Before the Capitol
Central Presbyterian was started by 39 members from Atlanta Presbyterian Church, the city’s first Presbyterian congregation. Not much is known about their reasons for departure, but historical records from the time indicate that a dispute so roiled the Atlanta Presbyterian congregation that the Flint River Presbytery decided to split the congregation into two separate churches. Members remaining at the site of the original church on Marietta Street became First Presbyterian, while the new congregation was called Central.
Lacking a building of their own, Central Presbyterian held services in the common room of Atlanta City Hall, on the site of what is now the Georgia State Capitol building. The church held its first service in its new sanctuary on Washington Street facing the city square on March 4, 1860.
Central’s prosperous start was soon shattered by the advent of the Civil War. Central’s first pastor, J. L. Rogers, was a staunch secessionist and many of the church’s men served in the Confederate army. Rogers’ successor, Robert Q. Mallard, left shortly after his arrival to serve with the Confederates, later becoming a prisoner of war.
During Sherman’s occupation and burning of the city, he commandeered the use of the church’s facilities, turning the Sunday School building into a slaughterhouse to provide the Union army with meat. What little is known of the church’s activities during this time can only be pieced together from outside sources as the church records were destroyed when the home of Clerk of Session Moses Cole burned. After Sherman’s departure, the block occupied by Central, including neighboring Second Baptist and the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as well as St. Philip’s Episcopal and Trinity Methodist, was spared only by a plea from Immaculate Conception’s Father Thomas O’Reilly. In the aftermath of the war, as the city struggled to recover, Atlanta’s religious community became consumed with policing individual morality.
Heeding the call of an 1877 congregational letter from the Atlanta Presbytery to punish “all violations of the law of the church in reference to worldly amusements,” Central’s Pastor J.T. Leftwich, having taken over from Mallard in 1870, proceeded, together with the Session, to vigilantly pursue members of the congregation suspected of participating in such debaucheries as “card playing, theater going, and dancing.”
Over the course of a decade, the Session and pastor presided over what one account* has described as a “reign of terror.” The Session repeatedly summoned “errant” members of the congregation before them, placing them on trial.
One notorious case, later appealed all the way to the floor of the General Assembly, involved a deacon of the church, Frank E. Block, brought to trial and threatened with excommunication for allowing dancing at his teenage daughter’s Christmas party.
The ensuing appeals took years, yet a final ruling from the General Assembly instructed the Session to reinstate Mr. Block, prompting an outraged Leftwich to offer his resignation in protest. The congregation, however, defied the elected elders and promptly accepted the letter and Rev. Leftwich departed.
A Period of Healing
As entertaining as the Leftwich years may seem to modern eyes, they had a completely demoralizing effect on the congregation. So contentious was the atmosphere and political infighting that Central had a difficult time attracting new leadership and, when that was accomplished, persuading a new minister to stay.
Leftwich’s successor, William E. Boggs, later to serve as moderator of the General Assembly, remained in office for just under two years. The next, Givens Brown Strickler, attempted to leave and accept a seminary professorship after just six months. By persuading the Presbytery to refuse its consent to release him, Central was able to hold onto a pastor — at times almost against his will — for the next 13 years. The action proved to be lifesaving for the congregation as Strickler’s leadership inspired a new sense of purpose and community among the members. During this time, the Session officially apologized to members hurt during the trials of the previous period. It was also during this time that Central began to be less self — focused and turn its attention– and its considerable resources– to mission work. Central established several outreach programs, launched a dozen mission schools and five new churches.
In 1896, Strickler left Central — with the support of the congregation this time – to accept a position as professor at Union Theological Seminary.
Emphasis on Social Justice
Thanks in large part to the work of a passionate and visionary church leader and ruling elder, the next years proved to be a true turning point for Central. Atlanta industrialist John J. Eagan first became noticed at Central for his work in improving and expanding the church’s Sunday School. Active in the Young Men’s Prayer Association, Eagan was a devout and dedicated member. But beginning with a weeklong visit in 1900 from Josiah Strong, founder of the Social Gospel movement, Eagan developed an abiding interest and commitment to issues of economic and social justice. Over the next several years, Eagan along with dedicated group of Central’s elders were a driving force behind the church’s involvement in outreach programs and its public stand in favor of racial equality and for fair wages and treatment for workers.
In 1907, Central’s Brotherhood Sunday School class led a group of Presbyterian men from all over Atlanta to establish the Atlanta Union Mission, provided food and shelter to homeless men in the city.
In 1912, the Young Women’s Bible Class led the effort to establish safe, affordable housing for young, single women who flooded into the city seeking factor work. Prior to the formation of dormitories like the Annie Caruso Home and the interdenominational Church’s Home for Girls, low factory wages often forced many single women to turn to prostitution to support themselves. The years 1913-1916 saw Central’s heavy involvement in support of trade unions to establish safe and fair working conditions in Atlanta’s industrial and service sectors.
During the 1914 strike by workers at the Fulton Cotton and Bag Mill, striking workers were offered the use of the Sunday School building for meetings and elders John Eagan and Marion Jackson spoke at a rally in support of the workers held at the Opera House. Pastor Dunbar Ogden and several elders also spoke publicly at a rally for striking streetcar workers and operators in 1916.
In 1922, at Eagan’s urging, Central’s Sunday School classes organize the Baby Clinic (later the Health Care Center, now Mercy Health Care Services) to provide affordable pediatric care to Atlanta’s poor.
The Church that Stayed
As Atlanta entered the 1930s, Central faced increasing pressure to move from its downtown location. More and more of the city’s population was leaving the city center to reside in the northern suburbs. As they moved, many naturally sought membership in churches at amore convenient distance. But the efforts of energetic Dr. Stuart R. Oglesby, who shepherded Central for 28 years (1930 – 1958) proved the stabilizing force the congregation needed to remain in its original location and thrive. Known for maintaining an incredible schedule of pastoral visits, in addition to his preaching and administrative duties, Ogelsby considered it his duty to regularly visit each and every member, plus almost anyone connected with his congregation. At the end of his ministry, it was found that he recorded an amazing 39,920 pastoral calls. Many of these to people he could not expect to see in the pews the following Sunday.
A poignant example of this ministry is recounted in a letter from a man named Paul written to Dr. Oglesby’s widow following his death:
“It is now many years since Dr. Oglesby found me sick on the street in front of the church. At that time my mind was so warped with hatred that even today I cannot understand how I was ever salvaged … One day I silently left Atlanta to go back to the life I had left, that of robbing and stealing and doing unto others before they could do unto me. This led to Brushy Mountain State Prison (in Tennessee). Somehow, Dr. Ogelsby found where I was and constantly wrote to me there. I had never dreamed that one human being could actually care about another but here was a man who actually lived this way.”
The letter concludes with the writer detailing how he joined the army following his release from prison, then succeeded in turning his life around, going on to have a family and a successful career. Paul was not the first or the last imprisoned person that Dr. Oglesby visited and encouraged. He also encouraged partnerships and coordinated ecumenical efforts to address problems plaguing the city of Atlanta. Thanks to Ogelsby’s efforts, the church membership swelled past 1,650 members during the 1940s.
Seismic Changes of the ’60s
As Central entered its second century of life as a church, the congregation had big plans. In 1962, the church purchased the empty Second Baptist church building, vacant since that church moved in the 1930s. In addition, they purchased several other adjacent properties, to expand the church facilities- constructing a parking lot (site of today’s Georgia Educational Plaza and underground parking deck), and the Campbell-Eagan Building and the Ogelsby Building, which replaced the old 1906 Sunday School building.
Under the leadership of new pastor Fred Rogers Stair, Central also launched The Family Plan (similar in concept to today’s Central Neighbors), an organized effort to develop smaller neighborhood groups to provide support for Central’s far-flung membership.
But the tumult of the late 1960s was to provide many new challenges to the ambitious congregation.
In 1968, just four months after the arrival of new minister Randolph Taylor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Grief, shock and anger overwhelmed many in Atlanta, Dr. King’s home town. King’s funeral service was attended by thousands of people from across the country. Central, seeing that there was a great need, opened its doors to shelter and daily meals to thousands of the mourners when they visited the city.
In the weeks and months following, Central leaders decided that a key focus of the church should be to build bridges between predominantly white institutions in Atlanta and predominantly African-American churches and civil rights organizations. To signify this, a plaque honoring Dr King’s work was unveiled in the church courtyard and the church enthusiastically supported the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to hold a vigil during Holy Week to call attention to the needs of the poor and oppressed.
New Faces, New Challenges
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, Central, like the world around it, was influenced by rapid societal change: protests against the war in Vietnam, the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society, the “hippie” counter-culture, and the women’s liberation and gay rights’ movements to name a few. Central and its leaders did not sit on the sidelines and attempt neutrality. On many of these issues, the church took stands, sometimes alienating long-term members.
But, as often as not, the church gained new members despite losing some who felt it was moving in too liberal a direction. The new members were typically younger and, in historian Smith’s words, “decidedly less wealthy” than the average Centralite of years’ past. They were just as likely to have had a Reformed faith background as not, and many were experiencing organized religion for the first time.
But the old and newer members shared a strong commitment to Central and its work and worship in the city. In 1977, under the leadership of the Rev. P.C. “Buddy” Enniss, the church established the Central Preschool (now Our House, a ministry partner with Central) to provide quality, affordable childcare services to downtown residents and workers.
In 1980, the death of a homeless man within site of the church spire, prompted Central to partner with neighboring Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to open a night shelter, providing beds and an evening meal during the winter months.
Expansion of Ministries, Service
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the church added to the ministries and services it offered to the city at large. In the mid-1980s, a weekly medical and foot-care clinic was added to the Night Shelter. In 1984, the church opened a food pantry to supply food and basic necessities to poor families.
In 1996, during the ministry of the Dr. Theodore J. “Ted” Wardlaw, the church opened its own Outreach Center to expand its services to the homeless and low-income residents of Atlanta. Through the center, operated out of the bottom floor of the Sunday School building, counselors help clients obtain needed documents for work, assistance with medical referrals, shelter placements, and food and utility assistance.
Continuing on Our Way
Entering the 21st century, Central continues to be a vibrant Christian community at the heart of downtown Atlanta, still connected to the city it helped sustain and the mission which sustains it.
In 2000, expanding its effort to address the crisis in affordable housing in Atlanta, the church partnered with Decatur Cooperative Ministry to offer temporary housing to families transitioning out of homeless shelters. In 2001, the church established the Enniss Lectures, an annual lecture series in honor of former pastor, the Rev. P.C. “Buddy” Enniss. Each year, the church sponsors a guest speaker and panel discussion focusing on theological issues in an urban context.
Responding to the need for spiritual sanctuary in the aftermath of 9/11, the church began many efforts to provide a place of worship and sanctuary for downtown workers, opening the Rand Chapel for individual prayer, and beginning weekday lunch-hour services during Advent and Holy Week.
In 2007, following the relocation of the health clinic, Central expanded the work of the Outreach Center to include public advocacy, re-naming it Central Outreach and Advocacy Center.
After Wardlaw departed to assume the presidency of Austin Theological Seminary, The Rev. Gary Charles was called to Central where he served for many years. The Rev. Jessica Patchett also served at Central.
In 2023, the church called The Rev. Shannon J. Kershner as Senior Pastor/Head of Staff. Kershner came from Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Kershner has become nationally renowned for her preaching prowess, leadership, willingness to tackle complex social issues, as well as her dedication to outreach and engagement efforts with the community.
1. Smith, John Robert. The Church that Stayed. 1979, Atlanta Historical Society.