A Brief History of First United Methodist Church
Compiled from Various Sources in 2016.
For almost 20 years, a “faithful band of workers” longed to form a new congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church (the northern branch of American Methodism). In 1907, the Rev. Smith Whittenburg’s preaching at a revival in the old Fairmount Tabernacle inspired and energized them. As a result, the Rev. David G. Pyle, then a District Superintendent in the M.E. church, came to organize a church in Bristol.
In 1909 the 32 members of the congregation gathered at the King Printing Company on Shelby Street. Soon they moved up the street to the YMCA auditorium, which the Trustees rented for $30 a month. With 120 members, these energetic Methodists built an imposing brick structure at Seventh and Anderson Streets in 1911. On January 21, 1912, First Methodist Episcopal Church was packed for its dedication, a gala social and religious event for the city. The offering received at the morning and an afternoon service totaled $12,170 toward the $14,000 cost of the building!
The photo of Bess Wexler (Wolfe) has inscribed on its back the following: “Sullins College student who ‘drove a buggy inviting people of Bristol to attend first meeting of Methodist Episcopal Church.’” The photo hangs in the church library along with a stained glass insert of an early minister of First Methodist Episcopal Church.
Dedicated pastors and laypeople continued to attract more worshipers, so more space was needed. In 1919 the Young Men’s Bible Class (Mrs. Mary Huff, teacher) excavated the basement; but still there was a need for more classrooms, office space, perhaps a library and a larger social hall. By 1925, the 337 resident members were talking about a new, bigger church. The great depression and World War II delayed action on moving. By the end of the war, church membership was 437 and parking was an impossible dilemma.
In 1954, a lot was purchased between Vance Drive and Sparger Road in Holston Hills. That November, the church launched a challenging building fund campaign for $175,000 to erect the first two units of a new building. On June 30, 1957, the congregation moved into its brand new hilltop location. The brick and glass-walled structure, with spacious classrooms and a roomy fellowship hall, was officially opened by a very large, enthusiastic crowd. However, paying for the spacious facilities was a new challenge. On March 18, 1973, members gleefully celebrated “out-of-debt Sunday” by the burning of the notes.
For many years the Fellowship Hall was used as the sanctuary. Great sermons were preached, and scores of people found their way to the simple, white altar to give their hearts to God. Still, the congregation yearned for a real sanctuary in which to worship, and the Fellowship Hall was sorely needed for social gatherings.
Plans were made to turn the old Boy Scout room into the Carroll Skeen Memorial Chapel. In April of 1975, an excited congregation broke ground for the long-awaited sanctuary. The consecration of the beautiful sanctuary and Chapel in May of 1976 was a joyful occasion. The Dyer pipe organ, dedicated in October of 1992, undergirds the congregation’s worship with beautiful music.
The congregation has a vital Christian witness. Participating in outreach ministries — such as Habitat for Humanity, mission trips to Haiti and other places, Love Meals, Meals on Wheels, buying school supplies for students at Anderson Elementary School, participating in Raceway Ministries — has been a hallmark of the church. In 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought devastation to the Gulf Coast, not only generous donations of money, health kits, and flood buckets were sent, but also an entire truckload of bottled water went to thirsty survivors and workers.
First Church’s Name —
Originally, the name was First Methodist Episcopal Church. When three branches of Methodists united as the Methodist Church in 1939, we became First Methodist Church. When the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church united in 1968, our name changed again, this time to First United Methodist Church, our present, official name.
The window shown below filters God’s sunshine into the Skeen Memorial Chapel. It is from the church building on Seventh and Anderson streets. The window was placed in memory of the Rev. Absalom Bunn. Rev. Bunn and his family are Charter Members of First Methodist Episcopal Church.