The First Christian Church (The Stone-Campbell Movement Part I)
The congregation of the First Christian Church has a long and rich history that goes back over a century. Founded at the end of the nineteenth-century, this church had a prominent role in the Athens community for most of the twentieth-century. It survived multiple economic, social, and theological challenges, and only recently dwindled to numbers that could not support the costs of their church building. With the transfer of this property to the Southeast Ohio History Center, the congregation’s last visible mark on the landscape is its cornerstone that reminds the public of this building’s origins and long history.
Backstory and Context
The congregation has roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement of the early-nineteenth-century. This movement originated with Barton Stone in Kentucky as well as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, immigrants from Ireland, in Pennsylvania and Virginia (later West Virginia). Both Stone and the Campbells renounced their Presbyterian backgrounds and human creeds, instead seeking Christian unity based on Christian fundamentals and, especially for Alexander Campbell, a return to the simplicity of apostolic Christianity based on the Bible. The separate strains joined in the 1830s to form a general union, their churches were sometimes referred to as Christian Churches or Churches of Christ, and their members were called Christians or Disciples of Christ. The most significant sign of their churches was that they believed baptism was a step of salvation for the remission of sins, and many excluded instruments from worship.
Following the Civil War and northern prosperity, northern churches increasing accepted instrumental worship as doctrinal. Division over theological differences eventually splintered the group into the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ and was reflected in the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies. The second major division had a long division process. Although the International Church Convention created a Commission on Re-study which met from 1934 until 1949 to promote unity by examining the movement’s history, methods, successes and failures, the Commission proved unsuccessful. When the Christian Church redesigned itself in 1968, it exacerbated growing tensions. During an era of Fundamental/Modernist schisms in American churches, the conservative element split from the Christian Church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was extending its ecumenical goals and promoting open membership (including members who had not been baptized). More than forty percent of the Christian Church broke with Disciples mainline institutions, and eventually 3,000 congregations and 800,000 members withdrew, many of which formed the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The division was reflected in the Disciples’ 1971 yearbook.
The Stone-Campbell Movement’s first congregation in Athens County was founded in Carthage Township around 1835. However, it was not until May of 1886, that a Stone-Campbell congregation was first organized in the village of Athens, with about thirty charter members. They purchased a lot on East Washington Street, but traded it for a lot on the corner of West Washington and Congress Streets. The congregation secured its first pastor, A.P. Frost, in November 1887. During the 1880s, the congregation met at City Hall, Blackstone Hall (45 S Court St), and Stewart Hall (40 S Court St). Then in 1890, the congregation completed the construction of its first church building. In the beginning, church growth was slow, but steady, and was aided by Professor B.O. Higley and Miss Farris who served as Sunday School teachers, and Professor James McVey who directed the choir. Within the first two decades the church grew markedly, church membership increased so that Professor Higley’s adult Sunday School class alone numbered 150.
Despite an initial church split, the First Christian Church experienced exponential growth under Everett Delonzo Murch who began pastoring the congregation in November 1911. Following national trends, the congregation endured a church split with a minority in the congregation who opposed instrumental music and choirs. Led by the Wilkes and Gaskill families, the group soon after broke off to form a congregation of the Church of Christ. Basing her history largely off her mother’s accounts, in 1967 Blanche Deweese, argued that the split was slow growing and should not be attributed to Murch. Despite this setback, Murch also made a decision that would fundamentally alter the congregation—he invited the Fife Brothers to have a revival in Athens.
The Fife Brothers came to Athens in the spring of 1913 and stayed from March 13 until April 7. People from throughout the region surrounding Athens gathered for this revival. In fact, so many gathered that the church could not host the revival, it moved to various churches and Ohio University, but all of Athens’s buildings were too small. To ameliorate this problem, lots on Carpenter Street at the north end of Court Street were leased for free and a large structure was constructed. In just over a day, the Fife Bros Tabernacle was erected, including telephone, gas stoves, two pianos, twenty orchestra pieces, decorations, and electric lighting. This massive structure could seat 1,800 in the audience and 200 in the choir. Still, the seating was inadequate and people were turned away. On Easter Sunday (March 23), there were nearly 10,000 in attendance during five different services. Following morning services, about 1,500 men marched down Court Street led by the Athens Concert Band singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while en route to the Tabernacle for a men’s service. Following that service, the women had a separate service. Afterward, there was an evening service where people had to be turned away. The Fife Bros even found time for a service at the Athens State Hospital with 1,000 in attendance.
While these numbers are demonstrative of the influence the Fife Bros Revival had on Athens, the Sunday School records and number of converts indicate the importance of this revival for the First Christian Church. Out of the Protestant Churches in Athens, the First Christian Church had the second highest Sunday School attendance in Athens at 803 (206 men), eclipsed only by the Methodist Episcopal Church with 1,398 (900 men). James DeForest Murch, son of pastor E.D. Murch and Superintendent of the Bible School, reportedly said that he hoped to reach 1,000 the following Sunday, which he did. The revival also witnessed more than 600 people convert their lives to Christ, of which 408 became members of the First Christian Church. Just months after losing part of its congregation from a church split, the First Christian Church nearly doubled its membership of 467 by adding converts from the Fife Bros revival.
It was because of this exponential growth that the First Christian Church’s leadership decided the congregation needed a new building. During the revival a lot on the northeast corner of Congress and West State Streets was purchased for $11,000 from Josiah Allen. In May 1913, the church made preparations for the new building and hired the Columbus based architect firm Edwin E Pruitt Company. They designed a neoclassical building that would accommodate a Bible School of 1,800 people, including a gym for the youth. However, the congregation was largely comprised of youth who could not support the expenses of a new building. Disappointed that the project would not come to fruition, Rev. E.D. Murch resigned to become Field Secretary of the Ohio Christian Missionary Society. Yet in March 1915, the project was resumed because the current church building could not accommodate its members. Having already made additions to their existing church building, the congregation began accepting bids for their new structure in November 1915. By December, contractor Bart Davidson was planning the foundation. While the new building was being constructed, the church sold its former property at West Washington and Congress in May, 1916. Starting in June, the congregation met in Ewing Hall on Ohio University’s campus and continued to do so until the new building was completed. With a total cost of $42,000, the new building was dedicated on April 15, 1917, officially changing its name from First Church of Christ to First Christian Church. However, the building was not completed before several unfortunate events occurred. Shortly before the cornerstone was laid, S.D. Thompson was speeding towards his home on Lancaster Street and killed by a rope hanging across the street in front of the construction site. While building the church, a boiler fell off a wagon hitting Bart Davidson between the knee and ankle giving him a compound fracture in his right leg. Although seriously injured, he was able to pose for the picture of construction in 1916. Then three months before the building was completed, the congregation experienced another misfortune when its pastor George Owens, left for YMCA work with American troops on the Mexico border.
The First Christian Church had a number of organizations for its congregants to be involved in. Deweese argued that the church building’s very existence could be attributed to the heroic efforts of Ladies Aid Society, founded between 1901 and 1906. The Ladies Aid Society alone lowered the debt on the new building by over $10,000 when it hosted the Ohio National Guard at the new church building in 1917. Other women’s organizations included an Auxiliary Christian Women’s Board of Missions (est. 1893-94), the Women’s Service Council which took over the Ladies Aid Society in the 1920s, Kappa Beta (1928), and the Betsy Ross Sewing Club (1931). The church was additionally heavily involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Athens. The church also had active Christian Endeavor (1893-94) and Junior Christian Endeavor Societies; the former was the third ranked Christian Endeavor Society in the state in 1913. However, the First Christian Church’s greatest claim to fame came not from this youth organization, but one of its many young men who served the church in 1913—James DeForest Murch.
James DeForest Murch was the son of First Christian Church’s pastor E.D. Murch who invited the Fife Brothers for the 1913 revival, consequently almost doubling church membership and necessitating the need for a larger house of worship. Although he would go on to national prominence, James DeForest Murch spent his formative years in Athens, assisting in the work of his father. It was James, who during the revival, served as Superintendent of the Bible/Sunday School and set the goal of having 1,000 in attendance, which he achieved. While with the First Christian Church, he witnessed the church split with the conservative fundamental element of the congregation to form the Church of Christ. Later in the 1960s he witnessed another divide between the conservative and liberal elements in the Christian Church which ultimately led to another new Christian sect, the Christian churches/churches of Christ. However, this time he was not a passive observer, but a prominent leader of the movement. Seeing the Christian churches/churches of Christ movement as a middle ground between the Church of Christ and Christian Church, he vehemently resisted the label “fundamentalist.” The First Christian Church appears to have followed this middle ground solution and continued to revere the Murch family throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In August 1931, Rev. E.D. Murch returned to his old congregation in Athens to preach his last sermon before retirement. The First Christian congregation even had a funeral service for him in Athens in 1936. While serving as editor for the Christian Standard (a prominent Stone-Campbell journal) in 1943, James DeForest Murch followed in his father’s footsteps and returned to preach at his old congregation. He returned to preach yet again in 1951. The Murch family presided over the golden years at the First Christian Church and were influential in establishing the congregation and its church building, but the blessings bestowed on the church would not prove to be eternal.
After experiencing significant growth from the revival and obtaining a new building, the First Christian Church congregation struggled with the burden of the new church, but persevered into the second decade of the twenty-first century. From the beginning, the church’s youthful membership struggled to raise funds to pay off the church mortgage. Yet, through various creative fundraising means, the congregation successfully cancelled its debt for the new church in 1924. Fortunate for the congregation, this was just before the Great Depression (1929-1933), when the church suffered a significant decline in membership. During this time the congregation quit meeting on Sunday evenings and in the middle of the week because it could not sustain the expense of heating the large building. The church struggled to meet its financial obligations and debts amounted to over $6,000. The Disciples of Christ Yearbooks indicate that the congregation lost nearly a fifth of its membership between 1930 and 1940, declining from 620 to 500. However, in the following decade the church not only regained its membership level of 1930, but exceeded it, rising to 678 in 1950 with an annual church of expense of over $13,000. This trend in church membership follows the national church attendance trends of the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. However, starting in the second half of the 1960s national church attendance plummeted, which was not lost on the local congregation. Writing in 1967, DeWeese contended that Sunday School attendance had dropped appreciably, members were uninterested in teaching Bible classes, consequently young people were switching to different denominations. Whether people were switching denominations because of a lack of Sunday School options is questionable, but it is evident that there were clear changes in membership and that a religious apathy prevailed on a national scale. Just as the First Christian Church’s congregation followed the national trends of inclining church membership, the congregation also experienced its reverse trend of declining membership between 1965 and 1975. Between the 1950 climax in church membership and 1980, church membership at the First Christian Church declined by fifty-two percent from 678 to a mere 325 participating members. Church records indicate that after 1980, participating church membership declined by around 100 members each decade. In 2016, the congregation was too small to support the costs of the church building and sold it to the Southeast Ohio History Center. After several years of renting of the auditorium for Sunday worship the congregation discontinued its practice of meeting at the church in 2019. Just a century after its completion, the First Christian Church no longer has worshippers. Today its congregants gather for a different purpose, to learn about local history, a story that it once prominently figured into.
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Daniel, Robert L. Athens, Ohio The Village Years. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.
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Blowers, Paul M., Douglas A. Foster, and D. Newell Williams, eds. The Stone-Campbell Movement A Global History. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013.
Walden Deweese, Blanche. A Brief History of the First Christian Church of Athens, Ohio. Typescript, 1965-1967.
“Betsy Ross Needle Club Is Name of Class Group.” The Sunday Messenger (Athens, Ohio), May 3, 1931. Newspaper Archive.
“Christian Church Club To Be Nationalized.” The Athens Messenger (Athens, Ohio), April 11, 1929. Newspaper Archive.
“Church of Christ Has Best Year. Membership More Than Doubled—New Building to Be Erected.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), May 29, 1913. Newspaper Archive.
“Conducts Funeral.” The Athens Messenger (Athens, Ohio), September 17, 1936. Newspaper Archive.
“Contractor Bart Davidson is Very Badly Hurt.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), April 13, 1916. Newspaper Archive.
“Dave Thompson Dies As Result of Tragic Accident On Sunday.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), May 8, 1916. Newspaper Archive.
“Editor Dr. James DeForest Murch.” The Athens Messenger (Athens, Ohio), December 31, 1943. Newspaper Archive.
“New First Church of Christ Will Be Pride Of The City.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), September 26, 1913. Newspaper Archive.
“News Your Dad Read.” The Athens Messenger (Athens, Ohio), August 6, 1931. Newspaper Archive.
“Notice to Contractors.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), November 12, 1915. Newspaper Archive.
“Pew and Pulpit.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), January 29, 1916. Newspaper Archive.
“Pushing Contract Work.” The Athens Daily Messenger (Athens, Ohio), December 6, 1915. Newspaper Archive.
Disciples of Christ Yearbooks: 1888, 1892, 1921, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000. Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Bethany, West Virginia.
Photo Courtesy of the Southeast Ohio History Center.
Photo Courtesy of the Southeast Ohio History Center