First Pres was founded the day before the incorporation of the city of Berkeley, on March 31, 1878, by 27 individuals wishing to minister to the budding university community. As the town and gown of Berkeley grew, so did the church. In 1902, the congregation purchased the current lot, at the corner of Dana and Channing, and built a sanctuary to seat 1,200 when church membership at the time was about 500.
The vision of the members did not go unrewarded; over the next 40 years, the church expanded its ministries at home and abroad. Missions has always been an emphasis at First Pres. During the 1950s, the church sent out dozens of members into full-time Christian service, accounting for 10% of Presbyterian missionaries from the United States.
In the 1960s, attendance dwindled when the church found itself in the midst of a cultural and literal battleground. When the sanctuary was declared unsafe by the fire department in 1971, First Pres made a conscious decision not to leave the contentious streets where rioters were breaking windows, but to live out its mission on this very corner of Dana and Channing. A new sanctuary was built, lined with glass windows in order to be open and visible to the community. The church was able to maintain a vital witness to the gospel at a time of great social and political change.
In 2004, the First Pres leadership engaged in a process of discerning the vision for the next season of the life of our church. Click here to read more about our vision. It is one which reflects our passion and commitment to respond to God's love through ministry, first in our specific context in the city of Berkeley, and then to the far reaches of the world.