First Christian Church Poplar Bluff

EARLY BEGINNINGS

The early beginnings of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Poplar Bluff and the growth and development of the town seem to be closely related.

The Christian Church was formally established during the 1880’s in what can only be described as a rapidly growing, almost booming town.

Although Poplar Bluff had been founded in 1850 to serve as the county seat of the newly formed Butler County, growth for the next twenty years was slow due in large part to events connected to the Civil War.

Ten to twelve families who had been living in Poplar Bluff at the beginning of the War felt compelled to abandon their homes during the War leaving the town essentially deserted with expected growth and progress put on hold.

Growth continued to be minimal until the 1870’s when the railroads connected the town to the outside world.

The railroads encouraged industry, commerce, and consequently immigration.

The town began to grow rapidly going from three hundred or four hundred  people in the early1870’s to one thousand  in 1879 to approximately two thousand by 1883.

It was during this time of rapid growth and opportunity that the Christian Church of Poplar Bluff set down its roots. As the town grew, the Church grew along with it.

A church history written in 1908 as part of the dedication of the redbrick building on the southeast corner of Main and Oak Streets tells noted that the first presentation of a Bible basis for the union of believers was made in Poplar Bluff on or about the year 1872, by the Reverend  S. Tulley, of Evansville, Indiana.

An occasional sermon by others kept alive the seed thus sown, but no definite organization was effected until after the families of Isaac M. Davidson, John T. Linton and R. Dewitt Fanning Eskew came.

The history  notes that these Christians went out among their fellow citizens and found others who held their same beliefs.

They then sent for G. A. Hoffman, State Evangelist for the Church of Christ of Missouri, to help organize the congregation and set apart its Elders and Deacons.

Thus was the Church begun.

The charter members were listed as: Isaac M. Davidson and wife; John T. Linton and wife; Dr. Dewitt Fanning Eskew; Silas Andrus and wife; Mr. Newkirk and wife; H. G. Simmons and wife; Dr. Snider and wife; Dr. M. W.Shelton; Mrs. Wallman; Charles and Laura Andrus; Ona Simmons; and Mrs. H. E. Johnson.

It was at the initial meeting in September of 1886 that Isaac M. Davidson donated a lot measuring forty by seventy feet at the corner of Main and Oak which was to become the home of the Church for the next twenty years.

At this time, he also donated five hundred dollars to be used for a Church building.

The original building was constructed within one year of the organizational meeting and was dedicated debt free.

It was a neat, white frame structure which could seat one hundred fifty people.

One can only speculate at the faith and enthusiasm which motivated the congregation of this early Church.

J. M. Vawter was the first regular minister and the Church was served by several other ministers between its establishment and the year 1905.

In 1888, Reverend S. M. Martin (State Evangelist)reported that he had been sent as his first assignment to the Church in Poplar Bluff to preach a revival.

He held meetings for four weeks “in a little frame Church.”

In a letter written in 1936, he wrote, “There was a fair audience that first night which continued to increase until the house was far from large enough to seat the crowd,” one hundred thirteen  new members were added during these meetings.

Of these, sixty six made confessions of faith and were baptized.

 Mr. Davidson gave the congregation a lot upon which they could build their Church along with a pledge to match any building moneys dollar for dollar.

One can only speculate about the day-to-day and year-to-year leadership which allowed this small community of believers to develop into the Church it was to become during the early part of the Twentieth Century.

THE RED BRICK BUILDING

In 1905, E. J. Fenstermacher was called to become the pastor of the Church.

Responding to his leadership, the congregation began planning the building of a new Church house which would reflect their progress and aspirations as this community of faith. It would be located on the same corner as the previous frame building.

In February of 1907, the Chairman of the Board appointed a committee to begin working on Church plans.

By April of 1907, a plan submitted by Architect Charles W. Tetwiler was accepted and ground was broken for the new building in June.

The cornerstone, which contained a stone from the Mount of Olives, was set in place in September.

 Dr. and Mrs. J. W. Mott had brought back that stone as a memento of their visit to the Holy Land and gave it to the Church.

While the congregation met at the old Central High School, work progressed rapidly on the new building.

In March of 1908, it was completed at a cost  of twenty four thousand dollars .

The building was a Gothic structure of red pressed brick with Bedford stone trimmings and a tiled roof.

The main floor was dominated by an auditorium which measured forty seven feet by fifty four feet.

It also included a study, eight classrooms, robing rooms for the choir and minister, and a large Sunday School room covered the rear section which was forty four by fifty feet.

The basement held the kitchen and pantry, the dining room, the reception room and parlor, two furnace rooms, and the fuel room.

The main auditorium was beautifully decorated and furnished.

It contained a corner pulpit, organ, and choir platform.

Of note were the art glass windows.

Over the baptistery, the congregation could view “The Baptism of Jesus," which now is in a shadow box in the narthex of the church.

Larger Gothic windows were arranged around the sanctuary.

“The Guardian Angel,” “The Ministry Throughout Galilee,” and “The Women at the Sepulcher” were all donated in memory of Isaac M. Davidson by Mrs. W.  B. Hays and class, Mrs. H. I. Ruth, Mrs. Sue Mott and class, and the Church.

When completed, this building was indeed “a noble tribute to the 180 resident members” as reported in the 1908 history.

It was dedicated debt free.

In October of 1908, W. M. Baker became pastor and was to remain for six years.

Under his leadership, the Church grew to a membership of six hundred with a Sunday School enrollment of four hundred .

Church concerns during this latter part of his ministry were centered on increasing membership and finances.

The Church was in such need that in 1914 the services of G. W. Sniyely were secured to raise funds to liquidate the Church debt.

He was to receive one hundred dollars  plus travel expenses.

Brother Bakers resignation was accepted with regret in August 1914 and J. M. Gordon was called in October at the salary of one hundred twenty five dollars per month.

In June of 1915 there was a drive to increase attendance.

Each member was asked to bring someone and the Board discussed finances as a continuing problem.

 A Boy Scout Troop was started and in 1916.

Also in 1916, the Board voted to open the baptistery for use to anyone needing it thereby making manifest a portion of the Church’s creed.

Despite continuing efforts by all, the Church membership had declined to three hundred fifty and the total giving had decreased by about five hundred dollars.

Several ministers served the church in the following years until Brother Hodge was called.

He presented his plans for 1921 to the Board at the February meeting.

These included a pre-Easter meeting and a Fall Revival.

The Board also decided to start a class for high school students.

In May, the Board made plans to pay off the Church debt and hold an all day meeting to celebrate.

During this period, a priority  for the church was Sunday School mission work on the East Side of Poplar Bluff.

The Board began discussing the need for more space and the ladies of the Church voiced the need for a parsonage.

 The ladies pledged five hundred dollars  towards the purchase of a parsonage and promised to make the first year’s payments.

The motion to buy a parsonage was made and accepted at this time.

L. L. Roberts was called in January of 1923 and served  until September of 1925.

 During his ministry the Church raised funds to equip the free ward at Brandon Hospital and began showing pictures on Sunday evenings.

The membership increased by one hundred ten   and total giving increased by about two thousand dollars over a two year period.

Brother Roberts conducted one hundred forty baptisms, ninety three  of these occurring during the first six months of 1925.

HARD TIMES FOR ALL

The period of American History from 1925 to 1945 was a difficult period for Poplar Bluff as well as for the United States.

It was a period of recurring depressions, and the tragedies of World War II. First Christian Church experienced many hardships during this period.

The town grew from eight thousand to thirteen thousand in twenty years.

Rev. J. H. Wilkinson moved to Poplar Bluff in November 1925

Rev. Wilkinson was an evangelist and held more than one revival per year.

He was the President of the Churches of the District for most of his period in the area, and President of the State Convention in 1929.

In 1933 the Church licensed Carroll West as an evangelist for the area.

The Church program included a large Sunday School with an enrollment of four hundred  to five hundred, three Christian Endeavor Groups, and an annual Revival Meeting of three to four weeks.

An Ever Member canvas was started in 1934, and envelopes were distributed for use.

The first Vacation Bible School ever held in Poplar Bluff was conducted in the early twenties with Mrs. Bert Mounts as the Director.

The Golden Anniversary was held on December 11-13, 1936.

On Friday evening an impressive drama was presented, with seventy persons in fit scenes depicting some of the highlights of the Church’s History.

Other programs preaching, fellowship, and music were held on Saturday and Sunday.

In 1938 and 1939 financial problems became severe and the Church had to dismiss the custodian and choir director.

 The pastor offered to cut his salary, but the Board rejected the offer.

The pastor offered to do an exchange revival with the pastor at Rolla, Missouri, with no expense together Church.

In 1939 the Elders voted on the Minister and asked him to continue, by a two thirds majority, but some of the members of the Board disagreed and resigned.

This resulted in a very unusual development. In January 1939 the Elders recommended and the Board approved the following motion, “That Brother Wilkinson be permitted to exchange pulpits with Brother Oren Orahood of Salt Lake City, Utah, under the terms and conditions now existing in the Church, and each Minister to bear his own expense in making the exchange  their respective Churches.

It was a marvelous example of personal sacrifice.

After World War II with the veterans returning home, and prosperity returning to Poplar Bluff, once again the church began to grow and the church felt the need to expand its facilities. New members were joining and the church needed space for worshipers and Sunday School classes.

Various sites around Poplar Bluff were discussed for a possible new location for the church.

After much discussion, the site on North Main Street was chosen as the new location for the church.

 A DREAM COME TRUE

 Fifteen years had passed since the need for more space had been felt.

Three false starts had been forgotten, but the leaders of First Christian Church continued to work, pray and give for a new building.

An architect has been commissioned and preliminary plans were expected soon.

Dr. H. S. Clay was asked to head this effort.

The first seventy thousand  dollars was secured rather easily with a Church-wide dinner, but the last thirty thousand dollars took another year and much effort from the Certificate Loan Committee.

The congregation worshipped for the last time in the old red brick Sanctuary at Main and Oak Streets on Sunday, February 25, 1962.

It had served its purpose fifty five years.

It took twenty months to complete the new project and the congregation moved in on the first week of March 1962.

The first service in the new sanctuary was held on March 4, the Church’s seventy fifth anniversary.

It was followed with a week of evangelistic preaching during which fifty-two new members were added.

The Dedication Service was held on June 10, 1962, with Dr. Lester Rickman, Minister of the Christian Church of Missouri as the speaker.

A new three manual Moller Pipe Organ was installed in May 1962.

It has twenty three stops (ranks of twenty four pipes) including the chimes and harp.

 The cross and flame stained glass window at the back of the Sanctuary was made in Germany.

By God's kindness, the church has been a witness to the love and grace of Jesus for over 125 years.

As from its beginning the congregation continues to be a bridge to the community for Jesus Christ and seeks to share the good news  of God.

Today the church hosts day care ministry for the community. 

Since beginning worship and study in the new church over the years the church and sanctuary have been renovated to keep its mission and ministry up to date. The church recently added wifi "hotspots" to the sanctuary, education wing, and fellowship hall of the church.

In keeping up with the social media trend, the church recently started live streaming its morning worship service on the internet and it may be found on Facebook.

Come, and work with us, as we try to work with Jesus to bring wholeness in this fragmented world.

(Gleanings from "A Century of Faith, 1886-1986" and other church sources)