Rise of Presbyterian Church in Wheeling Examined

Friends of Wheeling president Jeanne Finstein offered another helping of “spiritual bread,” recounting the growth of Presbyterianism in the city, for Lunch With Books Tuesday, Aug. 5.

Finstein appeared at the Ohio County Public Library to present a condensed version of a talk, “Receiving the Spiritual Bread: the Presbyterian Church in Wheeling,” that she gave at Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church in January.

The Presbyterian denomination traces its roots to Scotland in the 16th century and the beliefs of two prominent theologians. Finstein said the church’s roots stem from John Calvin (1509-84) who established regulations for church order and training and enacted strict disciplinary measures. The ideas of John Knox (1514-72) continued to set the tone for the Church of Scotland, she said.

The Reformed churches in the 1600s called for the separation of powers between church and state. “The United States was formed on some of these Calvinist points of view,” she remarked, citing concern for issues such as women’s rights, slavery and temperance.

In the United States, the Presbyterian Church has “a very complicated history,” with a series of splits and mergers over the years, Finstein said.

The biggest split occurred during the Civil War, when the church divided along lines of Northern and Southern loyalties. The two sides reunited in 1983 and formed the Presbyterian Church USA, the largest branch of the denomination in this country, she said.

Locally, “the history of the Presbyterian Church parallels the history of Wheeling,” Finstein observed.

After the second siege of Fort Henry in 1782, the Rev. Thaddeus Dod(d) preached at the fort. It is believed that the occasion was the first formal time that a minister preached in Wheeling, she said.

David Shepherd, who owned a mill and a fort in what is now the Elm Grove section of the city, and his son, Moses, were instrumental in the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in the frontier community.

The Forks of Wheeling-Stone Presbyterian Church was founded in 1787 or 1788, near the Shepherd plantation, with men traveling from West Alexander, Pa., to worship. Services were conducted under a huge oak tree near the present-day Stone Church Cemetery.

Worshipers received “spiritual bread” while armed with weapons for protection against the dangers of the frontier, she noted. The first minister was the Rev. John Brice, who divided his time between the Forks of Wheeling and the West Alexander congregations.

In 1795, David Shepherd willed a tract of land to the congregation for a church and a cemetery. A three-sided tent was erected, but was replaced by a stone church in 1807. By 1860, another stone facility was built, using the stones from the original structure. “The church thus became known as Stone Church,” she said.

Services were held, on Sunday and Monday, every two weeks; some people traveled 20 to 30 miles to attend, she said. Communion was served twice a year, alternating between Wheeling and West Alexander, and members were given tokens to participate in the sacrament, she added.

From 1812-58, the Rev. James Hervey served Stone Church and downtown “in the spiritually desolate village of Wheeling,” as he described it. As a temperance society formed, reportedly Hervey supervised the first barn raising conducted without the incentive of whiskey west of the Allegheny Mountains, Finstein related.

Members of Stone Church worshiped in a building at the foot of Stone Church Road from 1914 until 1970, when the structure was razed to make way for construction of Interstate 70. A new church building was constucted on East Cove Avenue.

When Hervey began holding services in downtown Wheeling in 1812, the town’s population was less than 1,000, the speaker said. First Presbyterian Church, built at 1307 Chapline St. in 1825, is believed to be the oldest building still standing in the downtown area, Finstein said.

Prior to the building’s construction, a Sabbath school was established, with Redick McKee (1800-86) as its first superintendent, and attracted Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and Quakers. It began with 30 people and grew 10 times larger, she said.

Andrew Woods Sr., Peter W. Gale and McKee were the first three elders elected when First Church was approved by the presbytery in 1826. The church was built on land deeded by Noah Zane.

In a side note, she said McKee came to Wheeling in 1818 from McKeesport, Pa., a town founded by his father. A “dealer in merchandise” for 30 years, McKee also was part-owner of the Virginia sternwheeler. He represented Wheeling at the Brownsville Railroad Convention of 1835. In 1840, he was part of a seven-member Wheeling delegation that appealed to the Virginia Legislature for public education, Finstein said.

In the 1850s, McKee served as a U.S. Indian agent on the California frontier. The book, “Little White Father: Redick McKee on the California Frontier,” describes his adventures.

Meanwhile, in Wheeling, “temperance was a major concern in the town,” Finstein said. First Church’s records show at least two disciplinary cases for intemperance and an 1838 case when a member was accused of “the occasional use of profane language” stemming from an incident at the Virginia Hotel.

The Rev. Henry R. Weed served First Presbyterian from 1835-60. In July 1861, the Rev. John J. Baker, a Southern sympathizer, resigned after the Pittsburgh presbytery adopted resolutions in full support of the Union cause, she related.

First Presbyterian was served by the Rev. Daniel Fisher from 1862 until 1876, when he resigned to become president of Hanover College in Indiana. In a work titled “A Human Life,” he described the political and social scene in Wheeling, she said.

A tower for First Presbyterian’s bell and town clock was erected in 1836, but the clock “disappeared” during a dispute with the city, she said. The tower was removed around 1912.

In 1847, she related, 16 members from First Presbyterian formed Second Presbyterian Church. A Greek Revival building for the new congregation was completed in 1850 at 20th and Market streets in Center Wheeling.

Businessmen Samuel Ott, William B. Quarrier and Alexander Hadden were early elders of Second Presbyterian. Brothers Jacob Hornbrook, “the soldiers’ friend,” and Thomas Hornbrook, surveyor of customs, also were early leaders, she said.

The Rev. Cyrus Dickson served Second Presbyterian from 1848-57. The Rev. Richard Varick Dodge, who served from 1857-62, and his wife were friends of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Finstein said. The local YMCA was formed during a meeting in Dodge’s study and later constructed a building across the street.

After serving Presbyterian churches in St. Clairsville and Bellaire, the Rev. John Moffat served Second Presbyterian from 1863-71. His son, the Rev. James Moffat, served the congregation from 1871 until 1881, when he became president of Washington and Jefferson College.

By 1970, Second Presbyterian’s congregation had dwindled to a dozen members and the building was sold to Wheeling Christian Church, she said. The Near Earth Observation Foundation, which purchased the property in 2008, is in the process of restoring the structure for use as an urban observatory and education center.

The building still houses the original George W. Coffin bell from 1850. The bell was rung on June 20, 1863, when West Virginia, became a state, and it was rung again on June 20, 2013, in celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial, Finstein said.

In 1849, a group of members of the First Presbyterian and Forks of Wheeling churches joined with the Reformed Dissenting Presbyterian Church of Three Ridges, Pa., and organized Third Presbyterian Church at 3806 Jacob St. in South Wheeling, Finstein said. In 2006, the church was closed and the building was sold. The building was sold again in 2011, she said.

Three other now-closed Presbyterian churches were Fourth Presbyterian, which operated in North Wheeling from 1851-69; First United Presbyterian, which was housed in several locations between 1832 and 1927; and Second United Presbyterian, which was located from 1900-58 at 14th and Chapline streets, the site of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church’s main parking lot.

Meanwhile, Finstein said, Vance Memorial Church was funded by James Nelson Vance (1828-1913) to memorialize his parents, James and Mary Vance. A cornerstone was laid in 1896; James Nelson Vance bore the entire expense of constructing the Richardsonian Romanesque-style building designerd by noted Wheeling architect Edward Bates Franzheim. A new Sunday school building, also funded by James Nelson Vance, was added in 1913, she said. Another education building was dedicated in 1959.

Regarding other congreagations, Finstein said Warwood Presbyterian Church has been in existence since 1887 and Bethlehem Presbyterian Church dates from 1876.

Laughlin Memorial Chapel, located on 18th Sreet, was established as an East Wheeling mission working with existing groups in the community, she said. It was named in honor of George Laughlin (1862-1936), who formed the Laughlin Trust to provide mortgage loans to local families.