May 31, 2021 Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal
I am excited to scribe a story on the earliest history of First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro based on a fantastic book by author Evelyn Hicks, whose father was a longstanding minister. She assembled this beautiful masterpiece with chapters written by historical scholars encompassing a 200-year celebration (1820-2020). The church was founded in 1821 and first met in private homes. The three historical church sites in Murfreesboro include the dates of 1823, 1843 and 1888. The stained glass windows inside the 1888 church were a masterful testament to the majesty of the history of the congregation, along with the lovely Pier Mirror that stands today.
The downtown church of 1888 is now within conversion into a mixed-use project on One East College Street. Dr. Drew Shelley is the outstanding minister in a present day. John Sallee has served as active historian, having attended Vacation Bible School at the original Methodist church in 1943. The existing structure on Thompson Lane was dedicated with much fanfare in 2003. Today, we will bear account of momentous highlights of this special congregation.
The emphasis on history is ever-present with a pulpit hand-crafted from Chinaberry trees by Robert M. Sanders in 1892. This carved rostrum is one of the loveliest pulpits ever made. The 2003 building was a present of the late benefactor Richard Siegel. He attended First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro and donated 20 acres and $1 million for the magnanimous building that stands today.
I have visited this majestic edifice on 265 West Thompson Lane during Christmas to enjoy the Murfreesboro Symphony amidst perfected acoustics. The stunning Chrismon ornaments during Advent Season are symbols of Christ and always my favorite display. The dictionary defines the term Methodist as ‘devotion to or laying great stress on method.’
To begin, John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were dominant evangelized revivalists in the Church of England, who forged the beginning of the Methodist movement, while planting seeds for the established church in a present day. In 1771, Methodist preacher Francis Asbury arrived to America as a great asset to John Wesley. After the American Revolution, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent of Methodists in America. The Methodist Episcopal Church was now the official Protestant Church.
By 1812, John Windrow donated four acres for a campground and welcomed circuit-riding Methodist preachers to primitive terrain. The Windrow Camp meetings were held there until 1861 and resumed briefly after the Civil War. Hundreds were baptized within a great awakening. On September 29, 1820, a large gathering arrived to sing and worship with testimonials for six days on a frontier settlement 10 miles west of Murfreesboro amidst heavy rain. The camp was inspirational with religious intensity ever-present. Soon, Methodists were meeting in private homes and devising plans for a first church in 1823. The origin of the 1914 Windrow Church remains today in Murfreesboro.
The Murfreesboro-Shelbyville Station was established in October 1820 with 40 in attendance. Bishop Robert Paine was a very effective circuit preacher at this station in October 1823. Murfreesboro returned to the Stones River circuit for four years and was a solo station in 1831 only to be interrupted by the Civil War. At the close of the 1930s, the Murfreesboro Station officially became First Methodist Church of Murfreesboro.
John Lytle was an eldest son of William Lytle, who was a founding father in Murfreesboro. John was a zealous church member and generously gave the deed of land in 1823 for the original church established on the campground of Old Salem Pike.
By the 1830s, Murfreesboro was a prosperous town. In turn, the Murfreesboro Methodist Station was progressive through the 1840s. The 1843 congregation was a large impressive structure at the corner of East College and North Church Street. This same church was remodeled in 1872. On June 23, 1845, Reverend Thomas Randle dedicated the building followed by 14 nights of debate that was highly spirited between Methodist and Baptist preachers. The 1843 church was intact over a decade before the present-day Murfreesboro courthouse underwent construction.
It is interesting to note that Soule College (1851-1917) was established in 1852 by the Murfreesboro Station, who sponsored the female academy under Reverend I.R. Findley. He was first president and named Soule Female Academy for Bishop Joshua Soule. The college remained under the direction of the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1862.
During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied Murfreesboro after raising the Federal flag on top of the Courthouse. Union soldiers took over the church building as a hospital and stripped wood and brick from this original structure. Membership of the Murfreesboro Station declined during the war, and later services were suspended. Many members fought for the Confederate Army. In 1872, the church supported a renovation from the foundation over four months with money from the federal government.
In 1888, the church moved to 220 North Church Street. In this year, the historic and treasured bell was relocated from the 1843 congregation weighing 620 pounds. The bell was transported to the bell tower of the 1888 structure. This magnificent bell rang each Sunday morning inviting all to church. In 2010, the Bell moved from the Bell Tower and was recommissioned to the Bell Chamber on West Thompson Lane in 2019. The bell proudly is postured inside the entrance of the sanctuary at the current building today.
Music is a strong tradition in the life of First United Methodist. In 1761, John Welsey published ‘Rules for Singing’, and church melodies played a strong role in his ministry. Hymns were based on Scriptures and sung with great fervor at the original Windrow Camp Meeting of 1920. Often, these songs of praise were chanted throughout the sermon. A hand-pumped bellows Hook and Hastings Organ was purchased in 1889 for $3,000. This same grand instrument remained until 1951. In that year, Miss Love Haynes donated a new Wicks Organ in honor of her mother Annie Snell Haynes. Organist Lizzie Scott retired in 1964 and was followed by Raymond Bills, who served in this position until 1968 and followed by Mary Dillon Scott until 1988. The 2003 pipe organ was expanded by Milnar Organ Company and donated by George and Kib Huddleston.. Dr. T. Earl Hinton was the music director of the church in 1962 and served in this role for 26 years. Hinton Music Hall on Faulkenberry Lane on the MTSU campus is named in his honor where this professor retired after 34 years. Superlative choir presentations were paramount under his direction at First United Methodist.
The United Methodist Women (UMW) was organized in 1972 and graced this church with active participation. Lillian Branson taught a Sunday School class for 33 years and conveyed ‘I just love to study the Bible.’ Evangelism and Missions have been a mainstay in achieving great heights at First United Methodist.
A feature of the new church is the Narthex Stained-glass window donated by astronaut Rhea Seddon in memory of her great-grandmother Clayton Anderson Ransom. The 19th century exquisite treasure was dedicated to the new building on November 16, 2014.
First United Methodist is an 86,000 square-foot edifice with a 1,300-seat sanctuary in a current day. While the congregation was ever-present on Church Street for 115 years, a new day on Thompson Lane graces our community with zeal, incredible works and dedication. A blessed celebration of 200 years continues in 2021, as we honor this spectacular congregation.