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Presbyterians called Mississippi home before it was a state. The denomination’s influence drew many to Mississippi and it plays a role in building some of Mississippi’s landmarks.
On Saturday, members of three Presbyterian denominations will meet at Belhaven University — historically a Presbyterian university — for the first known celebration of its kind in the state to learn from one another, honor their shared history and look to the future of the church.
The event, “Hope for Years to Come: Mississippi Presbyterians in History and Mission,” was organized to highlight the influence Presbyterians have had throughout Mississippi’s history.
The gathering also celebrates how this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the 200th anniversary of Mississippi becoming a state.
The groups will gather from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. on Saturday in Belhaven University’s Dr. Billy Kim International Center.
One of the event’s organizers, Rev. William Shurley of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Gulfport, said the event will bring together three denominations: Presbyterian Church in America; Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
“Our goal in getting together is not to ignore the doctrinal differences among those different denominations,” Shurley said. “But we all do share a common heritage. We all come out of the reformed tradition. We all have a common history coming over from Scotland to the colonies down into Mississippi.”
In 1789, the first Presbyterian minister to settle permanently in the Mississippi Territory was Joseph Bullen. He was sent by the Board of Missions of New York to the Chickasaw Indians in northeast Mississippi.
Over the years, a number of churches were founded in that area of the state. In 1816, the year before Mississippi became a state, those churches formed the very first Mississippi presbytery, or a group of churches that are accountable to one another, Shurley said.
The Presbyterian Church founded Oakland College, a school primarily for white children of Mississippi planters and plantation owners, Shurley said. It closed during the Civil War and is now the site of Alcorn State University, one of the state’s three publicly-supported historically black institutions of higher learning.
Other institutions founded by Presbyterians in the state include French Camp Academy in French Camp and the community of Rodney, a present-day ghost town that nearly became the capital of the state.
“In the early part of American history, Presbyterianism was actually the fastest growing Christian faith at the time,” Shurley said. “That’s one reason folks came down here as early as the late 1700s. There’s this real emphasis on Presbyterian mission.”
The event at Belhaven, which Shurley deems a “homecoming,” will welcome Presbyterians with a mission fair that highlights mission opportunities at the local, state and international level within the three different churches. The gathering will also host a concert featuring local choirs to celebrate the Reformation.
The event will also reflect on Presbyterianism’s role alongside the history of the state, good or bad.
“Like any legacy institution in the state, we’ve come through things like the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement,” Shurley said. “Certainly, Presbyterians have not always gotten those things right.”
“In this day and age, all three of the primary Presbyterian churches coming together recognize it is part of the church’s duty to demonstrate an attitude of reconciliation and repentance where we weren’t right in terms of slavery and civil rights,” he said.
Overall, Shurley hopes attendees will use this opportunity to understand more about where Presbyterians came from and how the church has made a difference over the years. He also hopes attendees will learn about new ways of serving their communities.
“Especially in a time where the world is so divided, (it’s important that) we show what it means to be in community with one another,” Shurley said.
“We’re not trying to bring the three churches together,” he noted. “We’re not trying to form a reunion, but we’re just trying to enjoy one another’s company and to do that particularly through our history and our hope for cooperative mission.”