Covenant-First Presbyterian Church
A Bit of Early Cincinnati History
The history of Covenant-First Presbyterian Church is coextensive with much of the history of Cincinnati itself and therefore a brief historical review of the Queen City is both appropriate and enlightening.
Only two years older than our church, the community that became the City of Cincinnati was founded by European Americans in 1788 on the north bank of the Ohio River at the confluence of the Licking River. It was originally named “Losantiville,” but the name was changed in 1790 in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, a group of Revolutionary War veterans of which George Washington was the first president. The group was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519–430 BC), a Roman statesman who was regarded as a model of virtue and simplicity.
In 1788, southern Ohio was little more than a wilderness. Fort Washington, a fortified settlement consisting of blockhouses, was built to provide adequate defense against the scores of attacks from the Native Americans — primarily of the Miami Tribe — living in the area. In 1791, President Washington ordered General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, to march north from Fort Washington to suppress the “Indian menace.” In a fierce battle north of Cincinnati, St. Clair’s forces sustained three times the number of casualties suffered by the forces of Gen. George Armstrong Custer in his “last stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The Indian attacks caused widespread panic across the territory, but James Kemper, the first pastor of the fledgling Presbyterian church, encouraged the citizens not to give up. One witness stated that the Reverend Kemper and his little Presbyterian church were all that prevented the settlers from abandoning the settlement for the safer south shore of the Ohio River. In 1793, the forces of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne were victorious at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the 1795 Treaty of Greenville ended the Indian wars and brought peace to Ohio.
Today, Cincinnati continues to be among the leading commercial cities in the country. Nine Fortune 500 companies and fifteen Fortune 1000 companies have headquarters in the Cincinnati area, ranking it in the Top 10 markets for number of Fortune 500 headquarters per million residents, higher than New York, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Cincinnati is the third-largest city in Ohio and the 65th-largest city in the United States, with just over 300,000 people living in the city limits of Cincinnati proper. The population of the Greater Cincinnati metropolitan area, however, is over 2.2 million, the 28th-largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States and the largest in Ohio.
Our Historic Houses of Worship
In January 1789, surveyor Israel Ludlow laid out plans for the community that was to become Cincinnati, including a public area between Fourth, Fifth, Walnut, and Main streets to include a Presbyterian church. The seeds of what was to become Covenant-First Presbyterian Church were sown on October 16, 1790, when the First Presbyterian Church was organized on the west side of Main Street just north of Fourth Street. Today, a memorial plaque honoring Israel Ludlow is prominently featured in the courtyard of our church.
To build the first church, subscriptions were taken from every male resident. Rev. James Kemper committed five dollars, five days’ of his work, five days’ of work by his oxen team, and five boat planks. The 30' x 40' frame building was the first Presbyterian church in the Northwest Territory. As the direct descendant of that early church, Covenant-First is the oldest Presbyterian congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains.
According to Judge Jacob Burnet, the church “was enclosed with clapboards, but neither lathed, plastered or ceiled. The floor was made of boat-plank, laid loosely on sleepers. The seats were constructed of the same material, supported by blocks of wood. They were, of course, without backs; and here our forefather pioneers worshiped, with their trusty rifles between their knees.” (For safety, church members were required to carry their rifles to fend off potential Indian attacks and were fined if they failed to do so.) There was no pulpit, and Rev. Kemper often delivered sermons while standing on a barrel.
Its formal name was First Presbyterian Church, but because it was the first church organized in the settlement, it became known simply as “First Church.” Within a few years, the congregation had grown and challenged the capacity of the original building. To accommodate such growth, the church conducted a building campaign, raising over $16,000 from such distinguished Cincinnati icons as Judge Burnet, Martin Baum, William Lytle, and Nicholas Longworth. The new structure, which replaced Kemper’s original primitive building, was completed in 1815, featured two square towers with conical turrets, and the building was informally called “the two-horned church.”
As the congregation continued to grow, an independent group branched off and in 1830 built the Second Presbyterian Church, a Grecian-styled church on the south side of Fourth Street between Vine and Race (later the site of McAlpin’s Department Store). This structure can be seen clearly in the Cincinnati Daguerreotype on display at the Cincinnati Public Library.
In 1851, First Presbyterian built an elegant new church on Fourth Street near the location of Kemper’s first church and the subsequent two-horned church. The Gothic-styled church and its 285-foot neo-Gothic spire topped with a golden hand pointing heavenward was declared “the finest west of the Alleghenies.”
In the 1870s, Second Presbyterian selected a serene rustic location at Eighth and Elm Streets — outside the hustle and bustle of the financial district — for the site of its new church. The land was purchased and the present structure erected at a cost of $250,000. The magnificent building was dedicated on April 11, 1875, and, through a series of mergers, it eventually became the home of Covenant-First Presbyterian Church.
First Presbyterian’s Main Street facility served it well for several decades. As Cincinnati grew and residents began to move to the suburbs, however, the central location and lack of parking became issues for all downtown churches. By the early 1900s, the immense steeple of First Presbyterian Church required repairs, but the costs were beyond the means of the now smaller congregation. In an effort to remain independent (rather than merging), First Presbyterian explored a unique joint commercial and religious project to erect a skyscraper incorporating the church into the design. Ultimately, the project foundered due to a lack of financing as the country entered the Great Depression. The Main Street church was demolished in 1936. The Cincinnati branch of the Federal Reserve Bank currently occupies the site.
The difficulties faced by the various downtown Presbyterian churches — all of which traced their origins to Reverend Kemper’s First Church — ultimately led to their reconsolidation, through a series of mergers. Today’s Covenant-First Presbyterian Church is an amalgamation representing the unification of the following churches over the course of two centuries:
First Presbyterian Church
First Reformed Presbyterian Church
West Liberty Presbyterian Church/Second German Presbyterian Church
Second Presbyterian Church
Church of the Covenant
Fifth Presbyterian Church/The Scots Church
Central Presbyterian Church
We have previously covered the origins and early history of First Presbyterian Church (“First Church”). We will now endeavor to trace our somewhat complex family tree.
The early 1900s saw a number of church mergers as the railroads undermined Cincinnati’s strengths as a river center, population stagnated, and a large number of urban dwellers moved out of the central city. In 1907, the Second Presbyterian and Central Presbyterian churches merged to form the Church of the Covenant, located in the Second Presbyterian Church building at Eighth and Elm Streets (our current home). In 1909, Fifth Presbyterian Church (also known as the “Scots Church”) also merged with the Church of the Covenant.
In 1914, the First Reformed Presbyterian Church, part of a very small splinter denomination, merged into First Presbyterian. Similarly, in 1928, the West Liberty Presbyterian Church merged into First Presbyterian. Interestingly, the West Liberty church was formerly known as the Second German Presbyterian Church — reflecting Cincinnati’s strong German heritage — but its name was changed during World War I.
Then, in 1933, First Presbyterian Church and the Church of the Covenant merged and combined their names to become Covenant-First Presbyterian Church.
Far from being a mere vestigial remnant from the name of a church in our historic past, the term “Covenant” is steeped in our heritage and tradition and is an important part of our faith. Covenant theology views the history of God’s dealings with mankind, from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Consummation, under the framework of the three overarching theological covenants of works, grace, and redemption. The covenant of works is based upon Genesis: Having created man as a free creature with knowledge and righteousness, God entered into a covenant promising life for perfect and perpetual obedience. The covenant of grace promises eternal life for all people who have faith in Christ. Finally, the covenant of redemption reflects God’s promise — in consideration of Christ’s death in atonement for man’s sin — to raise Christ from the dead and to glorify him before his triumphant return.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a pillar of the Presbyterian Church, includes an entire section titled “Of God's Covenant with Man.” In that tradition, our understanding is that the sacraments are “signs and seals of the covenant.” Thus, the term “Covenant” is a proud Presbyterian expression of our deeply held beliefs.
An alloy or amalgam is a mixture of different component parts that retains the characteristics of those constituent elements but is much stronger than those components standing alone. We believe that Covenant-First Presbyterian Church is stronger because of its rich and diverse history and is well positioned to do God’s work for years, decades, and — yes — centuries to come.
We invite you to join us on our spiritual journey!