Friends in First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois: greetings from Chiang Mai, Thailand as we enter the Year of Our Lord 2020. This begins the two hundredth year since the Presbyterian form of Christianity began to shed its influence on the several Altons between where the Illinois River and the Missouri River flow into the mighty and sometimes terrible Mississippi.
Presbyterian preachers found hospitality with pioneer farmer Enoch Long in 1820 and formed a church in June 1821. That church did not thrive but Enoch Long and his family testified ever after that they remained loyal Presbyterians in Upper Alton and joined a second attempt that was more successful. In 1831 a second First Presbyterian Church was organized of which you are the present members.
Threats to Presbyterian ministry and mission recurred. The most dire began in 1837 when opposition to abolition of slavery along with land speculation threatened the church and the martyrdom of the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy led to a financial crisis that nearly wiped out the town and bankrupted the state.
Still the church endured, boosted by several revivals.
During the century 1870 to 1970 First Presbyterian Church of Alton was one of the leading churches in Alton, with community leaders and gentry among its 1200 members at its peak. This congregation was the presbytery’s largest contributor to the world-wide work of the Presbyterian Church for many years in a row. First Presbyterian Church was instrumental in establishing 7 other churches. There were more than 400 children in Sunday school, more than 30 women’s meetings a month, and five large choirs. Perhaps most impressive was the influence of the church on such community enterprises as the YMCA, YWCA, Chautauqua, and later organizations providing services to the community.
Throughout these years of influence and accomplishment there were slumps: the Great Depression, the departure of glass and steel industries, and then the fire that destroyed the sanctuary in 1988.
Meanwhile, the tide was turning for Presbyterians everywhere in America. First came the split over ordination of women, then shifts of priorities that eroded the importance of Sunday morning, and pretty soon churches began to close.
In Alton the list of closed churches now includes all the Presbyterian churches except this one. It is the same all over. In my home town where there were 3 Presbyterian churches, now there is one; all the rural Methodist churches are closed and the three United Methodist Churches in town are also reduced to one.
For a while it looked like mega-churches would emerge to meet the needs of a new generation, but there are no mega churches drawing 10 thousand participants anywhere between the south suburbs of Chicago and Little Rock. That and many other hopes are fading.
As we look at our empty pews and aging faithful, it is tempting to despair about the Christian enterprise in America. This brings me back to an inspiring insight from the Old Testament prophet Haggai.
In about the year 520 BC the prophet persuaded the refugees who lived on the rubble of the destroyed city of Jerusalem to re-build a temple. Not long into this project, depression again overwhelmed the builders. The oldest among them could probably remember the splendor of Solomon’s wonderful temple. Even the youngest could see the immense foundation stones of that temple on which they were erecting nothing more than a holy hut.
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord … for I am with you. …My Spirit abides among you, fear not.”
Take courage, fear not.
That is not easy advice to take, nor should it be glibly given. Anyone looking around Alton today can see almost a score of closed churches. No one can promise that any particular church will survive the next 50 years. What has happened to churches in Alton in the past 50 years was unexpected and would have been unthinkable in 1970.
Still, “fear not.” Thirty years ago these words were proclaimed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church, “There is no evidence at all, that God has ever abrogated the promise of his presence from us. There is not a shred of proof that God has decided to withdraw his Spirit, and let us drift into insignificance. Quite the contrary. Time after time in the history of this congregation God has intervened to rescue it. God has proved his love for this church in every generation. In ways that witnesses professed to be miraculous, God has inspired people to contribute money for a succession of buildings. In every decade God has moved people and initiated groups in this church to accomplish work that has changed the course of lives and even nudged the city and the region. On a daily basis we have seen the hand of God working to guide, to correct, to affirm and to encourage this church. There is no sensible conclusion, then, that God’s promise is less believable than any temporary evidence of decline. The substantial fact is God’s irrevocable word, backed by decades of repeated confirmation, that God loves this church.”
If I were to speak of this now, after thirty years, I would add, “The four buildings that housed First Presbyterian Church since 1820 have been useful, but they are not what God was doing. Nor, is all that God was doing called “Presbyterian.” It is God’s work, begun here long before settlers migrated here, that will continue. It is enough that we know we have an important share of that work to do in our time.”
What God is going to do with this church is “beyond our ken,” as our Scottish forebears put it. We can hope that this lovely building will continue to be useful and appreciated. We can imagine still another “season of revivals” as we had at the turn of the 20th century. But we cannot foresee what God has foreordained and set in motion. We entirely over-rate the importance of what we think we see. For, of all the inscrutable mysteries that engulf us, the ability of our senses to deceive us is perhaps the greatest.
We can succumb to pessimism or we can affirm the promise of Scripture and the evidence of the past two centuries.
“I am [still] with you,” the Lord says. “My Spirit abides with you. Fear not.”
Postscript: Although this is an unsolicited sermon being sent to the congregation I served as pastor thirty years ago, in a larger sense it is a metaphor for all churches in Europe, North America, and elsewhere.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.