“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” —Matthew 16:18
The Birth of Fourth
The Early Years, 1828-1925
The rich heritage of Presbyterianism was brought to America in the 17th century by immigrants from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The first Presbyterian church in the New World was founded in 1684 in Snow Hill, Maryland, by Francis Makemie, commissioned in Northern Ireland as a missionary in America.
Fourth Presbyterian Church, founded November 24, 1828, traces its ancestry to the Bridge Street Church, the first Presbyterian church in Washington, established March 16, 1780, in Georgetown. In 1820, 16 Bridge Street Church members, 21 members of other churches, and 47 others organized the Second Presbyterian Church and called Dr. Daniel Baker, well-known revivalist and preacher, to be its pastor.
In 1828, when Dr. Baker accepted a call to Savannah, disagreement arose in Second Church over who would be the next pastor. When the call was extended to the Rev. John N. Campbell, 20 members of Second, who favored Rev. Joshua N. Danforth, left and, along with 13 others, formed Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, then a city of approximately 15,000 people. The United States had only 24 states and John Quincy Adams was President at the time.
Fourth Church was received into the regional Presbytery at a meeting at Bridge Street Church on January 19, 1829, where it was resolved that Rev. Joshua N. Danforth would serve as its pastor. On March 1, 1829, the first Fourth Church, a plain, wooden structure known as “The Little White,” was completed at the intersection of Ninth Street and Grant Place, N.W. During Rev. Danforth’s four-year tenure, Fourth’s membership grew to 140 congregants.
In 1832, Rev. Danforth accepted an assignment in New England, and on his recommendation, the Rev. Mason Noble, “a man of most ardent piety,” became Fourth’s second pastor. He served for seven years, until 1839, when he accepted a call to pastor a church in New York City. During his pastorate 197 members were added.
Dr. John Cross Smith, Bridge Street Church pastor, became Fourth’s third pastor on September 27, 1839. During his 39-year ministry, Dr. Smith’s preaching of God’s word kept the church filled with people thirsty to hear the gospel. As the church overflowed, the congregation unanimously decided to construct a new building across the street from "The Little White." The new structure was the largest church in the city of Washington. President John Tyler and his cabinet attended its dedication on June 20, 1841.
Dr. Smith died in 1878 and Dr. Joseph T. Kelly became the fourth pastor. He had grown up at Fourth; his family had been longtime members of the church. During his pastorate, the new Fourth Church Chapel was built at 13th and Fairmont Streets and dedicated on May 7, 1899. Under Dr. Kelly’s leadership two daughter churches were founded, one in Washington and one in Berwyn, Maryland.
On Dr. Kelly’s watch, Fourth became known as a great missionary church, offering financial support, opening its pulpit to noted missionaries, and sending many of its own sons and daughters to local and overseas fields. Dr. Kelly was also deeply interested in youth ministry. In 1884, he established the Young People’s Prayer Meeting Association. Dr. Kelly retired in 1925 after 50 years as pastor.
The Later Years
1925 to the Present
In 1925, the congregation called Dr. James Hayes Miers of Perth, Ontario, to succeed Dr. Kelly as the next pastor of the church. Under Dr. Miers, the church outgrew its space and dedicated a new building on November 25, 1928. God blessed the congregation and allowed them to support 30 missionaries, conduct a Thursday evening service, hold Tuesday evening Bible classes, hire a full-time music director, and form young people’s groups. To help reach the Washington D.C. area, the church began broadcasting by radio in 1929. Before long, the church again outgrew its facility and the congregation began praying for a new location at which to worship. On March 17, 1957, a new building was dedicated at 5500 River Road in Bethesda. Dr. Miers faithfully pastored Fourth Church for 32 years until his death in 1957.
On December 7, 1958, God called Dr. Richard C. Halverson to be the sixth pastor of Fourth Church. God continued to grow the congregation by adding to their number. In 1971 a new wing was added to provide more classroom and office space. Dr. Halverson labored for the Lord and built upon the legacy of Dr. Miers in encouraging and expanding support for missions, emphasizing the youth ministry, and beginning initiatives aimed at singles and young marrieds. He began the Ladies’ Thursday morning Bible study, which continues to this day, and spearheaded the formation of the Media Center. In 1981, after 24 years at Fourth, he accepted the call to become Chaplain of the United States Senate. Dr. Halverson died in 1995.
On January 29, 1984, Dr. Robert M. Norris was installed as Fourth’s seventh pastor. In God’s providence, Dr. Norris, like Dr. Halverson before him, was called to Fourth while serving First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, CA. Under his ministry, the Fourth departed the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination to join the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church. With God’s continued blessing, the church grew and in 1994 the present building was enlarged to provide additional classroom space for youth and adults. Another expansion to the building followed in 2005 to accommodate the growing children’s ministry of the church. Dr. Norris stepped down in 2015 after 32 years as Senior Pastor; he continued on as Teaching Pastor at Fourth until his retirement in early 2023.
On October 18, 2015, Dr. Todd M. Smedley was installed as the eighth pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church. In God’s timing, Dr. Smedley arrived at Fourth in 2001, serving as Associate Pastor in various roles and completing a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 2012. He is encouraged in ministry by his wife, Jennifer, and their three children. With his love for people and preaching the gospel, God has equipped Dr. Smedley to face the challenges of leading Fourth’s ministry into the 21st century.
We seek to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus Christ through Christ-Centered Worship, Gospel-Shaped Community, Kingdom-Advancing Multiplication, and Neighbor-Loving Service. God has upheld each of Fourth’s eight Senior Pastors as they have committed to preaching his word and spreading the gospel message in this city and to the uttermost parts of the world.