In the early 1920s members of several churches in Joplin, along with their ministers, recognized the need to develop an interdenominational community church in Joplin. After a great deal of soul searching, meetings, and discussions with many people in the community, the Reverend John Wagner, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church South; the Reverend Cliff Titus, minister of the First Christian Church; and Dr. J.J. Barnett, Bert Manning, and Ernest Brickey of the Congregational Church, met to make plans for bringing to reality their dreams for establishing an interdenominational church.
The desirability of organizing a community or interdenominational church in Joplin was based on the notion of uniting the various churches in the community that were “starving” both in size, due to the lack of members and due to the lack of sound financial base.
The First Congregational Church was originally located at the southwest corner of Second and Pearl. After that church was damaged by a mine cave-in, the stone and other building materials were moved to Fifth and Pearl, and the church was reconstructed in 1900. The members of the Methodist and Congregational churches met together and agreed to combine, using the Methodist church building and changing the name to First Community Church.
But the reorganization of these two churches could not be carried out because the Methodist Church had a mortgage on the building and a name change could not take place until the mortgage was paid off. This was not economically feasible, so the move was abandoned.
It was not long after this that the Methodist Episcopal Church South disbanded, and during the 1930s the stone building was torn down and much of the stone was used in building St. Paul’s Methodist Church at 32nd and Wall.
In 1925, at a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Joplin, the Reverend Cliff Titus, minister of the First Christian Church, casually asked Dr. J.J. Barnett, Bert Manning, and Ernest Brickey, members of the Congregational Church, “What are you people trying to do over in your church?” When the idea of an interdenominational church was explained, Mr. Titus replied, “That meets with my views exactly.”
At a meeting of the Board members of the First Christian Church it was agreed to merge or consolidate with the Congregational Church. But when it was proposed to change the name of the First Christian Church, there were too many objections, and division resulted, delaying once again the birth of the First Community Church.
Because of the resulting division in his church, Cliff Titus resigned as minister and moved to St. Louis where he entered the employ of the United City Bureau.
However, those members of the Christian church who had favored the merger and the name change continued to negotiate with the members of the Congregational Church. On December 7, 1925, a meeting was held and a temporary Board was elected. P.E. Taylor was elected chairman; F.L. Barton became secretary-treasurer. And members were Dr. J.J. Barnett, F.W. Christman, Mid Conley, and A.C. Maher. It was at this meeting the name of the new church was adopted: The First Community Church of Christ. The Board sent a telegram to Cliff Titus, telling him of its action, and inviting him to fill the pulpit on Sunday, December 13, 1925. He accepted the invitation and was paid $25 for his services, speaking at both morning and evening services. The services were held at the Congregational Church at 5th and Pearl.
Subsequent meetings of the Board were held in December, 1925, and in January, 1926, using the Congregational Church, a legal charter was drawn up and submitted to the Secretary of State of Missouri, and on February 2, 1926, the First Community Church of Christ of Joplin was incorporated. At a dinner meeting on February 4, 1926, at the Congregational Church, a permanent Board was elected. Also elected were six elders, eight deacons, and two deaconesses, along with a general secretary-treasurer and three trustees. P.E. Taylor was chosen as the first chairman of the Board of the new church. A call was made to the Reverend Cliff Titus to serve as the minister; he accepted and served as pastor until September of 1940.
The Congregational Church property at 5th and Pearl was under a mortgage with $10,000 due. A meeting was held with the Congregational Church staff and a transfer of the property took place on March 6, 1926. The First Community Church took possession of the property and the refinanced mortgage.
A membership program began on March 18, 1926, and it was decided that anyone who became a member on or before Easter, April 14, 1926, should be recognized as a charter member. The rolls closed on that date with 230 members being listed as charter members.
The fist organist was Mrs. Helen Hamilton; the first choir director was Harry Hill. Both began their duties in 1926. The first budget was discussed and estimated at $12,000.
In 1927 a building committee made long-range plans for the First Community Church. Recommendations included enlarging the auditorium to seat 700 to 800; new seats, carpeting, and redecoration of the auditorium; installation of a new heating plant; building of a facility to house suitable Sunday School and other meeting rooms; installation of a pipe organ in the sanctuary, and continuing rental of a house which was on church property to the south.
Miss Harriet Walker (later to be Mrs. C.O. Messenger) was employed as director of religious education in 1928, and the Church School program flourished as an effective need in the church. Miss Edna Warden was the church’s first secretary and began her employment on February 9, 1929.
As the church entered the 1930s, enrollment in Sunday School classes continued to grow; membership in the church remained healthy; and the First Community Church had earned its place in the city of Joplin.
The Second Decade, 1936-1946
Nationally, however, there was a deepening depression. Internationally, some nations were seeing the rise of dictatorships. In America various government programs were attempting to ease the problems of unemployment and poverty. The Church school of First Community, however had 363 enrolled as 1936 began, and 210 of these were children. Harriet Walker resigned in April, 1938, to become Mrs. C.O. Messenger, and Roger Biddle was hired to replace her as assistant to the minister. His salary was the same as the church secretary’s: $1,125 per year.
By 1939, however, the nation’s economy and that of the city of Joplin began to reflect itself in church attendance and finances. Attendance was lagging; contributions to the church were diminishing, and enrollment in Sunday School was beginning to fall. Cliff Titus sent a letter to members of the church, recommending he be replaced as minister because of these changes in the success of the church. The Board, however, refused to consider his resignation and appointed a committee to meet with him, while, at the same time, chastising the congregation for not being impressed with the solemnity and importance of their role as members of the church.
But less than a year later, the church was to have new leadership.
It was the summer of 1940 and as was traditional in the church, there were periods in which there were no church services. In this particular summer, the first three weeks of August were the ones selected. Mr. Titus was on military duty with his National Guard unit, for which he was chaplain. The church closed for repairs. Sunday School classes met, but by 10:45 a.m. on August Sundays, especially, the sun had become too intense for comfortable worship services. In un-air-conditioned buildings, with only ceiling fans and the hand-held fans in the hymnal racks, services were poorly attended anyway, and dismissal gave everyone a time for renewal.
In September, however, Mr. Titus went on one year’s active duty with the National Guard, leaving for duty on September 24, 1940. He was then 49 years old, and although he would remain minister-in-name of the First Community Church, he would never again occupy the pulpit except as a visitor.
On the first Sunday of his absence, the pulpit was filled by Clayton E. Williams, former pastor of the American Church in Paris, France. Mr. Williams and his family had just managed to escape the invading Nazis and had fled to the United States. The Joplin Globe in announcing Mr. Williams as “the supply minister for the next two Sundays,” also said, “It is expected he will be named to fill the pulpit during the one-year absence of the Reverend Titus.” Mr. Williams, however, did not preach the second Sunday. The minister that day was Dr. Alvin Lee of Kansas City. On the following Sunday, October 13, the guest minister was the Rev. Richard E. Shields of San Francisco, California, and on the next Sunday the speaker was the Reverend Joseph C. Cleveland. On October 27, Mr. Shields returned to the pulpit, and on November 3, 1940, he officially assumed duties as the “supply pastor” of the First Community Church.
Titus had selected the Reverend Williams as his successor, telling the Board that Williams would take his place for the year Titus would be gone and would be an ideal choice to become permanent minister. The Board did not accept the suggestion; it seemed to some members that Titus would, if Williams were named “supply pastor,” then tender his resignation once again. Board members agreed to hire Shields because he made no claim of wanting the job permanently. Indeed, the first contract with Shields was for a salary of $300 per month with Shields devoting only four days a week to his job as minister. The remainder of his time would be spent working with the Save the Children Federation.
Richard E. Shields was 45 when he became minister of the First Community Church. He was the second minister in the church’s 14 year history, yet he was only a supply pastor. Mr. Shields was coming to Joplin from California where he had served two years as director of the Hall of Religion at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. He had formerly been a missionary in the West Indies, pastor of the Community Church in Mountain Lake, New Jersey, and pastor of the Hoge Memorial Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. During World War I he had been associate pastor of the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit, Michigan. He was a native of Hope, Indiana.
After his first year as “supply pastor” of the First Community Church, Mr. Shields was employed as the full-time minister, the contract being for “the duration of the war, plus six months thereafter.” It was assumed that would be the length of service for Cliff Titus. Mr. Shields was to be paid a salary of $4,500 per year with a one-time allotment of $175 for moving expenses.
The war was worsening in Europe, and Cliff Titus submitted his resignation in July, 1941. The Board refused to accept it and put him on another year’s leave of absence.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the next day our nation was at war. Mr. Shields led the church during a period when many young men and women from the church went off to war, and many young men and women serving at Camp Crowder participated in services at First Community Church.
In November, 1944, Mr. Shields resigned as minister, effective in December, 1944. R.E. Stoll was hired as acting minister until such time as “Cliff Titus was again available.” But after some months it became necessary to employ another minister for the months of May and June, 1945. After that, with the war virtually at an end, Cliff Titus would undoubtedly know when he would be available to return. Dr. J. Ruskin Howe was employed for the months of May and June.
In July word was received that Mr. Shields had died, six months after leaving Joplin to go to Cincinnati, Ohio, as the full-time director of the Save the Children Federation. Mr. Shields died of what was referred to as “brain fever.” He was buried in Hope, Indiana.
The church did not hold services during the month of July. It was too hot; the church was being redecorated; Titus was not back yet; and attendance at Sunday morning services was poor. When church services resumed in August, Dr. Howe had been rehired on a temporary basis. On October 4, 1945, Titus submitted his resignation as “minister on leave.” The resignation was not accepted that month, but in March, 1946, the Board finally accepted the resignation and gave up on the notion that Titus would ever return as is full-time minister. Dr. J. Ruskin Howe was now the full-time permanent minister of the First Community Church of Joplin.
Dr. Howe was a graduate of Otterbein College in Ohio and of the Yale Divinity School. He had pastured in Danbury, Connecticut; Dayton, Ohio; and directed youth camps at Lancaster, Ohio, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. In 1939 he had become president of Otterbein College. Now he was the third minister in the history of the First Community Church. Dr. Howe was an avid tennis player and handball player, and he left his mark on the city of Joplin in tennis.
The Third Decade: 1946-1955
The third decade in the history of the First Community Church of Joplin was a period of growth, both in membership and in activity.
The Women’s Alliance undertook a variety of activities of charitable nature, while the Men’s Alliance helped refurnish the kitchen and took on tasks to maintain the building. Attendance at some of the functions of the two alliances sometimes reached 150, and meanwhile, the finances of the church kept improving.
Dr. Howe reported to the Board “a healthy growth in attendance and in activity.” Among the items of growth he mentioned were a double-session nursery program, a training program for teachers and officers of the church, and the organization of an Alpha-Omega Club with 50 young married couples in morning and evening sessions. He also spoke about the success of a program known as Followers of the Covenant, a group of about 50 members who made house-to-house visits in a successful attempt to increase membership in the church.
A Tuesday Morning Bible Class had well over 100 members with ten other churches represented in the membership. “This is good home-missionary work for our church,” said Dr. Howe. “It is exactly in line with the genius and purpose of a community church.”
An Intermediate Candlelight Club for junior high students had more than 50 members meeting Sunday evenings, while the Candlelight Club for high school students continued its weekly meetings at various homes of members.
Membership in the church was increasing by an average of 50 per year, and attendance at Sunday School classes was increasing by an average of 15 per cent annually.
One highlight of this decade may well have been the Silver Anniversary Celebration which raised more than the $25,000 goal for charitable causes, and the average attendance at Easter Services, held annually since 1932 at the Fox Theater in downtown Joplin had reached well over 2,000 with a high of 2,502 in the mid-1950s.
But on May 25, 1953, Dr. Howe submitted his letter of resignation, to become effective at the end of his August vacation.
And on July 15, 1953, the Board elected the Reverend E. Weldon Keckley to be the fourth minister of the First Community Church of Joplin. Mr. Keckley had a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bethany College of West Virginia, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University, and a Master of Arts degree from Washington University.
Mrs. Jewell Junge in a short history of the church prepared for the dedication of the new church building in the 1960s, wrote; “In the summer of 1953 the Reverend E. Weldon Keckley was called from Kansas City, Missouri, to be minister of the First Community Church. He and his wife, Betty, started their ministry in September of that year. During the next six-and-a-half years the church enjoyed rapid growth and deepening stability under Mr. Keckley’s leadership. The church staff was increased to include a pastoral associate, and a part-time youth director. Organization of neighborhood groups, the adoption of the Character Research Project with a part-time director, and the expansion of the adult Church School were among the accomplishments of that period.”
An extensive building improvement was launched successfully. Participation in the World Outreach program was strengthened. Boy Scout Troop 8 was re-activated. And exchange dinners with the United Hebrew Congregation were launched with locales for the dinners switching between the two congregations. The church school staff had 37 members,
The church was in “great shape.”
The Fourth Decade: 1955-1965
Growth of the church continued, and activities flourished. And in December, 1956, Reverend Keckley told a congregational meeting that “a very attractive piece of real estate has been offered to our church which would be completely adequate in every way: geographically well located; beautiful from the scenic point of view; adequate space for parking and building; and most important of all, a place of which generations yet to come can be justly proud. This is a triangular-shaped piece of property bordered by Murphy Boulevard, Fifteenth Street, and Connecticut Avenue, containing three and six-tenths acres. City park space lies to the north, east, and southeast of this land.
“The Church Board backed with between 50 and 60 elders, deacons, deaconesses, and Women’s Alliance officers (8 sections) recommend that proposed property be purchased now to provide an adequate answer to our future needs.
“Because of some very generous financial contributions committed for this specific property it can now be acquired without any great financial load on the church. Any building program would, of necessity, be reserved for the future. It would provide us with a long-range program worthy of our time and energy.
“Gifts of well over half the purchase price of this property have been volunteered by individuals, if the purchase of the property is approved by the congregation before the first of the year. This necessitates a special Congregational Meeting before January 1.”
It was explained to the membership that the Board had hoped to be able to acquire property adjacent to the present property to expand educational facilities at 5th and Pearl. Such property, however, was not available.
The congregation voted overwhelmingly to “purchase land for the eventual building of new church facilities.” And on Wednesday, January 23, 1957, the proposed land was purchased for the new church.
A Capital Funds Campaign was planned by the Board to begin May 20, 1957. Burrill, Inc., professional campaign directors from Kansas City were named to lead the campaign.
Meanwhile, life at the church went on, including reciprocal dinners with the United Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi Charles Latz served as a guest minister on December 1, 1957.
The close of 1957 found the church with 80 new members for a total membership of 786, of whom 742 were from Joplin and 44 from Webb City. There were 508 active church families.
By 1958 the congregation was involved in a capital campaign to raise $200,000. A Loyalty Kick-Off Dinner was held March 5 in the dining room of the Scottish Rite Temple, and a total of $200,425 was pledged for the campaign at that dinner. Additional pledges came in later.
In July a Junior Board of Deacons was elected, and 14 young men of the congregation were the first to serve. In October a series of Christianity Classes was planned by the membership committee of the Board. These were presented in five sessions—9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.—on Sundays. They were so successful that the Board recommended they be continued annually as a better way to become better informed and to grow in fellowship. In addition, Shut-In Callers were organized to call on shut-ins monthly. By the end of 1958 Mr. Keckley was able to report that since July 1 the church had received 95 new members. The church was in a period of tremendous growth.
The growth and the activities continued throughout 1959, and First Community Church of Joplin was moving forward and was an important force in the city of Joplin.
Then early in 1960 Mr. Keckley announced his resignation effective March 31 to become pastor of the Bethany Church of Beverly Hills in Chicago, Illinois. It was, he said, a position he did not seek but one he could not turn down. He would be ministering to 1,500 persons each week with the assistance of two other ministers. The church was one of 30 which served the training of young ministers in the Chicago Theological Seminary.
On July 31, 1960, a special congregational meeting was held which approved the calling of Dr. W. Jack Wilson to the ministry of the First Community Church. He had been pastor of the Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City.
Under Dr. Wilson’s ministry, the church continued its progress. Neighborhood meetings increased. Reciprocal meetings with the United Hebrew Congregation continued. Sunday School classes were meeting at the YMCA because of crowded conditions at the education building. New adult Christian education classes were started with three separate courses, each divided into four sections of topics; it would take an individual three years to complete the courses, taught by members of the church and by Rabbi Latz, who taught a section called Old Testament Survey.
In the meantime, plans had been drawn up for the new church, and on July 12, 1961, the Board approved a contract with the M-P Construction Company for the construction of the new building at a cost of $432,660. On September 25, 1961, at the conclusion of Sunday services, members drove out to the site of the new church and held a ground-breaking ceremony. Construction on a new home for First Community Church of Joplin was underway.
Two years later, on September 1, 1963, the first service was held in the new church, and formal dedication ceremonies took place October 13.
The stone is Indiana Bedford limestone. The seating capacity was 500 after some reductions and changes were made. There is a balcony and access to it was to have been from a third floor of the educational building, but that third floor was not constructed because of a lack of funding. Forty tons of air conditioning were required to cool the sanctuary, Fellowship Hall and kitchen, and the office area. Height of the sanctuary ceiling is 45 feet above the floor, and height of the spire is 209 feet above the ground. The large mosaic stained glass window at the east end of the sanctuary consists of hand-blown Italian glass. The window was designed by the architect and was installed by the Jacoby Studios of St. Louis. Every color in the window represents “Life” and the 365 individual windows represent each day of the year.
Life in the church continued on a successful path; however, in September, 1965, Dr. Wilson announced his resignation as minister to “become involved in a business operation which is most unusual.” An interim minister was hired, and in April, 1966, a call was made to Reverend James W. Ray to become permanent minister. And plans were made to sell the property at 5th and Pearl.
The Fifth Decade: 1966-1975
Activities continued to keep the church busy, with Women’s Alliance programs, family night dinners, and adult Bible classes. The Women’s Alliance did reduce to six sections, however, and in August, 1969, Reverend Ray resigned as minister. The interim minister was Ron Unser, who served from August, 1969, until April, 1970. The new full-time minister was Sterling McHarg from Gunnison, Colorado. The recently initiated (1973) Christmas Dinner for Others continued; vacation Bible school continued to attract large numbers of participants, and large numbers of members served the church in various capacities on the Board, on committees, as deacons or elders or deaconesses or as Sunday School teachers. All was right with the church.
The Sixth Decade: 1976-1985
The church celebrated its Golden Anniversary with an open house. In early 1977 plans were underway for a Mardi Gras prior to the Lenten season, and during Lent a series of five lunches was held in Fellowship Hall. Collections were still exceeding expenses, but there were places where the added funds were needed, and soon the church “was scraping the bottom of the barrel financially.”On April 30, 1978, Reverend McHarg resigned as minister, and the resignation was seen as a sign that things were not as smooth as they seemed.
Dr. R. Dennis Heard was invited to become the interim minister for 60 days. Dr. Heard had served as superintendent of the national organization of the Pentecostal Church of God for 19 years and had a wide and respected background both in the ministerial and business communities. Later in 1978 it was decided to ask him to become the permanent minister of the church. He accepted.
The next five years were years of continuing development of the church, and long-time members still occupied positions of authority, new members were acclimated and accepted, and the usual budget problems continued. Helen Hamilton, organist for 53 years, retired; a new organ was purchased and dedicated to her and a plaque hangs on the wall behind the organ to mark her years of dedicated service. The choir loft was remodeled so the choir faced the audience, not the altar; choir leaders came and went; soloists performed regularly, and even Dr. Heard was known to burst into song during some of his sermons. He became known as “the singing minister.”
But in March, 1983, Dr. Heard died of a sudden and massive heart attack. Funeral services for Dr. Heard brought friends and business and ministerial associates from all over the United States and several foreign countries. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing, and Fellowship Hall also was filled as persons there could watch the service on closed circuit television. Dr. J.R. Girdwood of the Ozark Bible College served as interim minister until September when the Reverend William Brock Watson of Fayetteville, Arkansas, was employed as permanent minister. And life at the church continued as it had. Women’s Alliance meetings continued with interesting and provocative programs; vacation Bible school continued to be successful; Christmas Dinner for Others became an established community tradition serving more and more each year; work continued to be done on the church building, and Sunday School classes still served a large number of students, although a declining number.
An endowment fund was established; a day care center operated successfully in Fellowship Hall, but soon was at full capacity, taxing the church’s facilities. And a 60th anniversary celebration was planned and carried out, honoring each decade of the church on separate Sundays and recognizing those who had joined the church during that Sunday’s decade.
It was a good decade and programs begun decades before still continued, although some were smaller, and finances, always in the background, began to cause more concerns.
The Seventh Decade: 1986-1995
The first year of this decade was marked by the 60th Anniversary celebration. It extended over six weeks, with each Sunday service devoted to one of the decades and members who joined the church in the decades as honored guests. Included in the celebration was a drive to raise $60,000—but that drive fell far short of its goal, and finances became a recurring problem for the church. Attendance and participation in the celebration otherwise was quite good, and the congregation was pleased with the programs. A history book resulted and many former members returned “home” for the celebration. Church life continued as it had in the past, but the Rev. W. Brock Watson submitted his resignation as senior minister in June, 1990. He wished to pursue other opportunities. An interim minister served the congregation for several months. He was Dr. Craig Tally. In March, 1991, the Rev. Wayne E. VanGundy was appointed senior minister and he assumed duties in June. The usual problems of any church continued—attendance and finance, but, in general, the church prospered.
The Eighth Decade: 1996-2005
Christmas Eve services were televised several times, and early in 1996 the Board received from the minister a Vision of the Future, with both short-range (5 years) and long-range (10 years and beyond) goals. Activities continued as they had in years past; there were some changes, and there were some modifications to worship services, there now being two each Sunday. In August, 1998, Rev. VanGundy submitted his resignation to accept a position elsewhere. The Rev. Ron Unser served as an interim minister, and in April, 1999, Dr. David Smith was appointed senior minister. The church went about the business of worshipping God, serving the community, and making everyone who attended feel they belonged to the church.
The Ninth Decade: 2006 to the present
Church life featured a variety of activities; members participated; Christmas Dinner for Others gained in numbers those served both in the church and at home; and all seemed to be going well. In February, 2006, however, Dr. Smith suffered a stroke. He could not fill the pulpit for several months, and an interim minister, Doug Lawson, conducted services. Dr. Smith eventually returned, but in October, 2007, he resigned as senior minister. Members of the congregation took charge of presiding at worship services and introduced various guest speakers while a search committee began the work of identifying a full-time minister. For the Lenten Season, the Rev. Gary Thomas was guest speaker and conducted Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, leading to Easter. After that Thomas and Dr. Craig Tally alternated as interim minister until June, when Dr. Tally was hired as the new senior minister. Since his arrival the church has experienced new growth and a new enthusiasm.