Presbyterians


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Although Presbyterian churches counted only a little more than 8,000 members in the Milwaukee area as of 2010, Presbyterians have played a significant role in shaping the city.[1] A Presbyterian congregation was among the earliest founded in Milwaukee, and famous early Milwaukee Presbyterians included meatpacking magnate John Plankinton, Mayor William Pitt Lynde, and mapmaker Silas Chapman.[2] The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been the largest Presbyterian body in Milwaukee and in the United States since its formation in 1983.[3] In 2017, the Milwaukee Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) encompassed forty-two congregations across eleven Southeastern Wisconsin counties. Presbyterian Homes of Wisconsin and Waukesha’s Carroll University are also affiliated with this denomination.[4] Milwaukee hosted the General Assembly meeting for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) in 1992 as well as another event in 1942 for a predecessor organization, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.[5] A small number of other Milwaukee area congregations are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.[6] Denominational diversity is nothing new to Presbyterianism; denominational mergers and divisions have marked the local church since Milwaukee’s earliest days.[7]

When Presbyterianism first arrived in Milwaukee, it came in union with Congregationalism. For the purpose of expanding into the American West, Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the Eastern states had joined in their support of the American Home Missionary Society in the late 1820s.[8] Early Wisconsin missionaries served Southwestern Wisconsin miners, Northeastern Wisconsin settlers, and the Stockbridge Indians.[9] By 1835, local Yankee-Yorker settlers adhering to both faiths were meeting for worship in Milwaukee homes.[10] These early Milwaukeeans wrote to the American Home Missionary Society, asking for assistance in establishing a unified congregation.[11] The understanding between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians held that the members of each new congregation would vote on the denominational designation of their church.[12] After discussions and disagreements on the denomination of their new Milwaukee church, eighteen congregation members, under the guidance of Green Bay-area missionaries Cutting Marsh and Moses Ordway, met at the county courthouse on April 13, 1837 to organize the First Presbyterian Society of Milwaukee.[13] Within a few months, the congregation had constructed its first building (likely the first church built in the city) at the corner of what is now 2nd and Wells streets.[14] Having outgrown its original site within a short time, First Presbyterian met in a rented hall in the early 1840s before moving into a new building at the corner of Mason and Milwaukee avenues in 1842.[15]

The partnership of the Congregationalists and Presbyterians was solidified by the formation of the Presbyterian and Congregational Convention of Wisconsin in 1840. Divisions arose within the community, however, as Milwaukee’s population increased.[16] Nationally, theological differences combined with different approaches to slavery and abolition split Presbyterianism into Old School and New School factions in the 1830s.[17] Old School Presbyterians, who operated separately from the Convention, founded their own Wisconsin Presbytery in 1846.[18] Among the first Old School congregations in the region were the First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha (1846) and Milwaukee’s North Presbyterian (1849), the latter located only a few blocks from Milwaukee’s First Presbyterian.[19] In 1851, several New School Presbyterian congregations, including First Presbyterian, left the Convention to form their own Presbytery, effectively separating the region’s Congregationalists and Presbyterians.[20] In 1884, the Convention officially became the Congregationalist Convention of Wisconsin.[21]

In 1869, the Old and New Schools of Presbyterianism reunited, but within Milwaukee reunion coincided with congregational realignments.[22] Presbyterians living west of the Milwaukee River, who had long travelled to the other side of the city for services, built their own church, Calvary Presbyterian, on what is now Wisconsin Avenue.[23] Calvary’s founding members were drawn from both First Presbyterian and North Presbyterian. Facing decreased membership and reunited presbyteries, these two churches on the east side of the river merged in 1870.[24] The combined church, rechristened Immanuel Presbyterian, dedicated a new Victorian Gothic building on Astor Street in 1875.[25]

Both Calvary and Immanuel counted many prominent members of Milwaukee’s Yankee-Yorker elite among their members, but as the turn of the twentieth century approached immigrant communities expanded within Milwaukee Presbyterianism.[26] Some immigrant groups brought their own Presbyterian traditions. Welsh settlers in Waukesha County favored a strong Calvinist Methodist tradition. Their administrative body, the Wisconsin Gymanfa, became one of the largest constituent bodies in the American Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church before that denomination’s 1920 merger with Presbyterianism.[27] And Dutch immigrants established at least three Presbyterian churches in Milwaukee during the course of the mid-nineteenth century.[28] In order to serve and evangelize other immigrant groups, Calvary and especially Immanuel financed mission congregations throughout the city.[29] Although Presbyterians and other Yankee-Yorker Protestants were soon eclipsed in number by Lutheran and Roman Catholic immigrants, several of the Presbyterian missions took root and grew into mature congregations.[30]

In the vein of the Social Gospel, mission churches emphasized Americanization and social welfare together with traditional Presbyterian understandings of vice and virtue. Mission churches offered homemaking classes for recent immigrants and kindergartens for their children.[31] Together with other Yankee Protestants, local Presbyterian organizations advocated for Prohibition and blue laws.[32] Opposition to alcohol and gambling were social priorities of the Milwaukee Presbytery well into the twentieth century.[33] In the second half of the century, the Milwaukee Presbytery increasingly focused on progressive social justice goals.[34] Local congregations have been instrumental in local food and housing programs, including the East Side’s Interchange and Tippecanoe Presbyterian’s Divine Intervention.[35] The Milwaukee Presbytery became a strong early advocate for the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.[36]

Twentieth-century suburbanization created and strengthened congregations across greater Milwaukee, but declining membership in mainstream Protestant denominations led to church mergers and closures. Mequon’s Crossroads Presbyterian, opened in 1956, surpassed Immanuel to become the Milwaukee Presbytery’s largest congregation by the 1980s.[37] Despite this suburban growth, the number of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members in the eleven county Milwaukee Presbytery fell from over 13,000 in 1993 to fewer than 9,000 in 2012.[38] In response to shrinking numbers, some Milwaukee churches have shuttered and others have merged.[39]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, “Metro-Area Membership Report: Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI, Metropolitan Statistical Area,” (Association of Religion Data Archives, 2010), accessed February 13, 2017.
  2. ^ For additional members, see Manual of the First Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Milwaukee: Starrs’ Book and Job Office, 1854); John Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City: A History of Immanuel Presbyterian Church Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Milwaukee: Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 1987), 26, 29; and Frank Abial Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Pre-Historic Times to the Present Date, Embracing a Summary Sketch of the Native Tribes, and an Exhaustive Record of Men and Events for the Past Century; Describing in Elaborate Detail the City as It Now Is; Its Commercial, Religious, Educational and Benevolent Institutions, Its Government, Courts, Press, and Public Affairs; Its Musical, Dramatic, Literary, Scientific and Social Societies; Its Patriotism during the Late War; Its Development and Future Possibilities; and Including Nearly Four Thousand Biographical Sketches of Pioneers and Citizens (Chicago, IL: Western Historical Company, 1881), 829, Archives Unbound, accessed February 2, 2017.
  3. ^History of the Church,” Presbyterian History Society: The National Archives of the PC(USA), accessed February 18, 2017.
  4. ^About Us,” Presbytery of Milwaukee, accessed February 13, 2017.
  5. ^ Mary Beth Murphy, “Use of Indian Ritual Angers Presbyterians,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 28, 1992.
  6. ^Church Directory,” Presbyterian Church in America, accessed February 13, 2017; “Church Locator,” EPC, accessed February 18, 2017; “Directory of Congregations,” Orthodox Presbyterian Church, accessed February 18, 2017.
  7. ^ For a visualization of the evolution of Presbyterian denominations, see “Family Tree of Presbyterian Denominations,” Presbyterian Historical Society: The National Archives of the PC(USA), accessed February 18, 2017.
  8. ^ Charles Johnston Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1940), 2-4.
  9. ^ E. Edwin Jones, “The Pioneer Period, 1830-1840,” in Early Presbyterianism in Wisconsin: Centennial Edition (s.l.: Synod of Wisconsin of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1951), 25-27.
  10. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 148-152.
  11. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 152.
  12. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 248.
  13. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 153; Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 826.
  14. ^ William Ward Wight, “The Old White Church,” in The Centenary of the First Presbyterian Church Predecessor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (Milwaukee: Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 1937), 14; Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 12.
  15. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 828; Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 15; Wight, “The Old White Church,” 16-18.
  16. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 256-259.
  17. ^ Louis Weeks, “Presbyterianism,” in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movement, ed. Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 503.
  18. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 343.
  19. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 342; Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 21; Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 830-831; “History of First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha,” First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, accessed February 13, 2017.
  20. ^ Kennedy, “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier,” 355-356.
  21. ^ Early Presbyterianism in Wisconsin: Centennial Edition (s.l.: Synod of Wisconsin of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1951), chart between pp. 57 and 58.
  22. ^ Howard Louis Conard, ed., History of Milwaukee from Its First Settlement to the Year 1895, vol. 2 (Chicago, IL: American Biographical Publishing Co., [1895?]), 187.
  23. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 829.
  24. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 832.
  25. ^ Flower, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 832-833.
  26. ^ Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 29.
  27. ^ Daniel Jenkins Williams, One Hundred Years of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism in America (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1937), 171, 411-412.
  28. ^ Conard, History of Milwaukee from Its First Settlement to the Year 1895, 191-193; Flower, 837-838.
  29. ^ Conard, History of Milwaukee from Its First Settlement to the Year 1895, 188, 192-194; Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 41-44.
  30. ^ Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 41-44; Hugh Heath Knapp, “The Social Gospel in Wisconsin 1890-1912,” Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1968, 37-38.
  31. ^ Knapp, “The Social Gospel in Wisconsin,” 44.
  32. ^ Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 48; Knapp, “The Social Gospel in Wisconsin,” 18-19, 34.
  33. ^ “Liquor Lobby Controls Legislature, Is View,” Milwaukee Journal, June 19, 1957.
  34. ^ “Presbyterian Social Creed Is OK’d Here,” Milwaukee Journal, January 25, 1967; Marie Rhode, “Presbytery Director Plans to Retire in Year,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 10, 1994; Mary Beth Murphy, “Ecumenism Given High Priority by Retiring Presbyterian Official,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 8, 1990.
  35. ^ Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 80; Annysa Johnson, “Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church Takes Homeless Ministry to New Level,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 7, 2014, last accessed May 25, 2017.
  36. ^ Jo Sandin, “Ban on Ordaining Gays Opposed,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 30, 1997; Tom Heinen, “Presbytery Avoids Defying Gay Clergy Ban,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 29, 1998; Tom Heinen, “Milwaukee Presbytery Plan on Ordaining Gays Fails in Assembly,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 26, 1999; Tom Heinen, “He’s Setting Off on a Journey of Discovery,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 3, 2004.
  37. ^ Gurda, Keeping Faith in the City, 69; Anne Davis, “Church Bucks the Trend: It Grows,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 19, 1999.
  38. ^ Tom Heinen, “Presbyterians Want to Build Ranks,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 26, 2005; “Presbytery Ten-Year Trend Report: Milwaukee Presbytery,” Research Services: A Ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), http://apps.pcusa.org/research/presbytery/tenyeartrends/2012/388/report.pdf, accessed February 13, 2017.
  39. ^ Heinen, “Presbyterians Want to Build Ranks;” Annysa Johnson, “Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee with Roots in 1800s to Close,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 12, 2014; Annysa Johnson, “Lutheran, Presbyterian Congregations Find New Life as One,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 30, 2013.

For Further Reading

Gurda, John. Keeping Faith in the City: A History of Immanuel Presbyterian Church Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee: Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 1987.

Kennedy, Charles Johnston. “The Congregationalists and the Presbyterians on the Wisconsin Frontier.” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1940.

Williams, Daniel Jenkins. One Hundred Years of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism in America. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1937.

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