The word “covenant,” in Presbyterian history, dates back to an agreement made by Scottish Presbyterians in 1638. It was an agreement of faith among believers to no longer be governed by bishops, but to be governed by presbyters, or elders. This covenant directed the church to govern themselves by members who lived and worked in community with others, member and non-members alike. Christian life was free to develop in response to the communities and their needs. Though Covenant Presbyterian Church has not always carried that name, it has always represented that tradition. What began as an outreach church of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Tennessee became what we now know as Covenant Presbyterian…with an unbroken history of Christian dedication and community service.
In 1874, when Rev. W. H. Crawford came to Atlanta from Tennessee to start the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, he held a series of meetings in the Good Templars Hall in downtown Atlanta. Within two years the church had grown to thirty members and had acquired a small parcel of real estate with the hopes of building the first church. By 1877 Rev. Crawford had to withdraw due to lack of support, and Rev. W. C. Cooke disbanded the congregation and sold the property for $1,022.
By 1902, there was a plan to reorganize the church led by Rev. George H. Mack, of the Synod of Tennessee. He arrived with his wife Margaret, and, once again with no home, this small congregation held services in the Y.M.C.A., also holding revival services in a tent on Baker Street.
The first doors were opened in 1904 with the dedication of the new church at the corner of Harris and Spring Streets, welcoming a congregation of 56 members. By 1907, the name was changed to Harris Street Presbyterian Church, and a year later Rev. Jere Moore answered the call to lead the church. He remained as pastor for the next 12 years and increased the congregation from 40 to 240 members.
By early in the new century, Harris Street Presbyterian Church had set up an exemplary standard of “open doors” in the Atlanta community. During World War I, Rev. and Mrs. Moore made all of the church’s spiritual and material resources available to the armed forces by organizing squads of church members to invite soldiers of differing religious beliefs – Jews, Catholics and Protestants – off the streets and into Sunday night socials and Sunday services. W. A. Lee of Camp Gordon, once located in Atlanta, said the Harris Street Church was “doing one of the finest pieces of work being done at any church in Atlanta.”
The tradition of community service was continued under the tenure of Rev. Roy Talmadge Brumbaugh when he came to the church in November of 1920. Brumbaugh, who had a reputation as a “great biblical scholar,” inspired young parishioners to perform community works. The church took an active part in drawing renowned orators, such as the Honorable William Jennings Bryan, to speak at the church in an effort to enrich and educate the people of Atlanta prior to mass media.
In 1924, led by Rev. Wilson Eisenhart, the decision was made to move the church to quieter surroundings “far out of town, away beyond the creek.” Harris Street Church became the first of the downtown churches to sell their property. The proceeds went to build Covenant as it stands today, and the cornerstone of the Harris Street Church is at the base of the sign that fronts Peachtree Street. This was the first of many moves that characterized the church’s dedication to go into unknown areas first and let others follow. As the new doors opened, the congregation did not sit and “wait for them to come.” In notes from the church history, it reads:
Sunday, May 2, 1926. Our first service at the new church. Sunday School, Prayer meeting with service. Lunch at 12:30. Workers went out and canvassed the whole community in the interest of our work.
By 1930, the congregation had grown to over 1000 members, and Rev. Herman L. Turner had taken over as pastor. He led the church during the Great Depression as the needs of his congregation changed overnight. And, in spite of difficult times, Rev. Turner raised membership and improved the church’s financial status. It was during the latter years of Dr. Turner’s ministry that he led Covenant and the community to respond early to the rising civil rights movement.
As a principle author of the Atlanta Minister’s Declaration in 1957, Dr. Turner led Covenant to be the first North Atlanta church to welcome African-American members. Though faced with opposition to this decision, the church held fast to its decision.
This covenant of service continued under Rev. Andrew W. Blackwood, Jr. when in 1967 the church established a local mission for minority children through Peachtree International Pre-School and Latchkey, as a response to the changing needs of the families in the community. PIPS served as a kindergarten for minority and immigrant children, with a special focus on teaching English to those children in transition. At one point, the manse was used to house a Cambodian family seeking political refuge under sponsorship of the church.
Covenant’s dedication to service has not been limited to sending members out into the community, but also includes a notable effort to welcome others in fellowship and healing. In 1983, Covenant Presbyterian Church also had the privilege of helping host the historic General Assembly that reunited the Presbyterian Church U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. after 122 years of separation. The new denomination is now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of which Covenant is proudly a member.
Our mission at Covenant Presbyterian is to “equip the people of God to serve Christ in the world.” For the people of God, there is no higher honor and no greater service. We believe that we are to carry the bread and the cup out of the church and into the streets, office towers, hospitals, boardrooms, classrooms, grocery stores, soccer fields and homes of our city and world.
We celebrate our history as a people of faith since the birth of Christ, and we recall the past in order to prepare ourselves for the future. Our response to this covenant is to govern ourselves by Christ’s love. We covenant to serve God by loving our neighbor, our community, and our family, will be recorded as it was for those who came before us. We pray that we, as a church community, stay mindful of our mission as we go out into the world serving Christ, and as we welcome others to join us in fellowship and service.