First United Methodist Church of Alachua
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
THE HISTORY OF OUR CHURCH
The history of the Alachua First United Methodist Church spans back to 1739 in London when John Wesley convened the first annual conference of people who called themselves Methodists.
Soon after the 1773 founding of the Georgia colony, John Wesley and his brother Charles traveled there from London hoping to convert the Indians to Methodism and to further the gospel among the colonists. Later, many other missionaries arrived in America.
Florida was under Spanish rule until February 22,1819, when Spain and the United States signed a treaty that ceded Florida to the United States. On February 21, 1821, the treaty was ratified and the American flag was raised at the Forts in Pensacola and St. Augustine. Florida was then under military control of the United States Congress and on March 3, 1822, the Florida Territorial Government was formed.
Methodism in Florida emerged at about the same time. It began in Florida as an offshoot of the missionary work in Georgia where the Wesley brothers, George Whitfield, and others had been working earlier trying to serve the colonists and convert the Indians.
In 1821 John J. Triggs was sent as a missionary to a new mission called Alapaha. This mission extended from South Georgia into Florida and embraced parts of northern Florida as well as the southeast area of Alabama. By the year 1822 the gospel was preached by Methodist Circuit Riders in Florida over a large area extending east and west of the Suwannee River.
In 1823, John Slade was sent as junior preacher to serve at Mr. Triggs’ mission. He was among the first preachers to bring the gospel to the Florida territory. Because of his great success as a missionary and pioneer, Mr. Slade has been called the Father of Methodism in Florida. In 1823 or 24 John Jerry was sent to the St. Augustine area and the bounds of his preaching extended west to Newnansville and Micanopy.
Four missions were established in this Northeast section of Florida and one of those was known as Dell, named after Maxey Dell, one of the early settlers in the area. Dell is accepted as having been the oldest of the four missions established in this section of Florida.
Because there was no Church in the settlement, Maxey Dell offered his home as a meeting place when the Circuit Riders came to the community. For that reason his home became known as Dell’s Meeting House. Early mail and post office records show that settlers were actually living in the area long before 1820 when it was known as Dell’s Courthouse. For many years before Florida became a state this settlement was the only town of importance in this area of Florida.
From the diary of Isaac Boring in 1828 we offer this quote:
“On September 7, 1828, the Conference was closed and the appointments were read. I was appointed to the St. Augustine and Alachua Missions. I was much astonished and hurt at the appointment. I hope it will be for the Glory of God. I am informed that I am to receive fifty dollars from the missionary society for my support. On the 13th of September I rode to Dell’s Meeting House and found 2 persons. We prayed together and I went home with Brother Dell and his wife, who were the only two persons present”
On February 28, 1824, an Act of Congress declared that a road was to be built 25 feet wide from St. Augustine to Pensacola—the two most important towns in Florida. John Bellamy was commissioned to build this road—the Bellamy Road—and he did so using his own slaves and mules. One of the branch-roads leading off of Bellamy Road was Alligator Road, which connected to Lake City then headed east to Cow Ford, later known as Jacksonville. The Bellamy Road followed an old Indian trail known as Ray’s Trail and, soon after Florida became a territory, the Bellamy Road was constructed alongside the log church that settlers had built earlier. With the assurance of protection from the United States Government scattered settlers—many from neighboring states—converged on the Newnansville area. They were lured, doubtlessly, by the advantages and beauties of the rolling, wooded countryside. After this influx, Newnansville—said to be Florida’s oldest inland town—was definitively established.
On November 15, 1828, the Territorial Legislature of Florida changed the name of the community from Dell to Newnansville and established Newnansville as the county seat of Alachua County. It was named after Colonel Daniel Newnan of the Georgia Militia who had led Federal troops to fight the Seminole Indians in this area. Newnan’s Lake, located east of Gainesville, also was named after this Colonel. Court was held in a small log house until the year 1852. Alachua County originally embraced what is now known as Marion, Levy, Sumter, Hernando, Gilchrist, and Hillsborough counties.
The United States Government erected Fort Gilleland at Newnansville in 1835. Scattered settlers banded together and took refuge within the walls of the fort at the outbreak of the Great Indian War.
From the Diary of Reverend R. H. Howren:
“On one occasion, while holding a meeting near Newnansville, we were surrounded by 75 Indian warriors who withdrew without interfering with us at all. We learned afterward that their intention was to make an attack on us, but seeing such an unusual stir among the people, they became alarmed and fled. During one of our night services, they climbed into the pines around the house intending to fire upon us, not being able to do so from the ground, owing to the stockade. Fortunately, we heard the signal given for firing and ran into the body of the house and escaped. Later, with the old flint-and-steel guns at their side, the men of the households would, safety permitting, venture out into the open fields again.”
Methodism had grown sturdy enough by 1825 that a new district was formed and named the Tallahassee District after the new capital of the territory. Population rapidly flowed into the Territory and the fertility of the soil and the good climate were two of the assets of the growing population. People usually settled in neighborhoods for mutual protection and for educational and religious purposes. Indians were scattered all over the region and were very hostile to the white settlers for encroaching on their land, but the settlers had no intention of giving up the fertile land to the Indians to use as hunting grounds.
The best available record telling us about early Methodists’ work in Florida comes from John C. Ley. Ley visited Newnansville about every two weeks to get mail. He points out that the Methodist Church was always the center of activity in the community and was served by regular circuit-riders and the occasional local preacher up through 1845.
From the diary of Isaac Boring in 1829:
“In a state of Revival, Methodism began to take on a new look and life, and the people were no longer satisfied with the old log church and they began to complain and call for a new and more modem church building. Fortunately, the local pioneer-preacher, Maxey Dell, owned a sawmill and he generously furnished the trees and sawed them into boards and framing that were used in the construction of the Newnansville Church.... The new church was divided in half by a railing that ran down through the center of the church, separating the men from the women.... An outside stairway led up to a balcony where there was seating for the Negro attendants and they had to enter and leave the building by way of the outside stairs”
Few churches were erected in Florida before 1840 and the itinerant clergymen continued to hold worship services in homes, barn stables, brush arbors, and courthouses. Indian difficulties and a financial panic in 1837 resulted in a slowing of Florida’s population growth at this time.
The Territorial Legislature called for a Constitutional Convention in the small, Gulf-coast town of St. Joseph and delegates at the convention eagerly argued for Florida’s statehood. Meanwhile, Methodists argued that if Florida was to become a state then they should break away from the Georgia Conference and form their own conference. On February 6, 1845, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church was born in Tallahassee and divided into four districts—Newnansville, Quincy, Tallahassee, and St. Marys. After considering the issue in 1843, the United States Congress admitted Florida into the Union on March 3, 1845, as the 27th state.
In the year 1865 the new Newnansville Church was completed and service began. It was in this same year that a decision was made to move the Courthouse from Newnansville to Gainesville. The church moved ahead but another event triggered the demise of the old settlement—the coming of the railroad to the area. The Santa Fe and Western Railroad came through the present city limits of Alachua in 1882, missing Newnansville village by one and one- half miles. A railroad station was erected and it originally was called Newnansville but later was changed to Alachua, which the Postmaster had begun using. Alachua is believed to have come from an old Indian word meaning the big jug without a bottom.
During the years 1887-1888 Reverend T. J. Phillips came as the new pastor to the Newnansville Church. The old, wood-frame church was in bad need of repairs and valued at only $250. In 1897 Charles Inman was assigned to the Newnansville Church district, which included the churches at Spring Hill, Lacrosse, and St. Johns. Reverend Inman found a nucleus of the Newnansville members now living in Alachua. These members were insistent on organizing an Alachua mission. The question of building a new church at Alachua and abandoning the Newnansville church became an issue. Those members who had moved to Alachua supported building a facility in Alachua while those who remained in Newnansville opposed the idea.
Charles Inman, a preacher of great stature and personality, settled the issue at a Revival where a building committee of 3 men was selected and plans were begun for a new church building in Alachua. The building was completed in 1897 at a cost of $1800. While the new church was under construction a Sunday School was established with Mr. L. N. Pierce serving as Superintendent.
Before the new church was completedthe Sunday School met in the first public schoothouse located on South Main Street. Today, the Alltel Telephone building occupies that site. During the next 12 years the new Church in Alachua did more for community growth and development than had been done during the previous 50 years.
On a December Sunday in 1910 Rev. Charles Matheson preached his last sermon before moving to another charge. This service is also remembered as the last one held in the old Alachua Church because fire would break out the following week and completely destroy both the church and parsonage buildings. Before the burning embers had cooled subscriptions were offered and $1200 was pledged toward new buildings. A new parsonage was completed in 1911 using pledge-money and a few hundred dollars of insurance money.
Without a house of worship the Methodists held services in the Baptist Church which was generously opened to them. Rev. H. J. Haeflinger came to serve the charge in 1912 and during his 3 years as minister the new and present church building was completed at a cost of $7000. Bishop Morrison dedicated the new building in 1912 and presided at the cornerstone laying. Rev Haeflinger also organized churches in Gracy and Haile.
One of the outstanding accomplishments during his Alachua ministry was the organizing of a Boy Scout Troop sponsored by the Alachua Methodist Church. The troop was led by W. T. Rob arts, the local undertaker, who also taught a Sunday School class of 12 —18 year-old boys. On January 12, 1912, Mr. Robarts; Rev. Haeflinger, and 13 boys from the Wesley Sunday School class met at the parsonage marking the first meeting of the first Boy Scout troop in the area. An upstairs room of the new church was allocated for the Scouts’ meeting room. When the new church was finished a stained glass window in that room read THE WESLEY SCOUTS. This window currently is located in the upstairs room in the sanctuary. The original organizing document is now in the possession of Alachua Boy Scout Troop 88 and is displayed in their scout hut.
The church thrived with E. K. Denton as pastor. In 1915, E. A. Spencer organized the first youth fellowship, known as the E pworth League, and served as its first President. Rev. K. Hollister followed Rev. Denton and served the church for four years. S. I. Hendrix replaced him in 1920. Community charity work was badly needed at that time and was a hallmark of the Hendrix pastorate. During the next 15 years the church continued to grow under different ministers and the Sunday School expanded and set new records with Mr. Spencer as Superintendent.
Reverend E. M. Rooks served from 1929 to 1930 and led the church’s advancement in many directions. The church trustees were empowered to borrow money—not to exceed $5000—for the purpose of building a Sunday School annex.
When Rev. T. C. Osteen arrived in 1934 he found a critical shortage of Sunday School classrooms and soon started an addition project. A second floor was added to the sanctuary and divided into several classrooms. A church member and carpenter, Mr. Huggins, led the men of the church in the construction project.
In 1946, during the ministry of J. W. Rogers, a memorial gift of an electric organ and chimes was given in memory of Mrs. H. V. Hawkins by one of her sons. This was the first of many gifts that enhanced the beauty and facilities of the sanctuary.
A church conference was called on May 23, 1951 at the home of Carl Doke in Bland. At that conference the members voted to close the Bland Church, discontinue services, and move the membership to the Alachua Methodist Church. This was the last time an Alachua pastor would serve as minister of an outlying church. W. M. Irwin was the minister at this time.
In 1954 construction started on a new Church School Educational Building and Fellowship Hall during the ministry of Rev. W. R. Howell. This was completed in 1957 during Marvin Thompson’s ministry.
Three men have gone forth from the Alachua Methodist Church into the ministry. In 1958 Robert “Pete” Hines was admitted to the Florida Conference. Tn 1951 Kenneth Traxier was admitted to the Florida Conference and immediately entered a missionary college in Tennessee where he and his wife prepared for the mission field. The Methodist Conference sent him first to a small town in Brazil then to the new capital, Brasilia, where he organized and built a new church. Though not born in Alachua, Lewis Leigh attended the University of Florida and frequently visited Alachua where he courted and eventually married a local girl. He then attended Emory University’s Candler school of Theology and, upon completion of his studies, was admitted to the Florida Conference where he served in many churches before his retirement. These men are still living.
During the four years of ministry under Allan R. Stuart which began in 1960, a number of memorial gifts were given to the Church. Offering plates, a communion-service set, altar paraments, and a new piano were among the gifts received. A complete renovation of the sanctuary was undertaken during Robert A. Shelley’s 1964- 1967 ministry. The carpet, pew cushions, and drapes were replaced, the interior was painted, and a central heating-and-air-conditioning system was installed.
The Hines family gave a brass cross and brass candleholders for the Communion Table and donated a sound-system for the sanctuary. Other gifts included a Baptismal Font, new sanctuary lights, a lighted cross and prayer bench, and a Sanctuary Lamp with an altar Bible and Bible stand. Later, during the Williamson ministry, the church received a set of Carillon Chimes given in memory of Mr. and Mrs. E. S. Traxler by their family. During Herman Boyette’s ministry Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Spencer’s children donated—in memory of their parents—the current sanctuary-piano.
This church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1972 during Bently Williamson’s tenure. On Saturday, October 14, the Newnansville Festival and Parade was held. All participants were dressed in 1820’s costumes and the activities centered on those enjoyed by the settlers of that era. The celebration concluded Sunday with an afternoon service at Newnansville Cemetery—the site of the original church. A memorial stone marker was unveiled identifying this as the birthplace of Methodism in Florida.
In 1973 the old frame-house parsonage, which was built in 1911, was sold and Rev. Boyette moved into a new, brick parsonage built for $65,000. During Dave Herman’s ministry the sanctuary was renovated and the 1934 second-floor addition was removed and the annex was restored to its original form. Following a two-year stay by Irvin Price, Rev. George Lutz took over as pastor in 1983. Especially noticeable during Rev. Lutz’s pastorate was the increase in activities and interest of the youth of the church.
1984 marked the 200th year of Methodism in America and the 162nd year of Methodism in the Alachua area. The October 21, Homecoming day celebration featured the Hines brothers as guestspeakers, both former members of the church. A building committee was formed on May 17, 1987, and plans emerged for a new fellowship hall, kitchen, and pastor’s office. Construction began in June 1989 and completed in January 1990 at a cost of $403,615. During this time a house and lot adjoining the church were purchased and converted into additional parking spaces. The addition of the Fellowship Hall and Nursery was part of a total renovation program that included the restoration of the historic Sanctuary, the addition of Sunday School space, and the expansion of other facilities.
Taking part in the special Consecration Service held on March 4,1990 were Dr. Jimmy Jones—Gainesville District Superintendent, Dr. M. McCoy Gibbs, Rev. George Lutz, and members of the Building Committee. This event featured the Consecration of the new facilities, the Laying of a Cornerstone, the Placing of a Time Capsule, a covered dish luncheon in the new Fellowship Hall, and a Witness Revival and Celebration. Note that Rev. George Lutz served as pastor for eight years, longer than any pastor in the church’s history. No previous pastor had served for more than four years.
We celebrated our 175th anniversary as a church at our homecoming celebration on October 12, 1997. Reverend Cornelius Henderson, Bishop of the Florida Conference, brought us our Homecoming Message. This this date marked the 175th year since the founding of the original Newnansville Church and special recognition was be given to the long-time members of the Church.
The Church lives and thrives today as we serve God and spread His message. The Holy Spirit is alive within us as we work together as a body with Christ as the head. We are active m missions and outreach in the community. Through worship, Sunday School, and Bible study we have opportunities to learn about our Lord as we come together in Christian love and fellowship. We strive to offer activities and ministries for all ages as we grow together in our Christian journey. We look excitedly for the years ahead to be filled with joy as we seek to continue in the great tradition established over 175 years ago.