When We Are Strong

Hugh Thomson Kerr

At Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 1913-1945



At Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2013 is a year of transition.  With an interim pastor now in place, the Pastor Nominating Committee begins to discern God’s will for the next pastor.  However, 2013 is also a time to reflect on the pastor whom the Lord sent to Shadyside one hundred years ago this fall.

Prior to the arrival of Hugh Thomson Kerr, Shadyside Church had just completed an extended interim period.  There must have been high expectations that Dr. Kerr’s pastorate would be a blessing.  The history of the next thirty-two years reveals ample blessings to the church, the community, the nation, and, indeed, the world, blessings that truly exceeded any expectations.

Dr. Kerr (left) with Elders at Session Dinner, 1917

While Dr. Kerr came to Shadyside after serving churches in Kansas and Chicago, he was no stranger to Pittsburgh.  He had served as pastor to Oakland Presbyterian Church (a different congregation than the one that presently carries that name).  A native of the rural town of Elora in Ontario, Canada, Dr. Kerr came from a quite accomplished family: three siblings became medical doctors, two entered the ministry. He was educated at Knox College in Toronto and The Theological School of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and at Western Theological Seminary  (now Pittsburgh Theological).   He was ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1897.  

Just three years after his arrival, Dr. Kerr led the congregation in celebrating fifty years of ministry at Shadyside.  For that celebration, he wrote the still-beloved hymn, “God of Our Life.”  He knew his parishioners to be talented and diligent, accustomed to success. He also knew their needs. In the third stanza, the congregation sings, When we are strong, Lord, leave us not alone; our refuge be.

"We have entered into a great inheritance. Good men and great, good women and great, the leaders of the past, have fallen from our ranks. Their accomplished task is our inheritance. They have labored and we have entered into their labor. Let the men and the women of today prove that they are the worthy heirs of those who did the work of yesterday."

 - Hugh Thomson Kerr, 1916, 50th Anniversary Celebration

While Shadyside was yet celebrating, the church was not unaware that a Great War threatened.  A long Honor Roll of Shadysiders who served their country in its military would eventually be placed in the sanctuary.  Dr. Kerr recognized that wherever a member of his congregation went, there he had a flock.  In the Spring of 1918, he traveled through Europe observing conditions, offering comfort, praying with all whom he encountered.  Surely, church members felt a measure of anxiety when it became clear that their pastor did not shy away from visiting an active war front.

Celebration returned to the church with the armistice, a time to give gratitude to God “who gave the victory.”  Stained glass windows and the Rowe Narthex are lasting outward evidence of the congregation’s gratitude.  They represented early architectural changes during Dr. Kerr’s pastorate.  They would not be the last.

In the early 1920s, Dr. Kerr recognized broadcast radio to be a powerful tool to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Shadyside Presbyterian Church’s vesper services were not the first broadcast church service, but due to Dr. Kerr’s powerful preaching and KDKA’s powerful transmitters its audience became widespread and enduring. Countless lives were blessed, including that of a listener who asked Dr. Kerr to help steward a six-figure monetary gift!  Such a blessing occurred during the Great Depression through the generosity of the donor who had never visited Shadyside Church or met Dr. Kerr.  Today, only one known recording of his preaching remains.  It may be heard HERE.

As evidenced by his overseas work in the Great War, the congregation was willing to share their pastor’s considerable gifts with people far beyond the church’s walls.  Hugh Thomson Kerr continues to be remembered as a leader who helped keep the Presbyterian denomination together during a period of discord now known has the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy.  In 1930, Dr. Kerr was elected as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, a position of national leadership.  He spent much of the next year away from his home pulpit visiting and preaching in churches throughout the denomination.

Two enduring gifts were formulated under Dr. Kerr’s leadership during the Depression years.  Working with the church’s Stewardship Committee, he proposed Worldwide Communion Sunday (now, World Communion Sunday).  First celebrated at Shadyside Church in 1933, Worldwide Communion Sunday provided hope and light during very dark days in the nation and the world.  That is no less true in our day.  Around the same time, churches were in the midst of a “liturgical movement,” seeking a more classical form of worship than the sermon-centered service, then common.  In response, Shadyside built the exquisite sanctuary that exists today and which emphasizes both the Word (Preaching and Scripture) and the Sacraments (Baptism and The Lord’s Supper).  In 1938, the church celebrated Hugh Thomson Kerr’s twenty-fifth year at Shadyside with the dedication of the newly renovated sanctuary.

To consider only his accomplishments of national and global significance is to miss Hugh Kerr as pastor and friend.  In the living memory of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, his warmth, compassion and humor are still recounted.  During the influenza epidemic of 1919, when it was necessary to suspend worship services, he sent comforting letters to the congregation apprising them of his visits to afflicted members.  Indicative of his humor and in response to the proposed addition of a very un-Presbyterian chancel screen in the sanctuary, he gently deflected the idea by saying, “Oh my, no!  The choir would never behave behind it.” 

The congregation embraced the Kerr family who lived in the manse, which stood beside the church in front of the present Parish Hall.  Mrs. Kerr, the former Olive Boggs, is recalled as the strong center of a family that included Anna and two sons, Hugh, Jr. (Tim) and Donald.  Both “sons of the manse” entered the Presbyterian ministry, serving faithfully through long careers in the academy and parish, respectively.

Longtime Shadyside member Nat Hunter tells of the friendship between his grandfather, Dr. Stanley Hunter, and Dr. Kerr.  Upon graduation of his friend from Union Seminary, Dr. Kerr recommended him as pastor of a church on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.  Several years later, Dr. and Mrs. Hunter lost their one-day old son to death.  Hugh Kerr conducted the funeral service and personally carried the infant’s casket from hearse to graveside.

Dr. Kerr (right) with Pitkin Club for Univeristy of Pittsburgh Students, 1926

Dr. Kerr’s love of and devotion to the young is clear.  He founded “clubs” at Pitt and Carnegie Tech (now CMU) that were the forerunners of today’s campus ministries.  His children’s sermon-stories were loved by children and adults, alike.  Several collections of the sermons were published as books.

His published works alone would be a satisfying career achievement.  In addition to children’s sermons, his Sunday afternoon Vesper messages were published. He wrote several practical books on the Christian life.  As a respected theologian he presided over the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education.  A deep theology is evident in his book, The Christian Sacraments (1944), still widely read today by pastors and in seminaries.  Also, he served as the chairman of the committee that oversaw the publication of The Book of Common Worship (1946).

"God makes use of common things to manifest his grace to men…Before the Gospels were written, before the Epistles were penned, before the conversion of Paul or the gathering in of the Gentiles, the early Christians were celebrating the sacraments, and the testimony of history is to the fact that there has never been a week, perhaps not a day, since Pentecost that the sacraments have not witnessed to the Christian faith."

- Hugh Thomson Kerr in The Christian Sacraments

During preparation of the latter two publications, Hugh Kerr was of an age when retirement might be expected.  However, World War loomed again, and he wanted to shepherd his congregation through another troubled time.  Even at war’s end, he marshaled his energy for another tour of Europe in support of relief efforts there.

Soon enough, Dr. Kerr retired to become Pastor Emeritus of his beloved congregation.  He continued to write sermons for broadcast.  Until his death in 1950, he remained the first executive director of the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation, which he helped organize along with its benefactor, Mrs. Susan Lee Hunt.

It is tempting to see Dr. Kerr’s legacy in terms of the high regard for superior preaching known at Shadyside Church.  One may better look to the church’s identity which he helped form and which remains today.  Dr. Kerr showed his flock that the accomplishments of their lives only find value in Jesus Christ.  He also taught, by preaching and by example, that the excellence they sought in their personal and professional lives could and must be brought to ministry, thereby, honoring the Lord.  Excellence in all facets of ministry is the gift that Hugh Thomson Kerr offered to God.  That gift, through the Holy Spirit, continues to bless Shadyside Presbyterian Church in and beyond the centennial year of his pastorate.

Special thanks for help in preparation of this text to The Rev. Dr. Augustus E. Succop III, Pastor of Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC, who is a "Son of Shadyside Church."