The history of Wetumpka and the First Presbyterian Church are intertwined all the way back to 1834. The legislature approved the incorporation of the City of Wetumpka in January of 1834, and in 1836 members of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Fields Bradshaw and Rev. Alexander Cunningham met to organize the church.
The family of Dr. William Carey Penick was among the first 19 members of the church, which first held services in a converted building in West Wetumpka, a part of Autauga County at the time. The first minister was the Rev. Aaron Grigsby. The minister with the longest service record was the Rev. Gurdon Robinson Foster, whose first sermon on Nov. 2, 1851, covered 2 Peter 1:19.
A story is told in the History of Wetumpka of the marriage of Rev. Foster and Annie Elizabeth Slaughter, the daughter of John Robins and Temperance (Harris) Slaughter of Dadeville. The two were married in Dadeville on Dec. 1, 1858.
The Sunday after their marriage, Rev. Foster preached as usual, his new bride sitting in her proper place in the church listening. After the service, Foster drove back to his home in New Georgia. It wasn’t until he reached home that he realized he’d left his young bride back in Wetumpka. He raced back to the church as fast as his horses would go anxiously searching for Annie once he got there. He finally found her at the home of friends, next door to the church.
Rev. Foster preached a farewell sermon on April 17, 1861, and then left for Montgomery on the Dick Keys steamboat. There, he joined the 3rd Alabama Regiment of Infantry to serve as a chaplain. The church continued to pay him while he served in the war. He then gladly returned to the ministry of the church after his service.
The church bell was offered at one time as metal to be used for guns to defend the country, and in April 1862 a letter from the Ordinance Office was sent, stating:
“Your letter of the 14th to the Secretary of War, the bell of your church to Confederate Government for the public defense, is received and referred to this office. The offer is accepted with thanks. Please hold the bell subject to order. Contributions already have accepted and metal now on hand belonging to the Government will probably suffice to keep our foundries active for some time to come.”
The rules of the church were strict. A committee was appointed a few years after the First Presbyterian Church was established. Its formation was to embody, in a few resolutions, the views of the session respecting members of the church participating in what are called fashionable amusements. The resolutions were adopted and read publicly every Sabbath before communion.
Mrs. Caroline Aspril sent a letter to the church asking to unite with the First Presbyterian Church. The reverend questioned her activities, including attendance at balls, the theater and other places of worldly amusements. The answers were not satisfactory, and “it was agreed that her letter be returned to her,” and it was immediately.
The church has become a central part of not only Wetumpka’s history but also has an element that attracts artists from near and far.
The history of the church is filled with hardships and along with that are stories of recovery and celebration. Jan. 19, a tornado tore through Wetumpka, and the First Presbyterian Church was one of two historic churches to receive significant damage. This year will become a new celebration of recovery for the First Presbyterian Church and the City of Wetumpka.
Sharon Fox is the curator at the Elmore County Museum in Wetumpka.