Where We’ve Been: A Brief Church History

2014 – Present

After much discernment, in January of 2014, the congregation made the decision to move from the denomination of PCUSA to EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church). This new chapter in the life of the church allowed the church to own the property at 301 Broad Street. The dismissal form PCUSA entailed a cash settlement of $150,000. This monies are to be set aside to assist local congregations around Selma who continue their membership in PCUSA. Additionally, the church agreed with the terms to drop ‘First’ from its name. The congregation voted for a new name, and the birth of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church was created.


The acquisition of the Foodland grocery store building in 1981 led to two new programs. First, in 1985 the church became the contractor for a nutrition center program for the elderly which operated in and from this building. Second, in 1989 a capital campaign called Cornerstone was undertaken to transform the grocery store building into an attractive extension of the other church facilities. With the dedication of the completed project at a cost of about $750,000 on June 24, 1990 the Foodland building became the Cornerstone Building.

In 1994 a renovation of the Sanctuary was completed. New carpeting was installed, the pews were refurbished, a new sound system was installed, and new heating and air condition units were installed. In the fall of 1996, the Annie King Chapel was refurbished.

In 1999 the old office was renovated and became the Hohenberg Library.


The present church building was almost unchanged for about 50 years until a major remodeling in 1967. The project was done at a cost of about $300,000 under the leadership of James A. Minter, Jr. Charles H. Hohenberg, and J.D. Henry. This was done during the pastorate of Dr. John L. Newton, who came in 1961 and served until May of 1974. It involved removal of the 1915 annex and replacing it with a new wing to house administrative offices, Sunday School rooms and the music department. The appearance of the Sanctuary was changed by the new lighting, modernization of the chancel, a much enlarged choir area, a new organ and a rose window. The window, which symbolized the twelve Apostles, is a memorial to Major J. E. Wilkinson III, who died in Vietnam in 1967.


The next major changes in the church came during the pastorate of Noah J. Warren. He came in November of 1939 and served for almost 19 years. In 1942, a manse was purchased at 735 King Street and the old manse adjacent to the church was converted into an education building. In January 1953 the 100-year-old manse building was sold and demolished. A new Westminster Center was erected in its place. It was occupied in November of 1953. The fellowship hall which was a part of this construction project was later named the Warren Room.


Dr. Russell Cecil came from Kentucky and was installed as pastor on November 3, 1889. Under his leadership the existing structure was built. In April of 1893, with a membership of 490, the congregation voted to raise $25,000 for the purpose of building a new church and Sunday School room. On May 28, 1893, a farewell service was held in the 1847 structure. A later report to Session noted that “in July of 1893 our much loved old building was torn down.” Minutes of the regular session meeting on November 6, 1893 noted that the Pastor reported laying the cornerstone of the new church and that a lead box containing items of interest was deposited in the receptacle.

At about this time a controversy arose about the new city clock which was to be placed in the building. On October 10, 1893, the City Council had approved an expenditure of $925 for a Seth Thomas Clock with dials six feet in diameter to be paced in the tower of the new Presbyterian Church. In a meeting two months later, one of the councilmen objected to the city putting the clock in the tower because the dial was 14 inches below the prescribed minimum height of 60′ above the ground. After special meetings, the City Council met December 18, 1893, and approved a resolution stating the city would put the clock in the tower if the church would make good its offer to raise the dial five feet.

The new building was dedicated on Sunday night, June 3, 1894. Dr. Cecil composed a hymn for the occasion. Prior to the sermon, W. P. Armstrong, chairman of the building committee, presented Dr. Cecil with a receipt from the contractor noting that he had been paid $27,000. The property was free of debt and ready to be dedicated. The stained glass window of Jesus and the children was a gift of the W. P. Armstrong’s. The children are depicted with faces of the three Armstrong children who died at an early age over a short period of time. It is said that this scene was picked because one of the children told his mother as he was dying that he saw the face of Jesus. The other main window in the sanctuary is in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Amos Lloyd. He helped organize the Sunday School in 1843. It was given by C. W. Hooper, who was chairman of the finance committee for the building program.

Dr. Cecil remained at the Church until October of 1900, when he accepted a call to the Second Church in Richmond. In 1911 he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly, the only pastor of his church to have served in this high office. The present structure had a Sunday School annex added in 1915 during Dr. Joseph Dunglinson’s pastorate. The basement room added in 1918 was also done during his 13 year tenure which ended in 1923.


Rev. Arthur M. Small came in November of 1860. He served as pastor from April of 1861 until his death in the Battle of Selma on April 2, 1865. When his body was returned to the manse, it is said that the petals from the Lady Banksia Rose fell from the bush and covered his body. This bush was saved when the 1852 manse was later torn down, and was replanted next to the current educational building which was erected on the same site.

The membership grew rapidly under Dr. W. J. Lowry, who followed Mr. Small. In 1867 the church was remodeled for about $12,000. Dr. Lowry developed a program of benevolence for the black people of Selma. He also started an east Selma mission which in 1875 became the Alabama Avenue Presbyterian Church. He also watched the development of two sons of the church who would become well known in worldwide mission efforts. One was Dr. Goldsby King, who returned to Selma as a physician in 1881. He became the city physician in 1885, and in 1896 opened the first private hospital in Selma. Dr. King and his family, especially his daughter, Miss Annie King, were later responsible for the establishment of three mission hospitals in China, Brazil, and the Belgian Congo.

Similarity prominent was Samuel N. Lapsley, who in 1890 at age 24 went to the Congo as a missionary. On December 23, 1891, a letter appeared in the Christian Observer from a boys’ Sunday School class of this church requesting that funds be raised for a steamboat to support the mission work in the Congo. This was inspired by the fact that the missionary, Samuel Lapsley, had grown up in that very Sunday School class. The fund drive spread throughout the denomination. The foreign Mission office finally collected enough to commission the construction of the steamer. In the meantime, Mr. Lapsley died in the Congo on March 26, 1892. When the steamer was dedicated in Richmond, Virginia, in June of 1900, it was named for him. It had to be dismantled, shipped and reassembled before it went into service in May of 1901. In November of 1903, it sank and 20 lives were lost. A second Lapsley steamer was built in Scotland in 1904. It traveled the waters of the Congo for almost 20 years. When the presbytery was re-aligned in January of 1988, it was named The Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, honoring the mission work of Samuel N. Lapsley.


First Presbyterian Church of Selma, Alabama has been about the work and worship of God for over 176 years. Organized on December 22, 1838 by the Rev. Francis H. Porter, the original sixteen members met in a building on Water Avenue near Lauderdale Street. The following family names were on the original role: Bigger, Gant, Hamilton, Lawrence, Hunter, McLeod, Monk, Nicoll, Ormond, Porter, Russell, and Talbot. After about a year the church erected a wooden building on the corner of Dallas and Washington Streets. This was on the four lots designated for churches in the original plan for Selma in 1819. There were about 25 members when Rev. William F. McRae came in late 1839. He was elected its first pastor on January 4, 1840.

The church moved to present location at Dallas Avenue and Broad Street under the leadership of pastor, Dr. Richard B. Cater. As was often the case in that day, he had come in 1845 as Stated Supply, but was not officially installed as pastor until February 11, 1847. During 1847 construction was begun on the brick structure that would house the congregation for over 45 years.

A report to the session dated April 1, 1851 showed a membership of seventy-five with annual contributions exceeding $3,100. Later that year Rev. Abner A. Porter came to the church and served for nine years. A manse was built in 1852 on the lot next to the church. In 1857, the city purchased a clock in New York City for $500 and passed a resolution to place it in the steeple of the Presbyterian Church for the convenience of the townspeople.