We are the oldest Church in Pierre, as we celebrate the 137th Anniversary, but our roots go back even further onto the South Dakota landscape through the mission work begun by Stephen Return Riggs in 1840 and carried on by his son, Thomas, in 1872. They began work among the Lakota that lived on the land and shared with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlike many missionaries of the time, they didn’t believe that the Indian should be exterminated, but they did believe that the Indian would have to make peace with the Europeans that were filling up the States and moving across the prairie at ever-increasing rates. And they believed with a passion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was meant to be shared with all people everywhere. And they believed that the Indians should hear that good news in their own language, so the Riggs and others created the first Lakota Bible, a Lakota dictionary and even a Lakota hymnal. They learned the language of the Lakota and taught the Lakota English. They started churches up and down the river and they were led by native Indian lay ministers. Today, that tradition still carries on in the life of the Dakota Association – 13 churches on four reservations who still today are led by Indian pastors serving the local communities.
There is much more information about this history available in our library and archives.
The local congregation took root here in 1880, a few years before statehood even! The first services were held with a membership of nine people and a minister, Rev. William B. Williams. On November 28, 1880, they organized the first church in Pierre in a railroad construction shack on Coteau Street. Rev. Williams came to Fort Pierre by steamboat and served the Home Missionary Society and preached on ‘both sides of the river.’ Two months later he brought his wife to Pierre, but when they couldn’t find housing accommodations, they lived in a tent in what is now Griffin Park. Later the church would move from the railroad shack to a tent at Dakota and Fort Street because the tent was warmer. The tent church was patronized by ‘saint and sinner.’ They worshipped in fourteen places before building the church. Eugene Steere writes, “my wife and I would go to on Sunday morning and find out we had been ousted from the previous place and have to carry the organ and books to some new-found place."
With financial help from the East, the small congregation built its first church at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Pierre Street. The church was dedicated September 3, 1882, with the Rev. Thomas Riggs of the Oahe Mission preaching the first sermon. The church served the congregation until 1932 when a new building was constructed at Highland and Prospect for a cost of $23,200. During the church’s history it has had 29 ministers, including its present pastor, The Rev. Emily Munger.
On the wide open, sprawling prairie our Congregationalist forefathers and mothers played an integral part in the development of Pierre and surrounding areas. They were involved in government, as educators, doctors, surveyors, ranchers and farmers, tradesmen and women, parents and members of voluntary associations that provided for the interests and needs of the communities.