A Brief History of First United Methodist Church of Beckley
From the 2001 Pictorial Directory
The history of First Church is intertwined with the history of the nation and region. The Revolutionary War forced North American Methodists to break from the established Church of England. Due to the efforts of Bishop Francis Asbury, the Methodist Episcopal Church made its way into western Virginia before the end of the eighteenth century.
By the time the new American denomination celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its founding, it was rent by the pressures that led to the Civil War. A southern bishop inherited a slave from the estate of a well-meaning parishioner. Church law prohibited acceptance of the gift; secular law forbade his setting the slave free. The denomination split into northern and southern groups in 1844.
The split engendered a rivalry between the two groups. Shortly after retired General Alfred Beckley chartered our city, northern Methodists founded First Church in 1850. Southern sympathizers started what is now the United Methodist Temple soon afterward.
During the Civil War, many if not most people in Beckley supported the southern cause, and First Church was viewed with suspicion. One pastor was considered a spy for the North and had a price on his head. For much of the conflict, he could not travel farther south than Fayetteville.
After the War Between the States, First Church began to grow slowly but steadily into one of the leading congregations of the area. As a result of its growth, the congregation completed its third home, a neo-Gothic building, in 1929. Built at great financial risk, the building was almost lost during the Great Depression. The sale of the parsonage and proceeds from the division of the educational wing into apartments helped First Church weather the storm. It says a great deal about the character of the congregation of the time that, in spite of its difficulties, it played an important role in the founding of Beckley College (soon to be Mountain State University). After the Depression, the parsonage was repurchased and currently houses the main office of the Southern District of the United Methodist Church. A new parsonage on Woodlawn Avenue was purchased in 1986.
Following World War II, the city of Beckley and First Church enjoyed strong growth. Financial difficulties were overcome, but the large Baby Boom generation placed great pressure upon facilities and staff. Over time, the apartments were reconverted into Sunday School classrooms, parking lots were built, a new pipe organ was installed, and the support staff was enlarged to meet the needs of the community of faith.
In 2000, the congregation celebrated its sesquicentennial. Bishop S. Clifton Ives, resident bishop of the West Virginia Area, and the Reverend Dr. Paul Russell, superintendent of the Southern District, led a Service of Rededication.