An established group of Presbyterians has existed in Wilmington as far back as 1760, though there was no church to house them, because the law, at that time, disallowed the church to hold real estate. In 1785, Reverend William Bingham came to Wilmington to conduct monthly services for the congregation, and, during this time, the Presbyterian Church was incorporated into the Legislature of North Carolina, allowing it to purchase and hold property through trustees. This is the first official record of an organized Presbyterian congregation in Wilmington. It would be 32 years before there was a church to house them. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Church of England discouraged the establishment of any and all other denominations. With the colonies' victory, these traditions fell apart.
In 1813, the newly formed Fayetteville Presbytery was assigned to cover Wilmington. The city's local congregation wished to form a connection immediately. In an address given to the new Presbytery on April 4, 1817, a document authored by Robert Cochran, chairman, and Alexander Anderson, secretary, portrayed the goals of Wilmington's Presbyterian group. In addition to the names above, 23 trustees would be appointed to oversee management for a “large and respectable number of citizens of Wilmington, who convened for the purpose of forming themselves into a Presbyterian congregation.”
The Presbytery resolved that the petition be granted and promised to aid the young congregation in any way they could. The acknowledgement by the Fayetteville Presbytery officially brought the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington into existence in 1817, along South 3rd Street. A minister was quickly procured, allowing the church to begin service soon after its dedication, and the Presbyterians of Wilmington had their own house of worship.
America suffered through a harsh winter in 1857. Throughout the still-new country, trade and transportation transactions were delayed, creating financial stress for businesses up and down the coast. The spring brought some relief, but by the end of summer, businesses were collapsing at an alarming rate. Some banks refused to pay their promissory notes, while others suspended operations altogether, including 18 of New York City's leading banks. Many attributed the panic to a divine judgment, and, at the same time, religious groups were worried about a spiritual decline. These groups felt the younger generations were growing up without God, placing love of money above all things. The bank panic of 1857 led to the spiritual revival of 1858, which brought people back to the churches in large numbers. Wilmington was a part of this awakening.
In 1858, as part of the spiritual revival, a second Wilmington Presbyterian branch, or “colony” church, was erected on November 21 of the same year. The Second Presbyterian Church, located on Chestnut Street between 7th and 8th streets, began with 14 original charter members. Among those were Alexander and Jane Dalziel Sprunt (who later donated the carpeting for the North 4th Street church in 1888 and funded the building of the St. Andrew's annex, the North 4th Street school building, in 1910). The Sprunts had arrived in Wilmington six years prior (1852), and Alexander was already busy creating his future cotton empire, Sprunt & Son.
In 1862, when Second Presbyterian had achieved a membership of 38, an outbreak of yellow fever—and then the Civil War—forced the church to temporarily close its doors. During the war, Wilmington offered a strategic military location for the Confederate Army and served as one of their most important seaports, partly because it acted as a base for Blockade Runners, delivering much needed supplies to the Confederacy. It is believed that one of these small ships, arriving from the Bahamas, had several crewmembers that were infected with yellow fever. Poor sanitation and large amounts of stagnant water are now also believed to have contributed to the outbreak. Just before the outbreak, the city's population was estimated at 11,500. Many evacuated during the onset, and letters to military commanders stationed nearby depicted the city as a ghost town. Only about 4,000 people remained in Wilmington, with 1,500-1,600 cases of the fever. In the greater Wilmington area, the death total from the fever is now estimated to be 600, many of whom are buried in historic Oakdale Cemetery in Carolina Heights.
The colony congregation returned to the original house of worship on South 3rd Street, First Presbyterian in that same year, 1862.
In 1867, after the Civil War, Second Presbyterian was still closed and was sold to an African-American congregation, which became the Chestnut Street United Presbyterian Church, still in use today. After the sale, the Second Presbyterian congregation moved out of the South 3rd Street church and into Brooklyn Hall on North Fourth Street, to worship until land could be secured for a new, second branch church.
The search didn't take long. In 1872, with the help of Mr. Alexander Sprunt, property was purchased at the corner of North 4th and Campbell streets, at a cost of $1,500. One year later, on May 4, 1873, a new building was dedicated as the house of worship for Second Presbyterian. Later, it was converted to a lecture room, though it was used as a church until the decision was made, in 1888, to erect a new building. The decision came after a steady rise in membership, inspiring a proposition to expand upon the existing church. As more of the congregation joined in on the idea, a movement was formed to build a new church. They decided to name the building St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church through a two-thirds vote.
Adolphus Gustavus Bauer, know as A.G. Bauer, was selected as the architect and contractor of St. Andrew's. A promising young talent at the time, Bauer had already worked on the Old Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. Details of that building show corner towers flanking a tall central window, with pointed gables above the side windows, foreshadowing his concept for the new church at 4th and Campbell.
On October 1, 1888, ground was broken and construction began on the new church. Fifteen days later, the corner stone was set.