History of First Presbyterian Church
Stephen Whitaker, a plain but godly farmer, began gathering people together for the purpose of worship in his log house in 1802 in the Town of Benton. He had lately come from Bedminster, New Jersey. There were 16 members. The County of Yates was not in existence at that time. Those meetings continued for seven years and were conducted by various missionaries.
On September 17, 1811, the group was received by the Presbytery of Geneva and organized in June 1816. There was a church built on Kipp Hill in 1821, otherwise known as Mt. Pleasant. A cemetery still exists there.
A friendly division brought about the organization of the First Presbyterian Church of Penn Yan with a membership of 48. The Geneva Presbytery granted the request for the organization of the church on February 5, 1823. By an act of the State Legislature, Yates County was founded and legally came into existence February 25, 1823. The church is actually a few days older than Yates County. The new church was built at 305 Main Street in 1824 on land given by Dr. William Cornwell and Henry Plympton. The building cost $5,000 and the debt was paid in about a year.
In 1821 the session of the Benton Presbyterian Church held a meeting in Penn Yan and examined Mrs. Maria Masten, Mrs. Sarah Cornwall and Dr. John Hatmaker, who were afterwards received into the church on confession of faith. These were the first persons to be received into the Penn Yan branch of the church. The first ruling elders were Dr. John Hatmaker, Henry Snapp and Silas Lacy. Trustees were Hezekiah Roberts, James Sears, and David VanCourt. Other names of some early members on its roll were Harriet Stewart, Margaret and Eleanor Oliver, Phoebe Benham and Harriet Roberts.
Due to controversy over the use of wine at the Lord's Supper, and the rightness or wrongness of slavery in the United States, a division came about in the church. The pastor, the Reverend Ovid Miner, who had been installed in July 1837, was an outspoken abolitionist. By order of the Presbytery in 1841, he and about 100 members withdrew. They founded the "Union Free Congregational Church of Penn Yan". A building was constructed at the corner of Main and Chapel Streets at a cost of about $7,000. The group disbanded in 1855, and the Methodist Church purchased the building. It was used until it was demolished and the present one built in 1898.
The new Presbyterian church at Main and Clinton was built in 1879. The total cost of the beautiful mid-Victorian red brick structure was $40,000. The 100 ft. steeple housed a clock that was the joy of all for many years. The ceilings were gothic in effect, doors opened into a parlor known as Palmer Hall, enlarging the seating capacity to 1000 people. Rev. Palmer had over 100 men in his Bible study group which included the Fullagar men that were around at that time.
In 1873 a Women's Foreign Missionary Society was formed. In 1899 the following organizations met: Women's Association twice a year; Ladies Aid, every Tuesday; Women's Missionary Society or Westminister, quarterly. In addition there were the Young Women's Missionary Society and Guild. Missionary programs included India, Siam, Laos, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Orient, Alaska, Africa, Philippines, Syria, Persia, China, American Indians, Japan and Immigrants. During the years 1873 to 1920 there were quarterly teas. Why women's clubs are more successfiul than missionary societies was answered by Mrs. Van Bender in 1897. "If women gave the same time and thought to preparing missionary work as club work it would insure equal interest". In 1900 the missionary society and the Ladies Aid society joined together and Mrs. E. R. Taylor was the first president.
From minutes written between 1890 and 1905: "the evangelization of the great west is one of the most important factors in the work committeed to women in Christianizing the exceptional population." Concern was expressed with the "want of care in heathen lands". A report was made of the "exorcising of demons." "The sick are left on mountaintops to die and of the very great suffering of women during maternity."
Nevin D. Bartholomew, pastor in 1911, organized the largest men's Bible class in the history of the church. When World War I came, the Reverend Bartholomew obtained a leave of absence and gave his service to the Young Men's Christian Association in camps. Charles K. Imbrie had served as Chaplain of the 104th infantry in France and upon discharge, accepted the call and was installed in 1919. Walter A. Henricks was pastor from 1927 to 1947. The church provided an air raid shelter during the war and DuPont sailors, working in Dresden, were given noon meals in Palmer Hall.
During Holy Week April 17, 1957, disaster struck and the church was completely destroyed by fire. The origin of the fire was never determined. There are many stories about the fire but one that has been told is as follows: Don Johnson was driving down the street when he saw smoke coming from the roof of the rear of the church. The fire department was working on it. Don walked into the sanctuary and picked up the big Bible from the pulpit and brought it out of the church and handed it to a Presbyterian that he recognized. The bible is kept today in a glass case in the foyer of the new church. Don at that time thought the Bible would be safer outside the church, but he didn't think the church would burn down at that time.
After the fire, a decision was made to rebuild the church on the old site. The Easter service was held in the Junior High School, the following Sunday. St. Mark's Episcopal Church very kindly invited the Presbyterian congregation to use its facilities. This relationship continued for two years and was greatly appreciated by the Presbyterians. Easter Sunday, 1959 was the first service held in the new conservative contemporary building that is still used by the congregation today.
Contributed by: Warren Giles and Linda Jackson