Church History


Early Presbyterians had a history of free expression, and moving when necessary. Protestantism dates to Martin Luther, and Presbyterianism to John Calvin, through John Knox. Calvin’s doctrines differed sufficiently from Luther’s that Calvin in Switzerland developed a new form of church governance that defines Presbyterianism, which was developed on its own in Scotland under Knox, still in the 1500s. Poor living conditions forced many to move to Northern Ireland, hence the “Scotch-Irish” lineage of the later descendants who came to South Carolina, then for many, on to Bloomington.

It was in Ireland that Presbyterianism itself split, over the issue of interference by the British royal government in church administration. The Reformed Presbyterians (nicknamed “the Covenanters”) believed their church operated under a covenant with God that no man, or government, could alter. Another group called the “Seceders” broke off in objection to how ministers were appointed and paid. In 1782, the two groups officially merged into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, but not all “Covenanters” or “Seceders” accepted the merger, so there were three groups, all represented in the Abolitionist group that came to Bloomington and set up three churches.

It was the Associate Reformed group that opened its Bloomington church with charter ceremonies on Sept. 7, and first services the next day, Sunday. They first worshiped in the courthouse on that downtown square, then – their number up by 53 eight months later – they built a church on the site of their cemetery that still exists on Bloomington’s west side today. The cemetery, accessible from West Seventh Street, was taken over by the city in 1914 – called United Presbyterian Cemetery until a change of name to White Oak Cemetery in 1983.

Another of UPC’s root churches, Associate Presbyterian Church, was organized in Bloomington in 1834 and reorganized Nov. 16, 1836, with 24 members. Their first small log church southeast of Bloomington was replaced in 1839 by a frame church on East Second, near what has been preserved as Wylie House – named for Andrew Wylie, the Presbyterian minister who was Indiana University’s first president.

In 1858, at the national level, the Associate Presbyterian Church and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church merged to form United Presbyterian Church of North America. Five years later, the two congregations in Bloomington merged, worshiping together at the ARP church on 8th Street.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church, organized in Bloomington Oct. 10, 1821, met in a log cabin on the farm of Enos Blair, located on what is now West 10th Street. In 1833, the congregation of about 120 divided into “Old Side” and “New Side” Reformed Presbyterians (sometimes referred to as “Old Light” and “New Light”). The Old Side was so insistent on separation of church and state that its members did not vote and would not serve on juries. Their worship included singing the psalms, not the hymns that are common today. The Old Side congregation remained separate and survives today in Bloomington as Reformed Presbyterian Church, First and Lincoln streets.

The Old Siders maintained Covenanter Cemetery, at Hillside Drive and High Street, and many from the 19th-century congregation are buried there. A City of Bloomington report says, “In the Covenanter Cemetery, some of Bloomington’s earliest uses of limestone and stone carving can still be seen. A wall, constructed of fieldstone without mortar, surrounds the plot and gravestones are simply carved in traditional styles and motifs. Later in the century, stonecarvers applied their imaginations and skills to the creation of gravestones in more complex and artistic designs.”

The New Side congregation, more liberal in participation in local government, worshiped in members’ homes until 1838 when they built a wood frame church at 9th and College. There, they called as their pastor Theophilus Wylie, a cousin of Indiana University’s first president, Andrew Wylie. Wylie remained pastor of that church through 1869. During that time, Associate Reformed Presbyterian also had one minister, William D. Turner. The Associate Presbyterian pastor from 1839 to 1843 was I. N. Laughead.

9th and College: 1871-1951In 1869 the New Side Covenanters, at the urging of Pastor Wylie, were absorbed into the Bloomington United Presbyterian Church that had formed six years earlier with the merging of the Associate and Associate Reformed Churches. Their wood frame church at 9th Street and College Avenue was dismantled and replaced with a larger brick church that could accommodate the three congregations that had joined together to become one with a combined membership of 212. Rev. William P. McNary was pastor when the new church was dedicated in November of 1871. He served as pastor until 1884. Rev.McNary was another staunch abolitionist. In his younger years he had acted on his anti-slavery beliefs by enlisting in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. He served honorably for the duration, participating in nine battles and achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

First Presbyterian Church (221 East Sixth) was the first church in Bloomington, according to detailed information in a history put together by IU Journalism Professor Owen Johnson. It was founded Sept. 25, 1819, by nine people who met in the log home of Dr. and Mrs. David H. Maxwell with the church’s first minister, Isaac Reed, a Presbyterian home missionary.

First Church was one of 16 churches founded in Indiana by Presbyterian pioneers between 1806 and 1820. It was from the Presbyterian USA denomination, apart from the churches that were part of United Presbyterian Church of North America. First Presbyterian’s present building in Bloomington, with a 1,000-capacity sanctuary, was built at a cost of $27,094.34 and dedicated June 23, 1901. Seven years ago, the centennial of the present building was observed. Membership has been as high as 861, achieved in 1967.

Mergers at the national level have led to First Presbyterian and our United Presbyterian Church finally being in the same denomination. The first step was, in 1958, United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with Presbyterian USA to form United Presbyterian Church in the USA, including both First and United Presbyterian churches in Bloomington. The official denominational name became the present Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) after another national-level merger in 1983 brought in the Southern Denomination, which had broken away during the Civil War.


The downtown church that for almost 80 years was the home for Bloomington United Presbyterian Church burned on July 3, 1951. Faulty wiring was ruled as the cause.

Outside view of UPCRebuilding on the charred site at 9th and College was ruled out. The congregation elected to move east, nearer the Indiana University campus, to the current site at 2nd and Eastside. Just over eight months after the fire, ground was broken for the new building. Indiana University president-emeritus William Lowe Bryan, in his 91st year, and his sister, Mrs. Mary Belle Phillips, in her 100th, turned the first shovels. Robert E. Watt was chairman of the Building Committee. The church was completed Oct. 12, 1952, and in 2002, a 50th “birthday” was observed with a ceremony that included participation by Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, then Moderator of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church USA. The first person of Palestinian descent to hold the highest office of PCUSA, Dr. Abu-Akel attended in response to an invitation by Bloomington Dr. Fadi Haddad, a UPC elder whose family origins also are in the Middle East.

2nd and Eastside: Since 1952

Increases in congregation size led to an expansion project in the 1960s, increasing the size of the sanctuary and adding office and classroom space. The basic layout of the church has been basically unchanged since then.

The church membership, however, was altered radically in 1976 when David Faris, after 13 years as minister resigned and led in formation of a new Evangelical Community Church about a half-mile east of UPC at 2nd and High streets. Nearly 90 percent of the congregation went with Rev. Faris or left the church, but a strong core stayed and kept UPC together.

The following years were unsteady, three full-time ministers serving short terms and the Rev. Allen B. Layman, retired after a long and distinguished career with the Presbyterian church, twice served brief periods as interim pastor before, in 1992, the Rev. David A. Bremer began the service that continues through to now. Pastor Bremer, a native of Shelbyville, is a graduate of Earlham College and Princeton Theological Seminary. He also studied at the Universities of Oslo and Copenhagen and New College, Edinburgh University, Scotland.

A hallmark of Rev. Bremer’s years was encouragement of diversity within the church. More than 20 nations and four continents have been represented in 21st Century UPC membership and attendance, many of those people brought to Bloomington by the global appeal of Indiana University.

Download the full version of UPC history (Requires Adobe PDF Reader)
Get Adobe Reader