“It is hard for those who have always worshipped in comfortable sanctuaries to understand the discouragements under which a church without a house of worship labors, and the difficulties which beset its first attempt to secure a sanctuary.”
—Annual Report. (St. Louis: Church Extension Committee of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Old School, 1856).
Prior to 1844, the design and construction of churches in the United States was regarded as a local responsibility, with the Presbyterian Church dispensing very little aid to financially weak congregations seeking suitable houses of worship. Fledgling congregations out on the Western frontier felt this lack of support most strongly, because their members were often too poor to finance the construction of comfortable sanctuaries. As a result, services were commonly held in temporary dwellings, such as barns, distilleries, schools, private homes, or in the open air. When more permanent accommodations could be obtained, they were often simple, rudimentary structures, such as log houses. To build anything more substantial, a struggling congregation risked falling into debt, and many often did.
Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School)
The 1844 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) directed the Board of Missions to appoint a Church Extension Committee to aid feeble congregations in building suitable houses of worship. Eleven years later, the General Assembly created a new Church Extension Committee, directly responsible to the assembly itself. Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, the new committee was positioned near the frontier where most of the aid was to be extended. In 1860, the assembly elevated the status of the committee to that of a board.
Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (New School)
In 1853, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (New School) appointed their own Committee on Church Erection, which reported directly to the General Assembly. The committee immediately initiated an ambitious campaign to raise $100,000 in building funds, which were used to issue interest-free loans and occasional small grants to New School churches. In a majority of cases, the committee dispensed aid to feeble congregations occupying simple, one room structures. Like the Old School Church Extension Committee, the New School committee rarely subsidized the full cost of building a house of worship. Believing that church members should raise most of the funds, the committee’s main objective was to help congregations with the remainder of the cost and to prevent them from falling into debt.
Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
In 1870, the New and Old School church extension agencies consolidated their work in a new organization known as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of the Church Erection Fund. Contributions from PCUSA churches largely funded the board, although some money was obtained through individual gifts and the sale of donated land.
Despite the board’s many successes in securing sanctuaries for struggling churches, the number of “unsheltered” congregations in need of urgent aid far surpassed the number the board was able to assist. As a result, the board made regular appeals to the denomination’s self-supporting churches, reminding them to contribute to its benevolent work.
In 1875, the board provided an additional service to congregations by publishing church designs along with its annual reports. The designs included many examples of smaller, less expensive buildings as suggestions for congregations embarking on church erection projects with limited funds. By 1920, the board had assisted nearly 12,000 congregations to build churches or manses. In 1923, the work of the Board of the Church Erection Fund became the responsibility of the new Board of National Missions.
The following churches were just two of those that received aid from the PCUSA Board of the Church Erection Fund for the construction of their buildings.
United Presbyterian Church of North America
The Board of Church Extension is one of the original boards of the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA), organized in 1859 by the first General Assembly. The purpose of the Board of Church Extension was to aid mission stations and congregations in obtaining suitable houses of worship. It also gave aid in the erection of parsonages. Over the years, the work of church extension was directed by the Board of Home Missions and later the Board of American Missions. Following the merger of the UPCNA and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), the work of the Board of American Missions was placed under the Board of National Missions of the UPCUSA.
Rev. Dr. John T. Pressly (1795-1870) served as the president of the Board of Church Extension and had charge of the work until the election of a corresponding secretary in 1870.
Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
In 1885, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) authorized the Executive Committee of Home Missions to make loans to congregations to aid in the building of churches. These loans were to be paid back in installments, without interest, running from one to five years.
The Executive Committee of Home Missions sought to promote new church enterprises in new communities, particularly in the suburbs and sub-divisions of growing cities. The Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, is an example of this type of investment. In 1926, the committee donated $10,000 toward the establishment of this church. At the end of the 1943-1944 church year, the Highland Park Presbyterian Church reported a membership of 2,111.
Rev. Dr. John N. Craig (1831-1900) served as the secretary of the Executive Committee of Home Missions from 1883 until his death in 1900.
The PCUS Board of Church Extension organized a Department of Church Architecture in the 1960s to provide information, rather than funding, to congregations undertaking building programs. The department was closed in 1973.