Looking at the sprawling campus of Gainesville’s First United Methodist Church, it’s hard to imagine it all started in a little log house.
The tiny community of what became Gainesville wasn’t very welcoming to Methodists or any other religion in its early days. People even ran out of town the first Methodist minister who tried to preach a sermon. That was in 1830. Something changed by the next year because the Rev. W.J. Parker did deliver a sermon without opposition.
That kind of got the ball rolling as 15 Hall Countians in 1832 claimed to be Methodists. The kindly Presbyterians were gracious enough to offer use of their building until the Methodists could raise one of their own.
A couple of years later, Ephraim Johnson, who is recognized as the father of Methodism in Hall County, paid $150 for the old log building that served as the county’s first courthouse. The Presbyterians again assisted the Methodists as they, Baptists and others helped move the building to the corner of South Bradford and Church streets for the Methodists’ first meeting house.
By 1872, the Methodists were successful enough to build a better building. According to a drawing in the church’s history, it was a plain, neat church house with a fine spire reaching toward the heavens. There the Methodists worshipped until the early 1900s when members apparently became restless for more space.
So that’s where the familiar twin-towered church at the intersection of today’s Green and West Academy streets came from. After deciding to relocate and build, it took three years for the Methodists to complete the project at a cost of $50,000, including a million bricks.
That historic building, which is owned by the Arts Council today, really caused the church to grow. It was beneath those stately towers that such Sunday school classes with the curious names Melting Pot and Scrap Pile thrived.
That church building also served as a morgue and temporary hospital for victims and injured of the 1936 tornado, in addition to providing a soup kitchen for storm workers and the homeless. Funerals for some victims also were held at the church, as well as a later memorial service for all those who died in the storm.
Members really got serious about financing and maintaining the bigger building, in addition to the usual operational costs. Church leaders would meet annually to decide how much individual families should contribute. Giving was voluntary, but members or families were assessed an amount ranging from a nickel to $2.50 a week. The 1929 annual assessment noted that members who weren’t listed as contributors still were members in good standing.
One little member even advertised his goat for sale to help the church budget.
First Methodist stayed in the Green Street building through the 1960s into the 1970s. But, again, because there were two downtown Methodist churches and the lack of parking and lack of space for expansion, members began to discuss yet another move.
After considerable discussion and study, members voted to buy the J.B. Mundy property on Thompson Bridge Road for a new building.
The property was on Lake Lanier, and even before the new building rose, members began holding lakeside worship services. That popular tradition continues today during the warm months as members and visitors in rustic pews or lawn chairs cover the hillside leading to the lake on early Sunday mornings.
The church broke ground on its new building Easter Sunday 1978. Members and ministers filed out of the old Green Street church for the last time July 13, 1980, bringing with them the articles of worship. They celebrated the next Sunday, July 20, in the new building on Thompson Bridge Road.
The sanctuary quickly filled on Sunday mornings, so much so that within a couple of months an additional morning worship service had to be started.
From a membership of 15 meeting in a log building, First United Methodist today has more than 3,200 members. It has expanded its property and facilities.
All of that is just a glimpse at the rich history of Gainesville First United Methodist Church contained in a book just published.
Copies are available during the week at the church office or in between services on Sundays for $20.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.