The First Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Washington, D. C. was organized on February 23, 1889 with 26 charter members. But the beginning of the work dates back to 1876, when Elder D. N. Canright, on his way to Baltimore, reported two families in the area actively distributing tracts. In 1890, Elder I. Sanborn, while spending a week in Washington, found three members and baptized two more. Four years later, Rueben Wright distributed publications in the city, held Bible studies, and after some months reported two converts. But no concerted effort was begun until two years later.
In January 1886, Elder Willard H. Saxby of Vermont, and his wife, a Bible instructor who had been one of the first converts in Kentucky, were assigned to Washington. Assisted also by Elder Charles Parmele and his sister, Julia of Illinois and others including apprentice Bible instructors from time to time, Elder Saxby operated what was called a city mission at 1831 Vermont Avenue, N. W.
In the first three months they gave 297 Bible studies and gained one convert. In two years they had a Sabbath school of 46, which having outgrown the Vermont Avenue location, met in Claybough Hall, at 1630 Fourteenth Street, N. W. Elder John O. Corliss conducted evening meetings with the membership and believing that the time had come for perfection of organization, formed a church on Sunday, February 24, 1889. “During the following week, we were made glad by meeting with Elder Uriah Smith, Elder Lycurgis MCoy and Professor William W. Prescott, who with others from Battle Creek met with us on Sabbath, March 2, in celebration of the ordinances,” wrote Elder Corliss in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald.
In the same month the mission moved to a Southeast site near the Capitol. There, in March 1890, a council of leader from Battle Creek planned the formation of the Atlantic Conference (organized in September 1889) which included the District of Columbia. Under the new arrangement it was decided to close the mission and the Saxbys left in August. The church then had a membership of 41. Elder J. S. Washburn and Elder Charles L. Taylor held evangelistic meetings in 1890 and the congregation grew.
“We left on Thursday night at four for Boston, from which place we took transportation for Washington…”, so begins the diary entries of Ellen G. White, whose prophetic gifts and writings have been a constant encouragement and guide to Advent believers everywhere. She visited the First Church from December 19 to December 29, 1890. She expressed great concern about the need for an appropriate “house of worship” in the nation’s capitol. In 1893, under the leadership of Elder John Corliss, who had returned after a four year absence, the first building was purchased. The Evening Star reported the following in the July 14, 1893 issue: “The Seventh-day Adventist congregation in this city, having met for some years in various sections of the city, has purchased the church building formerly used by the Eastern Presbyterian Church on 8th street, between F and G Streets Northeast, and will hold services therein for the first time tomorrow. Aside from services on the Sabbath, Elder J. O. Corliss will also hold services on Sunday evening.” The congregation was interracial and among its members was Rosetta Douglas Sprague, the daughter of Frederick Douglass, who was no doubt influenced in some way by her father’s witness of the falling of the stars and his belief in that this event was a “harbinger of the coming of the Son of Man.”
By the turn of the century the church was firmly established and involved in evangelism. In 1902 Elder Louis G. Sheafe and Elder J. S. Washburne conducted evangelistic crusades with Elder Washburn establishing the second Washington church, the Memorial Church. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was moved from Battle Creek to Washington at this time and the churches in the District of Columbia were assigned to the administration of the General Conference. By 1905 two additional churches had been formed, the Takoma Park Church and the People’s Church with Elder Sheafe as pastor. In 1909 they were made a part of the District of Columbia Conference which had been operating from the Atlantic Union Conference.
Over the next several years, church growth increased and the First Church continued its outreach activities. In 1916, while the nation was involved in World War I, Elder J. Marion Campbell was called to the First Church as pastor. The membership grew as a new wave in the northwest and southwest sections of the city took hold. The membership grew and the congregation as well as its minister became more deeply involved in tract distribution and in personal witness. Believing that Christian education was necessary, a church school, the Washington Union Academy was established in 1917 under the pastorate of Elder Frederick J. Seeney and jointly operated with the Ephesus Church. The school made a more substantial penetration into the life of the community. Many children enrolled in the school were not affiliated with the church and the church welfare programs strengthened this tie with the neighborhood and with the public. Church growth continued, and in 1919 it was reported that “membership has doubled during the past three years.”
The next thirty years proved to be fruitful for the First Church. A banner Sabbath School was established and maintained. Ingathering goals were often reached and exceeded in a matter of weeks. By 1955, the small church on 8th Street, N. E. had become greatly overcrowded and the congregation under the leadership of Elder Wilmot M. Fordham purchased the property at 810 Shepherd Street, N. W. The official opening services were held June 5-7, 1957 with Elder Paul Cantrell as minister. An extensive remodeling program was initiated by Elder John H. Wagner, Jr. the next pastor and the cost of the building and the renovation had been fully met at the dedication.
Other ministers serving the First Church have been Elder Charles B. Atkinson, Elder Adolphus E. Webb, Elder Leslie J. Pryor, Elder Eric S. Dillett, Elder R. T. Hudson, Elder Luther R. Palmer, Elder John Collins, Elder Alfred R. Jones, Dr. Edward L. Richardson, Elder Melvyn E. Hayden, Jr., Elder Thaddious Privette, Dr. John E. Trusty, Dr. Mark A. McCleary, and currently Lisa Smith-Redi. Where there was one church and one conference in the area, there are now 102 churches and companies and three conferences. The First Church has made a most decisive impact on the Washington D. C. community in its 124 year history.