Presbyterian roots in Kinston date back at least to the 1860’s. From that time through the 1880’s, the Presbyterians in town were served by traveling evangelists or by the neighboring pastors in New Bern, NC and surrounding communities. On October 18,1891 a Presbyterian congregation was organized with eight charter members and named the Atkinson Memorial Presbyterian Church in honor of the Reverend J.M. Atkinson, then pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. In 1915, the name was changed to the First Presbyterian Church, Kinston, North Carolina.
The first church building was erected between the years of 1895-1897 on the east side of Independence Street in downtown Kinston. The membership fluctuated during the first two decades of the twentieth century, settling at about 220 active members. In the 1930’s, Dr. Harold J. Dudley became the pastor of First Presbyterian and led the effort to build a new church at the corner of Lenoir and College streets. The new building was dedicated in 1937 and served First Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.
Over that period the congregation grew rapidly, along with the town. In 1940, Dr. Thomas H. Hamilton was called to the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church in Kinston. It would be a ministry that would last for the next 37 years! During Dr. Hamilton’s remarkable tenure, the congregation became a dominant fixture in the church life of the city of Kinston. The congregation became so large that a new building was needed. In 1953, the congregation voted to purchase the necessary land and begin the financial campaign to construct the church. Ground was broken in 1956, and the Education wing was opened in 1957. A new sanctuary was commissioned in 1962, and was built according to the plans of famed church architect Harold E. Wagoner. The first service was held in our new sanctuary in 1968. The congregation continues to worship in this grand space today, enjoying the meaningful architecture and the magnificent Aeolian Skinner pipe organ. Dr. Hamilton retired from First Presbyterian Church in 1977.
Later that same year, the Rev. Dr. Huw Christopher accepted the call of the First Presbyterian Church and became its pastor. A native of Wales, Dr. Christopher served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Washington, NC before coming to Kinston. During his tenure, the Northern and Southern streams of the Presbyterian Church ended a nearly 123 year separation, becoming a united denomination again for the first time since 1860. Dr. Christopher led the session through this exciting transition period, and presided over the retirement of the debt of the congregation. The bell tower was constructed during this period as well. Dr. Christopher’s compassion for the needy, the shut-ins, and newcomers to town were notable parts of his ministry. In 1986 he resigned the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church to accept the call to the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk in Wrightsville Beach, NC.
In 1987, the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Ratchford accepted the call to become the next pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kinston. A native of Gastonia, NC, he served pastorates in Lowell, NC and Hickory, NC before coming to Kinston. Dr. Ratchford led the congregation through an intensive program of goal setting, long range planning, and renewal. During his tenure, William F. Stanley III came under care of the presbytery as a candidate for ministry. Dr. Ratchford also led the congregation through the Second Century Campaign, a $350,000 effort to enhance the mission of First Presbyterian Church. This time period also saw the call of the first associate pastor in the history of this congregation, the Rev. Todd Wright. Together with his wife, Maureen, Rev. Wright led the youth program through one of its most productive and active periods. Dr. Ratchford also invited several seminary students to be interns during his years in Kinston. This enabled the First Presbyterian Church to become a teaching congregation as a part of its mission. Rev. Wright departed Kinston in 1997 to become the pastor of the Mt. Holly Presbyterian Church in Mt. Holly, NC. In 2005 he became the pastor of The Little Chapel on the Boardwalk in Wrightsville Beach, NC, replacing another former First-Kinston pastor, Huw Christopher. Dr. Ratchford resigned to become the pastor of the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, NC in 1998.
In March of 2000, the First Presbyterian Church of Kinston called the Rev. Jonathan C. Wallace to be its pastor. Rev. Wallace was born in Atlanta, GA and raised in the Washington, D.C. area. He served pastorates in Summerville, GA and Columbus, NC before coming to Kinston. During this time, the city of Kinston was in economic transition, and began declining in numbers. Yet that did not stop this congregation from doing ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. The First Presbyterian Church reaffirmed its mission during a two year strategic planning process and an $800,000 capital campaign. This campaign paid for much needed repairs and improvements to our facility and enhanced our ability to be a missional presence in the community. In keeping with a practice begun under the leadership of Bob Ratchford, at least ten percent of the proceeds went to outreach beyond the walls of the congregation. In 2006 we welcomed the Rev. Mary N. Gale, a native of Texas and a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, as our second associate pastor. Rev. Wallace left our church in 2008 to take a call to Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, NC. The Rev. Gale left in 2009 to take a call in Shawnee, Kansas.
In 2010 the congregation called the Rev. Dr. Wanda S. Neely as pastor. Dr. Neely had served churches in Gastonia and Greenville, NC and on the staffs of two presbyteries. During her time here, the church renewed mission involvement and educational programming and added a Memorial Garden, Prayer Labyrinth and carillon bells in the Bell Tower. Rev. Neely left in 2016 to take a call in Morganton, North Carolina.
Rev. Edward Bellis joined our staff in June of 2017 as Interim Pastor. Rev. Bellis received an M.A in Christian Education from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE) in Richmond, Virginia. He furthered his studies at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and received an M.Div. I and was ordained in 1996. God has blessed us from the beginning. God is blessing us now, and we know that God’s blessings will continue!