Today in the Mission Yearbook

First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia commemorates 325 years


Santana-Grace, Carter help ‘First Church’ remember its enduring history

December 14, 2023

The Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace is at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Courtesy of worship stream.

The Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly, is also executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. On Oct. 8, she traveled to the heart of the mid council and a congregational cornerstone of the denomination to preach about First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia turning 325.

The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis, pastor of “First Church,” welcomed Santana-Grace to the pulpit during the congregation’s 11 a.m. Sunday service.

Santana-Grace brought greetings on behalf of the presbytery and the General Assembly, adding that First Church has “a special place in my heart” because it was among the first congregations to welcome her to Philadelphia when she began her call with the presbytery 10 years earlier.

“Three hundred and twenty-five years. Can you imagine the excitement and joy of your spiritual ancestors as they began to formally give shape to what they prayed would be a sanctuary of faith and religious expression?” she asked.

“What did it mean to be a church then? What does it mean today?”

The Co-Moderator’s preaching was one of the special fall events planned for the 325th anniversary by the church’s commemoration committee, including “minutes for history” and lectures by the Rev. Jesse Garner, retired pastor, on “First Church in the Community” and “First Church and Social Change.”

The 325th anniversary banner in front of First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Photo by Fred Tangeman.

In September, the commemoration committee hosted a reception at the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) featuring a talk by Dr. Heath W. Carter, associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary and senior co-editor of The Journal of Presbyterian History.

During “Steadfast Through the Storms: A Lecture on the 325th Anniversary of Philadelphia’s First Presbyterian Church,” Carter told First Church members that the congregation, referred to as the “mother church” of American Presbyterianism, “played a vital role in the story of American Presbyterianism.”

He explored the congregation’s beginnings as part of an ecumenical gathering on the corner of Second and Chestnut Streets in the heart of colonial Philadelphia. From vandalism at the hands of British soldiers during the Revolution to financial strife during the Great Depression, First Church’s history reflected the ebb and flow of American history. The congregation was at the center of complicated divisions that arose in American Presbyterianism, including the Old Side-New Side controversy in the mid-1700s and the debate over slavery a century later. Albert Barnes, First Church pastor from 1830 to 1868, was a vocal critic of slavery but did not call for immediate abolition.

From left: Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Baron Mullis, Laura Colee at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Photo by Fred Tangeman.

Carter also talked about recent history. In 1990, seven members of the church started delivering meals to neighbors dying of AIDS, an effort that evolved into MANNA, a Philadelphia nonprofit that has now provided over 21 million meals to Philadelphians in need.

“I think of the small ecumenical band that first gathered in the Barbados store in the modest colonial village that was 1690s Philadelphia,” Carter told the PHS audience. “They could never have imagined all that was to come in the life of their church and city.”

William Lake Leonard, co-chair of the commemoration committee, wrote about the event in the church’s newsletter, calling PHS “a perfect place for a celebration of history, specifically the celebration of the 325th anniversary of the founding of The First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.”

Santana-Grace touched on the congregation’s long history during her sermon, connecting it with ministry in 2023.

“Identifying as a people of faith can be exhausting, and at times even discouraging,” she said. That’s true today, just as it was during the first three centuries of the Philadelphia congregation and the first century of the Common Era, when the Scripture Santana-Grace preached about was written: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).”

Kristen Gaydos and Fred Tangeman, Office of the General Assembly

Today’s Focus: First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia commemorates 325 years

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Champaka Srinivasan, Associate, Finance, Young Adult & National Volunteers, Presbyterian Mission Agency
David Staniunas, Records Archivist, Presbyterian Historical Society, Office of the General Assembly

Let us pray

Creator God, we pray for discernment and guidance as we try to walk the narrow path that has been put before us. We know that it will be difficult but that the rewards will be great. It is in your Son’s name that we pray. Amen.