October 21, 2019
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Binding Us Fast

Evansville’s rich faith traditions are expanding to encompass the world’s religions.
The First Presbyterian Church near Downtown Evansville traces its roots to 1821.

On a moonless night late last fall, scores of Evansville-area families gathered at their new house of worship to celebrate one of the most important holidays of their faith. Clad in brightly colored, new clothes and bearing gifts and food fit for a feast, they greeted each other warmly before heading outside for an evening of fireworks. The celebration? Diwali, the Hindu “Festival of Lights.”

The event, laden with symbols of good – represented by light – triumphing over the darkness of evil, was the first Diwali celebrated at the Tri-State Hindu Temple, home to more than 200 families of Indian origin within a 50-mile radius of Evansville. Members – many of whom are doctors, university professors, and business owners – have spent several years raising the funds to build a place where they could worship as a community. Along with the Islamic Center of Evansville, which serves some 250 families from around the world, the Hindu temple represents the growing multi-cultural diversity of the city.

It’s a much different place in many ways than on the cold December day in 1819 when a group of pioneers gathered in the log cabin of Hugh McGary, the founder of their small settlement along the Ohio River. A Methodist circuit rider named John Schrader stood before them, having traveled through the wilderness to reach their isolated dwelling. Opening his Bible, Schrader read aloud to his audience. With these words, Schrader presided over the first recorded church service in Evansville history. For the next two centuries, faith and religion would continue to play an important role in the growth and development of the city.

Evansville’s historians say the city is rich in sacred ground, filled with the icons, relics, steeples, and temples that reflect an increasing presence of the world’s religions. The city may have begun with the prayers of Christians, but other faiths have followed.

Among the earliest believers to locate in the area were 33 men and women who built a primitive log cabin church on the bank of Carpenter Creek in a community later known as Howell, now part of Evansville’s West Side. They would become the founders of a mother church of a new denomination that would spread around the world. This year, that congregation, known as Howell General Baptist Church, will celebrate its 184th anniversary.

Around the same time as Howell’s humble beginnings, a group of Presbyterians were building their congregation in Evansville. By 1831, they felt secure enough to buy a lot on Second Street for $100 and erect what they called “The Little Church on the Hill.” Within a decade, those early Protestants would be joined by the waves of German immigrants arriving in the United States, who were drawn by the promise of political, religious, and economic freedom.

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