"Sir, we would see Jesus!"
The History of McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church
In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church (MMPC) stands as an historically-significant congregation, graced with a long and unique history in the denomination which it helped found in 1973, in the PCA’s Gulf Coast Presbytery, and in the Pensacola community.
In 1902 members of the First Presbyterian Church in Pensacola saw a need to establish a mission in the growing East Hill community, one of the city’s first suburban areas. Four men from First Church started meeting in a building at the corner of 12th Avenue and Cervantes Street on January 4, 1903. The group was known as the Stoddard Avenue Sunday School because at the time 12th Avenue was known as Stoddard Avenue. A memorial stone erected in front of McIlwain in 2003 commemorates that event – the beginning of what would become McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Eventually the growing Sunday School class moved to a location on 13th Avenue and Blount Street, erecting a unique-styled meeting house in 1907, and in 1911, the Florida Presbytery commissioned a new church: Knox Presbyterian Church, named in honor of Scotland’s John Knox, who founded Presbyterianism in the 1550s. There were fifty-nine members.
Rev. K.L. McIver, the fledgling church’s first pastor, assumed the pulpit in 1911. In that first year the membership doubled to 104. Afterward, the church grew steadily in the years that followed. Subsequent pastors were B. B. Shandkel (1914) and Rev. I.E. Philips (1914-1917).
In mid-1917, Rev. William McIlwain began his time as pastor, serving until 1923. He was widely admired among his congregation and in the city of Pensacola. Under Pastor McIlwain’s leadership, the church began construction of a new sanctuary. Pastor McIlwain’s wife, Harriet Saunders McIlwain, previously the widow of a prominent Pensacola businessman, played an important role by donating a significant portion of the construction cost. The original meeting house, which originally faced 13th street, was moved to its present location to make room for the new sanctuary.
In honor of the McIlwains’ ministry, Knox Presbyterian was subsequently renamed McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church (MMPC) in 1925 when the new sanctuary was opened during the pastorate of Rev. James E. Guthrie, who succeeded Rev. McIlwain.
Rev. McIlwain later played a key role in recruiting Rev. Claude G. Partridge, who served as MMPC’s pastor from 1933 to 1949, the church’s longest serving pastor. It was he who placed the quote from John 12:21, “Sir, we would see Jesus,” on the speaker side of McIlwain’s pulpit.
The 1950s saw the beginning of the “Don” era at MMPC: four pastors named Don, beginning with Donald C. Graham, served the church in succession. Rev. Graham also first lived in the new manse, finished in 1954. In addition, the church added a second floor to the Knox building, and in 1956 opened a new education and administration building.
Rev. Graham also began two ministries that would have a profound impact on modern Presbyterian history, not just in America but around the world: the Pensacola Youth Crusade and the Pensacola Theological Institute (PTI). Both ministries each year drew hundreds of participants locally and regionally. The PTI, which ran from 1957 to 2001, was for a major part of that time a favorite in regional and even national circles as a bulwark of conservative theological and strong Biblical teaching. The PTI served as a home-base of sorts for conservative, Bible-believing Christians of the Presbyterian Church United States (PCUS), and was a locale where many leaders met to formulate the creation of a new denomination.
Rev. Graham left the church in 1961, and was followed by Don Patterson in 1962. Rev. Patterson continued McIlwain’s strong resistance to liberal tendencies within the PCUS. In 1971, the third “Don” came to MMPC, Don Dunkerly, who served from 1971-1978. It was during Rev. Don Dunkerly’s pastorate that MMPC left the PCUS to become, in 1973, a founding congregation of the PCA.
Don Graham took his second pastorate at MMPC from 1984-1986. He was honored by a special tribute from the Session in 1988 with the naming of the Don Graham Education and Administration Building.
Rev. Robert Ferguson served as pastor at MMPC from 1987 to 1989, and was succeeded by Rev. Chuck DeBardeleben, who served the church for ten years, 1991 to 2001. Rev. DeBardeleben’s tenure saw major improvements and changes to MMPC’s campus facilities and the growth of new ministries. Pastor DeBardeleben left MMPC in 2001 to take a pastoral call in Gainesville. GA.
In 2002, MMPC called a new pastor, Rev. Rob Looper. Rev. Looper has been a strong proponent of Biblical preaching, faithful discipleship and robust apologetic engagement with the culture. Under Rev. Looper’s leadership the McIlwain’s ministry has been greatly enhanced by the purchase of a beautiful Victorian home adjacent to McIlwain’s campus. Located at the corner of East Blount Street and busy 12th Avenue, the McIlwain House is a popular gathering place for many regular church ministries and allows McIlwain to serve the community as the regular meeting location of the East Hill Neighborhood Association.
McIlwain has continued its strong worldwide Gospel outreach under Pastor Looper’s oversight, unveiling in 2013 Growing by Grace, a radio teaching ministry that is featured both locally on the radio in Pensacola and around the world via the internet. In 2014 McIlwain began to support missions through Faith Promise, an exciting opportunity to trust God to provide for the work of the Kingdom.
Though small by some standards, God has given McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church a ministry that has led many, both on and far beyond the quiet East Hill corner of East Blount Street and 12th Avenue, indeed, to see Jesus.
May God continue to bless its work! Soli Deo Gloria.
- “A Brief History of McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church,” Brent McMahan
- “The Birth of A Church: McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church of Pensacola, FL”, Jerry Hattaway, Historian, McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church
- History of McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church 1903-1955, Etta Gillis.
- McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church Golden Anniversary, Rev. Donald C. Graham.
- A Look at Our Heritage (1978), Eileen Dunkerley.
- “Sir, We Would See Jesus” – The Story of McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church 1902-1989, Jerry Hattaway.
- “History of McIlwain Updated 1990-2003,” Jerry Hattaway.
- “The Story of the Knox Building (2007),” Jerry Hattaway.