Prior to the founding of the First Presbyterian Church of Hartford, a group of loyal Presbyterians had been laboring to bring the church into being. With the Presbytery's appointment of the Rev. James Ely to work in Hartford, the initial step was taken toward formal organization of a church that would be a spiritual home for Presbyterians in the Hartford region. In July, 1851, the first official meeting of the group that was to become First Presbyterian Church was held in what was then known as Gilman's Saloon on Main Street. That summer the Rev. James S. Childs was called as their first pastor. The fellowship requested Presbytery to organize them as a church and the organization was effected in a formal service November 4, 1851.
Before moving to its present location, First Presbyterian Church of Hartford had three homes. After a brief stay at Gilman's Saloon, the fellowship moved to the Washington Temperance Hall and from there to old South Baptist Church located on the corner of Main and Sheldon Streets (purchased for $10,000).
Dr. Childs resigned in October of 1865, and the following February Rev. J. Aspinwall Hodge was called as minister. In 1868, under Dr. Hodge's supervision, the chapel (now Hodge Hall) was built (at a cost of $17,080, including furnishings) and the congregation moved into this facility in February. In November, however, the chapel was partially destroyed by fire. Undaunted, the congregation not only restored the chapel, but laid the cornerstone of the present sanctuary.
The building was completed and dedicated May 17, 1870. Designed by Renwick and Sands of New York, the building is of Vermont granite with a trim of Portland brownstone in a blending of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. It was built at a cost of about $46,000 with $7,500 being paid for the lot. When the church was dedicated, only an $18,000 debt was on the property, which was paid in full a year later. Although the architect's plan called for a taller tower topped by a spire, it was built with a sloping roof only slightly higher than the main roof.
The years 1875-1876 marked a period of conflict and controversy within the church, as parishioners took sides over the issue of whether the church would remain a Presbyterian Church with final authority in the hands of the Session or whether the Ecclesiastical Society, which governed financial affairs at that time, would have control. The church remained Presbyterian, and Dr. Hodge remained an additional sixteen years to heal and develop the spiritual life of the church.
After 26 years as minister, Dr. Hodge resigned and the Rev. William W. Breckenridge was called to the pastorate in 1894. His ministry extended over 13 years to 1907. During Dr. Breckenridge's tenure, the church celebrated its 50th Anniversary (1901). It was noted at that time that during those fifty years, 1,213 persons had been received into membership, with 684 professing their faith.
The longest pastorate on record is that of the Rev. Dr. John F. Johnstone, who served the church from 1908 to 1940. During his 32 years the church grew steadily. In 1912 an extensive building renovation was carried out and in 1915 a new organ was installed. In 1930, the tower was completed to its present height and a campaign was launched to build the educational wing of the church. A goal of $25,000 was oversubscribed by $7,000. The total cost of the project, however, came to $42,000, and this debt later had to be carried through the Great Depression years. When the final payment was made in 1949, $24,882 had been paid in interest.
Dr. Johnstone retired in 1940 due to illness, and was succeeded by the Rev. James H. Williams. His was the shortest pastorate; only two years (1940-42), as World War II had erupted. Dr. Williams resigned his position to enter the chaplaincy of the United States Army.
The Rev. L. Wilson Kilgore assumed the pastorate of the church in 1943, and served the congregation for ten fruitful years. During this time, the congregation reached a peak in church membership (mid 800s), celebrated it 100th Anniversary (1951), engaged in extensive building renovation, established the Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, and doubled its budget.
This vitality continued under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Calvin H. Buchanan, whose pastorate extended from 1953 to 1960. An extensive Church Growth Campaign during these years brought in nearly $175,000, including $45,000 for a new organ and reredos. A Couples Club was formed at this time, bringing new families into the church, and congregational life was thriving.
In this period the church also added staff. The Rev. James A. Shera served as Associate Minister from 1956 to 1959, and was succeeded in that position by the Rev. Richard A. Hasler, who served from 1960 to 1965. In 1961, Dr. Buchanan was succeeded by the Rev. George R. Cox, who served the church for almost 6 years. Many changes had begun to take place in the city, one of them being a rising Latino population.
During this period the church began a ministry to the Latino community, with the Rev. Guadencio Ramirez serving as Assistant Minister to the Spanish-speaking. An attempt to initiate a Presbyterian church east of the river was also made, but fell short after several years of intense exploratory work.
The Rev. Frank R. Hoffman assumed the pastorate of the church in June, 1967. A major building renovation ($90,000) was carried out in 1969, and the church's outreach in the community was extended through its involvement in the creation and ongoing ministries of Center City Churches, Inc. In 1973, one of Center City Churches' cooperative ministries, SPA (Services Performed with Aging) was run in our building, using Johnstone Hall. In 1975, the Hispanic ministry moved on as a separate new church development. That same year, rooms adjoining the office area were modernized. In 1982, with the other churches of the Presbytery, our congregation put major effort into hosting the 194th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., which met in Hartford's Civic Center.
In the mid 80s, declining membership and the deterioration of the building became major concerns. Alternatives considered included replacing the present building with a smaller one, selling and relocating, or merging with another church. The decision was made to keep the building and invest for the future in the historic downtown location. A rededication campaign was launched with a $100,000 goal to stabilize the brownstone trim, replace the slate roof, and upgrade the electrical system. It was quickly oversubscribed in testimony to the congregation's faith in the future of this historic church.
Dr. Hoffman's health deteriorated following the sudden, untimely death of his wife in 1988. He took disability retirement in 1989 and died the following year.
The Rev. Charlotte Lorenz served as interim pastor for 15 months. During this period, another major fund raising campaign benefited the Presbyterian bicentennial fund and refurbished the sanctuary.
The Rev. Deborah Kapp was called in 1991. Her four year pastorate was marked by challenge and growth. A request by a well regarded member for a service of commitment for her and her same sex partner led the Session to do much serious study, and to approve the service. Some members left and repercussions were felt throughout the denomination. The Strawberry Festival was begun in 1992 as a means to raise money for mission work, and remains a popular tradition reaching out to workers in the neighboring state office buildings. In 1994, a Korean congregation which had shared the use of the building, moved into its own home. Rev. Kapp accepted a call in 1995 to serve on the faculty at McCormick Seminary.
The Rev. Cheryl Montgomery served as interim through mid-1997. During that period the church's morale was helped by the refurbishing of Hodge Hall, and the razing of an abandoned apartment building adjacent to the church. The church purchased this property and subsequently developed it as an attractive 22 space parking area and garden.
The Rev. Terry Davis was called in 1997 to be the 11th installed pastor. During this time a large investment was made in waterproofing and stabilizing the side walls of the sanctuary. Membership which had been dwindling began to show modest increases. He retired January 31, 2009 after 11 1/2 years as pastor to First Presbyterian Church of Hartford.
In 2001 an assessment of the building's condition and needs was performed. A capital funds campaign was conducted in 2002 with a goal of $250,000 and pledges were received for $275,000. Johnstone Hall and the Buchanan Room/Nursery were redecorated, several fire doors were replaced for security and life safety, and four restrooms were remodeled and made handicapped accessible. An entrance ramp, new exterior doors and other renovations to the Sanctuary level of the building provided wheelchair access to the entire floor. The electronic organ installed in 1960 was replaced by an Allen digital organ in the summer of 2003.
The church, which has stood at the heart of the city and faithfully served Hartford and its people for more than 160 years, looks forward to serving for another century and more. The diversity and inclusiveness of the congregation and its commitment to mission are the distinctive characteristics that will enhance its strength in years to come.