God and Early 20th-century Presbyterians


We are in the third Sunday in our journey through this Lenten season, which ends on Easter Sunday. The past two Sundays, we concluded worship with special ceremonies surrounding the 1870, 1884, and 1923 dedication stones. Today, we conclude late worship with a ceremony outside near the 1960 dedication stone for the Christian education wing, which was the fourth major building project of the congregation.  Our amateur archaeologists have done enough work to know that those in attendance will not be disappointed: a time capsule will be revealed.

This period of remembrance and celebration is giving us opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of our journey from building to building, and its place in a much larger and longer journey of faith.  The story God is telling through us is one with chapters to be written after you and I pass from this life. It’s a story that we joined midstream, with themes that we are revisiting in limited and imperfect ways.


Last week we briefly considered the work of God among 19th-century Presbyterians, and the legacy we inherited from those pioneering Presbyterians who formed our congregation. Elizabeth Smith (it’s a shame we don’t have a portrait of Elizabeth!) and Salmon Giddings represented Presbyterian Christians with a heart for evangelism on the new frontier.  Elijah Parish Lovejoy and Thomas Lippincott represented Presbyterian Christians with a concern for freedom and social justice.


As I described the historical context in which our spiritual ancestors were nurtured and shaped, I introduced a graphic depiction of the theological tension of that age between “New School and Old School Presbyterians,” and the debt we owe to the theological flexibility and inter-denominational cooperation of New School Presbyterians, which created the conditions for the birth of this congregation.

As the post-Civil-War period gave way to the early 20th Century, American society changed in profound ways, with consequences for this church and its ministries. In the realm of theology, this was a time of new advances in archaeology, understanding of ancient civilizations and languages, and application of this new knowledge to the field of biblical interpretation. Fundamentalism arose as a new movement, and was defined in significant ways by the theological dialogue that took place at Princeton Seminary.



In Presbyterian churches, the tensions that earlier had manifested themselves in the conflict between the “Old School” and the “New School” re-emerged in controversy between “Fundamentalists” and so-called “Modernists” (visit slide, “Westminster Standards 1643-49, “Higher Criticism” study of literary sources and methods, the “world behind the text).

During the 1920s, this tension lead to splits in the church. The Modernist group kept Princeton Seminary, while Fundamentalists professors left to form a new seminary in Philadelphia. In New York, Harry Emerson Fosdick was forced by the presbytery to leave the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church. Fundamentalists saw him as unorthodox. He saw them as intolerant.  Like the Jewish leaders that Jesus criticized in our gospel text, Fosdick believed the Fundamentalist leaders of the time knew more about the letter of the law than its spirit.  The presbytery’s loss was the larger Church’s gain, as Fosdick helped to found Riverside Church in New York, with thousands waiting in line on Sunday mornings waiting for admittance to hear him preach.


A popular new hymnal was used in Riverside Church, published the year the cornerstone was laid for this building in which we worship.  It was called “Hymns for the Living Age.” Two of its selections are included in worship today, as well as Fosdick’s “God of Grace, and God of Glory,” which he wrote for the dedication of Riverside Church in 1930.


The time between this congregation’s second building in 1884, and its third in 1924 was characterized by growing industrialization and urbanization. Even in our smaller-sized community, we can find evidence of these changes. The growing use of industrial machinery and the development of the railroad led to the 1890 relocation to LeClaire of the N.O. Nelson Company, which employed about 300 men in the manufacture of plumbing fixtures and supplies. (upper-left panel) About the same time, Benjamin Richards bought the old Spring and Tunnell Press brickworks, and began to develop the Richards Brick Co. that would eventually make more than 100,000 bricks per day. We see evidence of change in things as simple as the description in our church history of pioneering Presbyterian Lucy Medora Gilham Krome driving an electric car around the streets of Edwardsville. (not actually her in the photo).

Former scenes of village churches surrounded by country fields and forests gave way to the challenges of life and ministry in cities, and churches adopted their architecture accordingly.


As Jack Ades says in his 1993 history of our church, it was an age of stability and growth for this church. The plan for the future embraced a new style of church building, emphasizing a large auditorium, with smaller “break-out” rooms. The smaller rooms allowed Sunday school to move from the “one-room schoolhouse” approach to a Sunday school in which classes could be grouped according to age. It was the logical next step for a leading church in a growing neighborhood, next to the chief public school of its day.


The dedication to the education of children and youth, and the commitment that the congregation tried to instill its people, is reflected in this attendance medal.  It was presented to me, I believe, by the family of Evelyn B., after her death in 2006. Evelyn could remember this building being built, and she recalled temporary worship down the street in the First Christian building.  As you can see from the photo, Evelyn’s attendance was rewarded not once but seven times, each additional award hung by fine chain links from the former.


In the plan to enhance worship ministries, this comparatively large auditorium incorporated elements that made the worship a more theater-like experience, with a set of elements, some of which we experience here or see in this composite photo from the mortgage burning on January 1, 1938:

  • a raised platform, pipe organ and choir behind (upper left, lower right)
  • multi-level seating, like our main floor plus balcony, and
  • curved pews (such as those in our balcony) to draw the congregation’s attention to
  • a central pulpit (upper right panel) and Lord’s Table.

(By the way, these photos were delivered to me in 2002 by the daughter of a revered elder from these days, Oscar Bardelmeier).


According to our history, when the cornerstone ceremony took place May 5, 1923, a time capsule containing a number of items were placed therein. (read slide). The time capsule resides beneath the cornerstone, we believe, and later in the deconstruction process, we will be able to access it, finally.


Today, this 1923 building, and mementos from Presbyterians who ministered here during its early years, are our reminder of seasonal Lenten themes of change, mortality, fragility.

Their spiritual pilgrimage included courageous sacrifice

  • to worship God, and proclaim God’s amazing grace,
  • to educate children and youth,
  • to create a new facility to more effectively implement mission for a larger population in an age of new challenges and new opportunities.

As we engage in our own pilgrimage of courageous and sacrificial faith, may Christ bless our journey, as we continue to reflect upon “the story that God is telling through us.”


~ by JohnH1962 on March 19, 2017.