I’ve always been too self-centered to have a scholarly, balanced view of history. Maybe I’m not alone, but my mind tends to break historical events down into three eras: things that happened in my lifetime, things that happened before I was born but of which there is photographic or video evidence, and everything before that.
I must have established this system of categorization some time ago, because I distinctly remember thinking, on occasion of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Raleigh celebrating its 175th anniversary in 1991, “Why is this a big deal? 95% of this stuff happened ages ago.” Plus, I didn’t think 175 was all that significant of a number—200 years…now that would be worth celebrating, I recall thinking.
With 25 more years to, in theory, grow and learn, I was able to establish a bit more of a connection to the past as I sat in the back of the church in which I was baptized in and listened to Dr. Glenn Jonas, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Campbell University, present his book on the history of First Presbyterian Church entitled A Cloud of Witnesses From The Heart of the City (launch date on Amazon listed as October 3rd).
[full disclosure: my father, David Permar, was the church liaison for the author during the project. He is acknowledged as such, but neither he nor I stand to gain financially from sale of the book]
[fuller disclosure: I had no idea my father was helping with the book until the day before the author spoke at the church, when my mother emailed saying she hoped our family would come out to support him.]
While the book holds obvious value for the church and its members, due to First Presbyterian’s connection to both the city of Raleigh and the state of North Carolina, it also serves as a historical narrative of downtown Raleigh, through the lens of one of its longest tenants. As Jonas explained in his talk, the amount and upkeep of many of the church records provide for a detailed and accurate historical account of the events he includes.
The intertwining of the church’s history with the city’s can be seen in its membership, which has included governors of North Carolina, mayors of Raleigh and surrounding cities, and other notable figures. It can be seen in growth, as First Presbyterian helped found Peace College, as well as starting several other churches in the area. The history of church and city can also be seen physically; pictures in the book buildings significant to both the church and the community, like the Raleigh Academy. It was the first school in the city, and the employer of principal William McPheeters, who founded First Presbyterian.
The book’s cover is even an interesting juxtaposition of church and state. The church’s belfry and steeple are front and center as the photographer captures a threesome about to cross from the Capitol square to the church, as if to attend on a Sunday. Directrly in front of the sanctuary entrance on Morgan and Salisbury is a highway sign for US-1 and US-64.
True to my narcissistic take on history, I dove right into the end of the book or “the history of the church in my lifetime.” Maintaining a theme he carries throughout, the author again includes history as it relates to both the city of Raleigh and the church. Right next to a section about choosing a new lead pastor in the early 90s, Jonas includes notes about Raleigh growth, the opening of Fayeteville Street, the arrival of the Carolina Hurricanes, and the deforestation due to Hurricane Fran.
As I worked backwards, it was interesting to read about events that I had been alive for and at least partly aware of, but as a youth had no real depth of understanding for. The book includes names I recognize from my youth, Sunday School teachers, parents of friends from choir, etc—pulled from minutes of church Session meetings—voicing opinions, forming committees and casting votes on issues like the inclusion of women in church leadership or disagreements with a stance or statement by the church’s national governing body.
For example, I remember as a child a great debate about which hymnal we would be using. The “red” hymnals (they were so worn they were really brown) were the only ones I had known, but apparently hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were being phased out, as well as some language updated, for the shiny new “blue” hymnals. The book illustrates the greater—and legitimate—discussion about how churches and their evolve and grow with time. (In true church bureaucratic fashion I’m pretty sure for a few years the church installed extra shelves under the pews and kept BOTH hymnals)
For me, the two most interesting stories include times when church history crossed with local and national history.
One is a very well known anecdote about Rev. Dr. Albert Edwards, a warm leader, a fiery speaker, and the church’s lead pastor and soul from 1958 through the 1980s. Dr. Edwards was most responsible for the church maintaining growth in a time when downtown Raleigh was a place whose lights were only on for city and state workers weekdays from 8am and 6pm. This was achieved partly by reaching an audience through a television partnership with Capitol Broadcasting Company in Raleigh.
But before that, in May of 1963, Dr. Edwards preached a sermon on integration. He urged his white congregation to “take a stand” and specifically asked them to write letters to white business owners in Raleigh saying they would continue to support them if they opted to integrate. (It is not noted in the book, but in years of hearing the story I recall hearing specifically the request being made to support the downtown Ambassador movie theater in its attempts to integrate.)
The next week, when Dr. Edwards rose for his sermon, he began by asking how many in the congregation had done as he requested. Dissatisfied at the lack of hands, he responded by giving the benediction and exiting the sanctuary, shocking the congregation.
Coincidentally, Dr. Jonas asked in his presentation if any church members had been present that day. A few raised their hands, I believe I saw three, and I got chills as I wondered if that was more or fewer hands than were raised when Dr. Edwards asked 50 years ago. And, not for the first time, I asked myself the only natural question, “Would I have done what he asked 50 years ago? Would I do it today?”
The other interesting story is notable both for its connections and its inconclusiveness. A Cloud of Witnesses notes that the 1963 Christmas Day offering at First Presbyterian Church was dedicated to the family of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been shot and killed a month earlier, after he had assassinated President John Kennedy. Jonas notes both the sessional records and the next month’s financial ledger in affirming that $210.37 was sent to the Dallas Police Department in behalf of the family of the late Lee Harvey Oswald.
The author said despite some deep digging, he was unable to come up with a link between the church and Oswald, but there is this: historians note Oswald attempting to make a phone call to a John David Hurt in Raleigh the night of the arrest. Hurt denied any connection to Oswald. Hurt also had no known connection to First Presbyterian Church. But the book notes his address at the time as 201 Hillsborough Street, which would have been one block up and one block over from the church. If nothing else, it’s something for conspiracy theorists to have fun with.
I won’t lie, I’m not done with the book. I’m still experiencing the history of the church—and its ties to the city of Raleigh, the Great Awakening, and religion in America—backwards. As much as I’m reading facts and dates and history, I’d like to think I’m mostly still gaining better perspective.