A History of the Presbytery of the Western Reserve: Organizing Churches, Addressing Mission Needs, Speaking for Justice

The Presbytery of the Western Reserve is a mid-council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), organized January 20, 1973 by the authority of the Synod of the Covenant and the General Assembly, and governed by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The establishment of Presbyterian and Congregational churches on the Connecticut Western Reserve was begun by the Connecticut Mission Society in 1800 and continued under the Plan of Union adopted in 1801 by the General Assembly and the General Association of Connecticut. "Presby-gational" churches flourished in Ohio and western New York State. The first traveling missionaries on the Reserve were William Wick, Presbyterian, and Joseph Badger, Congregationalist.

The presbyteries having jurisdiction in the area of the present presbytery included Hartford (1808); Grand River (1814) which was organized at Euclid, [First, East Cleveland (1807)], with seven ministers and eight churches; Portage (1818); Huron (1823); and, Cleveland (1830). The Synod of the Western Reserve was established in 1825 with the Presbyteries of Grand River, Portage, and Huron. The controversies over matters of faith and practice, which in 1838 resulted in the division of the General Assembly into Old School and New School branches, developed over a number of years. In 1837 the Assembly abrogated the Plan of the Union of 1801, and "exscinded" the Synods of Utica, Geneva, Genesee, and the Western Reserve for disobedience, forcing a general reorganization.

Northeastern Ohio was predominantly New School territory, but the separation of the Congregational/UCC churches (e.g., Austinburg, Dover, Brecksville, Brooklyn/Archwood) from the Presbyterian churches (e.g. Ashtabula First, Cleveland/Old Stone, Euclid/East Cleveland, Newburgh/Miles Park) was never overcome.

The United Presbyterian Church in North America congregations representing Presbyterians of the Covenanter and Seceder traditions arrived only slightly later on the Western Reserve. The Associate Reformed Church in Northfield was organized in 1833. The First Associate Church in Cleveland, which became Heights United Presbyterian Church, was organized in 1843.

The merger in 1958 of the Presbytery of Cleveland of the United Presbyterian Church of North America and Presbytery of Cleveland of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, resulted in the Presbytery of Cleveland of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. which included the Akron area and not Ashtabula County. In 1973, boundaries were realigned and the name Presbytery of the Western Reserve adopted.

The early minutes show that, in addition to the traveling missionaries, the settled ministers were expected to preach in new settlements. The Presbyteries of Portage and Grand River joined in establishing Western Reserve College at Hudson in 1826 "for providing an able, learned, and pious ministry for the infant churches." Shaw Academy in East Cleveland was established in 1838 by a bequest of a member of the Euclid-First Presbyterian Church.

The opening of the Ohio Canal in 1830 brought rapid population growth, commercial development, and new needs. The Rev. Samuel C. Aiken and members of the First Presbyterian Church were among the organizers in 1830 of the Western Seamen's Friend Society, a mission and lodge for destitute sailors. This was the first Cleveland society to receive charitable donations. It was reorganized in 1867 as the Cleveland Bethel Union, a forerunner of Associated Cleveland Charities, 1884.

About 1833 the First Church tried to organize a Sunday School but found the children unable to read. As a result, a Free School was started. When the Bethel Church was opened on Eagle Street in 1835 as an offshoot of First Church, the Free School was housed there. It was adopted as the first school when the public school system was established.

The presbytery commitment to social justice was expressed in 1834 in a resolution on slavery which said in one section:

Resolved that this presbytery consider it the duty of every Christian immediately to use all means warranted by the word of God for the utter extermination of Slavery and for repeal of all such unjust and oppressive laws." In the years before the Civil War, the pastor and elders of First Church in Ashtabula were active in the Underground Railroad. In 1937, the presbytery voted its support of the Wagner Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill in the U.S. Congress.

A Women's Foreign Missionary Society was formed in the First Church of Cleveland as early as 1833. It was succeeded by the Women's Presbyterian Foreign Missionary Society in 1873. The women's Presbyterian Home Missionary Society was organized in 1881.

A number of churches were established by a single church starting a Sunday School in a new neighborhood. First (Old Stone), Second, and North Churches each did this more than once. In 1876 Second received an endowment for this purpose in the will of Thomas Sterling Beckwith. Between 1899 and 1918 the First Church in Ashtabula, with the financial help of Elder Samuel R. Harris, started three churches.

The beginning of church extension by consultation and cooperative funding among the congregations was the formation in November 1869 of the Presbyterian Union by the pastors and elders of seven churches. By the following June the Union had two missionaries working on four projects out of which developed Case Avenue (1870), Woodland Avenue (1872), and Bethany (1889) Churches. A newsletter in 1913 reports that by that year the Union had aided in the construction of 17 of the 37 buildings built since 1869. A comprehensive report for 1915-1933 names 23 more.

The influx of non-English speaking, non-Protestant, and frequently unskilled, immigrants and later of rural Blacks presented new opportunities for ministry. In 1896 Mrs. Flora Stone Mather enabled the Old Stone Church to expand its activities by establishing Goodrich Settlement House. The House quickly became involved in providing volunteer legal help, campaigning for cleaner streets, and for separation of juvenile offenders. In 1898 it started a vacation school and camp program.

In contrast to many presbyteries in which the office of Executive Presbyter is an extension of the Stated Clerk, in Cleveland the Executive Presbyter began as the administrator of the mission program. In January, 1900, with the financial help of Mrs. Mather, the Home Mission Committee employed the Rev. Frank N. Riale as Home Missions Presbyterial Pastor to work among the foreign born population. The First Presbyterian Church of Lorain was organized in October of that year as a result of his work. After Dr. Riale left in 1904, various efforts were made to continue the work and to coordinate it with the work of the Presbyterian Union.

The Centennial of the First Presbyterian Church of East Cleveland was promoted to inspire enthusiasm and raise a fund to refinance the work of the Presbyterian Union and change from project by project fund-raising to annual solicitation for a general fund.

In December 1911, Dr. Charles L. Zorbaugh became both Presbyterial Superintendent and Financial Secretary for the Presbyterian Union. The Presbyterian Headquarters was opened in March 1912 at 1225 Schofield Building, East Ninth and Euclid, on a corridor with six other denominational and community agency offices. In 1913, the reports of the first two years show a program of seven Vacation Church Schools with thirty paid teachers (part of 18 interdenominationally planned schools), seven on-going worship and service ministries, two suburban and four outlying churches needing special attention. Cleveland hosted a national conference with Magyar pastors and city superintendents.

Churches organized as a result of this work were First Magyar, St. Mark's, St. John's Beckwith, Church of the Redeemer (W. 69th St.) and Church of the Savior (Collinwood). The policy was to work from existing churches where possible. Immanuel, Wickliffe, Mayflower, North, and Woodland Avenue were especially active centers. Calvin Church was a Slovak congregation of the UPCNA organized in 1921.

A new gymnasium, given by Elder Louis H. Severance, was opened in 1913 in the Woodland Avenue Church to provide for a seven day program of neighborhood services. When the congregation merged with the Woodland Hills Congregational Church in 1925, the program was reorganized and opened in 1928 as Woodland Center Neighborhood House, the predecessor of Garden Valley Neighborhood House.

The Playhouse Settlement at East 38 Street and Central Avenue, now Karamu House, began in 1915 through the interest of Dr. Paul F. Sutphen, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church (then at East 30th and Prospect), Dr. Dudley P. Allen and the Men's Club of the Church.

The Harkness Farm Fresh Air Camp opened in 1919 at a lake-front estate in Willoughby loaned by the Harkness family. The Presbyterian Union purchased a part of the property in 1941 to operate as a Presbyterian Center, as well as a summer camp. Operation of the camp was the major interest of the Union until its consolidation in 1948 with the Church Extension Committee and the Trustees of the Endowment Fund into a single corporation. They bought The Highlands Camp, in Mesopotamia in June 1955 and sold it in December, 2004.

On March 31, 1931, the first woman elder, Emma Raymond, was elected at Old Stone Presbyterian Church. The Women's Auxiliary of the Woodland Center was organized in 1931 and continued its strong interest in the successor Garden Valley Neighborhood House.

In the 1930's the mission concerns of the Presbytery were directed towards the maintenance of congregations and ministers in the midst of the Depression and to the social issues of the day. At the September meeting of 1937, resolutions were adopted in support of liquor controls, on the location of taverns, in opposition to gambling, and in opposition to enlistment methods of the state militia "which lure young men through appeals to recreation, fellowship, and camping, when, in fact, the militia is increasingly being used for police duty in industrial disputes." In December 1938 a resolution on Jews in Germany expressed Presbytery's "deep conviction that such cruel treatment of an innocent race is contrary to the teachings of Christ, reverts back to a pagan nationalism, outrages the feelings of all decent men, and tears up by the roots the possibility of international goodwill."

In 1938 the Presbytery elected a committee on Ministerial Relations, evidently for the primary purpose of counseling since calls continued to be reported by the Committee on Bills and Overtures. The minutes refer to considerable concern for churches having difficulty paying mortgages on their property, and in April 1939 the Presbytery wholeheartedly joined in the Debt Liquidation Campaign of the Church Extension Committee of the Board of National Missions.

Following World War II the Presbytery shared the national experience of rapid growth. From 1948 through 1962 an average of slightly more than one churches per year were established,. In 1958, the Rev. Marideen Visscher joined the staff of the Forest Hill Church as Assistant Pastor and became the first woman pastor to become a member of the Presbytery of Cleveland.

Projects of the Presbyterial Association in this period included the complete furnishings of two furlough homes for foreign missionaries in East Cleveland in 1955 and the establishment in 1966 of Project Friendship for teenage girls referred by the Juvenile Court.

Cleveland was the first presbytery to establish an Office of Religion and Race in cooperation with the Interchurch Commission on Religion and Race in June 1963 with the Rev. Charles W. Rawlings as director. In 1972, the Presbytery elected its first woman moderator, Elder Mary Scott, of Parma-South Church. The Hunger Program was established in April 1976 with funding by the National Hunger Program. Karen Patterson was the first Hunger Action Enabler. The Peacemaking Program, Swords Into Plowshares, was created in February 1980 with the Rev. Richard Watts as Coordinator.

Other recent mission activities include Joining Hands Against Hunger in South Africa, with the Reverends Ken Jones and Susanne Carter as Mission Co-Workers for this Project; Presbytery-sponsored cluster Vacation Bible School in the mid-2000’s, with two of the cluster programs reaching out to the Hispanic Community; Presbyterian-Jewish dialogue; and cooperation with Noble Road Church to establish Dougbe River Presbyterian School in Liberia. In late 2009, the Vital Congregations Network was created to assist churches seeking to adapt to changing circumstances. In 2011, the Presbytery entered into an agreement with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry for a joint project in a building renovation that would include space for North Presbyterian Church.