What does the battle for Fort Duquesne in 1758 have to do with the emergence of Protestantism in Pittsburgh? Today, Stephen Nichols tells us about how Presbyterianism spread in this region.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. For this episode, I am on location. I’m in the great city, the Steel City, of Pittsburgh, and I am right next to First Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsburgh. More on that later, but first, let’s think about the first European religious services that would’ve been held here in Pittsburgh. And the first would’ve been Catholic Services. It was the Catholics who had Fort Duquesne at the point where the two rivers converged to form a third. In 1758, General Forbes was moving his British troops closer to Fort Duquesne. The French realized they were vastly outnumbered, and so they withdrew from their fort, blew it up and went away. So, in comes General Forbes, and in comes the British. This was 1758, and there were two services that were held, Protestant services, the first Protestant religious services held in this area.
One was an Anglican service, following, of course, the Book of Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer. And the second was a Presbyterian service. Presbyterians were part of General Forbes’s troops, these were the Scots and Irish, and one of them, Charles Beatty, was actually chaplain to General Forbes, and he would’ve held a service here in Pittsburgh. Of course, it was renamed from Fort Duquesne to Fort Pitt, and then it became Pitts Burg, two words, and then it became Pittsburgh. And after the establishment of Fort Pitt, there were settlers. And by 1773, these Presbyterians were ready to call their first minister. They reached out to the Donegal Presbytery to the east, and they called two pastors, and for quite a few years, they simply met in the homes of the parishioners.
By 1787, they had purchased a parcel of land, and they built a log church, but by 1805, that log church was too small for the congregation, so they built a new brick church. But here’s the thing, they built the new church around the old log church. That way they could keep meeting inside the log church as the building progressed. When they finished that new building that surrounded the log Church, they simply dismantled the log Church, log by log, and carried those logs right out the front door. And as history tells us they were sold for people to build their houses with. Well, by 1850, they needed yet another new building. And so they built it. And then in 1905, they built the current building, the building I’m right next to. It has its towering spire and its gothic style. If you were to go into the interior on either side of the Nave, there are 14 stunning, breathtaking windows, 13 of which are from the studio of Lewis Comfort Tiffany. It has a massive pulpit, a massive pipe organ. It’s quite a building.
Well, in January of 1931, J. Gresham Machen was here at First Presbyterian Church. He was here to preach at the installation service for Harold John Ockenga. Now we need to pause here, leave Pittsburgh, go across the Delaware River, and head to Princeton. Machen, as you know, was a professor at Princeton Seminary. But in 1929, he crossed the Delaware and opened Westminster Theological Seminary. And not only a few faculty but also a few students joined him. One of those was Ockenga. He had two years in at Princeton. So, he left Princeton with Machen to go and do his final, his third year at the newly minted Westminster Theological Seminary. He completed his studies in the spring of 1930 and was part of the very first graduating class. Machen came here to preach his installation service at the First Presbyterian Church in the Steel City of Pittsburgh. And Machen would come back just a few months later in May of 1931, but we’re going to have to pick that up on our second installment from our live, on-location here in Pittsburgh. Well, that’s a little bit of the church history of Pittsburgh. And I’m Steve Nichols, and thanks for joining us for 5 Minutes in Church History.