First Pres history dates to the founding and growth of Evanston itself in the late 1850s. Early residents gathered as a union church on high ground at our present site. Then as Evanston grew, First Presbyterian Church built a two-spired timber structure and held its first service in July 1868. Dr. George Noyes was called as the first pastor. Services were held Sunday morning and evening with instrumental music and a choir.
In those early days, there was a great spirit of cooperation between the new Evanston churches. We aided Baptists during a floor collapse and fire; they helped us when our building burned to the ground in May 1875. By July 1876, a new church was dedicated. It cost $22,000 and seated 250. Ten years later, an expansion to 1000 seats was planned, but fortunately set aside in the Panic of 1983. In February 1894, shortly after a sermon on “God Provides”, a second fire again destroyed everything, With funds raised by women, a third building designed by Daniel Burnham opened Sept 1895. It was of fireproof Lemont limestone. This structure stands today, with various additions plus a grand organ and stained glass windows installed in the 1940s.
More than 125 years ago, First Pres began a mission of community service outside its walls. Many programs in Evanston and Chicago were initiated, including Olivet, Christopher, and Howell Houses.. Support for world-wide missionaries began in the 1920s. Continuing this focus into the present era, our church has a full-time staff director of missions. Sunday School, youth groups, choirs, and summer camps have brought Christ’s message to children from First Pres, and other churches. The School for Little Children, started in the 1930s in our facility, serves our wider community.
After the turmoil of the Depression and World War II, renowned pastor Dr. Harold Blake Walker returned us to normalcy and growth, serving from 1947-69. Our Walker Chapel was named for him. Innovations marked the 1970s and 80s, including three Sunday services, opening of a counseling center, and a major merger with Second Presbyterian Church. Small Groups for fellowship and Christian studies were encouraged, and a strategic plan for “lay ministry” began. We now have ministry teams rather than committees. Women increasingly had leadership roles, and our congregation was becoming more diverse. In the 90s, contemporary music for worship was blended with traditional hymns and organ music.
Concern for the disadvantaged has continued into the present era, including our Super Saturday meals, participation with other churches in shelters and warming centers, refugee programs, and worldwide outreach. Worship, discipleship and care for our own congregation has taken many forms over the years, as has religious education for adults. We have prayer chains and weekly prayer meetings. And First Pres has become known over many years for articulate, biblically-based preaching that brings messages of Christian faith to bear on problems of personal life.