A Brief Church History
The First Presbyterian congregation is housed in the oldest church building of any Protestant denomination in continuous service in the Old Northwest Territory (which consisted of all or part of six states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin). The building was built in 1838, but the congregation really had its start in 1829 when the Reverend Aratus Kent decided to leave his prestigious New York City parish to bring the gospel to what was then this country's western frontier. He wrote to the American Board of Home Missions and asked to be sent to "a place so tough no one else will take it." They assigned him to Galena.
It took him almost a month to get here from New York, traveling by horseback and steamboat. He arrived on a Sunday morning and immediately went knocking on doors, telling everyone he could find that he was going to have a worship service that afternoon at 3 o'clock.
He swept out the back room of a saloon on the corner of Bench and Hill Streets (next door to where the church is located today) and about 50 people showed up. At that point, he probably thought that evangelizing the frontier was going to be an easier job than he'd imagined, but those 50 people turned out to be the largest group to attend one of his services in Galena for many years. Apparently, many of them came to that service because worship was such a novelty in Galena. For the next several years, Rev. Kent worked very hard, riding a circuit with a one hundred-mile radius, preaching at dozens of locations and teaching numerous Sunday school classes. Eventually, it all began to pay off in terms of church membership. He was able to found a number of congregations throughout Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, including the First Presbyterian Church in Galena, which was officially organized in October 1831.
At that time, there were only six members: two who lived in Galena and four others living as far as 40 miles away. That's a very healthy commitment in the days of horse-and-buggy travel! Seven years later - after Rev. Kent had helped lead a series of revivals throughout this region - our congregation had grown to include 100 members. It was then that they decided to build the church building we still use today. (Before that time, the congregation had been meeting in the old log court house that was located next door to the present church location on the Franklin Street side.) The building was constructed with limestone quarried in the Galena area. The pews are original—from 1838—except that they used to have doors on the entrances to keep drafts off people's feet as they sat in worship. At that time, the only heat in the sanctuary was from two fireplaces in either corner up front, so that in those early days - unlike today - everyone wanted to sit up front in order to be closer to the heat. However, in those early days people couldn't just sit wherever they pleased. Each of the pews is numbered on the back along the aisle side, and every family was assigned to a certain pew, for which they had to pay a pew tax. That was the way the church raised money to pay the internal bills of the congregation, such as the pastor's salary, the purchase of candles, etc. The congregation would also take an offering to be used for mission work - those needs which were outside of the immediate congregation. The church still has a receipt for one family's pew tax from the mid-1840's when the tax was $6.00 a year.
Our founding pastor, Rev. Kent, was a graduate of Princeton and Yale Universities. When he officially organized this church in 1831, Yale donated the pulpit and the four chairs that are currently in the front of the sanctuary. This was a gift to the fledgling congregation and a means of encouraging the mission to what was then the country's western frontier. The two chairs on either side of the communion table and the two in the back of the sanctuary came from Rev. Kent's home. We aren't sure how old they are, but he died in 1869, so they're at least that old. The large chair in the right front was built in the 1860's and was designed to match the style of the chairs behind the pulpit.
When the building was built, the windows were made of an opaque yellow glass. The stained glass windows you see today were installed between 1890 and 1910. They all have a dedication "plaque" near the bottom of the window. A couple of the dedications are to previous pastors and one is for the Christian Education Society; all the rest are to former members. The windows are made of Belgian stained glass with the colors fired in rather than painted on.
The vestibule section was added in 1851. That addition includes the steeple, which stretches 125 feet above the street. Even though the congregation officially began in 1831, the current pastor—the Rev. Jim McCrea—is only 20th installed minister to have served the church.
Additional Historical Items
For a copy of a sermon delivered by Rev. Aratus Kent in January, 1861 about the early history of this congregation, click here.
For a copy of an article written by Rev. Aratus Kent's niece about her trip from New York to Galena with her aunt and uncle in 1831, click here.
Our congregation has some beautiful stained glass windows, which date back to the 1890-1910 era. Here are some pictures of our windows. Pete Peterson created a print piece about the people to whom the windows were dedicated for our 175th anniversary.
Double click on photo gallery to see enlarged images.
Download Pete Petersen's document, click here.