Presbyterian Church in Colorado

The first Presbyterian minister to awaken the silence of the Rockies with the voice of the Gospel was the Rev. Lewis Hamilton, of the Presbytery of St. Joseph, New School. On account of failing health his congregation at Lima, Indiana, granted him a six months’ vacation with full pay. Accepting an invitation to act as chaplain of a caravan leaving Lima for the gold country, he arrived in Denver on June 11, 1859, after twenty-nine days of traveling with ox teams; and on the next day, June 12th, he preached the first sermon in an unfinished building on Ferry Street, in what is now West Denver. After the sermon at the same place the next Sabbath, Horace Greeley said to him, “Mr. Hamilton, you should go into the mountains; the men are there.” Acting on this advice, he went to Gregory Gulch and Central City, where he preached under the majestic pines. Afterward he visited Tarryall, Fairplay, and other points and then re-turned to Lima. In the spring of i860, in broken health, he came again to Central City by way of Pueblo and Cañon City. He soon organized a union church into which he gathered sixty-five members. To help support himself, he, with a partner, engaged in the grocery business. About this time his son, a promising young man of nineteen, died. This great affliction almost unbalanced his mind, and as a relief he traveled among the mining camps. For two years he was chaplain of the Second Regiment, Colorado Volunteers, and after his army life he was commissioned by the board as an itinerant missionary. Rev. H. B. Gage says, “We venture to say that Father Hamilton preached the first sermon in more new localities than any other man in the west.” He was the first moderator of the Presbytery of Colorado and also of the Synod of Colorado. In 188 1, when over seventy years of age, he journeyed mostly on foot, eighty miles over the range, crossing the summit by night on the crust of the snow, to take up the work at Irwin, a rough mining camp. Here he built a church, supposed to be the highest in the United States at that time, 10,450 feet above the sea. He went east and obtained money and a bell for the ‘church, and on his return, while changing cars at South Pueblo, was killed on December 7, 1881. He was buried at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.. The second Presbyterian minister to visit this region was the Rev. Alexander Taylor Rankin, who arrived in Denver on July 31, i860. On August 5th he preached in the Union School to a large audience, of which service he said, “Made a good start.” After holding services in several different places, on September 2, i860, in a large room on Larimer Street, he organized the first Presbyterian church in the Rocky Mountain region, with eight members, Dr. W. P. Hills and Daniel Mayn were chosen elders, and on September 6th six trustees were elected.

On October 14th the first communion service was held; on November 12th a Bible class was begun and on November 29th Mr. Rankin preached what was probably the first Thanksgiving sermon in all this region. He visited Colorado Springs, Central City and Idaho Springs, and on December 8, i860, after a stay of a little over four months, left Denver and returned to Buffalo, New York.

From December 8, i860, there was no Presbyterian minister in Denver until April 26, 1861, when Rev. A. S. Billingsley arrived. He preached in various buildings, at one time over a liquor store, concerning which he writes: “And thus with the spirit of alcohol below and praying for the Spirit of God above, hope to be mighty through God to pulling down the strongholds.”

On December 15, 1861, he organized the First Presbyterian Church, with eighteen members. No reference is made to the former organization. Two elders were elected, one of whom, Simon Cort, having been previously ordained, was on the same day inducted into office. He was the first installed elder in the Rocky Mountain region, and with his family had much to do with founding Presbyterianism here. The organization was effected in International Hall on Ferry Street.

Mr. Billingsley remained until April, 1862. After preaching for three months at Buckskin Joe and adjacent points, he returned east and died in North Carolina in 1897.

The work in Denver had not been largely successful and when Rev. Alanson R. Day arrived on November 2, 1862, only six persons could be induced to identify themselves with the church.

In 1863 Major Fillmore donated lots on F Street (now Fifteenth) between Lawrence and Arapahoe, and on them a building 36 by 64 feet, costing $5,200, was erected. It was dedicated on January 17, 1864, being the second Presbyterian Church building in this region. To it the Board of Church Extension, Old School, contributed $500 aid, and thus began the important work of helping the churches to obtain buildings. Mr. Day returned east in March, 1865, but again ministered to the church during the winter of 1868 and 1869. After this he labored at Boulder Valley Church until March, 1873.

From October, 1865, to October, 1867, Rev. J. B. McClure of the Presbytery of Chicago, Old School, ministered to the church under commission of the Board of Domestic Missions, and then accepted an agency for the North Western Presbyterian and returned to Chicago.

In February, 1868, the Rev. A. Y. Moore, of the Presbytery of Southern Indiana, Old School, began to supply the church. He received a call to become its pastor, but declined it and returned to Indiana in about three months.

Without dismission or permission, on November 18, 1868, because they could not obtain sufficient aid from the Old School Board, the congregation, by a majority of one, “Resolved to place itself under the care of the most convenient Presbytery connected with the Presbyterian Church, which is to hold its next general assembly in the Church of the Covenant of New York City.” This part of the congregation took possession of the building, obtained a title to the property after much litigation, by paying to those who remained in the Old School branch, $2,500. They were received into the Presbytery of Chicago on August 10, 1869, as the First Presbyterian Church of Denver, New School. By a committee of that Presbytery, the Rev. E. P. Wells, who had arrived in Denver on December 10, 1868, was installed. The church was received from the Presbytery of Chicago by the Presbytery of Colorado, on August 16, 1870.

The church became self-supporting in 1871, the name was changed to Central in 1874, and the location was changed to Eighteenth and Champa in 1876.

At a congregational meeting held February 14, 1888, Messrs. Fletcher, Benedict and Woodward were appointed a committee to secure a suitable site for a new church and parsonage. Eight lots on the corner of Seventeenth and Sherman Avenue were purchased at a cost of $40,000. A building committee consisting of Dr. J. W. Graham, J. G. Kilpatrick, J. B. Vroom, Donald Fletcher and B. F. Woodward was appointed. A parsonage was erected on the seventh and eighth lots from the corner at an expense of about twenty-two thousand dollars. The four lots on the corner of Eighteenth and Champa were sold for $130,000, exclusive of improvements. The church building and furniture were sold to the Twenty-third Avenue Church for a nominal consideration. Plans for a new church at Seventeenth and Sherman were prepared by Architects F. E. Edbrooke and W. A. Marean. Contracts were awarded to Messrs. William Simpson and R. C. Greenlee & Sons for the new building, to be completed on or before June I, 1892, at a cost when completed and furnished of $165,000. The New Broad-way Theater was rented for Sabbath services for one year. The First Congregational Church lecture room was rented for mid-week and Sabbath school services. The farewell services in the old structure, which was endeared to many by sacred and tender associations, were held on the Sabbath of December 28, 1890, and soon thereafter the building was carefully taken down and removed to the new location of the Twenty-third Avenue Church, there being rebuilt in the same form, and re-dedicated to the same uses and purposes.

Beginning with eight members in 1861, the church has organized two other churches from its membership, viz., the Twenty-Third Avenue and North Presbyterian churches, and has aided several missions in different parts of the city. The Railroad Union Mission was established and endowed by one of its members, the late F. J. B. Crane.

The Old School branch of the congregation was ministered to by Rev. A. R. Day from April, 1869, to April, 1870. The Rev. W. Y. Brown succeeded him and began work in July, 1870. He met with great success and built a church where the Equitable building now stands, the entire property being worth $12,-250. Afterwards what is now the First United Presbyterian Church was built, and the congregation removed to that location. The different names of this church are interesting: First Presbyterian Church of Denver, Westminster, Stuart Re-Union, First Presbyterian Church of Denver, distinguished as First Presbyterian, on Seventeenth Street, Seventeenth Street Church and Capitol Avenue Church, after which it was united with the First Avenue Church and lost its identity in 1899.

The second church to be organized was that of Central City, on January 26, 1862, by Father Hamilton, with nine members. It was the first Protestant church in the mountains. In the fall of that year the Rev. G. W. Warner of Weedsport, New York, took charge of the work and remained about one year. On February 15, 1863, he organized the Blackhawk Church with ten members, and there built the first Presbyterian Church building in the Rocky Mountain region. It was dedicated on August 29, 1863, free of debt and without aid from the board.

In the spring of 1864, the Revs. T. D. Marsh and A. M. Heizer were appointed by the board, the former to Central City and the latter to Blackhawk.

Doctor Marsh labored at Central City until February, 1865, when he accepted a call to Blackhawk. He recognized the need of a Presbytery, and at a convention of Presbyterians in Denver, on January 16, 1866 the Presbytery of Colorado was informally organized, consisting of three ministers and four churches. Doctor Marsh was moderator. Strong resolutions in favor of union were adopted. By it Mr. Marsh was installed at Blackhawk. But this so-called prehistoric Presbytery never met again and was not recognized by the General Assembly, and the pastoral relation was never dissolved.

The next organization was that of Boulder Valley, effected in September 1863, by the Rev. A. R. Day, having seven members. He continued to preach for them every alternate Monday evening, until the summer of 1864, when the Rev. C. M. Campbell, of the Presbytery of Allegheny City, took charge of the field. He labored for this church for some two years, preaching also at Boulder City and Upper St. Vrain. The church was vacant from October, 1866, until October, 1867, when the Rev. A. R. Day again took charge and continued to labor there until January 1, 1871. After this the Rev. C. M. Campbell again supplied the church. A building was erected in 1864.

At the end of ten years, June, i86g, there were six organized churches: the two in Denver, and one each in Central City, Blackhawk, Boulder Valley and Santa Fe, with a combined membership of probably not more than one hundred and fifty. There were three church buildings, Denver, Blackhawk and Boulder Valley. There was but one organized Presbytery, that of Santa Fe, including but a small part of the territory.

As early as 1867 the Cumberland Presbyterian Church at Cañon City, then in charge of Rev. B. F. Brown, erected the largest and finest religious edifice in southern Colorado.

In 1890 there were four Presbyteries in Colorado, those of Boulder, Denver, Gunnison and Pueblo. Churches had been established at Boulder, Boulder Valley, Cheyenne, Fossil Creek, Fort Collins, Timnath, Greeley, Fort Morgan, Longmont, Laramie, Crook, Rankin, Rawlins, Berthoud, Julesburg, Denver, seven churches, Akron, Otis, Blackhawk, Idaho Springs, Westminster, Littleton, Georgetown, Hyde Park, Central City, Brighton, Wray, Laird, Yuma, Abbott, Golden, Tabernacle, Pitkin, Grand Junction, Aspen, Leadville, Salida, Glenwood Springs, Ouray, Lake City, Delta, Poncho Springs, Irwin, Fairplay, Palmer Lake, Monument, Mesa, Pueblo, Trinidad, Saguache, Monte Vista, Valley View, Colorado Springs, Walsenburg, Eaton, Table Rock, Canon City, Huerfano, Durango, Antonito, La Luz, Cinicero, Las Animas, Silver Cliff, West Cliff, Alamosa, Del Norte, Rocky Ford, La Junta, El Moro, Eagle, La Veta. In its eighty churches there were the following number of communicants: Boulder, 1,080; Denver, 2,449; Gunnison, 901; Pueblo, 2,142. The Presbyterian College of the Southwest, which had been established in 1884 at Del Norte, and the Salida Academy, established at Salida in 1884, both received aid at this period from the General Assembly. In 1900 there were forty-seven students at the Del Norte College, and 161 at Salida. The General Assembly was continuing its work of aiding these institutions.

The growth of the membership of the church in Colorado was gratifying. In 1891 it was 6,674; in 1892, 7,312. In 1897 it was 9,327; in 1899 it was 10.310. In 1910 it had grown to 20,167. In 1900 there were 128 churches in the four Presbyteries which formed the Synod of Colorado.

In 1910 there were 155 churches, with a Sunday school membership of 20,112.

In 1917 there were 149 churches in the Synod of Colorado, and communicants were as follows: Boulder Presbytery, 4,811; Denver, 7,724; Gunnison, 1,993; Pueblo, 8,216; total, 22,744. Sunday school membership, 20,839.

In 1899 and in 1904 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States met in Denver. In 1884 Dr. George P. Hays, of Denver, and in 1903 Dr. Robert F. Coyle, of Denver, were chosen moderators of the General Assembly. Dr. R. F. Tinnon, of the Rocky Mountain Synod was chosen moderator of the Cumberland Branch, General Assembly, in 1903.

Closing Westminster University

On June 8, 1891, the Westminster University of Colorado was incorporated. Among the leading figures in the movement were: Rev. T. M. Hopkins, D. D.; Ben F. Woodward; E. B. Light, and J. J. Garver.

The corporation acquired title to 640 acres of land from Ben D. Spencer and H. J. Mayham, of which forty acres were set apart as the campus of the university, eighty acres as the college farm, and the remainder plotted into lots and blocks. This section of land is located seven miles north of Denver near the station then known as Harris on the Colorado & Southern Railway.

A handsome building was erected, costing more than two hundred thousand dollars, the funds being secured from loans and advances made by the estate of H. A. W. Tabor, The Sayre-Newton Lumber Company, The Colorado Mort-gage & Investment Company, Ltd., and from the proceeds of sales of real estate.

Before the enterprise was completely launched the so-called panic of 1893 came on and it became necessary to defer the plans of the founders. No faculty was organized and no instruction offered.

On March 14, 1903, a certificate of incorporation of The Westminster University Corporation was filed in the office of the secretary of state. The management of the corporation was confided to twenty-four trustees, at least two-thirds of whom “shall be ministers or members in good standing of some church or churches in connection with and under the control of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”

On September 18, 1907, the college was formally opened, work being carried on for the first year in the Central Presbyterian Church of Denver.

The deficit was, however, continuous, and at the session of the synod in Pueblo, October 16, 1917, the college was officially closed, arrangements having been made to clear the institution of debt.

History of Colorado

Source: History of Colorado, Wilbur Fisk Stone, Editor, Volume I, Chicago, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918

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