The church pictured above with its stately spire and Georgian architecture presiding over downtown Youngstown represents the oldest congregation in the Western Reserve, being founded on September 1, 1799. The original building was a log cabin built diagonally on the corner and the first pastor was Reverend William Wick. Several buildings followed. The Helen Chapel, a red brick, Italian renaissance building was built in 1889. The current sanctuary replaced a Gothic structure in 1959, under the pastoral leadership of Dr. W. Frederic Miller, reflecting a commitment to stay in the city. The buildings are connected by Hudnut Hall, a tribute to one of the illustrious pastors of this church.
William Herbert Hudnut, Sr. was born October 24, 1864 in Brooklyn, New York. He received is B.A. from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1886, Princeton Theological Seminary 1887-1889 and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1890. In 1890, he married Harriet Beecher. He subsequently received a Doctor of Divinity from the College of Wooster in 1906 and a Doctor of Laws in 1929.
After serving churches at Port Jervis and Brooklyn, New York, he accepted a call as assistant to a Dr. Evans at First Presbyterian Church in 1899. He came highly recommended and received a starting salary of $2500 a year (the average annual salary of a worker in 1900 was $675). The salary may not only reflect the esteem in which he was held but the fact that this was a congregation that was a “Who’s Who” of Youngstown in that era. A church cookbook compiled in 1905 by the women of First Presbyterian includes contributions from Mrs. Henry Wick and several other Wicks, Mrs. Reuben McMillan, Mrs. Joseph Butler, Mrs. William Bonnell, and Mrs. Myron Arms among others.
Hudnut arrived at a time when Youngstown was undergoing a startling transformation. By 1920, there would be 90,000 more people in the city than when he arrived. A number of the local iron firms started by men in the church would be bought up by the large steel corporations that controlled the Valley for the next eighty years. The growth of steelmaking led to a huge influx of immigrants and Blacks.
William Hudnut was concerned about their treatment. He visited a local steel plant with the plant superintendent. Howard C. Aley in A Heritage to Share records the discussion:
The minister raised a question concerning the welfare of the men who were toiling in the pit beneath him, to which the superintendent replied, “We work them out and get a new batch.” The superintendent had expressed what Dr. Hudnut called “a characteristic attitude toward labor. The ingot was reckoned of more worth than the individual. Those men in the pits were just numbers.”
The anti-Black and anti-immigrant feeling in Youngstown was stirred up by Ku Klux Klan leaders in Youngstown in the mid-1920’s. Most of those elected, including the mayor and school board received Klan endorsement. Many Protestant churches lent support to Klan activity. First Presbyterian and Dr. Hudnut were an exception, along with the Vindicator in denouncing Klan activity. It was not popular to oppose the Klan.
He was a respected denominational leader, serving as a trustee both at the College of Wooster (a Presbyterian school) and Western Seminary, now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1921, he visited Cameroun as a representative of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He served First Presbyterian Church as its pastor for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1937.
After retirement, he eventually returned to the New York area, living on Long Island in Oceanside. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Princeton the same year his grandson graduated from there, in 1961. In 1962, when he was going on 98, he became Princeton’s oldest living graduate. He passed away in August 1963, just short of 99.
One of the most remarkable achievements of William Hudnut’s life was his children and grandchildren. Many children of ministers want to get as far from the church and ministry as possible for some reason. Two of Hudnut’s sons were ministers and William H. Hudnut, Jr. was twice nominated for the office of moderator of what had become the United Presbyterian Church. His son, William H. Hudnut III also became a minister and then ran for office, serving a term in Congress from Indiana, and then, in 1976, running for Mayor of Indianapolis, an office he held for sixteen years, during which he led a major redevelopment of downtown Indianapolis attracting sports, business, and entertainment to the city.
What emerges is a picture of a family of high moral and spiritual character and integrity, spiritual and civic leaders in their communities who garnered respect. It began with a father and grandfather who refused to confine himself to the elite but visited factories and took unpopular stances, defending Youngstown’s newest residents who were doing the work of creating the Steel Valley.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!