First United Methodist Church did not start big or quickly. The church congregation began in 1829, moved to Decatur in 1831, and didn’t build the first church until 1834. There were likely several reasons for this—time, inertia, cost, transportation, and perceived need.
A town lot covered with hazel bushes was donated by James Renshaw for the church. It was built as a typical frontier building, thirty feet by forty feet, and twenty-two feet high. Two sides were weather-boarded with rough-hewn walnut and two sides of oak clapboards. The walkways were plastered, and the floor was made of one-foot wide rough boards.
The seats were walnut wood benches placed in two rows, one on the south side for women and the other on the north side for men. The pulpit at the east end was on a raised platform with a railing around it. There were three benches on each side and one behind the pulpit, which probably served as mourner benches for revivals.
There was a wood stove, and a chandelier made of a yellow wagon wheel overhead with twelve candles.
There were no musical instruments. The minister would sing two lines of a hymn and the congregation would repeat them. This method was used until the hymn was finished. About twenty pastors served in this building.
Purchased for $150, the second site of the First Methodist Episcopal Church was obtained. In 1852, with about eighty members, the church’s trustees bought the site known as “the jail lot” on the corner of Prairie and Water. It had the county jail on it which was a sixteen square foot building that held “desperate criminals.”
At first, the plans were to not have a basement, but they were then revised to include one which could be rented as a school for $37.50 per term. The estimated cost of the church was $10,000. A hefty amount for that time and place.
Not too much is known about this building. It was built of brick and measured forty by sixty feet. The choir sat in the back balcony, which is where the organ was located. Peter Cartwright, the famous Illinois circuit rider, vigorously protested against the organ, calling it “a work of the devil.” Our church leaders prevailed, and thus laid the foundation for our church’s long history of beautiful church music.
Pews were arranged in three sections facing the pulpit. The building was dedicated in 1854 and was used until 1872. About 12 ministers served this church, and it was the home church for many Macon County Civil War soldiers.
Revival! These could be huge events in nineteenth-century America. If compared to live concerts of today’s most popular entertainers, we can imagine their religious impact on a society which had only occasional live entertainment.
The “Boy Preacher” Thomas Harrison conducted a twenty-one week revival in Decatur in the 1860s which resulted in two thousand people converted, four hundred of whom joined First Church. Our church members were encouraged to build a new building on the corner of William and Water Streets at what is 301 N. Water. Construction began in 1868, the basement went into use in 1869, and the church was dedicated in 1872 with the singing of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Most of the building materials were purchased in Pekin, the building was 84’ x 120’, and cost about $65,000 at a time when a postage stamp cost one cent. Its steeples made it definitely look like a church. The women made and auctioned a quilt to raise money for a chandelier.
It was during the time of the Third First that saw the local organizing of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, the Women’s Home Missionary Society, the Young Women’s auxiliaries to these groups, the King’s Heralds, the Light Bearers, the Standard Bearers, and the Epworth League. All these groups evolved and reorganized under other names as time went by. About fourteen ministers served this church, and by 1900, there were approximately 1200 members. It was time to consider a new building.
In 1904 our church closed its doors at 301 North Water and didn’t open them again for two years. We are not sure why, but services during the next two years were held at the Power’s Grand Opera House at 141 E. Main Street. This building served the era as a combination theater, convention center, and rental hall and is itself an intriguing subject for an essay.
Work began on our current structure in 1904, with the laying of the cornerstone. This held several items inside it, including copies of a Bible, church documents and various lists of members, a bulletin from the last service in the old church, and a copy each of the Decatur Herald and the Decatur Review, which were separate newspapers at the time.
The building was dedicated in 1906. The total cost of the building was approximately $2.5 million in today’s dollars. During the September dedication service, the remaining $12,350 balance on the construction debt was raised, which is equivalent to approximately $390,000 in today’s dollars. Not bad for a morning offering!
With the new organ, bell tower chimes, lighted cross, and magnificent windows in place, our church welcomed us then, and welcomes us today.
Church Historian, Bill Horton
Bill Horton pictured here with his lovely wife, Lana, and his beautiful granddaughter, Olive Jane. Bill has served as the Church Historian for years. His knowledge and sense of humor are prevalent in everything he does and writes. We are lucky to have him working as one of our historians.