March 14: Three Churches, One Anniversary

We welcome today our guest author, Rev. Dennis Bills, pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), in New Martinsville, West Virginia. Dennis has been working for some time now on a history of Presbyterianism in West Virginia and that book should see publication later this year, Lord willing. Additionally, Rev. Bills has arranged for an updated reprint of a related, historical work, The Captives of Abb’s Valley. His first published work, A Church You Can See: Building a Case for Church Membership is another which we think you will find useful.

Three Churches, One Anniversary
March 14, 2019 marks the Bicentennial of three historic Presbyterian churches in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Though all claim to have originated in 1819, each has a different organization date spanning fifty years.  How can all three be celebrating the same bicentennial? And which church is the original?

Their story actually begins a few years earlier, in 1815, when the wealthy Ruffner family built a 200-seat meeting house on their Malden property for use by the Society of Christians Called Presbyterians. At about the same time, the family also donated another plot of their land about five miles to the north in Charleston, stipulating “one moiety for education, one moiety for the Society of Christians called Presbyterians.” On March 14, 1819, one of the Ruffner boys, Henry, having just been ordained by Lexington Presbytery, organized this group as a single church meeting in two locations—one in Charleston and the other in Malden. It was known simply as “the Church on Kanawha in Charleston and at Kanawha Salines.”

After Ruffner immediately left to assume an academic post at Washington College in Lexington, the two united congregations hired Congregationalist Calvin Chaddock, a Boston minister who died in the Kanawha Valley after only a few short years on the job. Next was Nathaniel Calhoon, a minister and medical doctor with whom the congregation quickly became dissatisfied for some unknown reason. Then in 1837 came the Reverend James Moore Brown who ministered in the Valley for twenty-five years.  Each of these preached at both locations five miles apart on designated Sundays.

On the plot in Charleston, the church first built the Mercer Academy, in which the Charleston congregation met for many years. The Malden congregation worshiped at “Colonel Ruffner’s Meeting House” until 1840, when the family donated more land in Malden for the construction of the permanent brick sanctuary in which the congregation still meets today. Shortly after, in 1841, Reverend Brown led the Malden congregation to divide out and organize as the “Kanawha Salines Church.” This new church called the Reverend Stuart Robinson as its first pastor, and James Moore Brown preached his installation service.  Reverend Brown continued as the pastor of the original “Kanawha Church” in Charleston until his death in 1862.

Still a third church traces its origin to 1819—ironically called the “First” Presbyterian Church of Charleston. It was actually organized in 1872 when a majority of the Kanawha Church decided they wanted to adhere to the Southern Church. A vote was taken, the church divided, and the two congregations split the property. The new “Presbyterian Church of Charleston” (later to add the word “First” to its name) continued with the Southern PCUS. The Kanawha Presbyterian Church joined the Northern PCUSA.

So, which of the three was first? While all three can legitimately trace their histories to Henry Ruffner and that March 14th date in 1819, the Kanawha Church technically has the best claim to being the mother congregation. It birthed the Kanawha Salines Church in 1841 and the First Presbyterian Church in 1872. The order of the former is settled by the Kanawha Church’s minutes of September 1, 1841: “Resolved, that Greenbrier Presbytery be requested to divide the Kanawha Church by constituting a church to be known by the name of Kanawha Salines Church.” The order of the latter is settled not only by its clear date of organization thirty years later, but by the awarding of the minute books to the Kanawha Church by the secular courts, thus certifying it as the continuing congregation, at least in the eyes of the state.  The seeds of all three, however, were indubitably contained within the original congregations that were organized in 1819.

So, in spite of organization dates that span fifty years, all three can–at least in spirit–claim a 2019 Bicentennial.  The Kanawha Church–now known as the Kanawha United Presbyterian Church–stands only a few short blocks from its younger sister, the First Presbyterian Church. Those two fellow PC(USA) congregations have long since “made up,” and have planned a joint celebration for later this year.  Meanwhile it was the historic Kanawha Salines Presbyterian Church in Malden that joined the Vanguard Presbytery in 1972 and thus became a charter member of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. Kanawha Salines will hold a worship service this evening, March 14, to thank God for his grace and providence in establishing them two hundred years ago.

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