Bicentennial History

Church History

The following church history was condensed by the Rev. Steve Braden, former pastor, from local church and historical records and from old local newspaper articles. This was published in a special insert by the Bedford Times-Mail newspaper in 1994 in celebration of the church's 175th anniversary.

In the early 1800s, the Rev. Isaac Reed, a Presbyterian minister working with a New England missionary society, founded a number of Presbyterian churches throughout southern Indiana and as far north as Greencastle and Franklin. His travels eventually brought him to newly-formed Lawrence County, where in1819 he founded a church at Palestine, the county seat. Palestine was a little pioneer settlement located on a high hill on the northern bank of White River. There Mr. Reed conducted services in homes and in the settlement's temporary courthouse. Elders of the church organized at Palestine were Samuel Henderson and Philip Ikerd; the first members were Mr. Henderson and his family, Mr. Ikerd and his family, William Crawford and his family and William Barnhill. In 1825 the county seat was moved to Bedford, and the church soon followed. It was instituted by Mr. Reed as the Bedford Presbyterian Church on May 7, 1831, with 18 members.

Presbyterian pastors were in short supply in Indiana in the early 1800s, but the small missionary congregation was very fortunate. In 1836 the Rev. Solomon Kittridge, an energetic young minister from Massachusetts, was sent to Bedford by the American Board of Domestic Missions. Under Kittridge's guidance the congregation grew quickly, but continued to meet in the homes of members and in the courthouse.

In 1839, when membership numbered about 70, a state charter was obtained, and the congregation decided to build its first building. In 1840, a small two-room brick building was built on the site of the present church, with much of the labor done by members.

The timing was not propitious, however. Perhaps because of the building debt (of the $874 cost, $431 had to be borrowed), of the distance some of the congregation had to travel, several members living east of Bedford withdrew and built another Presbyterian Church, the Bethlehem Church, at Pinhook. To help pay its outstanding debt, the Bedford congregation rented its building half-time to a Baptist congregation, and used the front room for a school.

A more serious problem occurred in 1841, when a split in the denomination into "New School and Old School" presbyteries reached Bedford. Most of the congregation remained with Mr. Kittridge in the "New School," but a number of dissenters left to build a two-story brick house on the southwest corner of Church and Locust Streets (now 14th and K Streets), present site of the First United Methodist Church. The Bethlehem congregation also joined the "Old School" presbytery. This New School/Old School split lasted until 1858, when the three congregations united as the Bedford Independent Presbyterian Church. The Old School church building was later sold to the Methodists.

By the mid-1860s the church ended its independence and became members of the New Albany Presbytery. When the national denomination again split, in 1869, into "northern" and "southern" Presbyterian churches, the Bedford church became a "northern" church.

The churches in Bedford and Pinhook were not the only Presbyterian churches in the county during this period. Mr. Reed also founded, at Bono, a church which moved to Lawrenceport about 1845. The Rev. John Bishop, who had succeeded Mr. Kittridge, organized a church in Woodville in 1852. That church moved to Mitchell in 1855. For a brief period, from 1854-66, a German Presbyterian Church held services on K Street between 17th and 18th streets, but the congregation later became Methodist. Records of the old New Albany Presbytery also show Presbyterian churches in Leesville in 1840, at Rock Lick in 1851, and Clear Spring in 1867.

By 1870 the building at 15th and L sorely needed repairs and no longer filled the needs of the congregation. It was torn down and a new larger brick building was erected over the original foundation, laid in 1839. The new building, which was dedicated July 30, 1871, was built by Thomas Stevens at a cost of $7,000.

Like the community, the Bedford Presbyterian Church tended to follow the fortunes of the limestone industry. It grew rapidly in the decades before and after the turn of the century. In 1900, during the pastorate of A.M. Irvine, extensive remodeling of the facility was undertaken. The brick shell of the old sanctuary was completely surrounded by new stone construction, giving the church a radically different appearance. New stained glass windows and new furnishings were installed, and some of the old furnishings were given to nearby churches.

In 1903, the Rev. J.W. Findley became pastor, and during his decade of ministry, the church opened a chapel on the northeast corner of 7th and J streets. Services were held there every Sunday and Thursday evening throughout the early 1900s to accommodate those unable to attend services at the downtown church.

Mr. Findley was succeeded by Dr. DeWitt T. Scott, under whose guidance a large addition was built on the east side of the church. The first story of the addition contained classrooms, and the second story contained a kitchen and social room. At the same time, the sanctuary also was renovated, with new pews and a new organ. The addition was dedicated Jan. 21. 1917. The organ was presented to the Church by Mrs. Joseph Rawlins Voris and her children, Elizabeth and Archibald, in memory of her husband and their father, who died Jan. 17, 1917.

The church was renamed First Presbyterian Church of Bedford in 1957 during the Rev. Paul Sherrill's tenure.

The next major renovation was in 1967-68. The old manse just south of the church was torn down and replaced with a new addition containing Voris Fellowship Hall and including a kitchen, church offices, a nursery and restrooms. The second floor social room was remodeled into classrooms and a youth room, and the sanctuary was extensively remodeled. The project was made possible by a fundraising campaign and a substantial gift from Mr. and Mrs. Arch Voris and Mr. and Mrs. Ed Voris.

As part of the renovation, a new organ, made possible by a gift from Dagmar Riley in memory of her husband, J. Stewart Riley, and their daughter, Katherine Ann Riley, was installed in the spring of 1969. In 1987 part of the adjoining parking lot was purchased, providing the first church-owned, off-street parking. Dagmar Riley, who eventually married G. Robert Williams, died May 20, 1990, and left a $100,000 endowment to the church for the continued upkeep or eventual replacement of the organ she had donated more than 20 years earlier. Renovation of the organ was completed in 1992. The organ itself encompasses part of the history of the church. Two ranks of its pipes had been part of the organ donated by the Voris family in the early 1900s and also were part of the first Riley memorial Organ.

Another gift from the Voris families made possible the renovation of the Voris Fellowship Hall this year, and at the same time, a new roof was installed.

Bedford Presbyterians have dedicated the entire month of October to the observance of the church's 175th birthday, and to honoring the memory of all those who were a part of its past. Led today by the Rev. Steve Braden, First Presbyterian Church if proud of its heritage of Christian service and witness. Long active in serving both community and the presbytery, the church had continued to grow, and today its membership number 175. Each is dedicated to continuing to provide a vital growing ministry in the Presbyterian tradition, responding every day anew to the Lord, Jesus Christ.