First Presbyterian Church of Topeka traces its beginnings to aÂ meeting held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Jackson, between Fifth and Sixth Streets on Harrison, December 19, 1859. The Reverend A. T. Rankin is regarded as the congregationâ€™s founding father. The church was officially recognized by Highland Presbytery when Reverend Rankin carried forth a petition signed by the original 17 charter members and minutes of their initial meeting.
About the same time as the churchâ€™s origin, the Reverend John A. Steele traveled to â€œBleeding Kansasâ€ from a flourishing congregation he had built in Grand View, Illinois.Family friends lived in Lecompton, the proposed capital of the new state. However, Steele was antagonized by the proslavery factions of Lecompton and instead chose to settle in the freestate community of Topeka.Â The pastorless Presbyterian congregation, having learned of the Reverend Steeleâ€™s background, fittingly selected the newcomer as minister of First Presbyterian Church.
The first church building was constructed at 712 Kansas Avenue on a lot purchased by the Reverend Steele and Elder Hamilton and the structure was affectionately termed the â€œlittle brick church,â€ in First Presbyterian history.
The first service held at 817 Harrison was a prayer meeting Thursday, April 9, 1885 with 140 attending in the ladies’ parlor. Then, on Sunday, April 12, the new building hosted Sunday School and formal dedication services; attendance was estimated between 1,200 to 1,500.
From 1904-1929, Estey served as the longestÂ pastorate First Presbyterian Church has known to this present time.Â His years at First PresbyterianÂ were marked by a strong emphasis on education.Â One of Dr. Estey’s first projects was the remodeling of the church auditorium and Sunday School, prompted mainly by Mrs. Jane C. Stormont’s $4,000 gift for a new pipe organ.Â It is noteworthy that Sunday School attendance reached record high levels during Dr. Estey’s administration, particularly in 1915; of a total 1,362 membership, 1,219 were attending Sunday School.
A notable memorial contribution during these founding years was Mrs. Jonathan (Josephine B.) Thomas’ gift of the sanctuary Tiffany windows, which were dedicated October 1, 1911. Louis C. Tiffany, designer of the memorial windows, designed the decorative Fravile glass in Europe and later made it popular in the United States.Â Another interesting sanctuary window is the Stormont Memorial “Christ Blessing Little Children,” which is in three panels. This window was provided through a legacy of Mrs. Jane Stormont, wife of a local physician. Dr. Stormont played an important role as an elder whose fund raising projects were instrumental in procuring First Presbyterian’s permanent building site on Harrison Street.
During the 1920s and 1930s First Presbyterian continued with dramatic increases in the educational programs during pastorates of Dr. Estey and Dr. George William Allison. Redden Chapel, started in 1914, became an integral part of the church’s city mission work. (The educational thrust of the church rapidly grew during these two decades.) Finally, the remodeled sanctuary, Moeller organ (from the Payne legacy), and Mrs. C. F. Menninger memorial rose window were dedicated in 1935.
When Dr. Orlo Choguill (pastor from 1945-1955) came to the First Presbyterian pulpit in 1945, he found the remnants of an aristocratic church emerging into a new post-war era. A donation from Frank Willard, who had close family Presbyterian ties including his mother and two aunts residing in Topeka, would prompt the entire renovation project. The building improvements were to occur in three stages: 1) Construction of a chapel, 2) Renovation of the basement to include what is now “Willard Hall”, and 3) Construction of the lounge/parlor area on the main floor. In 1951 Life magazine picked the 817 Harrison Street church as one of 12 in the United States which had experienced a major growth rate in recent years.
In memory of his wife, Mary Shipman Baldry, William Earnest Baldry presented three cast bells and an elaborate chiming system to First Presbyterian Church; the bells were dedicated in 1968.Â The bells are elevated above supporting masonry walls to permit tonal quality to spread in all directions with uniformity in keeping with Mrs. Baldry’s “outreach” efforts in the church community. A Presbyterian Vitamin, bell dedication brochure, states that this peal of the bells is a 46 vitamin for those who hear – a reminder amidst the care of the day that God is not dead.”