Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 8, 2004 

Postcard 243: Pioneer Presbyterians – A Stormy Bunch

Presbyterians faced off across central Iowa City during the 1840s from prominent pioneer edifices

 – the 1845 Stone Church along Burlington Street at left and the 1843-1850 North Church on a site now serving Old Brick. 

These 1854 drawings are by pioneer artist George Yewell.


By Bob Hibbs


Despite early support from Iowa City’s founding father, Chauncey Swan, Presbyterians in pioneer Iowa City were a stormy bunch, spurred by elitist Congregationalists and sharp divisions within their own ranks.

Two years before Iowa City was founded in 1839, Presbyterians nationally split into hostile “Old School” conservative and “New School” liberal camps. They sponsored competing local churches, with Old Brick housing the “Old” and a south “Stone Church” along Burlington Street housing New School members.

In a seemingly spiteful fit, the liberals named themselves “First Constitutional Presbyterian Church” on organization in 1841. The “Old School” group had been formed the previous year as “First Presbyterian Church.” Swan and spouse Dolly contributed the north church site, which now serves Old Brick.

A third local Presbyterian group – the United Presbyterians – built a small brick building on the northeast corner of the Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street intersection, subsequent site of an 1872 Byzantine-style Universalist edifice later used by the University of Iowa as Unity Hall. The site now serves UI’s Phillips Hall.

During the early 19th century eastern Congregationalists believed their flocks couldn’t survive beyond the educated intellectual cocoon of New England life. “Congregational pastors advised their people moving west to become Presbyterians,” wrote Joseph Heffner in a 1916 history of the local Congregational church.

Disaster pummeled early local Presbyterians. At the north church a disgruntled former pastor, Michael Hummer, returned in 1848 and climbed the unfinished belfry to take a bell he claimed for unpaid wages.

As Hummer lowered the bell by rope, members removed his ladder, hid the bell and left Hummer “raving and scolding and gesticulating like a madman.” A year later the bell went with a group headed to California and was sold to Mormons in Salt Lake City, where it was last reported as a museum piece in 1910.

Although his sons were members of the north church for many years, Chauncey Swan left for California gold fields in 1849 and died about 1851 during a return voyage. He was buried in New York Harbor.

The six-year-old north church burned in 1856, set ablaze by embers from a neighbor’s blacksmith shop. The wonderings of an idle mind raise the mostly facetious question of whether the fire might have had fathers. The south church was experiencing financial difficulties and was near dissolution; Hummer was considered insane.

A new cornerstone was set immediately, but it was 1865 before an edifice topped it. Its new spire spiked 153 feet skyward, but was lost to an 1877 windstorm and never replaced. Rather, the spire’s base was capped off with the far shorter battlement belfry which tops Old Brick Church today.

It now houses Lutheran and Episcopal campus ministries, including Sunday worship.

Meanwhile, the south church, completed in 1845, housed a small group which struggled with finances. A bell which members didn’t like was sold to UI in 1855 for a rented Mechanics Academy where the university first held classes.

This era also witnessed removal of the Iowa capital to Des Moines in 1857, the same year a financial panic hit as devastatingly as the 1930s Great Depression.

The south Presbyterian group was disbanded. Many joined in forming a new Congregational Church in 1866. This group built the 1868 Congregational edifice which survives today on the southeast corner of the Clinton-Jefferson intersection.

The south Stone Church housed the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1868 through 1884; was rented to UI as a gymnasium during the 1890s, and demolished sometime after 1905.

P.S. By way of disclosure, this reporter has been a member of First Presbyterian Church since 1968, and is a past board member.

There is a jest among members that none belongs to an organized church; being Presbyterians.

Next Saturday: Cigars and local brews.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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