Oldest Methodist Church In West Virginia
May 25, 1924
Oldest Methodist Church In West Virginia
Rehoboth church, the oldest Methodist house of worship west of the Shenandoah Valley, occupies an unconspicuous place, is in decrepit condition, and is anything but imposing in size. The history attached to it, however, is of great interest.
Methodism was introduced into America only eighteen years before the building of Rehoboth church, and into Virginia, only fourteen years previously. It had been an independent church only two years previous to its establishment in this country. Until 1784 it merely constituted a society within the Church of England, but after that time was formed into a wholly independent church. Francis Asbury, their first bishop was sent over here from England, by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, where he spent the rest of his life.
The meetings first held in this country were often at a school house near where their church was afterwards built. The numbers attending, many of them coming on foot from a long distance, made it necessary to have a regular preacher. In response to a call sent to Bishop Asbury, a young man named William Phoebus was sent.
The actual deed for the land on which the church was built calls for five acres.
The church building was completed in June, 1786. Only logs of medium size were used, and it could have taken only a few days to fell the trees and put the timbers into place. Samuel Clark, a veteran of the Revolution, was one of the men who helped place the wall-logs in position. This little building, with a floor space not quite twenty-one by twenty-nine feet, was set up near the bottom of a circular depression in the limestone tableland. For this reason it can scarcely been seen from a distance of one hundred feet or more, in any direction. The ground was doubtlessly chosen because of the danger of Indian outbreaks, which were not entirely over at that time, as they could not have come within rifle- shot unseen.
There is a tradition that Bishop Asbury preached the sermon of dedication while standing in the doorway, to a large crowd gathered on the outside, because of the smallness of the church. This ceremony took place in July, 1788.
Here at Rehoboth were held sessions of the Greenbrier conference in May 1972, and 96. Among other early settlers whose voices were heard at this old church, were Jesse Lee, William McKendree, Freeburn Garretson, John Tunnell, and Francis Poythress. It was Jesse Lee who introduced Methodism into New England. His first sermon was preached in Boston under an elm tree, none of the churches of the city being hospitable enough to offer their pulpits for his use.
The building is of hewn logs, with a gallery around the interior, save over the pulpit. It is broad as enough to seat nearly as many as the room below, and strong enough to bear the weight of twenty times the people that could have squeezed into it. It may be that the builders were more concerned with the thought of keeping out Indian bullets, than with that of letting in air. The pulpit still remains, but the old book-board is gone, a rousing preacher having split it with his fist. At present services are held in the new church which stands in the old enclosure, and no services are held in the old edifice. The communion table from the old building is used in the new church. In the tasteful chancel, it looks odd indeed, but carved mahogany could not replace this battered, clumsy, poplar stand. The forest giants who had built the old church had knelt beside it, the sacred communion, consecrated by Asbury had been served from it.
In 1866 the gallery posts, forty-one inches in circumference, and in perfect condition, were still in place, but they have since been removed. The pulpit of poplar and walnut was two and a half feet above the floor and unusually large. The sounding board, a feature of the early churches is also gone.
The centennial of the old church was observed July 20, 1884, when morning and afternoon sermons were preached by Collis Denny and Davis Bush, to a gathering of fifteen hundred people.
The roof of the historic church at last fell in and the floors decayed, but through the exertions of W. L. Lynch and others, a restoration was effected about ten years ago. A shingle roof was put on, the floor was replaced, and the building made level. In its renovated form the building may perhaps witness a second centennial.
There are indications of hasty work in the original construction. Not one of the logs is a foot in diameter. The larger ones are placed nearest the ground. There was no hewing of the logs except on the inner side of the wall. They are diamonded at the ends for a distance of eighteen inches, and then cut into to receive the logs above. Thus the logs project at the corners of the building. The door, which is near the center of the south side, is broad, but only five and a half feet high. In the east end above the pulpit is a window two by two and a half feet and high up on the north side is one more window, three feet square. A man of six feet could have scarcely stood erect under the gallery, and the preacher could have observed his auditors above quite as well as those below. There was no provision for warming the room. The interments in the churchyard are numerous, and a few of the older graves are marked. Among them are those of Edward Keenan and his wife. The road from Union to Gap Mills passed within a few moments walk but neither building is in sight.
Among the many revivals at Rehoboth, perhaps the most memorable was that of 1842 when there were more than one hundred people converted.
There are probably many in this country and in distant parts who can trace back their spiritual pedigrees to a revival at Rehoboth.