Historical records document the presence of self-identified Presbyterians in the Greenville-Pitt County area as early as 1755. However, the first known efforts to organize as a church do not appear until the late 1800’s. In 1887, Rev. F. H. Johnston, an evangelist from Orange Presbytery, visited Greenville and met with local Presbyterians who were eager for regular church services.
As a result, the Presbytery sent Rev. J.N.H. Summerell of Rocky Mount to facilitate the organization effort. Under his guidance, the Greenville Presbyterian Church was formally organized on May 11, 1891 with seven charter members. In 1894, a Sunday School was organized with eight pupils and two teachers.
During its infancy years, the congregation met in various locations including the local Baptist and Methodist churches and the Perkins Opera House. Desiring its own sanctuary, a group of fourteen members accepted the challenge to erect a church. A lot was secured on the corner of Dickinson Avenue and Greene Street. A one room frame building with a Sunday School annex was completed and dedicated on December 19, 1897. This structure served as the church’s home until 1928.
The church was initially served by evangelists or supply ministers provided by the Presbytery. It called its first permanent pastor (F.G. Hartman) in March, 1903. From 1905 until 1938, several full-time ministers served the Greenville church, but none of them stayed for terms of more than a year or two. Thus, the church was always in a state of ministerial instability. Nevertheless, the congregation continued to grow — due in no small measure to the opening of East Carolina Teachers Training School (now East Carolina University) in 1909.
As membership increased, the Dickinson Avenue facility was becoming inadequate, Efforts were undertaken to build a much larger church. As a result of these efforts, a new building was constructed on the corner of Pitt and West Fifth Streets. The first service at this location was held on January 8, 1928. An education annex was added to this church in 1952.
Long-serving pastors who have guided First Presbyterian Church in its more recent history include Dr. R.S. Boyd (1939-1947), Rev. Leonard W. Topping (1947-1957), Rev. Richard Rhea Gammon (1958-1985), Rev. Dr. Dan Wilkers (1986-1994) and Rev. John Stringer (1996-2000). Rev. Dr. James Holderness served as interim minister from 2001-2003, at which time the congregation called Rev. Dr. William K. Neely (August 1,2003-December 31, 2017. In November of 2003 until December 2008 the Rev. Dr. Wanda S. Neely served with Bill as the Co-pastor.
The congregation moved into its current location at Fourteenth and Elm Streets in January, 1971. The structure was expanded to provide additional educational rooms and a new fellowship hall in 1989. Another significant addition to this church was the acquisition and installation of the Lewtak organ in 2011. This instrument was made possible by a bequest from long-time member Mary Goodman Sorensen. In 2013, First Presbyterian Church dedicated its Sacred Garden and Columbarium. This space provides an area for quiet meditation as well as a place for interment of church members and their families.
The architecture of the current church building, while frequently eliciting curiosity, is rich in symbolism.
The front is like the prow (front) of a ship – an ancient symbol of the church in mission. Under the Celtic cross atop the tower are the symbols of the Gospel writers: lion (Matthew), ox (Mark), face of man (Luke), and flying eagle (John). They also represent the four living creatures of Revelation 4:6-8. The interior simplicity suggests the simple life of our Lord. The right window’s theme is the Promise – the Old Testament promise to Abraham, Israel, and eventually all nations; only a little light breaks through. The left window’s theme is the New Testament – the fulfillment of the Promise in Jesus Christ. It allows more light through.