African American Leaders: Irvin Windfield Underhill, Jr.
Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.
Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.
Presbyterian missionary, minister, and civic leader Irvin Windfield Underhill, Jr. was born in Ohio on April 8, 1896. When Irvin was young, the Underhills moved to Philadelphia, where he and his two sisters spent their childhood and formative years. Irvin stopped attending school and became the head of the household when he was still a teen after his father—a poet—lost his vision, and his mother passed away.
Irvin, fortunately, was able to prepare for college even while working, thanks to private tutors. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1922 with a degree in finance, Irvin began a short career as a bank cashier in Philadelphia. After three years in banking, at the age of twenty-nine, Irvin returned to school—this time, attending Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). While a seminary student, Irvin regularly took to the podium to preach at Philadelphia’s Berean Presbyterian Church where he attended services. He graduated from PTS in 1928, and his life of service began.
Armed with his newly minted seminary degree, Irvin was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia on June 18, 1928. Two weeks later, on June 30, he married Susan Theresa Reynolds (1904-1934). A few months before, the couple—then engaged—were appointed to the PC(USA)’s West African Mission. After spending some time studying French, the couple set sail for Cameroon (then French Cameroun) where they became the first Black missionaries to the West African Mission. They served there from 1929 until 1940.
One of Underhill’s biggest contributions to the mission was the founding of the first school in the African Pygmy community. Irvin’s work with the Pygmies led to his being made a Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of England in 1937.
Sadly, Susan was not present to celebrate this achievement with her husband. She died three years earlier, in September 1934, from complications following an operation for appendicitis. As a memorial to his late wife, Irvin presented his collection of African art and artifacts to Lincoln University (Oxford, PA) in March 1937, the year he became a Life Fellow. The school awarded Irvin an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree, and the Susan Reynolds Underhill African Collection became the core of the university’s African Art Collection.
Irvin returned to his home city of Philadelphia in November 1940 on furlough. Unable to return to West Africa due to the outbreak of the Second World War, Irvin remained in Philadelphia until August 1957. For ten years, from 1941 to 1951, Irvin served as the manager of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Richard Allen Homes, the city’s largest low-rent public housing project. He remarried in May 1943 to Virginia Agnes Dickerson, a public-school teacher and active Presbyterian. Irvin acted as a consultant for the PA Department of Labor and Industry for five years, beginning in 1952. His specific area of consulting focused on migratory labor and housing, and he brought the PA Council of Churches and the Synod of Pennsylvania into the conversation, encouraging cooperation between the church and the city government to help those in need. Simultaneously, from 1946 to 1954 Irvin served as a member of the Redevelopment Authority for the city—he was elected both treasurer and chair of the Rehousing Advisory Committee during his second term with the organization.
Irvin was an enthusiastic and influential advocate for equal and safe housing for low-income groups—his work with Philadelphia city officials and state organizations serves as evidence of this. Additionally, he served on the Mayor’s Goodwill Committee, the Interracial Committee of the Federated Churches of Philadelphia, and other similar groups. In his free time, Irvin sat on the board of directors of several organizations, including the United Fund, the Mercy-Douglass Hospital, the Health and Welfare Council of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and more. As he spread himself across the city, dipping his toes in various philanthropic endeavors, Irvin simultaneously remained an avid churchgoer, member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and popular freelance preacher. Though he did not return to the West African Mission, retiring from missionary service in 1947, Irvin remained involved across the sea, acting as a Consultant on Africa for the U.S. State Department during World War II.
The Underhills left Philadelphia for New York in 1957, when Irvin accepted a call from the First Presbyterian Church in Nunda, NY. This was a historic moment, as the Nunda Presbyterian Church was the first all-white Presbyterian congregation in the nation to call a Black pastor to its pulpit. News spread rapidly of Irvin’s return to active ministry, at an all-white church no less. Irvin served as pastor of Nunda for a decade—the longest pastorate in the church’s history. Under his guiding hand, the church’s membership doubled in size.
During tenure at Nunda, Irvin continued to be an active participant in the national church as well as his local community. Though Irvin retired from Nunda’s pulpit in February 1967, he accepted a call as interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lima, NY. He and Virginia were on their way to the church in Lima one morning in February 1968 when they were in a devastating accident—Virginia was killed in the collision. Irvin, once healed from his own critical injuries, returned to the pulpit by Easter.
Irvin’s third marriage was to Ruth Estella Coffin, a college professor, whom he wed in August 1969. He continued to serve as an interim pastor to various congregations, before being elected by the Presbytery of Genesee Valley as a commissioner to the January 1974 meeting of the Synod of the Northeast. Irvin preached his last sermon on July 26, 1981, titled, “The World’s Greatest Homerun.” Irvin was gifted a certificate of appreciation by Black Presbyterians United at the group’s Fifteenth Annual Conference in March 1982, a “thanks” for his many years of service to the Church and its Black constituents. Three months later, Irvin Underhill passed, leaving behind a colorful legacy of advocacy, activism, and passion for the Presbyterian Church, faith, and his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Irvin Underhill, Jr.