Birth Through Sacrifice- The Early Years

The story of The Church of Christ is a story of sacrifice – the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of the early Christians, persecuted for their beliefs, and on a smaller scale, but no less influential, the sacrifice of the group of men and women who formed the Disciples of Christ Church in Shelbyville, Indiana. The history of the First Christian Church in Shelbyville is largely entwined with the history of our country –the members conquered struggles and rejoiced in triumphs just as the United States was being defined religiously and culturally through its own struggles and triumphs.

In the early 1800s, the Great Awakening began in the United States. Religious leaders began challenging the beliefs and opinions of any denomination unless the beliefs could be found in the Bible. The evolution of new doctrines and the modification of old ones began with the reforming spirit of Alex Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott. Alexander Campbell broke away from Baptist teachings and after the Baptists severed all connections with reformers in 1827, the reformers formed a new church called “The Church of the Disciples of Christ” or “the Christian Church.” The central purpose of the organization of the Christian Church was the rejection of all creeds or confessions of faith, and the adoption of the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice. 

The story of sacrifice for the glorification of God in Shelbyville, Indiana begins with a disciple of the teachings of Alexander Campbell, Father Obediah (Ovid) Butler, Butler quickly became an apostle of the new religion, and soon had gathered enough of a following to organize a church class which met in 1834 at the house of Ovid Butler that stood on the Southeast corner of the Public Square. Later in life, Ovid Butler became increasingly involved in the Christian movement and 2

established the North Western Christian University in 1855 which later became Butler University. The Elder John O’Kane helped with the organization of this meeting. This little group of followers was composed of seven couples devoted to building what has now become the First Christian Church of Shelbyville. Little did they know how far their influence would reach in future generations. These original founders included James M. Smith, Sallie Smith, John Weakley, Nancy Weakley, Silas Jaen and wife, George Bates and wife, E. Knowlton and wife, Ovid Butler and wife and Spencer Thayer and wife. These members were by no means wealthy, and this along with their small size prevented them from paying for the services of a preacher, nor could they build a house or church for worship. Yet, called by their new religious fervor, these seven couples sacrificed the luxuries of preacher and church, and continued on their path. They met in their homes, which would be temporarily transformed into the house of God and then later the meeting place was changed to a second-story room at the corner of Washington Street and Public Square. These meetings were conducted with an earnest desire to pray and worship, and gradually new members were added as new interest was taken. At a later time, the meetings were mostly held at the courthouse which was then in the center of public square. Here Rev. John B. New began to serve as pastor. He is said to have been a man who was very practical but sincere. Also the Rev. John O’Kane, H.R. Pritchard and Rev. Crowe and other pioneer preachers worked with the small congregations of Shelby County. The Rev. Decatur Davis lived a short distance from Shelbyville and would often preach without money or price. Decatur Davis is said to have been illiterate, but had painstakingly committed the Bible to memory. Thus these early disciples and preachers embodied the spirit of sacrifice that remains so crucial to the success of the Christian Church and were true pioneers in the early church.

*Source: Chadwick's History of Shelby Co., IN.; Edward H. Chadwick, B.A; History of the Original Churchces in Shelbyville

building a church

These brave men and women, guided by influential preachers, began to settle into a permanent house of worship. For the First Christian Church of Shelbyville, the time had come to build a church, and thus begin a new journey towards preserving their faith for the future. In 1855 a lot was 3

purchased on the corner of Franklin and Pike Streets and the foundation was laid for a new church. Funds for a building could not be collected at the time however, and the lot was sold at a sheriff’s sale. Thus, the church again had to sacrifice in the face of circumstances and services were held in Concert Hall. A small group of members poured great effort into sustaining the church for the next few years. However, in 1866 the land was redeemed and in 1867, the 40 by 60 ft. church was completed at a total cost of $2,500. On April 4, 1867, the paper reported that the building would be completed that May and commented on the bell, which was to be “the largest in town” and “if properly rang will evidently sound melodious for there is really music in a bell if rang with some observance as to time and regularity, instead of the disagreeable clamor that greets the ears by the jingling or thumping of our church bells at present, ranging from a funeral toll to a fire alarm.”

The first elders and officers of the church included George Campbell, Pleasant Griffey, John Buck, Alonzo Swain, John Weakley, S.D. Davis and James Smith. Alonzo Swain, Bruce Johnson and J.B. Waller were elected deacons while M.V Fidler and Nancy Waller were deaconesses. Some of the first pastors who served this little church included Elijah Goodwin, J. H Davis, J.S. Hughes, R.S. Wilson, J.G. Burroughs, J.O. Hopkins, J.H. Roberts, Stanley Ackman, Samuel Tomlinson, J.H. Edwards and H.H. Message. These influential shepherds guided the small flock through trials and sacrifice, but also towards growth, as this little church began to become an influence in Shelby County.

In 1886 the church was rebuilt and used by this congregation who worshiped under the guidance of A.L. Crim, Charles Fillmore, E.B. Sheffield, O. F. McHargue and W.T. Groom.

*Source: Chadwick's History of Shelby Co., IN.; Edward H. Chadwick, B.A; History of the Original Churchces in Shelbyville

A New Awakening

In October of 1899, the fall weather brought with it a new minister by the name of Rev. Finley Mahan who took on the work of the church and subsequently breathed new life into the church. Rev. Mahan was born in Orange County, Indiana on August 10, 1870. He was a graduate of the Orleans Indiana High School and of Indiana State University in Bloomington. He prepared for the ministry through the Theological department of Kentucky University and at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut and had pastorates in Carbondale, Illinois and Salem, Indiana. He was married to Miss Jessie Means of Shelbyville on June 10, 1902. Through his leadership, attendance began to increase rapidly and soon the small church that had been built with so much effort and sacrifice was packed. The congregation was outgrowing the little church building and Rev. Mahan began to talk of a new church house Mr. Mahan and the congregation knew that anything was possible with God. Soon the old church was sold on September 1, 1900 to the German Evangelical Congregation for $3,500. Since then, this old building was destroyed by fire at the hand of an arsonist on Feb. 19, 1962. However, the First Pilgrim Holiness Church bought what was left of the structure and rebuilt it on the original lines, so there has been a church building on the site for over one hundred years.

*Source: Chadwick's History of Shelby Co., IN.; Edward H. Chadwick, B.A; History of the Original Churchces in Shelbyville

West Washington Street

The First Christian Church obtained a lot on West Washington Street near Tompkins for the erection of a new building. Committees were formed, meetings were held, and the congregation ended up raising $9,000, much more than anyone had expected. On December 30, 1900, Rev. Z.T. Sweeney of Columbus assisted in the band rally of the congregation and raised over $8,000 for the new church Work on the new building began on April 15, 1901. Mahan set up an altar under the branches of an apple tree and read the scriptures, offering prayer on behalf of the new building. After this, the first shovelful of earth in the excavation was thrown out by Mrs. Mary Gatewood. Her standing as president of the Ladies’ Aid granted her this privilege, for this organization had raised large sums of money to pay on the new building, the cost of which was about $20,000. Finally, after much prayer and perseverance, the new church was dedicated on Sunday, March 2, 1902 by the Rev. F.M. Raines. That Sunday morning served as a symbol of a turning point in the church. Despite the disagreeable weather that morning, citizens began gathering at the church at four o’clock and a few minutes later when the service began, the house was packed. Bro. F.M. Raines preached the dedicatory sermon and about $4,500 was raised for the new church The new church had an entirely different architectural aspect than any other church in the city. It was a modification of the old Spanish Mission style which was popular near the close of the fifteenth century, yet there was just enough of the Gothic structure to add grace and dignity The main audience room was octagonal in shape, seating about 500 people.

The March 3, 1902 issue of the Shelbyville Evening Republican reported a detailed account of the previous day’s dedication of the church, saying “the large windows are no doubt the prettiest in this part of the state.”

During the leadership of the Rev. J.P. Myers the congregation canceled all debt with much effort and the mortgage was burned on October 10, 1909 by the pastor and John Dobbins Following Rev. Mahan were Revs H. O. Pritchard, J. P. Myers, Cloyd Goodnight, W.G. Eldred, W.E. Carroll, M.S. Decker, Owen Livengood and T.J. Wilson, several of whom reached prominence in the religious community.

From this time until about 1916 the only records of church history are lists of church officers and names; in 1916 there is a record that Brother A.L Crim, former pastor, held a series of meetings resulting in 34 additions and “much spiritual good.”

With the efforts of the first congregations, the First Christian Church began to have a solid foundation in Shelbyville. In 1928, the church and parsonage were repaired, and in 1932, there is record that the Rev. Paul E. Million was given a Chevrolet for a Christmas present. Congregation member George W McCain wrote “Besides the many missionary and benevolence donations given, we gave $844 to the National City Church at Washington D.C. From a spiritual standpoint, we are just about holding our own. On September 19, 1934, he described how the church had suffered “both spiritually and numerically” from the Great Depression, but he held hope that the church would improve with good times.

*F.C.C 1924; Christian Church Homecoming Bulletin

First Christian Church – Recorded History; George W. McCain (member) born 1852