Our Church History

Our roots go back more than 100 years, beginning with a small worshiping community of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) which relocated from San Francisco to San Anselmo in 1892.

When Montgomery Chapel was constructed in 1897 on the corner of Bolinas Avenue and Richmond Road, this community incorporated itself into a formal congregation with the name “Seminary Presbyterian Church.”  In 1907 when the town of San Anselmo was incorporated, the name was changed to First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo.  Even though our church has since been a separate entity from the Seminary, we have maintained a close association through the years.

In preparation for our centennial celebration in 1997, the session commissioned a committee to write the history of our first one-hundred years.  Thirty-one people worked together for more than a year to research and write this history.  Now each new member is given a copy of Our Past: A Window to the Future—A Centennial History of the First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, 1897-1997.

The history was explored and written in a spirit of profound gratitude to God and to our ancestors, that great cloud of witnesses who preceded us in this place.  The past was examined not for its own sake, but for the sake of the future. In understanding our heritage we hoped to consciously shape the legacy which would be passed on to our children and our children’s children.

The frame of the church during construction in 1957.

Most histories of local churches fall into one of four categories:  “chronicles” which list one event after another without any apparent pattern or interpretive purpose;  “yearbooks” which list facts, figures, buildings, programs, personnel, anniversaries, etc.;  “hagiographies”  (literally, ‘holy writings’) which are idealized stories of congregational ‘saints’ whose lives are held up for emulation;  “devotionals” which make pious and sometimes doctrinaire declarations of what God has done, with little attention to real history and contingent causes. Instead we look at our history as an interpretive narrative of the interweaving plots of our congregation’s story, especially those involving conflict.  It is about real people and how they struggled with God and with each other during the first 100 years.

The narrative has been refracted through a central lens, the incarnation literally, “God in human flesh— meaning that signs of God’s presence is found in the mundane, ordinary events and activities as well as in the momentous and spectacular.  We discern God’s activity in successes and failures as well as in harmony and conflict because God in Christ is present not only in strength but also—indeed especially—in weakness.

The history of this church includes dramatic events—a 1909-1911heresy trial about biblical modernism; membership loss over the Angela Davis Defense Fund in the early ‘70s; and a walkout during a sermon on Central America in 1985—as well as the gradual unfolding, from decade to decade, of congregational patterns of worship and education, mission and service, fellowship and nurture.  If you want to know how we moved from condemning “Demon Rum” to savoring the wine of our members’ vineyards; why we worship the way we do; how we obtained two of the best organs in northern California; how we became an inclusive church; how children and youth became a central focus of our congregational life; or who our pastors have been for the past century, go to the library and check out a copy of Our Past: A Window to the Future.

Adapted from “Congregational History:  A Past for the Future,” by Walter Davis and Chandler Stokes, The Presbyterian Outlook, September 7, 1998, p. 15.