The Early Years
On a cold snowy day in February, 1824, four men and nine women met in the house of John and Mary Voorheis on Square Lake Road to consider organizing a church. They were brought together by the Reverend Eldad W. Goodman who journeyed from the only Presbyterian Church in Michigan at Monroe. All thirteen people brought letters attesting to their good standing from Congregational or Presbyterian Churches in the east or from Detroit.
They solemnly named the little church the First Presbyterian Church in Pontiac and adopted a Confession of Faith. They sang the 116th Psalm, heard a prayer and Gospel benediction. Thus began the Church which has faithfully served the people in the greater Pontiac area for over 195 years. The Reverend Isaac Ruggles was sent to Pontiac, Michigan by the United Domestic Missionary Society. And on August 21, 1824, the members of the First Presbyterian Church gathered together and celebrated communion under his guidance. Six months later he reported that 28 additional members had joined the Church. In 1801, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the General Association of the Congregational Church joined together under a Plan of Union for missionary work in the new country. While the Plan aided in the establishment of new churches in the Great Lakes region, it also brought about contentiousness in many localities including Pontiac. In 1828, the Revered George Hornell was sent to Pontiac to serve the new church.
Reverend Ruggles continued to serve in the surrounding area. However, coming from a Congregational background, he worked at trying to get Presbyterian Churches to become Congregational ones or to entice Presbyterians to become Congregationalists. He was dismissed from the Detroit Presbytery in 1839.
During the 1830’s, First Presbyterian Church was served by ministers who were here for a year before moving on or who were visiting pastors. It was a chaotic time for the Church, and for a while, its place of worship was in Auburn Village (Auburn Hills, today). This action began a movement in the people of the church. Through this commitment many more serve in community outreach efforts including regular free Hotdogs in the Park events, monthly rotation of feeding at the Hope Warming Shelter, the School Supplies and Backpack event, Vacation Bible School and the Fall Family Fun Day Event. Also during this time the Praise Worship Service discussed moving to a new location and time due to the size of the chapel effecting the numerical growth of the service.
After 15 years, the Session approved returning the Praise service both to the dining room and to Saturday evenings. This has been a successful move and has connected the congregation with the community in unexpected ways. Initially the Praise Service Planning Team wanted to have soup or chili available for any who came that were hungry. We discovered that the community who had been attending the community outreach opportunities found a home a First Presbyterian Pontiac and invited their friends to Dinner. When visitors arrived they discovered a worshipping community and have been enriched by the praising of God and preaching of the Holy Word.
This community gathering has grown greatly in a way that was not planned but entirely inspired by God. This has both blessed us and stretched us as we dream new dreams for our church and our city. It has also caused us to ask how God is leading us and bonding us together through our varied worship opportunities each weekend as we join together and praise God. Both Saturday and Sunday Worship is equally inspiring as we worship and praise God in ways that are meaningful to the gathered worshippers. All are proud to praise God through our Chancel and Bell choirs, Prayze band, special music opportunities and through our Pastor and Elders leading the people of God together. As we move into our next stage of ministry in Pontiac, we look forward to discovering how God continues to bless us and gather God’s people from across our communities.
We begin a time of discernment, visioning and strategic planning as we look to God’s call for our future years serving faithfully our Almighty God and the larger Pontiac Community. Michigan
First Presbyterian Church of Pontiac also celebrates the mission endeavors of its members who started seven Presbyterian Churches in the northern Oakland County – Birmingham First Presbyterian, Kirk in the Hills, University Presbyterian, White Lake Presbyterian, Crossroads Presbyterian, Sashabaw Presbyterian and Atonement
When Reverend Eshleman accepted a call to Deerfield, Illinois, in 1993, the Reverend Rosalie Glover came as Interim Pastor and served two years in that capacity. In 1995, the Reverend David Gellert was installed as Pastor. Eight new Stephen Ministers were ordained during this time. And the Reverend Richard Hanna joined the staff as Parish Associate in 1997. Later that same year, Reverend Gellert accepted a call to form a new church in Forest, Virginia.
The Reverend Russell Brandt began service as Interim Pastor in January 1998. A Revisioning Committee was formed to lead the congregation through the preparation steps for calling a new pastor. During this interim time, an informal (contemporary) service was established on Saturday evenings. Lay leaders as well as Clergy brought the message, and the music was more contemporary. That service was eventually moved to Sunday mornings at 11:30 a.m. following the more formal 10:00 a.m. service. The music is led by Steve Keith, the Praise Worship Director. 2000’s to Present In the mid 2000’s, the Reverends Janice and Roy Langwig accepted a call as Co-Pastors with each of them serving three-quarters time.
While the Langwig’s leg the congregation, the Deacons were charged with handling mission giving. The Deacons continued the Christmas basket program and encouraged more active participation by members of the congregation. Women of the Church accepted the challenge and began the quilt project. Each year the women make quilts for children that are included with the food baskets and gifts that go to the families we support.
The Langwig’s retired in February 2011, and the Reverend Elizabeth Downs was called as Interim Pastor. A Self-Study Committee prepared the information necessary for a Pastor Nominating Committee to begin its work. In February 2013, the Reverend Dr. Richard Griffith was called and served as Interim Pastor until Rev. Laura Kelsey accepted the call as Pastor in February 2015. During the last decade, the Church made a commitment to community outreach which began while Reverend Downs served as Interim Pastor. During this time the newly established Community Outreach group began meeting weekly and a free community Annual Thanksgiving Dinner was laid upon the hearts of the church members.
The mid and late 1800’s The Reverend L P Bates became pastor in 1841 and served for four years. During his tenure, the members moved to a new Church building at the northwest corner of Huron and Saginaw Streets in the heart of the City. For years after Reverend Bates left in 1845, First Presbyterian Church was served by a succession of ministers who each stayed for about a year. Beginning in 1852 with Reverend Joseph Penny, the pastors stayed for two years. In 1857, the Reverend William G Mosher was called to minister to the congregation. He was succeeded in 1861 by the Reverend Joseph F. Jennison who also served during his tenure in Pontiac as the Union Chaplain during the Civil War. The Reverend Wiliam H. McGiffert began his ministry to First Presbyterian, Pontiac in 1865. He organized a calling program and the establishment of a Sabbath School for children.
He also conducted revivals. By 1867, there were 150 members and 232 children enrolled in the Sabbath School. Also during his years of service, a movement was begun to build a new church at the corner of Huron and Wayne Streets. The Church building was completed in 1872 during the tenure of Reverend W J Parrott who accepted a call to Pontiac in 1870. The Church was updated with electric lights and a hot-water heating system over time. Reverend Parrott moved in 1873, and for the next two years the congregation was served by Supply Pastors. The Reverend J. Miles Gelston accepted a call in 1875 and served until 1888 when he accepted a call to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He was succeeded by the Reverend William S. Jerome that same year. Pastor Jerome ministered to the congregation until 1898. While he was at Pontiac, the membership increased to 390 and the Sunday School to 274. Reverend Jerome was followed by the Reverend S H Thompson who served during 1898 and 1899. The early 1900’s In 1900, the Reverend Joshua Robinson Mitchell began his ministry in Pontiac and stayed until March 1903. For the balance of that year, First Presbyterian Pontiac was without a full time pastor. In 1904, the Reverend Charles E Blanchard accepted a call for one year.
as Stated Supply. The following year he accepted the call to be Pastor and remained until 1911. The next Pastor was Dr. J. R. J. Milligan who came in 1912 and served for 12 years. Membership grew to 636 while he was in Pontiac. Tragedy struck in 1914 when the Church building burned down. However, the basement was made useable for services as a new structure in pretty much its current form as constructed. When Dr. Milligan passed away in 1924, his funeral was the first to be held in the recently completed building. The Reverend Dr. Paul Paterson accepted a call to lead the congregation at First Presbyterian Church in April 1925. During his years here, which ended in August 1930, membership rose to 1,350.
The 1930’s to 1970’s There are still many members in the current congregation who remember Dr. Peterson’s successor – the Reverend Dr. William H. Marbach. Dr. Marbach served beginning in the 106th year of First Presbyterian Pontiac’s existence and continued for 31 years. He came to Pontiac in the depth of the Depression and led a resurgence with the high points being the final payment of the 20 year mortgage for the Church building and later the dedication of the Baxter Memorial Chancel woodwork and furnishings in 1947. When he retired in 1962, the congregation designated him Pastor Emeritus. The next pastor, the Reverend Galen E. Hershey started as Assistant Pastor in 1956, and was elevated to Senior Pastor in December 1961. He served during changing times in Pontiac. Residents were moving from Pontiac to the surrounding suburban areas.
A move that was accelerated with busing of school children to achieve racial balance was begun. Long established downtown businesses also moved to new shopping malls in the suburbs, and the County Courthouse moved from downtown Pontiac to the western edge of the City. In June 1962, after intensive review and discussion from the Long Term Study committee, the decision was made to remain in the current location and build a new Christian Education building along with north wall of the Church. Ground was broken a year later. During that same time, a new Casavant organ was installed and dedicated. During the 140th year anniversary celebration in February 1964, the Christian Education building was dedicated. Six years later the renovated sanctuary as you see it today was dedicated.
and mission activities. They engaged the whole congregation in their events, and continue to do so to this day. While the specifics have changed, the fellowship and good works have continued. When Reverend Hershey retired in 1983, First Presbyterian Pontiac received its first Interim Pastor, the Reverend Lloyd Brasure. After becoming somewhat set in its ways with only two pastors for over 50 years, and an Organist/Music Director who also served for 50 continuous years from 1940 to 1990 without missing a single scheduled service, the Church was facing change. And change came with the folding of the Board of Trustees into the Session, and the Deacons joining the Elders in serving communion.
1980’s to 1990’s After completing a Self Study, and the Pastor Nominating Committee reviewing a host of resumes and interviewing numerous candidates, the Reverend David Eshleman was installed as Pastor in 1985. During his years of service, a Stephen Ministry was established, and later an Adopt-a-Friend calling program to provide visitation for shut-in members was created. The Prayer Chain was also started during this time. A capital campaign in 1989 was initiated to fund restoration work for the Church building including the stained-glass windows. A second restoration program began in 1992. Since that time, the Church has benefited from endowed funds to upgrade and maintain the facility.
This includes air conditioning the main sanctuary which was done in 2003-2004. Also during this time frame saw the establishment of a number of special endowed funds set up to honor the contributions of certain members as well as to help meet a specific need. Among those funds are the Corenna Aldrich Youth Fund, the Lyndon Salathiel Organ Fund, the Robert Irwin Bell Choir Fund, the Velma Nevarex Medical Assistance Fund and others. In addition, the Session had prescribed when large undesignated bequests are received that 20% would be set aside for current mission projects and another 20% for future mission work. Because of the dedication to great music and through the Bell Choir Fund, the Church began its Heritage Bell Choir that has blessed our congregation with beautiful music over the latest decades.