Wednesday, April 28, 2021

What Church Was America’s First Megachurch?

By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

If megachurches are Protestant congregations that draw 2,000 or more adults and children in worship on a typical weekend, what was America's first megachurch?

Journalists often identify the first megachurch in the United States as the 2,890-seat Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, founded by Robert H. Schuller.  But these “first megachurch” claims are wrong, because the Crystal Cathedral was founded in 1955 and didn’t cross the 2,000 attendance mark until the 1970s, peaking in the 1980s. More recently, the Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy in 2010, leading to a sale of the facility which was then reconfigured to become a Catholic church.


Not in California or Ohio

Others look for the site of America's first megachurch in Akron, Ohio, where three of the nation’s largest-attendance churches were based in the 1960s. One was Rex Humbard’s 5,400-seat Cathedral of Tomorrow, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, built in 1958 and filled on a regular basis. After lawsuits and a severe attendance decline in the early 1980s, Humbard sold the facility and accompanying television studio to fellow televangelist, Ernest Angley in 1994. The church is now known as Grace Cathedral in Akron, but is no longer a megachurch, in attendance.


Even earlier, was Akron Baptist Temple, started in 1934, by Dallas Billington as a Sunday school. Most churches until the 1960s drew more people in Sunday school attendance, than in worship. By the 1950s, the worship attendance regularly exceeded 4,000. It currently is no longer a megachurch in attendance. In fact, in 2018 it sold its 4,000-seat sanctuary and 29-acre campus to another church and relocated 10 miles away, downsizing to a 150-seat facility on 6 acres.


Not in Texas or Indiana Either


First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, reported a Sunday school attendance of 5,200 in 1928, at least 2,000 of which attended worship. Today it has relocated and downsized and is no longer a megachurch.


During the 1950s and beyond in downtown Dallas, Texas, several churches—First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Methodist and First Christian—were among the largest churches in their denominations, typically drawing 2,000 or more attendance at worship.


Notable churches subsequently grew in many cities across the United States, such as First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, which during the 1970s was the nation’s largest attendance church, and remains a megachurch to this day.


Not Just Predominantly White Churches


Among predominantly African-American congregations, one of nation’s largest in the early 1900s was what’s known today as Philadelphia’s Tinley Temple, a Methodist church. At one point, it drew several thousand congregants, in large part because of the Reverend Charles Tindley, a charismatic pastor whose gospel hymns include, “We Shall Overcome.” (Tindley Temple today is no longer a megachurch.)

Some churches that draw more than 2,000 in weekly attendance today (or in recent years) were founded in the 1700s and 1800s, but their worship attendance did not regularly exceed 2,000 until more recent decades. These include: The Falls Church, Falls Church, VA, an Episcopal congregation founded in 1734 (but it has relocated due to a doctrinal and property dispute); Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore, MD, founded in 1784; First Baptist Church, Sevierville, TN, founded 1789;  Mud Creek Baptist Church, Hendersonville, NC, founded in 1803; Park Street Church, Boston, MA, founded in 1807; and Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City, founded in 1809.


Early American Megachurches


Other churches had 2,000-plus attendances in their early days but have not been that size in the last 100-plus years. These include Sansom Street Church, Philadelphia, built in 1812 and seating 4,000; First Baptist Church, Baltimore, built in 1818 and seating 4,000; Chatham Street Chapel, Philadelphia, built in 1832 and seating 2,500; Broadway Tabernacle, in the Bowery section of lower Manhattan, built in 1836 and seating 2,400 but accommodating 4,000; First Free Baptist Church, Boston, an African-American congregation built in the 1840s and seating 2,000; Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, built in 1850 and seating 2,000; Central Presbyterian Church built in 1891 and seating 7,000; and Bethany Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, built in 1866 and seating 3,000. (For additional examples, see this scholarly article by David Eagle.)


Many churches had temporary surges past the 2,000 attendance marks, even ones in small communities like Nantucket, MA, during late 1700s where the Quaker Meeting House “sometimes attracted as many as 2,000 people—more than a quarter of the island’s population” according to Smithsonian magazine. In the mid-1800s, as many as 2,000 people per week attended church in the Capitol building in Washington DC as a congregation raised money for building a new sanctuary it could call its own. For example, on December 13, 1857, the Rev. Dr. George Cummins preached before a crowd of 2,000 worshipers in the first public use of the House chamber, according to William C. Allen, Architectural Historian of the Capitol, in A History of the United States Capitol, A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), p. 271.


America’s Longest-Standing Megachurch


The Moody Church of Chicago bears the distinction of being the oldest to both break the 2,000 threshold in attendance and to also be over 2,000 in the current era. The church facility, built in 1876 and known as Chicago Avenue Church, could hold 10,000 people. It was founded and led by the famous evangelist D.L. Moody. The church was filled to overflowing many times before Moody’s death in 1899. The church today, now known as Moody Church and moved in 1915 to a nearby location, has an auditorium seating capacity of 4,000, and its current facility draws almost 2,500 people in weekly attendance, though over the years it sometimes dipped below 2,000 in attendance.


A runner-up might be Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, founded in 1892. In 1937, its attendance crossed the 2,000 mark and it moved into a 5,000-seat sanctuary, which was regularly filled to capacity under revivalist J. Frank Norris (who had also led First Baptist, Fort Worth, mentioned above, and who had become the pastor also at Temple in 1935). With 5,000 in attendance at Sunday school in 1954, the church was featured in Time magazine as having the largest Sunday school program in America. Its peak attendance was 1956. The church moved to the Detroit suburb of Plymouth in 1968, building a 4,500-seat sanctuary under their next pastor, George Beauchamp Vick. In the decades after Vick’s leadership, the church decreased in size, dropping below 2,000 attendance in 1958, and continuing to decline to the point that it merged into another church and was renamed NorthRidge Church, a megachurch today led by Brad Powell. (For a detailed case study see this scholarly article.)

Learn More


Why does ECFA take such a strong interest in larger-attendance churches, such as by publishing “The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches”?  Answer: to serve these larger churches, since so many are ECFA members. ECFA membership starts with a church wanting to live by ECFA’s seven integrity standards. To learn more, see