Huntsville’s First United Methodist Church celebrates a milestone

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - First United Methodist Church in downtown Huntsville is celebrating a milestone. The congregation and members of the community gathered at the corner of Greene Street and Randolph Avenue Sunday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone. Everyone enjoyed music, ice cream and fellowship.

One and a half centuries is a long time, but the church has survived longer than that. First Methodist is one of the six original Methodist churches in Alabama. “Even before the state became a state,” Senior Pastor Glenn Connor added.” It’s deeply rooted in Huntsville. “We’re 208 years old,” he said. The current building is 150 years old.

The first church was built where the Regions Bank building now stands. The congregation grew to the point, the church moved to its current location at the corner of Greene and Randolph. “That’s a remarkable thing,” Conner said. “And they've been people of faith throughout that whole time.”

The member had to find even more faith when the church burned during the civil war. When union troops camped in Huntsville, they first stopped at another church. “But the Episcopal Church has etched into its facade, do not enter my house in vain,” Conner remarked. “And so the general said, I can't go here.” The Yankees moved a block north and took over First Methodist.

“They used it mainly as a hospital in the sanctuary,” Pastor Conner told us. “Underneath was the stable.” It was January and it was cold. “The minister of this church and the minister from Athens came and told the commanding officer that it was a danger for them to build fires in the basement because it had a wooden floor,” church historian Nancy Van Valkenburgh told us. The troops didn’t listen. “And it caught the church on fire and burned to the ground,” Van Valkenburgh said.

But not all was lost. Someone ran inside and saved the communion table and service. It was the only thing that survived the blaze. “I have thought many times, if you had to choose the most important thing in your structure that was burning, what would you choose?” Van Valkenburgh said. “And that's theologically significant too that they chose the communion table and service.”

The congregation's faith survived as well. Conner telling us, “Those 150 people that would fit on eight pews in this sanctuary decided they would build a church that would seat 500.” They had a big vision but very little money. “That was a statement of faith and hope,” Van Valkenburgh said. Ladies groups hosted dinners in the community to raise money. They also held ice cream socials. And the pastor at the time called on other Methodist churches to help. They started rebuilding the church two years after the war ended in 1865. It was finished in 1867 and today still stands as an historic part of Huntsville's skyline.

The government never gave a dime to the rebuilding effort after the union troops burned down the building. So 46 years after the war, the church sued the U.S. government to get some help. The church’s main witness was a man who was five years old when the union soldiers came to town. “He gave testimony that he heard a union officer say this building’s being commandeered for the use of the union army,” Conner told us. “And so the government wrote a check for 6,000 dollars and gave it to the church.” The money was used to start building the annex building for Sunday school classes on the west side of the main structure.