Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020
Blessing God and Taking Courage:
The Beginnings of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem

This Saturday is the 145th anniversary of the founding of our church, and we thought you would enjoy this history of our beginnings.
A mustard seed, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches… Mark 4:31-32

For The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, the parable of the mustard seed serves as an example of how great growth can come from humble beginnings.

This small congregation that began in the latter half of the 19th century had, even then, the promise of ministry and service, which would in time circle the globe. That kind of growth could hardly be envisioned by the 22 men and women who signed a petition in 1875 asking that a church be organized “under the style and title of The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”

Bethlehem in 1875 was a community of 14,000, and was as diverse in its businesses and interests as it was in its ethnic and cultural make up. Many Presbyterians felt that the German pastors were not reaching the English-speaking portion of the popula­tion, and that a church of their own theology and type of worship was much needed.

And so on Sunday, November 14, 1875 in the parlor of the YMCA this Presbyterian Church was formed and took its place among eight other Protestant churches in Bethlehem. Twenty-one persons entered into a covenant with God signi­fied by their uplifted hands. Four elders were elected and ordained, the Lord’s Supper was administered, and this first organizational service closed with the Doxology and Benedic­tion.
In the early days, various pastors held Sunday services in the parlor of the parsonage that was located at the southeast corner of Broad and High Streets. With some apprehension the small congregation moved to an unoccupied church building in 1877, formerly used by the Moravians.
The sum of $160 was paid for a one-year lease for the church and an adjoining house for Sabbath School purposes. These buildings were later converted into two houses at 57 and 59 West Union Boulevard. Attendance began to rise accordingly from 21 to 80.

Meanwhile, several candidates for the pulpit were heard with different degrees of satisfaction. At a church meeting called in March of 1876, the Rev. Alexander D. Moore of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, was enthusiastically called to become the first full time pastor of The First Presbyte­rian Church of Bethlehem and he served for 15 years.

In May of the same year a silver communion cup and a baptismal bowl were given as gifts to the church and were used to administer the sacraments until the early 1900s.

The first statistical report of the Church reflects its struggles and its steady progress: Communicants - 28, Sabbath School - 140, $2 contributed to the General Assembly and $1,711 of congregational expenses. Help came from the National Board of Home Missions in an initial grant of $300, later to reach $1,500. On another November date, two years later in 1877, the Session and Trustees appeared before Judge Meyers in Easton and the Church became incorporated.
During the summer of 1877 a prominent Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, who was a former moderator of the General Assembly and current President of the Board of Home Missions, spent some months in Bethlehem, at that rime considered a summer resort.

The Rev. George W. Musgrave, D.D., LLD., (right) found the little church on Union Street, preached to the congregation, and declared that even the Apostle Paul could not have drawn a congregation in a place like that!
Dr. Musgrave asked the officers of the Church to go with him in search of a suitable location for a church building, and thus began an exceptional relationship between
Dr. Musgrave and the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem. He then offered a challenge grant of $1,000 if the congregation would purchase a lot and in a year erect a chapel to cost no less than $3,000.

"Blessing God and Taking Courage", this handful of people, encouraged by and in partnership with their friend, purchased a lot measuring 110 feet on Center Street and 80 feet on North Street for $1,800. Then Musgrave offered an additional amount of $500 if the proposed building would have a second story for Sunday School purposes, an additional $200 if it would have stained glass windows, and $300 if the debt would be reduced, bringing his total gift to $2,000.

The total cost of the property and building was $7,500, with an indebtedness of $2,300. The Musgrave Chapel, as the building was to be called, was dedicated on Sunday, April 7, 1878. Again Dr. Musgrave challenged the congregation to pay off the debt by offering a gift of $500; the local paper, The Bethlehem Times, published an article of encouragement and support; by Tuesday, April 9 of the same week the entire debt was paid off!

The daily press also noted the presents that were given to the Church – slate hitching posts, a bell, screens for the windows, a pulpit desk, clock, pew ends, a Bible and hymnal for the pulpit. Later the Moravian Young Ladies Seminary planted poplar trees on the Lot.

Once again Dr. Musgrave came to the aid of the Church by purchasing two adjacent lots costing $1,400, one to the north on Center Street and one to the west on North Street. In all he gave approximately $8,000 in financial contributions, as well as inspirational encourage­ment, when both were needed most.

The congregation, in appreciation and respect after Dr. Musgrave’s death in August of 1882, draped the Church in mourning for thirty days and re­solved: “That we shall ever cherish his memory; and as long as The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa., shall exist, his generous aid and his exalted virtues shall not be forgotten.


Excerpted from "125 Years of God's Faithfulness: The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem 1875-2000" - read more at fpc-bethlehem.org/history.