History of Our Church

Early Methodism

The term "Methodist" was first applied, often as a term of derision, to members of the Holy Club at Oxford University in the first half of the 18th century.  This group, led by John Wesley and including his brother, Charles, and George Whitefield, had banded together in an attempt to live the Christian life through methodical study and devotion.  It should be pointed out that there was no inclination to create a separate religious denomination, or to cause dissention within the Church of England.  Indeed, the Wesleys sought to find ways in which to practice their beliefs within the structure of the Anglican Church, and neither John nor Charles Wesley withdrew from that denomination.  They had no difficulty in accepting the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer.  Nevertheless, the Wesleys and their fellow preachers were denied use of Anglican pulpits and did their preaching in the open air.

Open air preaching was quite successful, but eventually "preaching houses," later called chapels, were built, and a system of licensing local preachers was developed.  Gradually a system of itinerant ministers was introduced and ultimately a full-time ministry was developed. 

George Whitfield's visits to America resulted in the establishment of groups similar to Methodist societies as early as 1740, but Methodism was not truly established in this country until some twenty or thirty years later, and that without the knowledge of John Wesley.  Robert Strawbridge and Philip Embury, both Methodist preachers, came from Ireland about 1760 and both began to preach, Strawbridge in Maryland and Embury in New York.  When Wesley learned of this activity he responded by sending two English preachers to American in 1769 and two others, including Francis Asbury, in 1771.  Two years later Wesley appointed Thomas Rankin to supervise the growing work in the colonies.  Under Rankin's direction the first American Methodist conference convened in Philadelphia in June of that year.  During the American Revolution the number of Methodists, and the number of Methodist preachers, increased rapidly, there being 14,988 members and 83 preachers in 1784.  Eighty-nine percent of the membership was south of the Mason and Dixon line. 

The end of the war brought independence to the former British colonies, and a need to establish an American Methodist organization.  To do this Wesley appointed and consecrated Thomas Coke, already in Anglican orders, and sent him to the new United States.  Coke brought with him Wesley's instructions and carried the title of "Superintendent" which Wesley had bestowed upon him.

Upon his arrival, Asbury informed Coke that all American preachers must be summoned to a conference to approve of all matters pertaining to the new church, because, since Independence, they were unwilling to accept the English Wesley's dictation regarding American Methodist affairs.  Heeding the wishes of the American preachers, Coke called a conference.

This "Christmas Conference" convened in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 24, 1784.  At this time the Methodist Episcopal Church was formally organized.  Asbury and Coke were named joint superintendents (they later assumed the title of bishop); a discipline was adopted; a Sunday service adapted by Wesley from the Book of Common Prayer was adopted; and the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, abbreviated from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, was accepted. 

Methodism spreads in the United States

The expansion of Methodism in the years following the Christmas Conference was the result of several advantages which Methodists had over other denominations.  The itinerant system was admirably suited to spreading the gospel in frontier lands.  The Methodist system was highly centralized, with the power of sending circuit riders to their circuits totally in the hands of the several superintendents.  The Church also had the most effective location organization for dealing with frontier needs.  In addition to local preachers there were class leaders and exhorters.  The first unit in the formation of a local church was the class, made up of a small number of believers, and under the supervision of a class leader.  The circuit rider met with the classes as he made his rounds through his gargantuan circuit, and at least once a quarter the leader was examined by the circuit rider as to how he looked after the spiritual life of the class members.

The very theology of Methodist preachers was appealing to the the typical frontiersman.  This theology stressed personal responsibility and the equality of all men in the sight of God.  There was equal opportunity for salvation; there was no class for whom salvation was pre-determined.  It was a democratic gospel preached by men plain and simple in their tastes.  "Even the bishops," William Warren Sweet has noted, "were humble men who traveled among the people, stayed in the crowded cabins and made their appearance at countless camp metings and other frontier gatherings."

Finally, the march of Methodism westward was aided by The Methodist Book Concern.  No other denomination working on the frontier possessed a publishing arm.  Methodist preachers in America followed the pattern established by Wesley and became prolific writers and editors.  Itinerant preachers were agents of the publishing house, and presiding elders were charged with the responsibility of seeing to it that all local classes were provided with books. 

Not suprisingly, then, Methodists moved with the frontier across the Allegheny-Appalachian mountain chain.  When James Haw was sent as the first missionary to Kentucky in 1786, he found a local preacher already there, and a Methodist class under way. 

It would be impossible to exaggerate the contributions made by these circuit riders and equally difficult to over-rate their courage and devotion in the face of danger and extreme hardship.  By 1786 the Kentucky circuit had been established and three years later Kentucky was divided into three circuits.  By 1800 there were more than seventeen hundred members in Kentucky.  Bishop Asbury made several trips into Kentucky during the 1790s and his diary speaks eloquently of the dangers and hardships which he faced in carrying out his duties.  He writes of seeing the graves of frontiersmen slain by Indians, "twenty-four in one camp," and tells of his gratefulness in finding supper and a bed after having traveled one hundred miles in two days and "having not slept in a bed for three nights."

Methodism Comes to Bowling Green

One of these Methodist missionaries, or Circuit Riders, was active in Warren County, Kentucky as early as 1809 and conducted the first Methodist service in Bowling Green at Vance's Tavern on the Public Square.  It was not unusual that a religious service took place in a bar; indeed, it was a somewhat ordinary occurence, for the saloon, or tavern, often was the main building and the center of community activities in small towns such as Bowling Green, which in 1809 had a population of 29 whites and 14 slaves, and no more than 154 residents in 1810.

The owner of the tavern, however, was not in sympathy with the religious activity, and rang a large bell during the service in hopes of breaking up the meeting.  He was upset, according to  contemporary sources, because his wife had asked the group to pray for her.

In 1819 the Reverend Mr. Andrew Monroe formed the first Methodist class in Bowling Green, consisting of the following members:  Knight Curd, Mary Curd, James T. Briggs, Elizabeth Briggs, Hester Briggs, Elizabeth McCallister, Karon Donaldson and Nancy Ransdall.  Bowling Green was in the Fountainhead Circuit, which embraced Southern Kentucky and a part of Tennessee.  At that early date Bishop William McKendree, the first native American to become a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, came to Bowling Green and baptized children who, in later years, were instrumental in building the second Methodist church in Bowling Green.

The first Methodist congregation is started

In March 1819, the Rev Mr. Monroe presided over the organization meeting which launched the first Methodist congregation in this area.  For some time the original members met in a private home at 813 Center Street, which was known at that time as Green Street.  Shortly after its organization the new church conducted a revival and was successful in adding several names to its membership list.

The church, actually only a society at the time, constructed its first building in 1820, selecting for the purpose a lot at 620 Green Street.  The lot was purchased from Elijah M. Covington and his wife for the magnificent sum of twelve and one-half cents.  The trustees were Knight Curd, L.G. Donaldson, Richard D. Neale, and Whorton Ransdall.  The building was a small, unpretentious brick structure.  The Reverend Mr. Benjamin Malone was the church's first regular pastor and Peter Cartwright, one of the most colorful characters in early Kentucky Methdism, was its Presiding Elder (now District Superintendent) in 1820 and 1821.  Two giants in the history of the Methodist Church in the nineteenth century, Bishops William McKendree and Joshua Soule, preached in this building.  Both the church and the town grew and prospered in the next two decades.  The frontier now had passed to the West and Bowling Green was slowly developing into a stable town, the commercial center of a large and productive agricultural area.  The church reflected this growth with a constantly growing membership.  This must have been a time of almost constant change, however, for during the first twenty-two years in this first church there were no fewer than twenty-five ministers!  Despite this lack of ministerial continuity, the congregation remained steadfast in its service and witness to the community.  By the end of the 1840s it was obvious that the existing building was fast becoming inadquate to the needs of the congregation; it was decided to erect a larger building, one better suited to the needs of the growing congregation. 

The trustees determined that it would be wise to find a new location for the proposed church, and a site at 816 Nashville Street (now State Street) was chosen.  The new building was completed in 1842 under the direction of its trustees:  Frederick Cox, Pleasant Hines, John W. Coleman, Albert Mitchell and Daniel Pleasants.  The new building fronted on a small grassy yard, fenced in by a white plank fence.  Two gates opened on two narrow, paved walkways which led to two doors which gave entrance to the building.  The windows were large and plain, and were placed high in the walls, much above the heads of the congregation.  Perhaps the most singular feature of the interior was the pulpit, which was quite small, but which was placed upon an exceptionally high platform.  This was done so that the preacher of small stature could "truly reach a lofty height" when he addressed the people. The sanctuary was lighted by wax candles rather than lamps, but the church often was flooded "with a light that seemed supernal.":

An outside door on the left side of the building gave entrance to a flight of steps which led to a gallery extending across the entire front wall of the structure.  This gallery was built for the colored members of the congregation, "of whom there were a goodly number of faithful men and women."  One member of the congregation, recalling the presence of Negro worshippers in the services, stated that "one of the most sacred pictures in the history of the church is that long file of colored brethren that marched reverently down the aisles, solemnly knelt at the chancel rail and partook of the Holy Sacrament in remembrance of Him who suffered and died for all men."

Overall, this second edifice erected by Bowling Green Methodists was a handsome and convenient meeting-house, and members took pardonable pride in its appearance.  A towering cupola, reminiscent of those which adorn European churches, dominated the Bowling Green skyline, even as the tower of the present church is a commanding presence in today's skyline.

The Issue of Slavery Divides Northern and Southern Methodists

The year 1844 was a fateful one for Bowling Green Methodists, a tragic year for American Methodists.  In that year the last Southern Conference presided over by a Northern Bishop was convened in the new building.  Bishop Edmund S. James, newly consecrated a Bishop, presided over the annual meeting.  It was significant, perhaps, that this last Conference in which Methodists from all parts of the Commonwealth participated, was held in Bowling Green, and it certainly was an honor for the small town, but perhaps an omen of the split which would divide the town and many of its families sixteen years in the future. 

A great revival swept over the entire town following that historic Conference, and "almost every sinner was converted, and all Christians were encouraged and rejoiced."

The year brought even greater emotional turmoil and suffering for the church as a whole.  The General Conference met on May 1, 1844 at the Greene Street Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City.  There were 180 delegates in attendance, and all sections and viewpoints were ably led.  One of the leaders of the Southern delegates was Henry Bascom of Kentucky; Peter Cartwright, the great frontier preacher, represented Illinois and was a leader of the Northern moderate group.

The Episcopal Address, read by Bishop Soule, made no reference to slavery, but little else would be debated during the meeting.  The issue was introduced by an appeal from Francis A. Harding on May 7th.  Harding had been suspended from his Maryland Conference for refusing to free certain slaves which had come into his possession by marriage.  Harding asked the General conference to rescind the action of the local conference.  The debate of this issue consumed five days, and resulted in a conference vote of 117 to 56 in support of the Baltimore conference.  The great significance of this vote was that it clearly revealed the clash "between the two irreconcilable views on slavery" represented in the Church.

Part 2-The Civil War divides Methodists





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