In the beginning
In 1804, a group of English independents withdrew from Second Presbyterian Church to form the “Independent Tabernacle Church.” After several years as both an independent and then a Dutch Reformed congregation, they rejoined the Presbytery as Seventh Presbyterian. In 1873 Seventh Presbyterian merged with Sixth Presbyterian, which had been created from a church split at Old Pine, under the new name “Tabernacle Presbyterian Church” and the leadership of Rev. Dr. Henry McCook, a nationally known “pulpiteer” in the mainstream of conservative evangelical Protestantism. In 1883, the church relocated to the rapidly growing suburb of West Philadelphia. The cornerstone of our present building at 37th and Chestnut was laid in 1884. The completed structure was designed by Theophilus Parsons Chandler and cost $206,000. Its sanctuary seated 900.
Student Outreach and Financial Difficulties
The years from Rev. McCook’s retirement in 1902 until 1957 were marked by financial difficulties and the start of Tabernacle’s outreach to students. Rev. William Oxtoby formed a club for University students in 1908, and signed an agreement with the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania in 1913. There were ups and downs in membership caused by population shifts and disagreement over the Rev. Dr. John Blair’s support for the Social Gospel during his tenure from 1913 to 1929. Dr. Blair was succeeded by the internationally renowned evangelical preacher Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, who resigned at the start of the Great Depression, and then by his son, Dr. Howard Moody Morgan, who served until 1950. In 1951 the national denomination created the Westminster Foundation for outreach to students with the pastor of Tabernacle as the Philadelphia director, and an associate who would concentrate on student outreach. The program started in 1953 with the Rev. Edward Brubaker.
Local and International Mission and UCC Affiliation
From 1957 to 1990 Tabernacle solidified its identity as a mission church and a new relationship with the United Church of Christ. We also provided worship space at various times for Korean, Formosan, and Coptic congregations.
In 1957, at the instigation of students, a community outreach program was begun to work with neighborhood children and youth. The Presbytery of Philadelphia paid for a full-time director; students and year-round residents of Powelton Village ran special interest clubs after school for children under 14, tutoring programs, and dances for teenagers.
In 1958 a UCC campus minister, William Jacobs, was trying to find a church home for Penn students who were members of the UCC. The nearest UCC church was too far from campus and its membership was only lukewarm about this; so Jacobs asked if Tabernacle would accept him and his group as a UCC congregation to be federated with Tabernacle. Jacobs became Tab’s assistant minister under terms of this agreement; but each group (Presbyterian and UCC) had its own ruling body (session and consistory) and each had its own budget. Nine years later, a joint ruling body (the council) was voted in, and a unified budget was passed. Full union did not occur until 1982.
Rev. Lacy R. Harwell served from 1961-1968. He was deeply involved in the struggle to save the homes of black families in “Area III,” the large parcel of land where University City High School now stands. Several children of that neighborhood were members of Tab’s 4th, 5th and 6th grade church school class. Despite visits to City Hall, petitions, protests and sit-ins, the neighborhood was bulldozed. Tabernacle started a “Responsible Parenthood” program that was eventually taken over by the Presbyterian Medical Center, and a cooperative Nursery School that continued until the early 1980s. Many Tabernacle members protested against the Vietnam War.
Rev. Thomas Dietrich pastored at Tabernacle from 1969 to 1977 with associate pastors Benjamin Wu, Roderick P. Frohman, and Donna Schaper. During this time, Tab began the continuing practice of starting new community organizations through start-up funds, office space, and the lending of leadership talents of its lay members. The concept was to aid larger community participation in the life of social change organizations, not to retain ownership. Tab played a central role in such new organizations as Action Alliance of Senior Citizens, Women in Transition, The Gray Panthers, and Women’s Alliance for job Equity.
The Rev. Jim McDonald served from 1981 to 1990. During his tenure, the congregation voted to become a part of the Sanctuary Movement. This movement was begun in the Southwestern states, where churches assisted in smuggling El Salvadoran refugees fleeing the oppressive regime of their own country across the Mexican border, giving them hiding places and finding them means of livelihood. In May of 1985, Tabernacle began to host the refugees we were to know only as “Ernesto and Linda.” In due time they were able to return home. Our acquaintance with them sparked a continuing interest in Central American problems and the formation of a sister relationship with the community of Las Anonas, El Salvador, resulting in trips of Tab members there to accompany them in their housing construction and their search for ways of becoming economically self-sufficient. For six months we hosted Rosa Caseras, who came as an “ambassador to Philadelphia” from the church in Honduras. Several of our young adults chose vocations as a result of involvement with Central American issues.
A New Sanctuary
Decades of accelerating demographic shifts, combined with the destruction of the immediate neighborhood and the move of the national Presbyterian offices from Philadelphia to Kentucky, left Tabernacle serving a shrinking, geographically scattered, and largely transient core constituency interested in both radical peace and justice missions and traditional mainline Presbyterian worship and theology. From 1984-1985, during Jim McDonald’s pastorate, the congregation renovated the original chapel, which had for years served as the nursery school during weekdays and the church school on Sundays, and converted the former sanctuary to a theater. In 1997 Westminster House was sold to the University of Pennsylvania, which leased the building to the Christian Association. At the same time, Penn signed a long term lease on the church basement and the theater, which it renamed “Iron Gate.”
In 1991 Tab began a period of self-examination that led to the decision, based largely on our understanding of the church as sanctuary, to declare ourselves Open and Affirming and More Light, the first UCC and first PCUSA church in Pennsylvania to officially welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons into full membership and leadership in the congregation.
Susan Minasian was the first UCC minister and first woman called as pastor, and during her short but lively ministry from 1992-1995, Tab began its focus on the arts by collaborating with Movement Theatre International, who were the first tenants in the theater space. Along with members of the congregation Susan helped start the Career Wardrobe, and she encouraged two other members to help start and sustain the Interfaith Working Group, which for ten years educated the public on the role of progressive communities of faith in building an inclusive society.
A New Spirit
Rev. Patricia Pearce served as Tabernacle’s pastor from November, 1997 through Pentecost, 2010. She encouraged the self-sufficiency of the congregation, concentrating on intentional exploration and development of spirituality, Christology, theology, and community through innovative preaching, worship, and adult education, including the Tab.edu series, book discussions, and the formation of affinity groups. Rev. Pearce was personally active in the green and peace movements, serving a week in Federal prison for her opposition to the invasion of Iraq. With her we instituted a policy of giving free meeting space to organizations whose mission is consistent with the congregation’s, strengthened our ties with Las Anonas, developed a relationship with the New Jerusalemrecovery community in North Philadelphia, and started a ministry of Holy Unions for same-gender couples. Tabernacle launched the Arts and Spirituality Center (now Artwell) and members of Tabernacle were instrumental in the launch of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.
On November 18, 2012, the congregation unanimously called the Rev. Katie Aikins to be our next pastor, starting February 4, 2013.