The First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland, Florida, was organized by The Reverend Caleb E. Jones and thirteen charter members on March 7, 1885. The first service was held in the Lakeland Community School House (The Academy), which was located near the present Frontier communications building downtown. This was three months after the village of Lakeland was incorporated. Caleb Jones served as the pastor for one year and moved on to begin other churches before returning to Lakeland in 1892 to serve as our pastor for another seven years.
FPC was not the first church chartered in Lakeland; that honor goes to the First United Methodist Church. However, we have the distinction of having the first church building in town. In May 1885, the fledging congregation built a sanctuary on South Tennessee Avenue. It was a small frame structure which seated 150, featured a central bell tower, and was surrounded by a picket fence.
Our Church was chartered as a Presbyterian USA congregation, or “Northern Presbyterian Church.” In 1907, however, the congregation transferred its membership to the Presbyterian U.S. denomination, or the “Southern Presbyterian Church.” The congregation was small for the first 20 years of existence (50 to 100 members), but began to grow in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1919, to accommodate the growing membership, a new brick building was constructed on South Massachusetts Avenue overlooking Lake Mirror. The pastor at the time was Dr. C. I. Stacy. The population of Lakeland in 1919 was slightly over 7,000 people, and FPC had 200 members.
The Florida boom of the 1920’s brought considerable growth to both the community and our church. By 1928, Lakeland had grown to 15,000 and our church to 500 members. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles Raymond (1925-1946) the congregation became one of the strongest in the community. Dr. Raymond also served for many years as the scout master of Boy Scout Troop #4 (Troop 104). During those years the Regular Fellows Sunday School class attracted hundreds of men from the community and broadcast their Sunday lesson over the radio. Some men would attend Sunday School at FPC and then walk across town to their own congregations to attend morning worship.
On January 21, 1940, an arsonist set fire to the church building which sustained extensive damage. The building was repaired but the congregation laid out a three phase plan to construct a larger facility. Phase one, a Christian Education wing, was completed in 1942, but plans for the new sanctuary and additional education space were put on hold because of World War II.
After a 21 year ministry, Dr. Raymond retired and was followed by a younger pastor, The Rev. L. G. Gebb. Tension developed between the older traditional members and the younger evangelical members. The tension escalated for four years until in 1950 Pastor Gebb was asked to step down by the session and the presbytery. He left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church, taking half of the membership of FPC with him. That new congregation eventually evolved into what today is Covenant Presbyterian Church. It was a difficult time for FPC which declined from 600 members to 300 members.
The presbytery appointed Dr. William S. Frazier as the Supply Pastor who proved to be the ideal person for the task of healing and restoring the spiritual health and vigor of the congregation. In 1951, Dr. John L. Newton was called to become pastor. Under his leadership FPC entered upon a decade of strengthening the membership and carrying out the final two phases of the building campaign. A new sanctuary was constructed in 1955. The windows which grace our sanctuary chancel today were originally in the sanctuary on Massachusetts Avenue.
In 1958 our congregation, in conjunction with the presbytery, planted a new congregation on New Jersey Avenue in what were then the growing suburbs. It was named Presbyterian Chapel in the Grove and continues in ministry to this day.
In 1961, Dr. Newton was called to First Church in Selma, Alabama, and Dr. Howard Anderson became Interim Pastor until The Reverend Ralph C. Arbaugh was called to be the pastor in 1962. The congregation reached a membership of 800 and an associate pastor was added to the staff. During this time the Hungarian Presbyterian Church was started and conducted their services in the Education Building of FPC until they purchased property for their new building in West Lakeland.
The Rev. Mr. Arbaugh and his Assistant Pastor, The Rev. Rockwell Smith, both announced to the congregation on Easter morning in 1969 that they had accepted calls elsewhere. Pastor Arbaugh moved to Bradenton, Florida, and Pastor Smith to Norton, Virginia. Therefore, a pastor nominating committee was formed to seek a pastor, and in August of that year Dr. Henry Dahlberg of Miami, Florida, accepted the call to Lakeland, and a new manse was purchased on Duncan Street.
Our congregation set out upon sixteen years of spiritual and numerical growth under the solid “Christ-centered” preaching and leadership of Dr. Dahlberg. During that time Mac Boulware became the choir director, The Rev. Lewis Trotter became Minister of Youth and Education, radio broadcasts of the Sunday services began, The Rev. Donald Walton and Dr. Bonte Grussing served as Visitation Pastors, the famed author Corrie Ten Boom was a guest speaker, our youth began their annual trips to Montreat Conference Center, and The Rev. Bob Kendall and The Rev. Robert Bohler served as Associate Pastors. The Rev. Ed Diaz was invited to teach the Agape Sunday School Class, which he continued to teach for twenty years.
With the membership over 1,300, the congregation made the decision to move from the Massachusetts Avenue location to a new site on 12 acres of land overlooking Lake Hollingsworth. The new church building was dedicated on Sunday, December 24, 1978, with over 1,000 in attendance. The first words Dr. Dahlberg uttered from the pulpit were “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It marks the theology of our church to this day.
In 1983, the Southern Presbyterian denomination (PCUS) merged with the Northern Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) to form the Presbyterian Church USA. In October 1985, Dr. Dahlberg retired and Dr. Bob Youngs became the Interim Pastor. Few will forget his dynamic “4th of July” sermon.
A Pastor Nominating Committee was formed and in August 1986, Dr. Thomas Tyndall, an associate pastor of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas, was called as the new minister of FPC. The Rev. Jim Nightingale became Associate Pastor of Christian Education and The Rev. Gary Barber became the Associate Pastor for Congregational Care. Tim Rice became the first full time Youth Director.
Associate Pastor Nightingale accepted a call to a church in Tampa, and The Rev. John Goodale became the new associate. Ken Prine became our Youth Director and was followed by Tracey and Phil Hollins, Kenny Ellis, Charles Asbridge, Tim Timmes, and today Brian Morgan.
In 1992, FPC, in conjunction with the presbytery, helped to form the North Lakeland Presbyterian Church (now Hope Community Church). During this era, FPC began the Christmas “Witness on the Lake,” “Heaven Help Us” home repairs ministry, Reformation Players, and the new Austin organ was installed in the Sanctuary.
FPC welcomed a new associate pastor in 1995, The Rev. JoAnn Brechbill, who became the first ordained female pastor to serve our church. Our beloved Visitation Pastor during these years was Dr. Bob Tebbe, a retired missionary from Pakistan.
In 1996, Dr. Thomas Tyndall accepted a call to become pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, Tennessee. The Rev. Dr. David Glenn Walker became the Interim Pastor. The Rev. Gary Barber retired after a very fruitful ten years as associate, stayed in Lakeland, and continues to worship with us to this day.
The Rev. Ruth Hicks, The Rev. Ronald Buskirk, and The Rev. Don Kemp served as Interim Associate Pastors during what became a long interim period. Don, a retired military chaplain, became a beloved figure at FPC and later served as our first Older Adult Ministries Coordinator. After two years of service, Dr. David Walker stepped aside as Interim Pastor and Dr. Jim Bigley became the new Interim. Jim and Shirley later moved to Lakeland and became active in the life of FPC.
After a three year search, the Pastor Nominating Committee presented the name of The Rev. Dr. John B. “Mike” Loudon of Lincoln, Nebraska, to become FPC’s new pastor. Dr. Loudon began his ministry here on April 15, 1999.In 1999, we started a weekly Tuesday evening contemporary service, and in 2007 a Sunday morning “modern/missional” service called “Vine.” HL McConnell is the worship and music leader for Vine and assists with pastoral care.
In 2001, a 35,000 square foot addition was added to the church building, the Higginbotham Scout Building was constructed, and the parking lot expanded. The $6.5 million project was paid in full in 2008. The St. Andrew Ministry was established in 2001 thanks to a major gift from Hal and Marjie Roberts, and Dr. Paul Suich was called to become Parish Counselor. He is now an ordained PCUSA minister. In 2007, the position of Older Adult Ministry Coordinator was created thanks to a gift from Rebecca Keith’s estate. Sandie McRory is the Director of this growing ministry.
During Dr. Loudon’s pastorate, we have had five excellent full-time associate pastors: Dr. David Drain, The Rev. Craig Sumey, The Rev. Cecelia Moore Wilhite, The Rev. Zachary McGowen, and The Rev. Kenny Ellis. Dr. Connie Befus serves as Congregational Care Coordinator. We were blessed to have Rev. Marilyn Cummings as our part-time Visitation Pastor for five years.
In 2018, Dr. Loudon retired and Rev. Ellis and Rev. McGowen assumed the interim duties until a new senior pastor is called.
Dr. Dan Gordon is our Director of Fine Arts Ministries. This ministry includes vocal choirs, bell choirs, a summer music camp, and an excellent Fine Arts Series. The full- time organist is Scott Ziegler.
The mission of First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland is the same today as it was in 1885 — “To Make and Mature Disciples for Jesus Christ.” We are a Christ-centered, Bible-based, and mission-oriented congregation.
We give thanks to God for abundantly blessing our congregation, and pray that we might be faithful witnesses to and disciples for Christ. To God alone be the glory!