there. Samuel made his profession of faith at twelve years of age and went on to study at Lenox College, graduating in June of 1899. He then did graduate work at the University of Michigan before entering seminary. In 1900 he entered Allegheny Seminary and graduated in 1903. While at the seminary, Greer was licensed by the Iowa Presbytery on May 4th, 1902. Mr. Greer was ordained by the Kansas Presbytery and installed as the pastor of the Tabor Reformed Presbyterian Church (Idana, Kansas) on September 11th, 1903. Lela Lois McElhinney of Morning Sun, Iowa and Rev. Greer were married on May 6th, 1908. There then followed pastorates at Washington, Iowa and Denver, Colorado before coming to fill the pulpit at First Church, Philadelphia. Prior to coming to First Church, Rev. Greer received the Doctor of Divinity (Honorary) from Lenox College, Iowa on June 2nd, 1921.
Dr. Greer faithfully led his flock through the trials and temptations of the “Roaring Twenties”. These were years when the Temperance movement had gained the passage of the Eighteenth amendment which banned alcohol. But this ban was flaunted and eventually repealed by the ungodly throughout the nation and it was doubtless a difficult time to shepherd the flock. This difficulty was magnified by the crash of the stock market in the fall of 1929 and the ensuing depression. These events no doubt had an impact on First Church. People were relocating throughout the nation in order to find some means of earning a living. In the years following “Black Thursday” (October 24th, 1929), First Church’s communicant roll was greatly reduced. By 1936, First had a communicant roll of ninety-eight – a roll which many Reformed Presbyterian congregations of today strive toward. Dr. Greer served on many committees of Synod. One such committee served by Dr. Greer , The Signs of the Times, submitted a lengthy report to the Synod of 1930. Two things were noted as enemies to the gospel: superstitious traditionalism (directed mainly against Roman Catholicism) and humanism (that man has no need of God – in fact God does not exist). He also served faithfully with the ongoing work of the Jewish Mission. The Synod of 1939 was moderated by Dr. Greer. For twenty-eight years, Dr. Greer also served on the Board of Foreign Missions.
Retirement and death of Dr. S. E. Greer
Dr. Greer labored to lead the flock under his care until his retirement in 1950. Afterward, he remained as Pastor Emeritus among the congregation of First. On April 23rd, 1952 Dr. Greer died after a lingering illness. His retirement left the flock without a pastor; his death, doubtless only made his absence from the pulpit that much more sorely felt. In a memoriam in the 1952 Minutes of Synod we find:
[Dr. Greer’s passing] touched many hearts and this not only amongst the congregation he served, but the friends in the other fields of the church where he labored with such deep spiritual devotion and a warmth of pastoral care that endeared him to the people in both congregation and community wherever he served.
When Dr. Greer entered his rest, First Church had forty-five communicant members, Second had forty-nine. One of the ruling elders of Second Church, James Renwick Bell, died a short time after Dr. Greer – May 24th, 1952. There were four congregations in the Philadelphia Presbytery: First, Second, Third and Orlando. The work in Orlando, begun by First many years prior was a steadily growing work, under the leadership of Alvin W. Smith and was still officially part of the Philadelphia Presbytery. Now the First and Second congregations were both without pastors (as was Third also) for only the second time. During this time, the congregations were wisely guided by their respective sessions – another of God’s provisions throughout their histories. With the reduced size of their congregations and the changing neighborhoods where they were located (prompting many members to move out of the city), the sessions of First and Second petitioned Presbytery to allow them to unite. Their unsuccessful efforts to gain pastoral leadership also convinced them of the need to unite.