Paid in full

In 1810, the situation in the church seemed hopeless. The revival sweeping the country seemed to have passed over First Presbyterian Church.

The lack of spiritual vitality led some members to break away and form a Second Church. A new church building was under construction, but workers and creditors weren’t getting paid. A lottery, with a first prize of $800 was held to pay off the debts. When the lottery failed to raise enough money, a second one was held. It failed as well, and “No correct account of the amount of tickets sold was ever rendered.”  

Members were withholding their pledged pew rents and the trustees threatened to sue them.

The congregation’s debt was $3900.

Early in the morning of March 22, 1810, a house fire broke out on Wood Street. First Church’s minister, Robert Steele, caught a cold carrying water from the river. The cold turned into pneumonia, and Steele died on March 31, 1810. The congregation directed it’s few financial resources to Steele’s widow and five children.

It took months before the church could bring itself to begin thinking about calling a new minister.

Then in the fall, a thirty-seven-year-old minister named Francis Herron came to town to visit his sister. He was invited to preach at First Church, and invited back the following week.

A meeting was held, and a call extended.

Herron found the church morally, spiritually, and financially bankrupt.

But the sheriff of Allegheny County had put the church building and property up for sale to pay its debts. With the concurrence of the trustees, Herron attended the sale and bought the whole property back in his own name for $2819.

Herron then sold a small portion of the property to the Pittsburgh Bank for $3000.

The debt was paid, and the profit went to the church.

The church had been born again.

The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth, “You were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 7:23). He was talking, of course, about how Jesus Christ redeemed us from spiritual bankruptcy, even death itself, with his own blood. 

Do you see what you’re worth to him?

Do you see him paying your debt in full?

Do you see that you were bought at a price?

The more things change…

This week I looked back in our church’s history to the time 200 years ago when Francis Herron was called as pastor. Herron’s dream was to transform the church which would then transform Pittsburgh and the frontier. The fact that streets and landmarks in the city still bear the name Herron suggest that he and his prominent relatives succeeded in many ways.

But there were challenges.

Pittsburgh was a frontier town known for gambling and drinking. Even the church was a hub for those kinds of things. What’s more, the church was bankrupt, the property up for sheriff’s sale to pay back taxes. Herron bought the property himself for $2819, and later sold a portion to the bank for $3000, settling the debt and making a profit for the church.

Herron and another minister took the outlandish step of meeting regularly to pray. They didn’t dare meet at the church, because the elders believed that prayer meetings were only for fanatics. But slowly, the prayer meetings began to grow.

Herron knew nothing about music, but when he gave young people permission to form a choir, one elder insisted, “They shall never have an instrument—no never!”

A century later, the survival of the church was again in doubt as people were leaving downtown for the suburbs. But instead of moving the church to the suburbs, where many parishioners now lived, the new pastor, Maitland Alexander, embarked on a bold plan. He tore down the 50 year old church building, dug up the church cemetery with the bones of Pittsburgh’s heroes, re-interred their remains with honors, and built an even bigger church, which he dreamed would transform Pittsburgh into a city of God.  Alexander insisted that:

  • The church provide more than social services. Everything the church did had to be based on God’s Word.
  • The church must never become a class church. Everyone would be welcome.
  • Everything the church did had to come out of its relationship with Jesus Christ.

First Presbyterian is well into its third century. The city has gone from frontier town, to steel city, to technology magnet. The challenges still demand bold vision and outreach. But the dream hasn’t changed: transform the city for Jesus Christ.