The Independence Boulevard Christian Church congregation has worshiped at this location for over 111 years. It has been the center of great revivals and some of the greatest leaders of the Disciples of Christ denomination have served as its pastors and preached mightily from its pulpit. Most of the congregations of the Christian Church in Kansas City have leaders who were trained here, and in many ways we are the “Mother Church” of Kansas City’s Disciples of Christ.
Independence Boulevard Christian Church has been blessed with a rich history of notable pastors. Our first Senior Pastor was Rev. Dr. John A. Brooks. He came to this pastoral position as a noted religious scholar and during his tenure oversaw the growth of a new church from 30 to 300 members. From humble beginnings on Prospect Ave., to a grand building on the corner of Independence and Gladstone Blvd., the leaders of this church and its ministries have served our one true and awesome Savior!
Rev. Dr. & Mrs. John A. Brooks
Rev. Dr. George Hamilton Combs and his wife, Martha
Rev. Dr. Raphael Harwood Miller
Reverend Will A. Sessions
Rev. Dr. & Mrs. John A. Brooks
The first Senior Pastor was John A. Brooks, born on June 3, 1836 in Kentucky.
Just before Thanksgiving in 1887, the 51-year-old Dr. John A. Brooks, his wife, Sue Robertson Brooks, and their daughter, Lida, traveled from Kentucky to Kansas City, Missouri for Reverend Brooks to assume the pastorate of the Mission Sunday School. Reverend Brooks was installed the first day of December.
He came to this pastoral position as a noted religious scholar and during his tenure oversaw the growth of new church from 30 to 300 members. Reverend Brooks was able to move the burgeoning congregation from an upper room on Independence Boulevard to a newly constructed church building on 6th Street and Prospect. The Gothic-roof, single-spire wooden church was known as Prospect Avenue Christian Church.
Rev. Dr. George Hamilton Combs
George Hamilton Combs, the second senior pastor of our church, was born in Campbellsburg, Kentucky in July of 1864.George Hamilton Combs, the second senior pastor of our church, was born in Campbellsburg, Kentucky in July of 1864. Rev. Combs had married Martha Miller Stapp in December of 1885, and together they would eventually rear three sons. His first pastorate of five years was in Shelbyville, Kentucky. The Combs' son, George, Jr., would later become an attorney and elected member of the United States House of Representatives. Another son, Robert Pryor, would become a Kansas City banker and husband to the youngest daughter of Robert A. Long (Loula), the great lumber baron, Christian philanthropist and Elder of Independence Boulevard Christian Church. Such respect and fondness developed between Robert Long and Rev. Combs that the former purchased as a gift and had physically moved diagonally across Scarritt Point the former Herman F. Schmeizer home — a sumptuous, cut white-stone residence where Rev. Combs' family grew and flourished. It still stands, though it has been converted into apartments.
Rev. Combs' great-grandfather, Hamilton Wilson, was a founding Elder of the famous Cane Ridge Church in Kentucky. Not surprisingly, the small southern town where George Combs was born was named for one of the great founders of the Christian Church "restoration" movement — George Campbell. Thus, even before he arrived in Kansas City on January 1, 1893, Rev. George Combs was steeped in the formative Christian Church, Disciples of Christ history which emphasized "unity not uniformity" (Jan Linn)among believers. On arrival in Kansas City, he had already earned a Ph.d. from Wooster University and a law degree from Drake Univerity. Of himself, Rev. Combs was given to saying, humbly and humorously: "I am really like nobody else, for which the other fellow may be grateful...I weigh 125 when I am fat; am as ugly as sin, and my one redeeming trait is that I do not snore." (1918)
During his 26 years at Independence Boulevard Christian Church, Rev. Combs oversaw the growth of the congregation to more than 3,100 members and a building expansion that included two more additions, including a south wing with a gym and swimming pool and an educational wing to the west of the sanctuary, all the while writing a total of 14 books. Many are still in print.
In addition to preaching what were known as erudite sermons full of exquisite imagery, Rev. Combs displayed great administrative acumen. He brought onto the staff of the church an Irish associate pastor, James Small, and, in 1909, the esteemed concert organist and choir director, Edward Krieser, who had trained in Paris with the renowned organ master, Felix-Alexandre Guilmant. Previously, Mr. Krieser had been the organist at Grand Avenue Temple (United Methodist) in downtown Kansas City. Touring frequently all over the United States, Mr. Krieser gifted thousands of ardent listeners with soaring heights of musical virtuosity. In 1916, Rev. Combs hired on another organist of great standing, Hans Feil, known as "Pop Feil," who filled in when Edward Krieser was touring and also offered the congregation performances of his original compositions.
In December of 1919, Rev. Combs retired just days before what would have been his 27th anniversary as senior pastor. He had labored hard and inspired thousands. During his long pastorate, Rev. Combs had also suffered two nervous breakdowns. It was time for rest. Although he was deeply loved by his congregation, Rev. Combs himself needed "restoration" and reflection time. Shortly after reluctantly accepting his resignation, the congregation said goodbye to the Combs family. They moved to a farm near what is now Lake Jacomo in Jackson County. Sometime later, after regaining his strength, Rev. Combs built a second congregation over 20 years — Country Club Christian Church in south Kansas City, Mo. Rev. Combs died on November 14, 1951 and is buried at Mt. Washington Cemetery.
Rev. Dr. Raphael Harwood Miller (1919 - 1933)
Raphael Miller was born October 27, 1874 in Syracuse, New York and educated on the Western Reserve, graduating in 1896 from Hiram College, in Hiram, Ohio. His first pastorate began in Wellsville, New York the same year. Rev. Miller was ordained in 1902. His wife, Nellie Grace Burrows Miller, was born in Ohio. Their children were Margaret Elizabeth, John Robert and Raphael, Jr.
From 1904 to 1914 he was the pastor of Richmond Avenue Christian Church in Buffalo, New York. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he was also a tireless supporter of the Y.M.C.A and a member of the New York State Y.M.C.A. Committee. After leaving Richmond Avenue Christian, along with Dr. A.E. Cory, Rev. Miller formed the "Men and Millions Movement" of the burgeoning Disciples of Christ, helping to raise six million dollars and the ministry commitments of 1,000 men and women for the worldwide mission field. These efforts were largely financially underwritten by Robert A. Long. Rev. Miller was the Secretary General of the "Men and Millions Movement" until 1919. The year before he came to our church, Rev. Miller was called to Detroit, Michigan to help establish a strong Disciples of Christ presence in and around the quickly growing "Motor City" area. At the time, he was known as "one of the young giants in the brotherhood of the Disciples of Christ."
"Lincolnesque — often attired in a swallowtail coat and Derby hat...He is tall, very tall; thin, very thin," are the words used to describe Rev. Miller's countenance by a friend. "Direct...strongly orthodox, positive, but not liberal" is how he was philosophically described by Edgar DeWitt Jones in his book American Preachers of Today: Intimate Appraisals of 32 Leaders. A self-described "inveterate keeper of handwritten notebooks," Rev. Miller took his preaching very seriously and often brought his extensive notes into the pulpit. He claimed to have no hobbies except his ministry work, but, in fact, Rev. Miller was an enthusiastic aficionado of the arts and a gifted poet and illustrator himself.
In 1920, Rev. Miller became the President of the International Convention of the Disciples of Christ. He also served as President of the United Christian Mission Society and President of the Board of Unified Promotion of the Disciples of Christ. Rev. Miller became both Director and, later, Director Emeritusof the Christian Board of Publications. In 1932, Rev. Miller edited the book Charles S. Medbury: Preacher and Master Workman for Christ for the Christian Board of Publication; and, in 1935, a group of Rev. Miller's sermons were anthologized in the book Who Lives In You?
For 14 productive years, Rev. Miller was the Senior Pastor of our church. When, in 1933, he accepted a call to become the Senior Pastor of the still new National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., our congregation was excited for him and yet heartbroken. So great was their love for Rev. Miller that when he and his family arrived at Union Station to depart by train for Washington, D.C., 400 members already awaited them, including the Senior Pastor who had preceded Rev. Miller, George Hamilton Combs, and Elder Robert A. Long. On the word of staff Pastor David Owen, they all lined up "from the toy shop to the Harvey restaurant," "singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers'" in front of everyone present -- spending over an hour, one-by-one, shaking Rev. Miller's hand for a final time.
Rev. Miller's pastorate at National City Christian Church would last eight years and was to be his final one. During that time he was credited with leading the church's rescue out of deep debt following the Great Depression. He also became the President of the International Convention of the Disciples of Christ and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree (D.D.) by Drake University and an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree (LLD) by Butler University. From 1941-1948, Rev. Miller was the editor-in-chief of the "moderate" Christian Evangelist National Weekly Publication, which had a thriving national distribution. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of Butler College (now University) during this time. Rev. Miller was a trustee of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana who, during the 1940s, led that seminary back into its affiliation with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. A former President of CTS, Rev. Beauford Norris, characterized Rev. Miller as "probably the most effective preacher produced by our denomination during this century...a man possessed of a radiant confidence that readily transferred itself to others." Among American Protestant circles of the mid-20th Century, Rev. Miller was often referred to as the "Ambassador to the Church Universal."
Rev. Miller died on May 16, 1963 at the age of 89 at the Kennedy Memorial Christian home in Martinsville, Indiana. In November of 1963, he was posthumously awarded a Doctorate of Divinity Degree by the Board of Trustees of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. So great was his renown that Rev. Miller's obituary ran in the New York Times.
Rev. Miller's son, Raphael, Jr., carried on the spirit of his father's ministry. Born in Unionville, Ohio, Raphael, Jr. was two years old when his father became the senior pastor of our church. The son later became a Disciples minister, serving several congregations and more than 2 years as an Army chaplain. In 1964 he received an honorary doctorate from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
Here, below, is a portion of Dr. Raphael H. Miller's Commencement Address to the Disciples of Christ-affiliated Butler College (now University), Indianapolis, Ind., in April of 1926, entitled:
"SPECIALISM AND SYMMETRY"
One of the strange phenomena of our times is found in the fact that we live in a world of knowledge easily obtained and easily available accompanied by an intensity of narrowness and fragmentarianism and limitation for our individual thinking and our individual living., The total knowledge of the world, that which belongs to all our humanity, is very vast. But the amount that is compassed by any of us and by the best of us, is very small. The problem of the hour is the problem of the specialist. Philip Brooks said a long time ago that all the streams of knowledge are poured down the sleuth ways of our popularity. Our knowledge is the knowledge we desire, the knowledge we are prejudiced toward and the knowledge we can use. It is a strange fact that with all the world extending about us and the horizon of thinking and of living being pushed back with great rapidity into the vast distances, that the phenomena of our time should be the intensifying of partisanship, of nationalism, of race prejudices, of sectarianism and of specialism. Just at a time when you would expect the human efforts and the human life to be most highly balanced, we are faced with the unwarranted and the almost unfathomable social fact that life for the individual is becoming narrower and more prejudiced. It is the age of specialism and of fragmentarianism. I never felt there was any conflict between the sciences and religion. It is in our minds that we are not big enough, intelligent enough to accept all the conclusions of science and adjust them to all the accepted truths of our spiritual experience. I think if we were able to combine them, we should see there is no conflict anywhere as to the truth. The conflict is in us. The impossibility is in us. The difficulty is in us because we must be specialists, we must be limited, we must be fragmentarianists. I ask you to remember this — You may think that you can hold nothing in common with those of another department, and we may look with difference of opinion upon the truths with reference to Jesus Christ and the New Testament. But I want you to remember that you are lonely and I am lonely in this vast world. What is the perspective that I want you to have? It is just this: That the highest cause and the divinest cause will at last justify itself. Keep yourself in the presence of the best in any area of life. Keep yourself in the presence that reveals the best in your area.
Never be satisfied in any lower level of life in any area. I ask you when you come into the area of life in which I work, that you challenge me for the best I know and believe, and the best I can see through the divine Christ — and that you look upon my truths with tolerance, for the highest cause will at last justify itself. And when you take me into your area do not take me into the lower realms but into the best that you know in the area you possess, for the highest and divinest cause will at last justify itself.
There are thousands of places where I cannot think, but I must live in my area and accept the truths of those who live in theirs. So, my word to you, my young friends of Butler, this morning is that you make the great causes your cases and that you will at last find symmetry.
I am asking that you go out to a life of symmetry and that it will be lived on the level of the divinest experiences that life can give.
Reverend Will A. Sessions
Will Anderson Sessions, Junior was born in Jackson, Mississippi on July 26, 1905, son of Will Anderson Sessions and Willie Taylor Rucks Sessions. His brother was Hal Rucks Sessions. At the age of fourteen Will and his family moved to Helena, Arkansas, where he graduated from high school at the age of 16. Four years later, he received a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Arkansas.
In 1927 he and Edith A. Steele were married, shortly after which the new Reverend Sessions accepted a call to become pastor of the Wood Memorial Christian Church in the town where his wife (“Miss Edith”) had resided, Van Buren. He served that congregation for four years. In 1935, Reverend Sessions received a Master of Arts Degree, majoring in theology, from Drake University, while serving the Christian Church congregation of Corydon, Iowa. Following this, Reverend Sessions took up a new pastorate at Kearney, Nebraska until he entered the United States Army in 1941 as a chaplain. In 1958, he retired from the Chaplains’ Corp having served for 22 years. Chaplain Sessions spent two-and-a-half of his four-and-a-half World War II years in the Army overseas, in the Southwest Pacific. By 1945, he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
The Sessions’ daughter, Toveylou [Talley], was born in 1928, and their son, William Steele (later, Director of the F.B.I. [1987-93], U.S. District Judge of Texas, and Senior Partner of Holland & Knight presently) was born in 1930, both in Arkansas. Both Sessions’ children graduated from Northeast High School, in Kansas City, Mo. In 1946, when the Sessions’ children were teenagers, Reverend Sessions began his tenure with Independence Boulevard Christian Church as Associate Minister. After he was named Senior Pastor, he and his wife led the congregation in celebrating historical, full-costume “Colonial Banquets” annually. He also served on the executive board of the Kansas City Council of Churches, and for 14 years was the secretary of the Labor-Clergy-Management Forum here, too. For many years he was President of the Ministerial Alliance in the Northeast Area of Kansas City. In 1950, Reverend Sessions organized the National Board of Junior Deacons for the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and remained its national advisor for 8 years.
In May, 1952, Reverend Sessions was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws [“Humane Letters”] degree by the Kansas City College of Osteopathy. In June, 1952, he received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri in 1953. When he announced in 1962 that he was resigning from Independence Boulevard Christian Church to become the Pastor of First Christian Church in Owensboro, Kentucky (where he would remain until June of 1972, eventually being named its Pastor Emeritus), many here were heartbroken to lose such an affecting minister and friend. Indeed, after leading our congregation for 14 years as Senior Pastor [plus 2 years as Associate Pastor], he had become the second-longest serving Senior Pastor in our history – only Reverend. George Hamilton Combs’ tenure was longer (27 years). At the time of his pastoral leave-taking from Independence Boulevard, more than 3000 new members had joined while he was Senior Pastor, and the current church membership was approximately 1300 members.
Reverend Sessions authored numerous sermonic tracks and Greater Women and Men of the Bible and The Week of the Cross. After moving back to Arkansas, he also became an occasional exchange pastor for the British-American Pulpit Exchange for a number of years, preaching in England and Scotland. Following his decade at First Christian in Owensboro, Reverend Sessions served at Mountainburg Presbyterian Church in Arkansas, being named by that congregation as “Minister for Life.”
Edith Sessions died in December 22, 1985. Reverend Sessions followed her on November 24, 1998, passing away at his home in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Our Organ and Hand-Rung Carillon Bells...
In 1905 when the building was completed, it contained a much smaller organ. In 1910 the front of the Sanctuary was remolded to accommodate the installation of an Austin Pipe Organ with 53 ranks (groups of pipes) comprising 4,500 pipes. Said to be the largest organ west of the Mississippi River, it provided the church with beautiful music and many organ concerts in its’ span of more than 50 years.
To continue the tradition of great music in this church, the Casavant Pipe Organ was installed in 1968 to replace the Austin Organ. It has 61 ranks, or 3,366 pipes. There is also an Echo Organ at the back of the balcony which is played from the main console by itself or with the main organ. It took three years to build this Casavant Organ in Canada. It was brought here by truck and reassembled in sections. All of the pipes across the front of the sanctuary are working pipes.
Our Stained Glass Windows...
Through the generosity of Mr. R. A. Long, two of our stained glass windows were commissioned from the Tiffany Studios in New York City. The Long Memorial window was dedicated to Mr. Long’s parents and illustrates Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden on Resurrection morning. The church and the Robert A. Long Foundation funded restoration of both windows by Midwestern Stained Glass Windows.
The “Rumble Memorial Window” was dedicated to our first missionaries, and depicts Jesus holding a coin representing “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. The signed Tiffany windows are original to the building and are dated 1905. These windows remain highly valued aesthetic enrichments to the church to this day.
In August of 2004, two of our Stained Glass Windows featured on this site were thoroughly cleaned and renovated by Midwestern Stained Glass Studios. This work was done by master glass artisan, Doug Gammon, and his crew. For the first time in 35 years, these two windows, donated in 1905 by lumber baron R. A. Long, could be viewed from outside the sanctuary, on the street, in radiant color, owing to Gammon’s work and clear glass protective coverings.
Our History Continued...
Our ministry in the Northeast area of Kansas City began largely due to the youth in the area in 1886 desiring a meeting place closer to home, rather than travel to downtown Kansas City for Bible Study. The Young Men's Society of Senior Endeavor of the First Christian Church on November 22, 1886 voted to establish a Mission Sunday School in an upstairs rented room at 2315 Independence Avenue. It grew into a full-fledged church, and a Sanctuary was built at 6th and Prospect (just around the corner from Independence Avenue) in 1890.
Mr. Robert Alexander Long, his wife, Ella, and daughters, Sallie and Loula, joined the 6th and Prospect Church in 1891. Mr. Long, one of Kansas City’s wealthiest lumber barons, purchased the property at the corner of Independence Boulevard and Gladstone Boulevard in 1900, and gave it to the church. In 1903 an architect was hired to design a larger building, and in 1905 the congregation of approximately 200 families moved into their new, beautifully appointed sanctuary, and became Independence Boulevard Christian Church.
The congregation grew rapidly, and in 1909 Mr. Long challenged the members by offering to build an additional building to house the Church School Classes, if they could have 1,000 people in Church School for 13 consecutive Sundays. They met the challenge and on one Sunday even had 1,600 in attendance. True to his word, Mr. Long added an entire educational building, a gymnasium with running track, and a swimming pool.
In 1910 Mr. Long and his family moved from the Independence Boulevard home to their newly built mansion on Gladstone Boulevard (which was to become the Kansas City Museum). They may have lived a little farther away, but he was dedicated to the life of his church.
The church continued to be an ongoing labor of love for Mr. & Mrs. Long. In 1919 they dedicated a bell tower installed above the education building to their friends and former neighbors, Judge and Mrs. D. O. Smart, who were charter members of the church. The bell tower houses 11 bells weighing 15 tons. Until his death at the age of 84, Mr. Long attended church every Sunday and all church meetings.