New Book Tells Wheeling’s History Through a Fresh Lens

 A new book released this month tells the story of First Presbyterian Church’s first 200 years by looking at everything from a pulpit used in the city’s 1912 Billy Sunday revival to the church’s complicated relationship with slavery to a timeline that sets the church inside the larger story arc of city, state and national life.

It is a joint work by writer Nora Edinger, historian Margaret Brennan and graphic designer Phyllis Sigal. Pastor Mike O’Neil and church elder Tom Hazlett rounded out the editorial team.

The book involves multiple storytelling angles – which also include a close look at pastors, music leaders, city demographics and the architecture of what is likely Wheeling’s oldest standing building. “Our First 200 Years: First Presbyterian Church of Wheeling” is full color, 117 pages and hardbound.

Our First 200 Years book cover.

Here are some interesting facts the year-plus production unearthed:

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  • The Billy Sunday pulpit located in the church archive has a crack running down its front. Handwritten notes suggest the damage resulted from Sunday – a professional baseball player from the Victorian era turned rockstar evangelist – jumping on it or kicking it during a particularly enthusiastic sermon.
  • The well-known yellow stucco façade of the First Presbyterian Church conceals original brickwork – and the literal fingerprints of construction workers, some of them children.
  • Lucy Bagby – a Wheeling slave who escaped to Cleveland and may have been the last American to be successfully prosecuted under the federal Fugitive Slave Act – was closely associated with the church through the family that claimed her ownership. Other church members, however, were abolitionists whose views held enough sway that the church began admitting both slaves and free Black residents in the 1830s.  
  • Presbyterian worship in what is now downtown Wheeling goes all the way back to the 1782 Siege of Fort Henry – to a single sermon preached inside its walls.

“Our First 200 Years: First Presbyterian Church of Wheeling” is available for $25 through the church’s office at 1307 Chapline Street. Call the church at 304-232-3383 or email for more information.

The editorial team will additionally speak about the production and content of the book at the noon Sept. 12 Lunch With Books at Ohio County Public Library. 

The book release and subsequent talk are only part of the celebration of the church’s bicentennial year, according to O’Neil. Next up is a living history program conducted by Friends of Wheeling. Reenactors will represent the early church members whose names embellish stained glass windows in the sanctuary at 1 p.m. July 16 event at the church, 1307 Main St.