First United Methodist Church

Church History

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H I S T O R I C A L    I N F O

First United Methodist Church is the oldest church in the Champaign-Urbana area, tracing its long and rich heritage to 1835 when the Rev. James Holmes held the first religious services, preaching in a school house to the early settlers of this area which at that time was called Big Grove. The following year, the first society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized. In 1840, our congregation erected the first church building in Urbana. More can be read about this under the first building section below.
       When our church was organized in 1836, it was part of the denomination called the Methodist Episcopal Church. More can be learned about the early history of this denomination by reading A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church by Nathan Bangs. We were a part of this denomination until April 1939 when the “Methodist Church” was formed from the union of the Methodist Episcopal Churches North and South and the Methodist Protestant Church. On April 23, 1968, when the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, we became part of the denomination known as the “United Methodist Church”.
       In 1836 when our church was first organized, there was no house of worship, so the congregation held services in the court house. Over the past 165 years, our church has had four different houses of worship. These structures have been memorialized in various stained glass windows in our present building and are described below.

In 1840, work began on the first of four buildings. Our first church was a frame structure thirty by forty feet, located on a lot at the southwest corner of the alley on West Elm, between Market Street (now Broadway) and Race Street. The site for the first church was donated by the Commissioners of Champaign County. The building was not completed until 1843 when Rev. W. D. Gage was appointed to the charge. At the same time, the first parsonage was built. This was a modest little structure with split board roof and floors, and a mud and stick chimney.
       The following is from the Urbana Union, July 31, 1956:


The old Methodist Church, which was for many years, the only sanctuary in this place, and whose walls had for fifteen years echoed the preached gospel and the shouts of the pioneer Methodists was a few days since sold at auction for $350 and is now going through the necessary alterations preparatory to becoming a livery stable. It was built mainly by the exertions of a few zealous and devoted persons, among whom was Rev. Arthur Bradshaw, now a superannuated minister of the Illinois Conference living in our place, who, we are informed when not on his circuit took his axe, and with his lay brethren, resorted to the woods, where he assisted

“To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them.”

By means of a few days’ work contributed by one, and a stick of timber by another, and a small lot of lumber by a third, this structure was completed and, with hearts swelling with zealous love, they dedicated it to the Living God.
       Since that period Eternity alone can reveal the results of the labors witnessed there. Year after year has rolled away, the servants of God have come, performed their allotted work and gone away. Revival after revival has been witnessed; souls have shouted aloud their newly begotten joy and passed away, either to other scenes of labor in the church, or to receive the ‘Well done good and faithful’ in the church triumphant.
       But during this time how changed are all things around! The little town for whose accommodations the old church was built is fast taking on the airs and importance of a city. The beautiful rolling prairie around, upon whose wild turf it was built, which then and for ages past blossomed only for the timid deer and feathered songster; has been invaded by thousands of ambitious and restless souls who have conquered and made it subservient to the base uses of gain.
       Of the pioneers, who each Sabbath morning met here to return thanks, but few remain. Some have gone to people other western wilds while others have emigrated to the silent city. The wants of the society have reared, but a few rods away, a beautiful structure of graceful proportions, which will soon be made to echo the songs of the worshippers. But while this has taken the place and name of the old house, and it is consigned to baser uses, around the old church will linger pleasant memories of bygone days.

The second building which was the first to stand at our present location at the corner of Race and Green streets, was begun in 1856 and cost ten thousand dollars to build. This building, a brick structure with a tall white frame steeple, was dedicated in 1858; the Rev. Peter Cartwright preaching and conducting the Dedication Services. Toward the end of the 1860s, the original church spire was replaced with a tower with a vestibule entrance on Race Street. The trustees in 1856 were Archa Campbell, Rollin Whitcomb, Frederick B. Sale, William M. Hooper, and William Sim.

Construction of the third building began in 1892, was completed in 1893, and was dedicated on March 25, 1894. This $20,000 structure, known as the Sheldon Memorial Church, was made possible by a gift from Jarius C. Sheldon and his wife, Eunice, who donated the money in memory of their son, Clarence. The original plaque commemorating this memorial now hangs on a wall north of our fellowship hall, along with portraits of Jarius and Eunice Sheldon.
       This building was dedicated Easter Sunday, March 25, 1894. The Rev. Dr. Terry of Evanston, Illinois, conducted the dedication service.
       The younger members of the church presented the pipe organ costing $3500.
       Church improvements were made in 1909 and again in 1911, with the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration held December 10th, 1911 at which time Bishop Robert McIntyre (former pastor of the church) conducted the service.

The fourth building, in which we hold worship services to this day, was begun in 1925 and dedicated September 11, 1927. The information that follows is from a program of events that took place September 11th through September 18th, 1927, to dedicate our current church building:

bulletHistory of our church
bulletDescription of our building
bulletDescription of the organ

Bishop Edwin Holt Hughes conducted the dedication service. This structure, of Gothic architecture, cost $225,000 which, unfortunately was a debt we carried into the depression in the 1930s. However, by the mid 1940s, our congregation had paid off the mortgage. The following text is from the December 1st, 1945 issue of the Champaign District Bulletin which was the official publication of the Champaign District of the Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church:

First Church, Urbana, Does It Again
Under the able leadership of their pastor, Dr. Albert A. Belyea, and Mr. Russell Stewart, the First Methodist Church in Urbana has done it again. Last year in spite of a heavy debt burden and some members who said it could not be done or ought not to be tried, this church accepted its quota for the Crusade of $4,044.92 and actually pledged $6,700 which is $2,655.08 more than the goal. Six thousand dollars of this has to date been paid in cash and the rest will be in by January.
       This was so successful that the members said: “Well, if we can do that for others we ought to be able to liquidate our debt.” So they started in November of this year and now the total amount of $53,000 has been pledged, a sizable sum being in cash and the balance to be paid by Sept. 1. However, they are fondly hoping that it will all be paid by May, which is the 20th anniversary of the building of this $225,000 structure, which is one of the finest in the Illinois Conference. Three cheers for the courage and stewardship of the Urbana Methodists!
       Bishop Ralph Magee has agreed to help these worthy people celebrate when the last cent has been paid, and we hope that it will be in May.
       Here is hoping that no church will go into another depression carrying the millstone of debt about her neck. There has been no time in years that has been easier to raise and any individual or church is wise to free itself of such a suicidal burden.

A mortgage burning ceremony was held on Sunday morning, November 10th, 1946.

 In 1970, an education wing was added to house Sunday School classes, children’s library, a day care center, and room for a Boy Scout Troop.