The history of our church
In the 1700s, the Roanoke Valley got its first influx of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Among those great pioneers, were some of our founding members: Elijah McClanahan, Tasker and Thomas Tosh, and the Lewis and Muse Families. As early as 1749, we had practicing Presbyterians making their home and settling their reformed roots in our region. As Presbyterianism spread in the valley, a need for a more “formal” meeting place emerged, and Ebenezer Church was built around 1802. This brick structure was located on what is now Peter’s Creek Road and Lynchburg Turnpike. A historical marker was placed on the site years ago.
Due to the lack of proper care and deferred maintenance, the building was abandoned around 1819. The Presbyterians in Big Lick, then used the Tinker Creek Meeting House, which was partly owned by Elijah McClanahan, as their formal place of worship. The meeting house was primarily used by the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Baptists. We mutually merged with Catawba Meeting House to form Salem Presbyterian in June of 1831. After Salem Presbyterian rooted itself, The Big Lick Presbyterians decided to establish a church closer to their homes and officially formed Big Lick Presbyterian on May 28, 1851. We had 24 charter members, 7 men and 17 women. Col. Elijah McClanahan, then 81, had been an elder at Ebenezer and then Salem Presbyterian, and at the time of his death in 1857, had served as an Elder for 50 years. The Montgomery Presbytery authorized the Rev. Urais Powers, pastor of the Salem church since 1837, to be Big Lick’s pastor.
Across three lots in the Gainesborough area of town, a small wooden church was built and the congregation moved into their little building on December 4, 1852. We remained at this location for 23 years until the railroad boom. Big Lick and Gainesboro combined in 1874 to form the city of Roanoke. The following year, a revival was held by the Rev. Charles Morse Howard that benefited all the churches around, and we received 20 new members.
In 1875, the church was dismantled and moved across the railroad to the street corner where WSLS-TV now stands. One of Roanoke’s prominent businessmen, Ferdinand Rorer, and member of Big Lick Presbyterian, donated the site. This jump to the downtown corner from, as Rorer put it, “way out in the woods”, would be our home for the next 50 years.
On July 3, 1881, Rev. William Creighton Campbell answered the call to Big Lick from Harper’s Ferry, WV. Campbell had an amazing fund of knowledge, and it was used to illuminate, not obscure the Truth. He was fervent about proclaiming the Gospel and his humility to his service to Christ was never unnoticed. The following year, Big Lick changed its name to Roanoke and our church became Roanoke Presbyterian. When we planted a second church (Second Presbyterian) in 1891, we became the First Presbyterian Church. Campbell was active pastor for 42 and half years and pastor emeritus for another 13 years, until his death in 1936.
With Roanoke booming, it became a necessity to move our wooden structure and build a building better suited for our expanding needs. In 1888, we moved into our new red brick building that could seat 500. It was eventually enlarged again in 1907. The original wooden church was moved to Norfolk Avenue and was used by Jerusalem Baptist Congregation for about 45 years.
We started a Sunday School mission and as the city continued to grow, First Church gave freely of its membership and financial resources and planted nine other congregations. Campbell was a dedicated colonizer and evangelical and proved this 10 times over throughout the course of his history with First. Of the nine churches planted by First, only one failed to survive, Bethany. First Presbyterian is the Mother of Second Presbyterian (1891), Bethany (1892), Campbell Memorial (1892), Woodside, EPC (1893), West End (1909), Belmont (1915), Westminster, PCA (1915), Raleigh Court (1924), and Northminster (1942)
In 1924, Dr. Thomas K. Young arrived. The decision had been made to move from the business district downtown to our current home in South Roanoke using the site if the old McClanahan plantation home. Construction began and quarried stone from Catawba was sent to the site to build the $275,000 Gothic Revival style Church. The congregation moved in on June 23, 1929, a mere few months before the financial crash that began what is known in history as The Great Depression. It was important to the church and her leaders to not dedicate the new building until after it was entirely debt free. So the congregation pushed through the Depression, trusting in their Faith in God, and paid off the debt owed on the church. It was dedicated finally, debt free, June 23, 1946.
The 1929 Sanctuary and classroom wing.
The church once again was blessed with a need for expansion , and in 1965 , an addition was added. This included the chapel dedicated to Rev. Robert Lapsley, Jr., our pastor from 1931-1951, as well as an educational wing. Lapsley’s contributions to the ministry of the church included a vibrant radio ministry and an Easter Sunrise Service at Natural Bridge, a tradition held for 17 years.
Through the years, the church continued to grow its ministry and outreach through various community initiatives and partnerships. Social climates were changing and it was apparent that changes were coming that would affect both the church and the nation, and bring us, as a church to an impasse in the future.
For over 122 years, Presbyterianism was divided in America, mostly in part by the Civil War. The Northern Church and the Southern Church were finally merged back together in an event known as “Reunion” on June 10, 1983. First Church, with the approval of Session, congregation, and the Fincastle Presbytery, became part of the historic event. We were now a part of the PC(USA).
Because of its historic nature, First Church has amassed assets and records reaching back over 165 years. We are blessed that we have had leaders and members who have had the foresight to make sure that preservation is important. We have retained our bells, furniture from the first church building, stained glass, bibles , books, records, and other treasured parts of our heritage.
First Church, since its formation, has been a church passionate about spreading and defending the Gospel in it’s biblical Truth. Because of this, our Session requested to be dismissed from the PC(USA) in 2013. At the October 2015 Presbytery Meeting , First Church was formally dismissed by the Presbytery of the Peaks to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church- a move that would freely allow us to be able to continue preaching true to our strong, reformed traditions. First Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Roanoke looks forward to continuing to proclaim Christ as Lord in this valley for generations to come.
PASTORS OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Urias Powers : 1851-1860
Henry Martyn White: 1860-1865
James Power Smith: 1866-1869
Alfred Jones: 1870-1871
John Speck Lefevre: 1875-1877
John Calvin Dinwiddie: 1878-1881
William Creighton Campbell: 1881-1923
Thomas Kay Young: 1924-1930
Robert Alberti Lapsley, Jr.: 1930-1951
John Edwards Richards: 1952-1956
Walker Bocock Healy: 1957-1976
James William Patton: 1977-1982
John Hunter LaMotte: 1984-1992
Robert D. Smith: 1992-
*Interim Pastors between Patton and LaMotte: 1982-1984
Dr. Morris D. Warren
Dr. Charles C. Talley
Dr. J. Harris Stephens