First United Methodist Church

Montgomery, Alabama

by Weslea Bell

 

How can residents of Montgomery, Alabama feel like they belong; that Montgomery is their true home no matter where they’ve come from or how long they’ve been there? In a sprawling, industrial city of such diversity, is it possible to put down roots and develop relationships so strong and deep that thinking of leaving would be out of the question? First United Methodist Church, an architectural phenomenon anchored in the center of Montgomery’s historic downtown district, offers Montgomery citizens an opportunity to connect with people who share the same beliefs, adhere to the same philosophies and even enjoy the same kinds of entertainment. There is something to be said for finding people of like mind, and the people connections formed within the walls of the church are designed to last a lifetime.

 

Dr. Karl Kenneth Stegall, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, is committed to creating an environment where everyone feels like they are an integral part of the church family. Stimulating programs are available for every age and interest group, from infants to senior citizens. People in all seasons of life are encouraged to embrace the vision of the church, which is to provide spiritual nurturing in a loving environment and to help citizens join together to make a difference in their community. For over 175 years First United Methodist Church has enabled the people of Montgomery to enjoy richer, fuller lives, and as the oldest organized church of any denomination in the city of Montgomery, it has consistently fulfilled its mission to act as a caring community of believers.

 

No more than a decade after Alabama became a state, settlers gathered to hear sermons in a small wooden building that would eventually become First United Methodist Church. The church’s original building, located at the present site of the federal courthouse, was the first house of worship in Montgomery and was built by a combined group of Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. The Methodists assumed sole ownership of the building in 1829 and assigned their first minister, Reverend Benjamine Houghton of the Mississippi Conference. Passengers of steamboats arriving in Montgomery in the early 1830’s could find a peaceful, welcoming place to thank God for a safe journey.

 

Over the years many small buildings were razed and larger ones erected on that same site until a brick building was completed in 1856. The congregation, named simply the Methodist Church, remained there until they outgrew the structure and gave it to another church in 1853, presently Old Ship Church on Holcombe at Mildred Street. Representations of the brick meetinghouse are shown in several small panes of the stained glass windows of the present sanctuary. During the same year an outbreak of yellow fever claimed the lives of nine ministers in the Alabama conference, and about one-third of the population died. The entire site was sold to the federal government in 1931 to be used as a site for Montgomery’s present-day post office. The congregation moved to the Cloverdale section of Montgomery and was renamed First Methodist Church.

 

Forming strong family bonds among its members was one of the top priorities of the church at its inception and remains one of the most important goals for over thirty people presently on staff at First United Methodist Church. Although the spectacular facilities are more than accommodating today, the first several meetings in the sanctuary relied strictly on the congregation’s commitment to one another rather than on the ease or convenience of meeting in a comfortable building. The exterior of the sanctuary was completed in 1938, but because of the church’s commitment to build on a pay-as-you-go basis during the time of the great depression, it was difficult to pay for the entire endeavor and the interior was far from being finished. Services began with gravel on the floor, homemade benches, and canvases over the window openings. The worship setting was often sprinkled with scaffolding in the nave and chancel. The structure’s interior was not completed and the windows not installed until 1941, and because of wartime conditions, most furnishings and carvings were added later.

 

In 1952 the fellowship hall was completed, followed by a fellowship building in 1961 and a total renovation of all church buildings in 1989. Construction on Wesley Hall began in 1993 and was completed in 1996. The present church plant, including structures, furnishings, equipment and land, is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in United Methodist architecture. The entire facility, valued at $25,000,000 has come to the members of First United Methodist Church debt-free through the sacrificial labors of love of the church family.

Still a flagship entity in the city of Montgomery, First United Methodist Church’s beautiful facilities serve as an anchor for a strong and stable Cloverdale Historic District. Ranked among the top United Methodist churches in the world in terms of Sunday school attendance, the mission of First United Methodist Church continues to involve supporting charities that meet the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of all humankind. Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, Nellie Burge, McInnis School for the Retarded, and an Early Childhood Development Center are only a few of the many programs and ministries supported by the church today.

 

In addition to sponsoring a multitude of charities, the church has also served as host to the Montgomery Civic Chorale, Boy Scouts of America, and Hospice of Montgomery. The Montgomery Symphony has also performed at First United Methodist Church, strengthening its reputation far and wide for excellence in music. The Adult Choir, directed by Jack Horner, and the Adult Ensemble, directed by Linda Gill, present special musical performances in addition to regular participation in worship services. They also sing for weddings and concerts and deliver a standing room only Christmas program, including an orchestra playing a mix of seasonal music each year. The Cathedral in the Pines annual concert series includes appearances by guest musicians who perform sacred, classical, and popular repertoire. The musical presentations of First United Methodist Church are likely to include a wide variety of musical styles including jazz, vocal, contemporary, and inspirational favorites.

 

The staff of First United Methodist Church share a common goal of creating a loving, Christian atmosphere for all members, beginning with the children placed in their care. Members of the nursery staff understand the importance of offering consistency to parents and children by employing regular nursery attendants and offering silent pagers to parents who need them. When babies grow into children, they move into an area of the church that teaches the Bible in fun, exciting ways. Through Sunday school classes and Children’s Church, a ministry for children ages three through first grade, they can pray together, sing, listen to Bible stories, and participate in other activities that enhance the Bible lessons. Second graders are invited to attend a five-week study entitled, “God’s Children in Worship,” a special study of the seasons of the year, the Sacraments, finding and following hymns, Biblical symbolism, and using good manners in God’s house. Vacation Bible School is held for a week each June and is centered around a fun and exciting theme that is taught through Bible stories, crafts, music, snacks, recreation, projects, and fellowship.

 

First United Methodist Church also embraces Montgomery parents who need childcare throughout the week by providing a non-profit, full-time Early Childhood Development Center, directed by D. May. Children are encouraged to learn by playing and follow curriculum flavored with a bit of Montessori teaching methods. Mothers’ Morning Out, designed for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, is a separate program that has been a ministry of the church since 1980. The program offers children a loving, Christian environment for learning and playing and is directed by Jean Carr.

 

Every family in Montgomery cherishes its children most, and by becoming involved in First United Methodist Church, parents are comforted by the fact that their children will be prayed for by name each week of the year. A group of women called Mothers-In-Prayer meet monthly and are charged with praying for each child in the church on a weekly basis.

 

The children attending First United Methodist Church also have their own library, located on the second floor of the education building, where they can check out books or listen to guest storytellers. The purpose of the library is to help children develop a thirst for God’s word and to make learning about God interesting and exciting. As they mature in their own spiritual development, the children can reach out to the city of Montgomery and share their faith through the Great Day of Service, an annual canned food drive that culminates in the visitation of homebound church members.

 

Children are formally recognized during church services every January when all babies born in the previous year are honored with a blue or pink Bible. Every May during National Family Week the children sing, usher, and read scripture during the church service. Another special day for the church is Christian Education Sunday, a church-wide celebration during the month of September. Bibles are presented to third grade children and worship bags are given to all three-year-olds.

 

Older children enjoy ELMO every Sunday evening, the Elementary Methodist Organization designed for fourth through sixth graders. Children enjoy open gym, snack, supper, games, relays, and a devotional along with special events like bowling or swimming. Spending a few days at Camp Lee near Anniston, Alabama, is an annual highlight for the older children who participate in various activities such as hiking, swimming, and the “slock ride,” an exhilarating thirty-foot drop down a waterfall. Other annual events include an overnight canoe trip, the Roller Blast roller skating party, a spring break swim known as the Blizzard Beach Party, Mardi Gras events, an Easter carnival, Pumpkinfest, an Autumn Adventure picnic and hayride, and numerous Christmas celebrations.

 

After graduating from First United Methodist Church’s stimulating children’s ministry, pre-teens and teenagers experience an incredible youth program designed to guide them in a nurturing fellowship for spiritual growth and to strengthen their faith for years to come. Pat Bathea, director of youth ministries, and Sara Beth Wanck, assistant director of youth ministries, offer the youth a plethora of service opportunities on local, national, and international levels. In addition to the many mission trips sponsored by the youth ministry, young people in the church are also encouraged to participate in the Great Day of Service and a Christmas in April workday.

 

The children and youth are not the only groups on the move; senior citizens at First United Methodist Church operate under the motto, “We have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep,” a statement eloquently penned by the great American poet Robert Frost. NeeNee Webb is the director of senior adult ministries and supervises an incredibly active group of church members. First United Methodist Church explains the role of its senior adults:  “Many are leading covenant groups, teaching Sunday school classes, serving as chairpersons for committees and work areas, participating in administrative board meetings, and volunteering their time and service to many ministries sponsored by the church.  And they still have time for fun and fellowship!”

 

Today, First United Methodist Church of Montgomery is a center for work, worship, and fellowship that continuously strives to bring citizens of Montgomery into contact with one another and into a close relationship with God. Members of the church who strive to this end are making a difference not only among the immediate church family, but also in the world at large. Wynton “Red” Blount, a former member of the church, served as Postmaster General of the United States and is considered by many to be the greatest philanthropist in the history of the state of Alabama. The Blount Cultural Park and the Carolyn Blount Shakespeare Festival were made possible through his magnanimous gifts.  The late United States Senator Lister Hill was also a member of First United Methodist Church, and Senator Larry Dixon has been a member of the congregation for many years. Perry Hooper, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and his family are members, as well as Gorman Houston, the acting Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and his family.

 

Those who have claimed First United Methodist Church as their home of Christian fellowship have discovered a powerful way not only to become an active part of the city of Montgomery, but also to reach beyond the city limits to the world at large. Missionaries supported by the church are serving around the world in places like Jerusalem, Africa, Lithuania, the Philippines, Ecuador, Zambia, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Bolivia and other South American countries, and the Republic of Panama. The only reason a person attending First United Methodist Church would ever want to leave would be to tell others about the wonderful fellowship and powerful ministry going on within the walls of this church family.