First Presbyterian celebrates 200 years

Published 11:58 pm Saturday, October 6, 2007

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Natchez has decided the history books have it wrong.

For nearly two centuries, the congregation — and most historians — believed the first group of Natchez Presbyterians were officially organized into a church in 1817. There’s even an historical marker outside the church that says so.

But Ed Esau with the Historic Natchez Foundation recently discovered something that has cast shadow on that date. Enough shadow that the church will celebrate its 200th anniversary today, 10 years before the historical marker says they should.

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While researching Adams County court documents, Esau ran across a series of church lawsuits. The suits were filed by the treasurer of the First Presbyterian Church and make reference to the church first existing in 1807, not 1817. The treasurer was attempting to claim money promised to the church in a fundraising effort to have a building constructed.

Esau said the church building committee met in November of 1807 and the first cornerstone was laid almost five years later. The lawsuits were filed approximately a year after construction started and one lawsuit was referred to the Mississippi Territorial Supreme Court. The $100 lawsuit was later settled after the defendant died. Most of the First Presbyterian suits ranged from $25 to $200.

“There were planning to have a church then, they even had a treasurer,” First Presbyterian pastor John Larson said. “They may not have called themselves First Presbyterian then, but they had the intentions.”

Although Esau said he had found no record that the group was having worship services in 1807, he feels like they probably were.

“They were organized enough to have a treasurer,” Essau said. “So I think they were having services.”

“They may not have been formal services as we know it, but the congregation was there,” Larson said.

According to “History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Illinois,” First Presbyterian Church organizer Daniel Smith first performed a “dedicatory service of a new Presbyterian church at Natchez” in February of 1815.

Authors Augustus Theodore Norton and David Williams Evans wrote that, “He became much impressed with the spiritual needs of that state. With a population of 45,000, it had only four Presbyterian ministers. Natchez he thought as important a station for a missionary as any in the western or southern country. These convictions led him to select that city as his field of labor. In 1817 he organized the First Presbyterian Church of Natchez.”

Whether it’s 1817, 1815, 1807 — the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the history of the church may never clear, but that’s of little consequence to today’s congregation. The history books may not be rewritten and the historical marker may not be replaced, but the congregation knows that on this very day 200 years ago, their church existed.