Thomas Rice Welch was an early Presbyterian minister and leader in Arkansas. He played an important role in the establishment of Lyon College and served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for twenty-five years.
Thomas Rice Welch was born on September 15, 1825, on a farm near Nicholasville in Jessamine County, Kentucky, to John Welch and Elizabeth J. Rice (Betsey) Welch. He had at least four brothers and a sister and was named after his mother’s brother, who was a Methodist minister. Welch was encouraged by his uncle to pursue the ministry.
Welch received his early education at Bethel Academy near Knoxville, Kentucky, before enrolling at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in May 1844. He graduated two years later, in September 1846, with a BA and planned to pursue a career as an attorney. He studied law for a year before abandoning the effort in order to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary, which he attended from 1847 to 1849.
In September 1849, Welch was licensed as a minister by the Presbytery of West Lexington, Kentucky. He pastored a church at Warsaw, Kentucky, for a year before resuming his studies at New Albany Seminary in Indiana, from which he graduated on May 1, 1851. He then traveled to Helena (Phillips County) as a licentiate and was ordained in Batesville (Independence County) on April 11, 1852, by the Presbytery of Arkansas. Upon his arrival in Helena, he was the only Presbyterian minister in Arkansas to hold a college degree.
He married Margaret F. Henderson on May 1, 1855, in Pulaski County; they had no children. The couple resided in Helena until December 1859, when Welch was made pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.
From sixty-three members when he arrived, Welch grew the church to 246 members in 1878. During the twenty-five years of his leadership, average attendance at Sunday morning services reached over 400. Welch remained at First Presbyterian until 1885, staying in Little Rock through the Civil War and ministering to people on both sides of the conflict.
In 1872, he joined and became president of the first permanent board of trustees for the new Arkansas College (which later became Lyon College), a position he held until his death. In 1880, the board offered Welch the presidency of the college, but he declined. Welch was instrumental in the establishment of Second Presbyterian Church in 1882. His wife, Margaret, donated the manse for the new church.
Welch also served as a director of Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee, although he declined a call from the board of trustees to chair history and literature. He was also a prominent Mason; Welch Street in the Masonic Addition of Little Rock bears his name.
After resigning the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church due to declining health, Welch was appointed by the Cleveland administration as consul in Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, in 1885. He died on March 25, 1886, in Hamilton and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock. In his will, Welch left Arkansas College money, real estate, and more than 1,000 books, becoming the college’s first significant benefactor. Arkansas College established the Welch Memorial Fund and, in 1919, named the new female dormitory Welch Hall.
For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. Lyon College, 1872–2002: The Perseverance and Promise of an Arkansas College. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
“Centennial History, First Presbyterian Church, 1849–1949.” Helena, AR: 1949.
Encyclopedia of the New West. Marshall, TX: United States Biographical Pub., 1881.
The History of Presbyterianism in Arkansas 1828–1902. Little Rock: Press of Arkansas Democrat Co., 1902.
Moore, James Wilson. “Presbyterianism in Arkansas.” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 3 (June 1905): 57–70.
“Rev. Thomas Rice Welch.” Findagrave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7550783 (accessed March 2, 2018).
“Second Presbyterian Church, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1882–1957: A Short History Covering Seventy-five Years of Service.” Little Rock: Patte Printing, 1957.
“Souvenir: Historical First Presbyterian Church.” Chicago: Ellison Publishing Company, 1896.
UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture