History of First Church
The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia was organized in 1698, just 16 years after the arrival of William Penn. For its first hundred years, the church occupied a site on High (now Market) Street, and both the first American presbytery and the first synod met in the church’s meetinghouse. In the 1820s the congregation moved to the south side of Washington Square where it remained until the late 1920s, when it moved to 15th and Locust Streets.
In 1743, a second Presbyterian Church was formed during the “Great Awakening” and erected a large building at Third and Arch Streets. Members of both First and Second Churches were active in the struggle for independence, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas McKean, and James Wilson. In 1789, the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was held there, a new church for a new nation.
After the Civil War, the Second Presbyterian Church constructed a new building at 21st and Walnut Streets. In 1949 the two congregations reunited to form one church, retaining the name First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia though occupying the building of the Second Presbyterian Church.
In recent years First Presbyterian Church has established several organizations that contribute to the cultural and social well being of the city of Philadelphia. Reading Buddies, an intergenerational program created by a First Church member, offers city children a weekly hour of concentrated, constructive adult attention and provides the children with an opportunity to improve their academic skills and enhance their lives by developing positive relationships with adults. MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance), founded in 1990 by seven members of First Church to help comfort those suffering from AIDS, began preparing meals in the kitchen of the church; today, MANNA is a vibrant nonprofit, nonsectarian, volunteer-intensive organization that serves men and women who are at acute nutritional risk and battling ANY life-threatening illness. First Church also hosts Musicopia, a non-profit organization that brings educational music enrichment programs to schools and communities throughout the Delaware Valley and fills every inch of usable space in the building with aspiring young musicians during their weekly rehearsals, and provides office space for Penn’s Village, an organization of Center City residents linking neighbor to neighbor to support those who wish to remain in their own homes as they age or have special needs.
For more than 300 years men and women have been called to worship, serve, and bear witness to the Word by the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. A history of the church was published in 1998 as “The Mother of Us All” in conjunction with the celebration of the church’s tercentenary. Written by the late Rev. Donald Kocher, copies are still available through the church office.
To view the historical timeline of First Church, click here.