San Francisco, a city renowned for its rich history and diverse culture, boasts a remarkable array of historic Protestant churches that offer a glimpse into its spiritual heritage.
In this article, we embark on a journey to explore some of the city’s most notable Presbyterian and other Protestant churches that stand as enduring symbols of faith and architectural beauty.
From the iconic First Unitarian Church to the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the charming Swedenborgian Church to the majestic Trinity Presbyterian Church, each of these sacred spaces carries a unique legacy.
We will delve into their fascinating histories, architectural significance, and the profound impact they have had on both the spiritual and cultural tapestry of San Francisco.
Join us as we uncover the stories behind these remarkable places of worship that continue to inspire and captivate visitors from all walks of life. In another article, you can read about the historical catholic churches to visit in San Francisco.
The Grace Cathedral
The Grace Cathedral, a magnificent gem perched atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, stands as a beacon of spiritual and architectural grandeur. This venerable cathedral serves as the spiritual heart of the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Founded in 1849, the parish faced the devastation of losing its original church building during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Undeterred, they erected a temporary structure in 1907 and embarked on the monumental task of constructing the present cathedral in 1927.
Services commenced in 1934, with final touches completed in 1964. Grace Cathedral is renowned for its breathtaking murals by Jan Henryk De Rosen, a replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famed “Gates of Paradise,” labyrinths, and captivating stained glass windows. It also houses the AIDS chapel altarpiece by Keith Haring and “Our Lady of the Flowers” by David LaChapelle.
This French Gothic-inspired masterpiece spans 329 feet in length, featuring towers rising 174 feet above street level. Its interior, richly influenced by Aragon Palma Cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle, showcases De Rosen’s exquisite murals blending elements of Giotto and Mantegna.
Grace Cathedral is also home to a remarkable carillon with forty-four bronze bells, symbolizing Nathaniel T. Coulson’s dedication to this sacred place.
The First Unitarian Church
The First Unitarian Church, also known as “Starr King’s church,” stands as a historic landmark at 1187 Franklin Street in San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Constructed in 1889, this architectural marvel, designed by Percy & Hamilton in the Richardson Romanesque style, has undergone significant historical transformations.
The Unitarian congregation’s roots trace back to 1853 when their inaugural church was established at 805 Stockton Street.
Within a decade, due to a burgeoning membership, a new church emerged on Union Square at 133 Geary Street under the leadership of clergyman Thomas Starr King, a prominent advocate for California’s Union affiliation. King’s legacy lives on through his resting place on the church grounds.
In 1889, the church found its current home on Franklin Street. The aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake saw the reconstruction of its bell tower. Today, the First Unitarian Church stands as a testament to its enduring legacy, bridging the past and the present in the heart of San Francisco.
The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1852 in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, holds a significant place in African American history on the West Coast.
Initially known as St. Cyprian’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was established by Rev. Charles Stewart and Edward Gomez, with Rev. Thomas Marcus Decatur Ward taking the helm as pastor.
The church played a crucial role in education by opening a school in 1854, providing education to African American students when public schools barred them. In 1872, the California Supreme Court, in the landmark Ward v. Floor case, deemed such segregation unconstitutional.
Throughout its history, Bethel AME Church welcomed influential figures such as Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. The church occupied several locations in San Francisco, including the Little Grace building, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, and its present location on Laguna Street since 1945.
Additionally, it is associated with the Fellowship Manor of Bethel AME Church, providing senior housing, and holds a rich archive of historical photographs, exemplifying its enduring impact in the African American community and beyond.
The Third Baptist Church
The Third Baptist Church, initially known as the First Colored Baptist Church, stands as a historic pillar of San Francisco’s African American community.
Founded in 1852 by dedicated individuals like Eliza and William Davis, Abraham Brown, and others, this church provided a spiritual home for African American worshipers who were previously forced to sit in the balcony of predominantly white churches.
The church’s journey took it through various locations in San Francisco, reflecting its enduring commitment to the community. In 1854, it moved to Dupont Street at Greenwich Street, and by 1855, it adopted the name Third Baptist Church, which became official in 1908.
The church’s current home at 1399 McAllister Street, designed by architect William F. Gunnison and completed in 1952, stands as a testament to its lasting presence. It became a San Francisco Designated Landmark in 2017, preserving its historical significance.
The Presbyterian Church in Chinatown
The Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC) holds a unique place in American religious history as the oldest Chinese American or Asian American church in North America. Established in 1853 in San Francisco, it was the first Chinese Protestant church founded outside of China.
Led by Reverend Dr. William Speer, the church’s roots trace back to the influx of Cantonese Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush. The Presbyterian Chinese Mission, inaugurated in 1853, started with just four members. Over the years, it evolved to adapt to the changing needs of the community.
In 1925, the mission was placed under the oversight of the Presbyterian Board of National Missions and renamed the Chinese Presbyterian Church. A subsequent name change in 1958 reflected the church’s deep connection to the San Francisco Chinatown community, becoming the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.
PCC has grown into a vibrant congregation with three distinct congregations: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. It played a pioneering role in various aspects of Chinese American history, from launching the first English/Chinese bilingual newspaper to advocating for women’s rights and promoting religiously based social activism among Asian American communities during the 1960s.
Furthermore, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown has been instrumental in fostering leadership and youth development through its affiliation with the Donaldina Cameron House. It continues to serve as a spiritual and community focal point, meeting the needs of San Francisco’s expanding Chinese American population.
The Glide Memorial Church
Glide Memorial Church, originally a United Methodist Church congregation and now nondenominational, has been a beacon of progressivism and social activism since its inception in 1930.
Situated in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, an area deeply impacted by issues like drug addiction and homelessness, Glide stands out for its robust social service programs and the renowned Glide Ensemble, a vibrant Gospel choir.
The church’s roots trace back to philanthropist Lizzie Glide, who established the Glide Foundation in 1929, purchasing land to build the church as a memorial to her husband. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church was completed in 1930, accompanied by the Hotel Californian, a temperance hotel, and facilities for Christian women.
In 1962, Glide embarked on a revitalization journey under the leadership of Reverend Cecil Williams, opening its doors to the marginalized, including drug addicts, sex workers, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Glide played a pivotal role in fostering LGBTQ+ rights, supporting leaders like Harvey Milk, and forming coalitions to advocate for marginalized communities.
Throughout its history, Glide has published influential books, embraced jazz and blues music in place of traditional hymns, and championed messages of “unconditional love and acceptance.”
In 2020, Glide separated from the United Methodist Church, reaffirming its commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Looking forward, the Glide Foundation has ambitious redevelopment plans to continue its mission of compassion, social justice, and community support.
The Swedenborgian Church
The Swedenborgian Church, nestled in San Francisco’s picturesque Pacific Heights neighborhood at 2107 Lyon Street, stands as a testament to California’s early embrace of the Arts and Crafts movement.
It opened its doors for worship on March 17, 1895, and remarkably, its essential character remains unchanged, offering a timeless connection to its historic roots.
Constructed to serve a Swedenborgian congregation, this historic church complex is a masterpiece of architectural collaboration. Visionaries such as A. C. Schweinfurth, A. Page Brown, Bernard Maybeck, William Keith, and Bruce Porter lent their talents to its design.
This National Historic Landmark embodies the Arts and Crafts aesthetic with its striking features. An arched portico, flanked by similar openings, graces the front of the sanctuary, sheltered beneath a tile roof.
Inside, thick walls crafted from various textured bricks surround the sanctuary, supporting a gabled roof with exposed timbers. The doors, crafted from dark oak boards, bear hand-wrought iron hinges.
The Swedenborgian Church’s first pastor, Rev. Joseph Worcester, collaborated closely with the architects to bring his vision to life. Inspired by Swedenborgian teachings about harmonizing humanity with nature, the church reflects this ethos.
The Calvary Presbyterian Church
Calvary Presbyterian Church, an enduring beacon of faith, graces San Francisco’s Pacific Heights at the intersection of Fillmore Street and Jackson Street. This historic congregation is an integral part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The church’s present architectural gem, constructed in 1901, showcases Late 19th and 20th Century Revival design elements with an elegant Edwardian style. Its architectural significance earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Calvary Presbyterian Church’s storied history began on July 23, 1854, under the leadership of San Francisco Mayor C. K. Garrison, who chaired a fundraising committee.
They hired Dr. William Anderson Scott as the inaugural pastor, and the first church was erected on Bush Street, a substantial achievement at the time. This initial house of worship, situated between Montgomery and Sansome Streets, was dedicated on January 14, 1855.
As the city evolved, the church found new homes, first on Union Square at Powell Street and Geary Street, and eventually at its present location on Fillmore Street. The remarkable continuity of the congregation, evident even through relocations, has been a source of strength.
The Fillmore Street church held its inaugural service on Thanksgiving Day in 1902, and its formal dedication followed on February 7, 1904. Remarkably, the building survived the devastating 1906 earthquake unscathed.
It served as a refuge for other faith communities and even accommodated the Superior Court in its basement during those challenging times. Calvary Presbyterian Church stands as a testament to resilience and faith.
The historic Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist
The historic Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, now known as the Internet Archive building, stands as a testament to architectural grandeur and digital innovation. Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Carl Werner in the Classical Revival style, this magnificent structure was erected in 1923 at the corner of Funston Avenue and Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco.
Spanning approximately 23,000 square feet, this architectural gem originally came to life at an estimated cost of $125,000 to $150,000, as reported in various publications of its time.
Over the years, as the congregation’s size dwindled and the expenses of maintaining such an expansive building grew, the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist faced a turning point. In 2009, recognizing its historical significance and Greek Revival design, which uncannily resembled the Internet Archive’s logo, the building found a new purpose. The Internet Archive acquired the property for $4.5 million, marking a shift from spiritual worship to the preservation and dissemination of digital knowledge.
Though the church no longer appears in the Christian Science Journal, it remains officially registered with the California Secretary of State, maintaining its presence as an architectural marvel that has seamlessly transitioned into the digital age.
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, founded during the Gold Rush in 1857, holds the distinction of being the third oldest church in the Episcopal Diocese of California. Nestled in the vibrant Mission District, this historic church has played a pivotal role in the community’s evolution.
During the 1880s, the church’s third Rector was instrumental in establishing St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District, a pioneering institution dedicated to caring for Chinese workers when such services were scarce.
In the 1890s, the church erected a magnificent granite neo-Byzantine basilica, tragically dynamited in 1906 to create a firebreak during the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The present-day building, designed in the “Tudor Lantern” architectural style, was completed in 1909, adding to the neighborhood’s architectural charm.
In the late 1960s, under Rev. Albert O. Lott’s leadership, the church became a cultural hub, hosting progressive theater, community dialogues, and memorable events, including “Country Joe” McDonald’s wedding.
To combat neighborhood deterioration due to 1950s housing projects, Rector Winston Ching established the St. John’s Educational Thresholds Center in the 1970s, offering vital tutoring support.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the church’s proximity to the Castro neighborhood led to a vibrant LGBTQ+ membership, and it became a staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights within the broader Anglican church.
In 2007, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary, marking a century and a half of resilience, community involvement, and progressive values in the ever-changing landscape of San Francisco.
The St. Francis Lutheran Church
Saint Francis Lutheran Church, located at 152 Church Street in San Francisco, is a testament to faith, community, and resilience. Constructed in 1905, this historic church graces the city with its presence between Market Street and Duboce Street.
Adorned with exquisite stained glass windows, the church’s architecture is a sight to behold. Outside, the Memorial Terrace provides a tranquil space for reflection and community gatherings.
The church’s history is deeply rooted in the immigrant communities that helped shape San Francisco. It began as the First Finnish Lutheran Church in 1899, serving the Finnish community in the Eureka Valley district, now part of the Castro District.
Adjacent to it, the cornerstone of the Danish St. Ansgar Church was laid on September 17, 1905. During the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the church’s parsonage transformed into a vital feeding station and hospital, providing essential aid to the community.
In 1964, St. Ansgar merged with the First Finnish Lutheran Church, adopting the name “St. Francis Lutheran Church” in honor of San Francisco. Built by immigrants from Nordic countries where Lutheranism thrived, this church stood proudly in the heart of the Nordic-dominated Duboce-Market neighborhood.
The St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Saint John’s Presbyterian Church, a cherished historical landmark, graces the corner of Lake Street and Arguello Boulevard in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights and northern Richmond District.
This architectural masterpiece, designed in the Gothic Revival Shingle Style, was proudly completed in 1905 and has held a place of honor on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996.
The church’s journey began at the former St. James Episcopal Church on Post Street, purchased for $45,000 in 1870. Dr. William Anderson Scott, the esteemed founder of San Francisco Theological Seminary, served as its inaugural pastor, overseeing remarkable growth in membership from 61 to 382. In 1888, the church made its first move to the corner of California and Octavia Streets.
Challenges arose, leading to a subsequent move in 1902, this time to its present Richmond district location, with essential financial support from Arthur W. Foster. Initially surrounded by sand dunes, the church held its inaugural service on Easter Sunday in 1906, just three days before the devastating San Francisco earthquake. Though damaged, repairs took a year, during which services were held in members’ homes.
In the quake’s aftermath, some congregants relocated to Berkeley, where they established another St. John’s Presbyterian Church, with Dr. George Granville Eldridge, the former San Francisco pastor, as its founding leader.
Beyond its religious significance, Saint John’s Presbyterian Church has also graced the silver screen, serving as a filming location for movies such as “So I Married an Axe Murderer” in 1993, starring Mike Myers, and “Little City” in 1997, starring Jon Bon Jovi.
The Trinity Presbyterian Church
Trinity Presbyterian Church, later known as Mission United Presbyterian Church from 1972 onward, stands as a historic and architecturally significant gem nestled at 3261 23rd Street in San Francisco’s iconic Mission District. Constructed in 1891, this venerable place of worship earned its rightful place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The church was a notable achievement by the architectural firm Percy & Hamilton, and it remarkably survived the devastating 1906 earthquake, making it one of the few survivors from this period.
Designed in the Romanesque style, Trinity Presbyterian Church features a striking combination of a brick base and a shingled upper structure, crowned by a magnificent steeple adorned with four round bartizan turrets.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by the grandeur of the hammer-beam ceiling and an abundance of stained-glass windows, including three impressive rose windows. The sanctuary, with its original pews, is bathed in the warm glow of natural light.
While some minor alterations have occurred over the years, such as the partitioning of a section of the balcony and the addition of small sheds, the church’s overall architectural integrity remains intact.
Its enduring beauty, strength, fine proportions, exquisite woodwork, and stained-glass windows continue to captivate all who enter, making it a cherished landmark within the Mission district.
The Ingleside Presbyterian Church
The Ingleside Presbyterian Church, located in San Francisco’s historic Ingleside neighborhood, is a notable African American congregation and a recognized city landmark.
The church’s interior boasts a remarkable collection of murals known as “The Great Cloud of Witnesses,” primarily showcasing prominent figures from African American history. These compelling artworks were installed during Roland Gordon’s seminary days, who would later become the pastor.
Throughout its history, the church has witnessed demographic shifts, including a time when its membership dwindled to just four. While its core congregation remains predominantly African American, the church offers services benefiting the thriving Asian community in Ingleside.
Established in 1907, the church underwent a transformation in the 1920s, transitioning from predominantly white to predominantly black. The present building at 1345 Ocean Avenue, completed in 1922, was generously donated by local developer Joseph Leonard.
Following World War II, the congregation experienced another shift towards black membership. In 1978, Roland Gordon took the role of pastor when the church faced the challenge of having only four parishioners.
Under his leadership, it transformed into one of San Francisco’s vibrant African American churches, earning recognition as a historic landmark in 2016.
The former Second Church of Christ, Scientist
The former Second Church of Christ, Scientist, stands as a historic Christian Science church building, gracing the corner of Dolores Street and Cumberland Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, overlooking the picturesque Dolores Park.
Erected in 1916 and masterfully designed by the renowned architect William H. Crim, this architectural gem exudes the elegant Beaux Arts style.
This building, a testament to its time, features a symmetrical facade adorned with three grand doors and expansive arched windows.
Inside, the church boasted opulent oak paneling and pews, marble steps, a marble-floored lobby, and an organ originating from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Of particular note, the wood-framed truss system dome, one of only two in San Francisco, added to its unique charm.
In 2012, the building found new purpose as it was acquired by commercial property developer Siamak Akhavan. The dwindling congregation, numbering fewer than 100, had struggled with the financial burden of mandatory seismic retrofitting. The sale paved the way for the transformation of this sacred space into four luxurious condominiums, collectively known as The Light House, with three units occupying the main structure and a slightly smaller penthouse beneath the dome.
Akhavan himself became a resident of the penthouse, now elevated to unveil the majestic windows encircling the dome. The four units now enjoy the privilege of sharing a private park, offering a unique blend of history and modernity in the heart of San Francisco.