We Are Strong
Hugh Thomson Kerr
Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 1913-1945
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.
(left) with Elders at Session Dinner, 1917
Dr. Kerr came to Shadyside after serving churches in
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
(right) with Pitkin Club for Univeristy of Pittsburgh Students, 1926
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).
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
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.
is tempting to see Dr. Kerr’s legacy in terms of the high regard for
superior preaching known at
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."