The colorful history of First Congregational Church began in 1867 in the City of Raleigh, the County of Wake, and the State of NC. The Civil War, often referred to as the War Between the States, was over. The south was left in a setting of confusion and disbelief. The freed slaves had very few tools or in other areas. However freed, these new citizens were in spiritual dismay. The American Missionary Association from the north sent missionaries to help these former slaves through teaching and preaching. These white men and women met with the black citizens in a building facing South Street near Manley. It was during this time that the Freedman’s School was established. It preceded the establishment of Washington Grade School. The School building became the church at the corner of South and Manley Streets. The structure was built of wood with the main entrance having steps leading from each street. The first principal of the school was Mrs. Esther P. Hayes, followed by Mr. E. A. Johnson, John Branch, and J. L. Levister. The Reverend Fish P. Brewer became the first pastor for this congregation.
The church became a beacon throughout the community known as Fourth Ward. In 1877, Reverend George S. Smith became the first black minister. He let the little congregation to new heights of prominence in the City of Raleigh. At the end of Reverend Smith’s pastorate, Dr. Curtis White became pastor and served for many years. Following his tenure, Reverends Jennings, H. E. King T. M. Nixon, and F. B. Mallard served short but colorful terms as pastor here.
It was in the year of our Lord, 1907, that the church obtained its first incorporated status, and officially established itself as an institution in the communities of Raleigh, North Carolina. The community provided our church with large worshipping audiences nearly every Sunday. Aside from the regular members who walked to church from all over the city, we served residents from the student body of Shaw University and the State School of the Blind, located then at South Bloodworth and Lenoir Streets.
In 1910, Reverend Perfect R. DeBerry became pastor, and served through 1925. During his fifteen year tenure, a number of programs and ministries were implemented. He was a lover of young people and also worked diligently with the prison. The first Boy Scouts of America troop for Negroes in the state was established at the church. Reverend DeBerry also spearheaded the establishment of the city’s first nursery school for black children and the first trade school. These accomplishments set the pace for many future ministries and programs that followed and still exist today. The Pauline Missionary Union was organized about this time. Its original goal was to provide spiritual and personal services where needed among church family, the community, the infirmed, the bereaved, and the oppressed. The deacons and their wives worked together to meet the spiritual needs of the church and community. It was the duty of the deaconesses to prepare Communion for the first Sunday. All of the church officers were men and in addition to being pastor, the minister, the minister often was responsible for custodial chores. Through further reflection, we recall that our past church was much like our present one. Many of the auxiliaries were similar, like the Senior Choir, the Tot Choir, and the Gospel Choir. The Sunday School was very active. The youth spiritual enrichment organizations were then known as the Christian Endeavor. Young adults from all over the city met on every Sunday evening for their activities.
Reverend D. J. Flynn, a dynamic spiritual leader, served as pastor from 1926 – 1928. No pastor was appointed until Reverend E. C. Lawrence became pastor and served for nineteen years (1932 – 1951). Among the outstanding accomplishments of this era, were the cancellation of the mortgage on the parsonage and acquisition of the deed to the church from the American Missionary Association office in New York. The parsonage, a two story frame dwelling, next door to the church, was equipped with a new heating system- from a coal heater to a coal furnace. A basement, including a kitchen and space for a nursery, was added to the church. The Willing Workers Club was immediately established for the purpose of supplying funds to supplement the church budget (for fuel and kitchen supplies). Many of the early families made significant and lasting contributions to the church as the years past. Donations included: pulpit furniture, bookcases, chairs, tables, silver serving pieces, and communion supplies.
Reverend Howard Cunningham became the eleventh pastor of First Congregational Church. He served for twenty-one years and the church membership increased to 170 members. The church was strong in the community. Beginning in 1952, First Congregational and United Church (Hillsborough Street, now Community United Church of Christ) held morning worship together on Race Relations Sunday (the second Sunday in February). For many years, these two congregations worshipped together on that Sunday. The pastors of the churches rotated as speakers for the worship service. We continued to share a similar worship for Advent and Maundy-Thursday services for many years. In 1953, our two congregations, First congregational and Community, held the first Daily Vacation Bible School together and it continued for twenty-five years. Later, Davie Street Presbyterian Church joined us, and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church became the fourth congregation to participate in the Vacation Bible School.
Many of the remaining auxiliaries and programs as we know them today began about this time. The Lend-A-Hand Club was organized in 1953. Mrs. Euzelia Henderson was the founder. The club was organized to function as a pastor’s aid support group. In 1954, the Women Usher Board was organized by Georgia Henderson. During this era many physical needs of the church were met. Namely:
1953-55 Repaired organ, bought new piano, installed heating system, purchased three folding tables, and had stained-glass windows restored.
1955-61 Placed fence around playground for nursery school, painted interior and exterior of the church building, installed iron rails at church entrances, placed concrete steps at the back entrance, had parsonage repaired (roof shingled, installed new bathroom fixtures, kitchen sink, and new flooring for two downstairs rooms), and laid a new floor in the Sunday School room in the church building.
1962-70 Church basement (nursery) was completely renovated, room was added for a pastor’s study and church office, air-conditioning and a new heating system (gas) were installed.
Our church denomination (Congregational Christian) merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 and became the United Church of Christ in 1961. As a result of this association, a few years prior to the resignation of Reverend Cunningham, a Church Council was organized as the governing body of our church. The council effectively functions today.
In January 1973, our current pastor, The Reverend Donald R. Ingram, Sr. began his pastorate. A visionary leader, Rev. Ingram’s mission has been to preach and teach the uncompromising Word of God for the edification of body of Jesus Christ. Approximately three years into his pastorate, he was involved in a building program and relocation of the church edifice. This is because of the City of Raleigh’s Urban Renewal on the south side. It was through negotiations with The United Church Board for Homeland Ministries that funds were acquired to purchase property on Creech Road. Rev. Ingram would later be appointed and served as a member of the Board of Directors of the UCC Board for Homeland Ministries. The congregation arranged to worship at Gethsemane Seventh Day Adventist Church, then located on the corner of Person and Cabarrus Street, until the church was completed. The church broke ground for the new facilities on October 24, 1976. Many fixtures, stained-glass windows, the pipe organ, curved pews and pulpit furniture, to name a few were relocated to the new church. An historic church bell was removed from the steeple and moved to the new church on Creech Road. The first worship service was held in the new church structure July 3, 1977. The church cleared its indebtedness in 1983, four years ahead of projection, and celebrated the mortgage burning in 1984.
As time moved on, the church expanded with an addition of a multi-purpose room, additional bathrooms, a cry room, and a balcony. Additional church parking was added and a decision on how best to use the land purchased across from the front parking lot is still awaited. Since our move, the organ has been restored, chimes and a trumpet for the organ have been added, a bus purchased, a van bought, the parking lot paved, and in June of 2000, a new mini bus was acquired. The church entered the millennium with color copiers, computers, color printers, a new kitchen range new office furniture, updated software and five-and ten-ton air conditioning units.
The years for First Congregation Church have been fruitful, progressive and filled with spiritual and numerical growth. The following ministries advocating faithful to God and Christian growth were started: the “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”; “Friday Night Praise, Power, Healing & Deliverance Services”; “the Singles Ministry” and the “Prison Ministry”. In 1983 “God is Still On The Throne” Radio Ministry was one of the top twelve most listened to religion programs on WPJL in the Raleigh area. The program continues to have thousands of faithful listeners. The “Deeper Life Bible Study” & “Outreach Ministries”, advocating an in-depth study of God’s word, was begun by Rev. Dr. Lillie Jones, under Pastor Ingram’s leadership. The New Year’s Eve Experience was birthed by The “Deeper Life Bible Study and Outreach Ministries” and became a shared venture with area churches. The FCC Drama Group, Joyous Praise Dance Ministry, God’s Ordinary People, the Puppet Ministry, the Prison Ministry, Seniors’ Focus, Youth Endeavors were all spawned by Deeper Life. “Deeper Life Outreach Ministry” continues today under the leadership of Rev. Bessie Taylor and has added T.R.E.E.S. under the leadership of Dr. Jennifer Wilder and Rev. Paulette Kearney.
In addition to a place of worship and spiritual growth, the church serves as a place of education enlightenment and reinforcement through emphasis on scholarship funding for it members desiring to attend institutions of higher learning. A Tutorial Program was begun in 1979 that provided tutoring for students in grades one through twelve for twenty-five years.
The First Congregational Church associate ministers provide tremendous support, reassurance and enlightenment in furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ to the community of faith. Several individuals have answered God’s call to enter the ministry. The response to that call has aided in carrying God’s Word and its intent to His people. The millennium has established confirmation for an Annual Revival, a Health Ministry, the Women’s Fellowship, and the creation of an intra-structure for the future that includes strategic planning session, a technology committee, a finance committee, activities committee, and a committee to update the church’s by-laws. The church’s Male Chorus was the first of the choirs to produce and successfully market a Christian CD of their favorites. The Senior Choir changed its name to The Sanctuary Choir and the church launched its Website www.fccraleigh.org.
First Congregational Church is now a freestanding church that continues to exists and thrives on Believing God’s Word, Living God’s Word and Trusting God’s Word. In December, 2004, the congregation unanimously voted to withdraw from the United Church of Christ denomination.
We praise God for 145 years. “God’s Sustaining Grace from Generation to Generation” has blessed First Congregation Church and keeps us a strong house of worship for his praise and his glory.