First Presbyterian Church of Topeka traces its beginnings to a 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 congregation’s founding father, having scoured Topeka and a surrounding eight or 10-mile radius to locate 17 area Presbyterians (eight men and seven women). 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. Two elders – J. M. Hamilton and Ephriam Herriett – were selected as First Presbyterian’s initial officers.
About the same time as the church’s origin, the Reverend John A. Steele traveled to “Bleeding Kansas” from a flourishing congregation he had built in Grand View, Illinois. (Steele himself was a native Virginian.) Drawn to the fledgling territory in its struggle for statehood and his intense dislike for proslavery issues, Steele came to the Kansas territory and preached in the Lecompton-Topeka-Tecumseh area. 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.
Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal churches were already established in the Topeka area. The pastorless Presbyterian congregation, having learned of the Reverend Steele’s background, fittingly selected the newcomer as minister of First Presbyterian Church.
Originally, Presbyterian services were held in the homes of the 17 charter members. Gradually, the congregation grew to a point which necessitated joint occupation with the local Episcopal church of a hall on the third floor of a building near Sixth and Kansas Avenue. 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 “little brick church,” in First Presbyterian history. The minister himself supervised construction while his son Robert (12 years old) helped to haul stones from a nearby quarry on Deer Creek.
In 1864, Elder Hamilton moved to Leavenworth. The Reverend Steele purchased Hamilton’s share in the original building and presented the structure to the congregation with stipulation that the members begin work on a church home within two years. Thus, a new church of native stone was constructed at approximately 107 East Eighth Street near Quincy. Dimensions of this building were 35 x 75 feet, on a lot 100 x 1,330 feet. The second church is recorded as having its first service October 5, 1867. It was used until the 1880s when the second congregational home was sold for $12,000. This $12,000 would play an important role in the financing of the present church building at 817 Harrison.