Founded on June 4, 1795, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbia is the oldest in the capital city. The church initially met in the city’s old State House, built following the 1786 relocation of the capital from Charleston to Columbia. The church then gathered in the chapel of South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) until finally a church was built for the congregation in 1813, the year the church was granted a charter by the South Carolina Legislature.
The first structure is said to have been constructed of materials salvaged from the old Lexington County Courthouse in Granby. The original building remains on the lot as Jackson Hall. The current Gothic Revival church of rose-tinted stucco was built on the corner of the lot in 1853. Its spire stands 180 feet tall; when it was constructed, the spire made the church the tallest building in Columbia. The spire was rebuilt following a cyclone in 1875 and yet again in 1910 after a fire. Following the fire, the steeple was rebuilt to 188 feet tall. The entire church underwent an extensive renovation in 1925 and more recently in 2002.
The church shared a close relationship with nearby Columbia Theological Seminary (now the Robert Mills House). In fact, pastors of the church frequently acted as professors of the seminary. Such was the case with the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, father of our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson.
The teenaged Woodrow Wilson became a member of First Presbyterian of Columbia during his father’s tenure as pastor, and despite the fact that the Wilsons moved from Columbia shortly thereafter, he remained a lifelong member. Another well-known seminary professor and former pastor of the church is Dr. James Thornwell, for whom the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton is named. Dr. Thornwell also served as president of South Carolina College from 1852 through 1856.
When the Presbyterians constructed their meeting house on this corner lot in 1813, they were granted the adjoining public non-denominational cemetery that predated the church’s occupancy of the land. The graveyard, dating from 1797, became the burial grounds for the church. Interred in the churchyard are the parents of President Woodrow Wilson and Robert Mills, South Carolina native and renowned architect, who also served as a church elder. Mills is responsible for the design of many well-known national structures, including the Washington Monument, as well as several in South Carolina, including the former Columbia Theological Seminary now bearing his name. First Presbyterian Church of Columbia left the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PC-USA) in 1983. The church now belongs to the Catawba Presbytery and is a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination, or ARP.
First Presbyterian Church of Columbia is listed in the National Register:
The First Presbyterian Church, constructed ca. 1854, is a fine example of early English Gothic architecture, characterized by a vaulted ribbed ceiling. Its 188-foot spire is one of Columbia’s most distinctive architectural features. Its congregation was the first organized in Columbia (1795). According to tradition, the Presbyterian congregation drew lots with the Episcopal congregation, and won its present lot, which included the heretofore public non-denominational Columbia graveyard, dating from 1797. Buried here are Henry W. DeSaussure, first director of the U.S. Mint, Ann Pamela Cuningham, restorer of Mt. Vernon and President Woodrow Wilson’s parents. Past congregational members include Colonel Thomas Taylor (upon whose plantation part of Columbia was built), scientist Dr. Joseph LeConte, architect Robert Mills and President Woodrow Wilson. The English Gothic structure is of reddish-brown stucco-covered brick. It features a central pinnacled steeple, an entrance flanked by pseudo-Corinthian columns, shouldered buttresses, stained glass windows, and pinnacles on the corners and along the battlemented roof. It is the second church built on this site. The church building was extensively remodeled in 1925.