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Church history: Looking back to move forward

Clergy members gather in prayer during a vigil at McKendree United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., to grieve and remember people lost to acts of racism. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Clergy members gather in prayer during a vigil at McKendree United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., to grieve and remember people lost to acts of racism. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

The saying “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” suggests the past is only full of blunders. While learning from past mistakes is a big part of history, it also means following the positive examples of those who came before us.

For congregations with deep roots in their communities, history can either be a great teacher or a severe burden. Four churches located in different corners of the United States shared the ways their histories are informing their ministries today and their plans for the future.

St. George’s (Philadelphia, PA)

Historic St. George’s UMC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is one of the oldest Methodist churches in America. Founded in 1767, the congregation is even older than America itself. The church can proudly claim names like Francis Asbury, George Whitfield and Thomas Webb among those who preached from its pulpit. St. George’s also hosted the first official annual conference in America in 1773.

But like many old churches, St. George’s history is complicated. It was home to one of the earliest communities of African American Methodists, including the famous preachers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. African American Methodists were segregated into the balcony of the church during worship services. In 1787, Allen and Jones led a peaceful walkout of the African American congregants to start their own church across town. Allen would eventually help found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816.

The Rev. Mark I. Salvacion has been senior pastor of St. George’s since 2017. “It’s quite something to be a person of color serving as senior pastor of the church that kicked out Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Many of the evils The United Methodist Church is dealing with today around racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry had their predecessors in the earlier Methodist Episcopal Church. We Methodists had this original sin of racism going back centuries.”

According to Rev. Salvacion this wasn’t the last instance of bigotry by the congregation. During the Mid-1800s St. George’s became embroiled in nativist violence against Philadelphia’s Irish Catholic community, which resulted in the burning of the nearby Catholic church of St. Augustine.

Today St. George’s houses a museum containing artifacts and historical records from the founding days of Methodism. The church welcomes confirmation classes from congregations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to visit every year so they can learn more about their Wesleyan heritage. But along with celebrating its unique heritage, the contemporary congregation also educates the public about the mistakes of its past.

“We do a history reenactment of Allen and Jones’ walkout in St. George’s sanctuary for the confirmation classes. It’s not only important to teach our children about high points of Methodist history, but also the low points,” said Salvacion.

St. George’s is striving to be a more inclusive and welcoming congregation in its ministries today. Where their forebears once turned away immigrants and people of color, today’s congregation consistently advocates on their behalf through the Justice for Our Neighbors program, which provides assistance with immigration and legal counsel.

“We see it as our mission to acknowledge the sins of the past while striving to heal old wounds through our outreach today. Everything we do is informed by both the good and the bad from our history,” said Salvacion.

McKendree (Nashville, TN)

McKendree UMC in Downtown Nashville is one of the oldest churches in Tennessee, founded in 1787. Originally occupying a space right along the Cumberland River, the congregation moved to new locations as the city grew up around it before building the current sanctuary in 1910. One of the former sanctuaries hosted the funeral service for President James K. Polk in 1849. Former McKendree pastor Alexander Little Page Green also helped found the Methodist Episcopal Church South Publishing House in 1854.

The Rev. Stephen Handy was appointed as the first African American senior pastor of McKendree in 2009. According to Rev. Handy, the church helped start a highly successful African American mission in the city, but like St. George’s, the white leadership chose to segregate black and white members. “At one point in time McKendree actually had more African Americans in its congregation than whites. The whites moved the African Americans to a separate church up the street that later became Capers Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME). McKendree’s leadership also supported the Confederacy during the Civil War and defended slavery,” said Handy.

When Rev. Handy was appointed to McKendree he had a vision to transform it into a forward-thinking, multi-racial congregation. Handy credits two uniquely Wesleyan practices with helping McKendree along in its racial reconciliation: itineracy and small groups. “In order to change a church culture, you have to be open to leadership from outside that culture. Itineracy creates the opportunity for positive disruption of the culture by bringing in leaders from the outside. Small groups are also essential to this process by putting people with different cultures and experiences into the same room together long enough and frequently enough so that can get know one another and come together,” said Handy.

While Rev. Handy’s vision meant helping the church overcome its racist past, it also meant ensuring it continued to properly serve the increasingly diverse community around it. “We believe God has always called us to be a diverse church. At McKendree today we serve the homeless and the downtrodden just as past generations did, but we’ve adapted new techniques. We’ve given away space in our building to groups and programs that benefit the community,” said Handy. Among the programs housed in McKendree is a full-time daycare program, food mission, youth corrections resource center and even a psychologist office.

“McKendree is unique in that it’s a historic church that is still a history-making church today,” said Handy.” In spite of its past sins, McKendree has always been a missionally-engaged congregation that cares about people. We’ve taken that legacy of care and maintained it in our contemporary ministry.”

John Stewart (Sandusky, OH)

For a group of United Methodists in Sandusky, Ohio history plays a direct role in its day-to-day ministry and calling. John Stewart UMC is part of a six-point charge that traces its origins to the first official Native American mission by the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816 John Stewart (a missionary of European and African descent) arrived in Ohio to begin a mission to the native Wyandot Peoples. To this day, Stewart’s mission serves as model of humane and respectful engagement by a missionary. Unlike many other Native American missions of that time, Stewart treated the Wyandot as his equals, respected their culture and treating them as partners in his ministry.

Local pastor Betsy Bowen serves as a part of the six-point charge in Sandusky that maintains the original Wyandot Mission Church today. “Stewart approached the Wyandot at their level. His own identity as a mixed-race person meant he was looked down on by white society just like the Native American people he had come to serve. This shared experience of racism helped him empathize with the Wyandot.”

Sadly, like many Native American tribes, the Wyandot were forced off their land by the US government in the 1840s onto new territory in Kansas and Oklahoma where some still live today. Neither the Wyandot nor Stewart would be forgotten, however. The original Wyandot mission site passed to the General Board of Global Ministry. Since then local United Methodists have done much to preserve the mission church and ensure the preserve the memory of the people who once lived there.

“Since the 1980s, we began working with local public schools to educate children more on the history of Wyandot while also reestablishing a relationship with the Wyandot’s modern-day descendants. We began inviting chiefs to come here to teach the community about their heritage. About 150 children learn about the Wyandot every year through our programs,” said Bowen. Bowen has also done extensive research on the history of the mission and tracked down old records and artifacts from the time of Stewart.

Recently the General Board of Global Ministries officially returned the land to the Wyandot in 2019 to mark the bicentennial of Stewart’s original mission. Since then the Wyandot Nation under the leadership of Chief Billy Friend have made regular visits to the site and continue to work with local church leaders to ensure its continued preservation.

For the United Methodists of Sandusky, preserving the legacy of John Stewart’s mission has come to mean both physically preserving the mission site in order to teach future generations as well as reestablishing the positive cross-cultural relationships that once existed between Wyandot and the Methodists 200 years ago.

Salem First (Salem, OR)

Salem First UMC was one of the earliest Protestant congregations west of the Rocky Mountains. The church’s founder Jason Lee arrived in Salem in 1832 to start a mission among the local Native Americans and while also organizing arriving white settlers into Methodist classes. “Lee wasn’t just a successful missionary, but also an important figure in the founding of Oregon itself,” said Salem First church member Mary Ann Robinson. A bronze statue of Lee stands on the state capitol grounds today.

Like many churches started along the American frontier, the Salem community began meeting together in small groups in people’s homes or in outdoor camp meetings for over a decade before constructing a formal church building in 1853. By 1878 the original church community had outgrown its original sanctuary and constructed the white spire building that still stands in Salem today right across the street from the state capitol.

“The development of local churches like Salem First in the area coincided, and to some extent even drove urban development. It’s mind-bogglingly how quickly the settlers organized the town of Salem, and the Methodists played an important role in that organizing,” said Salem First pastor The Rev. John Fleming.

According Mary Ann Robinson the church takes great pride in its history and Wesleyan heritage while also being focused on contemporary issues and the concerns of its community. Salem First is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network and strives to be welcoming and inclusive of all people. “We offer one class that teaches members about contemporary political issues, which seems appropriate when you consider that the state legislature meets right across the street from us. We also an introduction to Methodism class to educate our members on the Wesleyan tradition as other classes in theology and scripture,” said Robinson.

Though Salem First has come a long way from its pioneer founding, the contemporary congregation maintains a kind of frontier spirit when it comes to ministry that allows it to stay relevant at a time when many old churches are struggling to survive. Several years ago, Salem First partnered with five other United Methodist congregations in the Salem-Keizer region to form Open Door Churches. Each congregation agrees to share its resources with the others so that they can better serve the needs of the region collectively.

“Open Door Churches began with a conversation between lay and clergy leaders within these churches who thought there might be a different way to organize our ministries,” said Rev. Fleming. “The way we used to build churches was with a vision that one congregation in designated area would be all things to all people in terms of programs. Every church was expected to have a full youth group, music program, Sunday school, etc. Now instead of expecting every church to have all these things, Open Door Churches allows each church to pursue the ministries it’s best at and share them with the others.”

Even though Open Door Churches is a completely new model for doing ministry, it harps backs to some of the early practices of frontier Methodism. The six churches all share pastors and ministry leaders who move like circuit riders between each congregation throughout the year. “We’ve moved away from a model where each congregation has dedicated clergyperson assigned specifically to them. Now we have a model where each clergyperson serves Open Door Churches collectively according to their unique ministry gifts,” said Fleming.


Learning from history means taking the good with the bad. Churches that are forward-looking and relevant today will not be ignorant of their past and will benefit from the experiences of those who came before them. At the same time, contemporary churches need to be mindful of past mistakes and injustices so that they don’t repeat them as they strive to more faithfully follow Jesus’ teachings. These churches show us that sometimes the best way to see ahead is to remember what all lies behind.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.