Archived Page: History

History of Third Church

The Roots of the American Presbyterian Church
The roots of the American Presbyterian Church extend particularly to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th century. This religious revolution took place with other revolutions in science, politics, economics, discovery and communication.

Presbyterians are part of what historians call the Reformed tradition, influenced chiefly by John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland, but which spread widely to a number of countries all over the continent under nations stretched outward across the seas to build mighty empires. From Europe and from the British Isles, those in the Reformed tradition sailed to the American colonies where they found a fresh start and new challenges.

John Calvin, standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther gave system to the insights of the Reformation and provided it with alternate ecclesiastical and political institutions. Calvin wrote: "We are God's: Let us therefore rule all our action. We are God's: Let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal." With this focus on God, Calvin helped reshape the lives of people who heard him and the communities in which they lived. He was concerned not only about personal piety, but also about every aspect of Geneva life - political, economic, social, as well as religious.

Presbyterianism Comes to America
Presbyterianism came to America beginning in the mid 1600's becoming established by the mid 1700's. With the spread of settlers westward following the Revolutionary War, and especially with the increased trade and traffic brought about by the Erie Canal, Rochester became a frontier boom town.

Third Church Early Beginnings
In 1827, a group of people wanting a Presbyterian Church on the east side of the Genesee River, (the first two being on the west side) gathered to organize the Third Presbyterian Church on what is now North Clinton Avenue, near Main Street. Josiah Bissel promised to build a new church in one week. He delivered on his promise by constructing a building 24' x 60' with crude log benches serving as pews.

The first permanent building was built on the northeast cornter of Main Street and Clinton Avenue in 1828. Their first minister, Joel Parker, preached on "the merits of evangelical evidences of salvation", in opposition to the prevalent Calvinistic orthodoxy of the time. It has been said the "Third Church at its inception was in the vanguard of the struggle against outworn dogmas and on behalf of a vital religion with emphasis on the salvation of all mankind."

Parker was an extremely effective speaker. In a sermon "Signs of the Times" preached in 1828 at a union Thanksgiving service, he fired what seems to have been the opening gun in a long series of sermons, on vital issues. The sermons protested both against the abuse of liquor and against slavery and introduced the question of discussing controversial social issues from the pulpit.

In the winter of 1830-31 the acting pastor of Third Church was one of the most colorful and dynamic forces in American religion of that era, Charles G. Finney. Finney was an evangelist, but a different one for his time and for ours. He showed a constant concern for society as well as for the individual. After his departure there rose a division in the church between those reformers who wished to give theology practical expression in the church and those who "wished to restrict the church to the performance of private spiritual life who were weary of reform." The latter group left the church.


Third Presbyterian Church 1838, built of stone and located on Main Street between St. Paul and Clinton Streets.

During the mid-century, Third Church swung toward conservative orthodoxy. Dr. Albert G. Hall was the minister for thirty years. He had a literal rather than imaginative mind. He was self educated and perhaps for that reason had a simple and sure faith. Under his leadership Third Church became a shrine of orthodoxy, guarding worship and religion against the intrusions of the world.

That orthodoxy included refusing to let a woman speak in the church and refusing to have a service of farewell and commendation for a local infantry regiment going off to the Civil War.

Third Church Erected in 1892
In 1884, the congregation decided to move out of the downtown (the church was on the site of the present Midtown Tower) to the east and built the first unit on the present site. The church itself was built in 1892. In 1894, Trustees voted to oppose putting asphalt on East Avenue, as it might encourage horse racing.

In 1903, came one of the great men in the life of Third Church, Paul Moore Strayer. With his arrival the church returned to its old principles, for he took an active role in the social problems and civic life of the community. He made Third Church and its ministry respected in this community as a vital force embodying a dynamic faith for contemporary problems.

Active in the life of the community, he assisted in the founding of the City Club, authored a column in the local labor union paper, organized a Sunday evening forum which brought 2000 men to a downtown theater for moral, ethical and inspirational speakers, started an employment agency, pushed for study of the city building code and helped in the reorganization of the school board and the beginning of night schools.

In 1917, a trained social worker was hired, to be succeeded by a trained church school director, Miss Mary Paris, who also founded the first Girl Scout Troop in the city.

Ordination of Women
In January 1953, Elder Lilian Alexander introduced a resolution asking the Presbytery to send to the General Assembly an overture seeking the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. It was done and by 1956 it was adopted by the Presbyterian Church. Later that year in First Church, Syracuse, Margaret Towner was the first woman ordained. It was the courage, determination and foresight of Lilian Alexander of Third Church which brought this about.

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