First Presbyterian Church of Waco is one of McLennan County’s oldest Protestant congregations, formed several years before Waco’s incorporation as a city.
On April 20, 1855, a group of Presbyterians in Waco Village petitioned the Central Texas Presbytery for permission to organize a local church. After receiving permission, the first nineteen members of First Presbyterian of McLennan County began to meet in a Methodist and Episcopal shared building on South Second Street.
Church members banded together to finance the construction of their own place of worship in 1870, spending $5,500 to construct a small brick church at the corner of Second Street and Jackson Avenue. The congregation soon outgrew this small building and purchased a lot on Austin Avenue in 1882. That same year on April 25, the church called Dr. Samuel A. King to serve as its first permanent pastor. Workers completed construction on the church in 1884.
As the congregation continued to rapidly expand toward the end of the nineteenth century, the church became increasingly focused on community service in addition to serving as a worship center. A choir was organized by the late 1880s, as well as a Women’s Working Society, which later became the Woman’s Auxiliary. Church members pursued local mission work while continuing to collect money in support of foreign missionary efforts.
By the time of the installation of Rev. Charles T. Caldwell as pastor on September 27, 1903, it was clear that the church needed to expand once again. After initial construction plans came to a halt when the Waco Street Railway Company announced intentions to lay tracks near the location for the new building in May of 1911, the church sold the lot for a profit and purchased new property at the corner of Austin Avenue and Eleventh Street. Church leaders contracted Fell & Ainsworth Construction of Waco to construct an English Gothic-style church designed by F. M. Mann. Dr. King returned to preach at the inaugural service on April 14, 1912.
Although the church continued to rapidly expand and develop, change was on the horizon. As World War I brought an increased military presence to Waco, First Presbyterian members sought to provide soldiers with a “home away from home” through prayer services, social events, and charity drives. Later, just months after the church executed an elaborate two-day celebration of its Diamond Jubilee in 1930, the effects of the 1929 stock market crash began to be seen around Waco. In order to conserve resources, Rev. Caldwell cut his own salary and reduced the church’s expenditures.
The turmoil of the mid-twentieth century proved First Presbyterian’s commitment to what members described as “sympathetic Christian charity.” During World War II, the church once again opened its doors to support Waco’s military population. Congregants also sent supplies to aid efforts of hospitals and the Red Cross between 1941 and 1945. The church served as the Red Cross headquarters for six weeks during the early stages of Waco’s recovery from the devastating 1953 tornado. Individual members’ contributions continued to support efforts in Waco such as Meals on Wheels, the Family Abuse Center, and the support of a Vietnamese refugee family. In 1971, First Presbyterian became the official home of Caritas, an interfaith agency for the poor.
On November 17, 1991, the congregation voted to borrow $1.4 million for its “First into the Twenty-First” campaign, which funded a much needed renovation of the church and the construction of extra wings for religious education. The church launched a yearlong celebration of its vast history in 2004, culminating in the sesquicentennial day on April 20, 2005. Today, First Presbyterian Church of Waco works to meet the spiritual, social, and practical needs of the community through its commitment to Christian charity.