The tag line at the top of each week’s worship bulletin says it all: “Proclaiming the love of Christ in the heart of Hastings since 1873!”
There could not have been more than a hundred people in Hastings in 1873. There were only seven or eight buildings in the whole village. Nevertheless, a group of fifteen or twenty persons came together to organize the First Presbyterian Church Sunday, August 10, of that year. Membership grew to 31 in 1874, 102 in 1878, and 279 in 1886.
Services were held in several locations during the first five years. The first permanent church building was dedicated in 1878, at the southeast corner of Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue. This site, now occupied by Home Federal Savings and Loan Association, was sold to the YMCA in 1887. Services were held temporarily in the Kerr Opera House until the completion of a new church building at the present site, the southwest corner of Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, in 1888. The new church boasted a magnificent tall tower and Gothic spire, which could be seen for miles around. Unfortunately, a terrible fire completely destroyed the new building only two decades later, September 25, 1910. The congregation was now forced to find another temporary location and held Sunday services for fifteen months at Fraternity Hall, later to become the Tribune Building, at the northwest corner of Second Street and Burlington Avenue. The present building, considered a rebuilding of the earlier structure, was dedicated January 14, 1912. Major renovations and additions were completed in 1952, 1971, and 1997, and the church, including playground and parking lot, now occupies the entire city block bounded by Seventh Street on the north, Lincoln Avenue on the east, Sixth Street on the south, and Burlington Avenue on the west.
Sixteen pastors (not including supply pastors, interim pastors, associate pastors, assistant pastors, and student pastors) have occupied the First Presbyterian pulpit since 1873. The first was the Rev. James A. Griffes, who served from 1873-76. The longest-serving pastor by far was the Rev. Silas G. Kessler, whose 36-year tenure began in 1940. Dr. Kessler, who was elected Moderator of the 175th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963, presided over a period of remarkable building and growth. He continues to serve as Pastor Emeritus. The current pastor, since January of 2004, is the Rev. William G. Nottage-Tacey. Dr. Nottage-Tacey had attended First Presbyterian Church during his days as student at Hastings College, from 1968 until 1972.
The relationship between First Presbyterian Church and Hastings College has always been strong. The college was not officially founded until 1882, but preliminary talks were under way as soon as the church was established in 1873. It is not surprising that the church’s first two elders, Samuel Alexander and A. L. Wigton, were also among the founders of the college. In fact, the Rev. William F. Ringland served concurrently as pastor of the church and first president of the college beginning in 1882. He resigned from his pastorate in 1885 to devote full-time to the presidency. Twenty years later, another First Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. E. Van Dyke Wight, also held both positions concurrently, from 1902 until 1906.
An important result of the close connection between the church and the college has to do with the church’s music ministry. Undoubtedly, the priority that has always been given to music at Hastings College has enhanced the quality of the music at the First Presbyterian Church. Indeed, in September of 1914, the Session requested that music for church services be provided exclusively by the Hastings College Conservatory of Music, and Hayes M. Fuhr devoted 48 of his 49 years as director of the conservatory to directing the music program of the church as well. Apparently, college students and faculty provided most of the music for worship services for some time, but by the 1950’s, members of the congregation were invited to participate in the music ministry of the church once again. Since then, there has been a healthy mix of college people and members of the congregation in all of the church’s musical ensembles, whose variety and quality are surely unmatched in any other church in Central or Western Nebraska. A new Austin 40-rank organ was installed in 1956. The church’s music coordinator since 1985 has been Robin R. Koozer, who also serves as Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Hastings College.
As indicated earlier, the membership of First Presbyterian Church increased steadily in the early years, and it continued to do so for about two-thirds of the twentieth century. The high point was reached in 1965 and 1966, when 1,783 members were on the rolls. Since the 1960’s, however, membership has decreased—a condition shared by most of the mainline denominations in the United States. By the centennial year of 1973, the number was 1,688, and by the 125th anniversary in 1998, the number had dropped to 1,180. Current membership is 929. Part of the decline is undoubtedly the result of a concerted effort to keep the membership rolls current, but the decline is cause for concern nonetheless.
While it understands the reality of the situation, the Evangelism and Membership Committee is convinced that if prospective members could be truly made aware of what the First Presbyterian Church has to offer and could experience it first-hand, the church could begin to grow again. New members are always welcome, and prospective members are invited to share and participate in our mission: “To glorify God as we share the hope, joy, and promise we are given through Jesus Christ.”