Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The History Of The Methodist Church in Elmira

By , Historian
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved by the author.

Sunday, June 30, 1901, was a great day for the Methodists of Elmira. It was the day of dedication for the “2nd” Hedding Church. According to the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press (July 1, 1901), “The beautiful auditorium was filled to overflowing with devout people…Bishop C.H. Fowler spoke from the text Psalm 48:12.”[1]

The new Hedding Methodist Episcopal Church was built at the corner of Church and Columbia Streets, next to the original Hedding Church which had been sold to the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church for $6000 [2] (the building remains the home of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and is the oldest building in the city of Elmira erected as a church and still in use as such).

The newspaper went on to report, “The dedication proper occurred in the evening…a striking feature of the day was that the dedication did not take place until the remaining debt on the edifice, $40,000, was provided for by subscription. It was not until nearly 11 o’clock in the evening that this was accomplished and Bishop Fowler was allowed to dedicate the building and place the pulpit in charge of the beloved pastor Rev. G. E. Campbell…” The article continued noting that the day “Was one to be remembered always by the Methodist people of the city…for the practical Christianity of those people….” [3]

A little over a year later on September 21, 1902, a second Methodist Episcopal Church (Centenary) was dedicated on the Southside of Elmira at the intersection of S. Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The newspaper (September 22, 1902) reported that, “There was an immense congregation present, nearly 2,000 people being in attendance at the ceremony. During the service a total of $13,575 was raised in five year pledges for the church, with the exception of $1500, covering the entire debt of the new church.” Commitment was never in doubt as there were three services that day. “In the evening all other Methodist Churches of the city were closed and the service at Centenary was made a union meeting…the balance of the fund needed was raised after Rev. John Krantz delivered the sermon of the evening…Bishop Mallalieu then dedicated the church.” [4] George Beers, a member of Centenary declared, “A penny a day the mortgage will pay.” [5]

The dedication of these two churches, each with a sanctuary that could seat nearly one thousand people, along with a very active First Methodist Church (the mother church of Methodism in Elmira) and a relatively new Riverside Methodist Church (dedicated in 1896) was a long way from the early days of Methodism, when in 1771, John Wesley (founder of Methodism) told Francis Asbury (the first Methodist Bishop) “I set you loose” in the colonies. [6]

The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States was organized at a conference held at Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore, Maryland from December 24, 1784 to January 5, 1785. Following Wesley’s instructions, Bishop Asbury sent preachers out on the circuit. The late 18th century saw rapid growth in Central New York as “Opportunities opened to hardy, self-sufficient and courageous Methodist preachers with their effective style of preaching, teaching, praying and singing. Religious services were offered in homes and school houses as numbers increased.”[7] Dr. Alfred P. Coman, in his Reminiscence, stated that, “The Preacher would take the text and expound on it for about 1 to 2 hours. Prayer would follow, then an invitation to step forward (to accept Christ) in a desire to be saved from their sins and flee from the wrath to come. Those who came forward formed a nucleus of a Methodist Class, later on called a charge or church. The marks of Methodism were a warm handclasp, fervent prayer, kneeling, singing Gospel songs, Bible exhortation and testimonies.”[8]

In sparsely populated areas of the United States clergy had to serve more than one congregation at a time. This form of organization has been called a “preaching circuit.” Circuits were common in the early Methodist Church and usually ran about 175 miles, often no more than an Indian path. Junior preacher William Colbert (28 years old) went on a mission from Bishop Asbury. Colbert wrote, “I was so fortunate as to wander into uninhabited wilderness… surrounded by howling wolves, ravenous wolves and greedy bears. Along the way I had but little Indian bread and butter for supper…slept in a filthy cabin and had for breakfast a frozen turnip.” Five year later he wrote, “A man needs a sound constitution and a large stock of patience to travel this circuit.”[9]

On December 16, 1792, Colbert preached at Lough’s (Howe’s) Tavern near the junction of Newtown Creek and the Chemung River in Newtown Village (Elmira). He preached on the text Mathew 5:6, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.” His journal states, “Lord give me humility and watchfulness… part of my congregation was drunk.”[10] Colbert was the first Methodist circuit rider to visit our area. A sign on East Water St. marks the site of his visit. Newtown became part of a regular circuit in 1812. “Each pastor was sent out with $49.98 and traveling expense, going though poor, making many rich.” One rider, Jacob Young showed his good humor when he said, “I fear three things, bears, blizzards and Baptists.”[11] Newtown was not an easy charge. In 1805, Rev. Simeon Jones became pastor of the Presbyterian congregation. He described the state of the community, “The Sabbath was desecrated by sports, labor and business, small as the place was, it sustained six taverns and tippling shops and intemperance was almost universal.”[12]

The First Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Newtown organized as a corporation in 1819. There was no church building. Services were held in homes of members. Eventually they were held in a log schoolhouse located in a pine grove on Lake Street (site of today’s YWCA) and then in a school house on William Street. “Neighbors complained of the noise—those were the days of the “shouting Methodists”—their lusty “amens” and “hallelujahs” were found offensive. So, the group moved to the Court House; but, the noisy services caused it to be ousted. The sheriff’s wife objected, and she is said to have locked the door on the members.”[13]

Clearly, the Methodists needed their own space. A subscription for a church was organized and a site selected at the corner of Church and State Streets. It was abandoned because it was in the way of the Chemung Canal. A new site was found on Baldwin Street north of the present Elm Chevrolet. According to local church historian Sheldon King, “During construction of the first church building in 1831-32, there occurred what came to be called the “Work Bench Revival.” John Kline Roe, the son of trustee, Isaac Roe, the leader of the first class in 1819 died. Memorial services were held in the uncompleted building. The carpenter’s work bench was used as a pulpit. During the funeral discourse a number of persons were awakened. Work was suspended on the building and a revival started which resulted in 70 new members.” The original wooden building was plain. Under the vigorous leadership of Rev. J. T. Arnold, who served from 1841-43 a new brick church was constructed to the immediate south of the 1831 building. [14]

By the mid-nineteenth century the time for a second Methodist Church had arrived. The city was a center of commerce and transportation. On October 13, 1851 the leadership of First Church decided to establish a Second Methodist Church, mainly for those living west of the Chemung Canal (State Street). Property was purchased on West Church Street just east of Columbia Street (the site of today’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church). A new brick building was built. On October 19, 1852, the name Hedding Methodist Episcopal Church of Elmira was adopted in honor of Bishop Elijah Hedding who had spoken at First Church just prior to his death in April.[15]

Methodism was on the move in Elmira. Members of Hedding and First Churches established a Sunday School in Southport in 1855 (south of the river was referred to as Southport) with a membership of “55 scholars” besides the Bible Class. This was the genesis of Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church. Eventually such “mission” efforts would lead to the development of Westside Church (1892) and St. John’s Church (1914).

The growth of Methodism was also occurring in the African American Community of Elmira. “From a meager community of 26 coloreds living in six households praying together in a house on Benjamin St. on Elmira’s Eastside back in 1840, the roots of a mission society aptly named Zion would evolve into the contemporary Frederick Douglass Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church”[16] (the oldest African American Church in Elmira). The origin of this “separate” arm of the Methodist Church in the United States can be traced to events that took place in Philadelphia between 1784-1787. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones became the first African-Americans granted preaching licenses by the Methodist Episcopal Church. They were licensed by St. George’s Church in Philadelphia in 1784. St. George’s Church is the oldest home of Methodist worship in continuous use in America. Three years later, in 1787, protesting racial discrimination, Allen and Jones led most of the black members out of the church and formed the Free African Society. Eventually Allen, in 1794, founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal denomination and became its first Bishop. It was the first major religious denomination in the western world that developed because of sociological rather than theological differences. In 1816, the African American Episcopal Church (AME Church) formed.[17]

In 1850, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church in Elmira organized and erected its first building on the northeast corner of Dickinson and Fourth Streets in 1852. With the approach of the Civil War, the number of blacks in the Elmira community increased dramatically. It did so as a result of fugitives or “freedom seekers” fleeing the South for the promise of freedom that Canada provided. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church grew out of the first organization building a church on the opposite corner that opened in 1870.[18] Over time there grew to be two AME Zion Churches in Elmira with the second being the Minnie L. Floyd Church.

Meanwhile, south of the Chemung River, Methodism was percolating. In 1835, a small group of people began holding “meetings” in their homes in the Town of Southport. They were “zealous” and their numbers increased rapidly. In 1840, a church was organized and a small chapel built near Bulkhead. With inspiration from First Church and Hedding and a growing congregation the Southside Methodists purchased property at the intersection of South Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (site of today’s Walgreens). The “South Main Street Methodist Episcopal Church” organized with 16 charter members. By 1884, a new building was needed. A brick church was erected in honor of the Methodists one-hundredth anniversary of their first General Conference, and the name was officially changed to Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church.[19]

On September 8, 1892, to the east of Centenary, at the home of Mrs. James Criddle at 208 Horner Street 29 persons, including the elder of the district, Rev. E. M. Mills D.D. and representatives from First and Centenary Methodist Churches met and formed the Riverside Methodist Episcopal Sunday School. By February of 1893, the group had grown necessitating the purchase of property at the corner of Spaulding and Brand Streets. A chapel was built and dedicated on June 28, 1893. Events moved quickly. On April 24, 1894, Riverside Methodist Episcopal Church legally incorporated, and dedicated a new church building on May 31, 1896. Setting the example for future dedications, on the day of the service, in addition to the money already raised, an additional $5000 was secured so that the church was dedicated free of debt. [20]

The “mission” minded folks of Hedding looked west in the early 1890’s resulting in a Sunday School in an old barn at the corner of First and Foster Streets in 1892. A small chapel replaced the barn and thenceforth became a mission outpost for Hedding. The “outpost” of Methodists grew and a new society was organized in October 1916. It became known as the Westside Methodist Episcopal Church with 45 charter members. Within one year membership had grown to 135 and was self sustaining. Hedding Church deeded all rights to the chapel to the young organization and by 1920, a new building was constructed at a cost of $9,500.[21]

Methodism was on the move in other sections of the city. In 1893, the Baptists constructed a building on Thurston Street. It was sold and known as the Westside Church of Christ. The Methodists took over the building in 1905. In 1908, the Trustees incorporated the church and named it Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church after the birthplace of John Wesley. Representatives from the Methodist Churches met early in the winter of 1913-14, and concluded that work should be started among the growing number of Italians in Elmira. Bishop William Burt appointed Rev. Guiseppe (Joseph) Grana to take charge of the work. A building was purchased at 155 West Sixth Street to be used as a home for the minister, a school and a church. Instruction in English was held three nights a week. Dr. Eli Pittman, District Superintendent at the time concluded his report for 1914 by saying that, “Brother Grana already reports four full members and twelve probationers and we are looking for a great work.” The “Italian Mission” adopted the name St. John’s in 1931.[22]

In 1910, a Free Methodist congregation in Elmira purchased a former gas station and grocery store on Ivy Street. The First Free Methodist Church was incorporated in 1912. The “Free” Methodist Church had originated in Pekin, New York in 1860. They had been expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church for advocating for “free” churches. They opposed slavery, wanted free pews and wanted the church to be “free” from formalism in its worship among other issues.[23 The name “Methodist” was kept because the founders felt that their misfortunes (expulsion) had come to them because of their adherence to doctrines and standards of Methodism.

The original building was renovated in 1944, under the leadership of the Rev. Clark Snyder at a cost of $13,000. In the mid 1990’s the church and the parsonage at 513 Hart Street were sold to the Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospital. Property was purchased at 390 Warnick Street in Elmira. The congregation relocated and became the Hand in Hand Free Methodist Church, opening in 1997.

Over the years, adversity tested the faith and commitment of the Elmira Methodist community. The brick building, which was the home of the First Church closed in April of 1871, and replaced with a beautiful building dedicated on January 1, 1873. The new church had a tower surmounted by a steeple reaching 184 feet from the ground dominating the city skyline. A 2,500 pound bell hung in the tower. The magnificent building was in use somewhat less than 12 years when disaster struck. At two o’clock Thursday morning May 27, 1886, the first fire bell sounded. When discovered the entire building was in flame. From the ashes rose the structure used until the church closed in 1968.[24] Hedding Church faced its own disaster when a “twister” toppled the steeple on Sunday, September 25, 1881. The steeple was not replaced.[25] Fire ravaged Centenary Church in December 1931. The roof and interior of the main part of the building were destroyed. Local funeral directors, and church members Stuart Hagerman and Stephen L. Wilson provided chairs. Elmira College loaned hymnals and services were
held in the gymnasium until the church was restored.[26]

The late 1960’s was a time of consolidation for the Methodist Church. In June of 1968, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Brethren Church merged to become the United Methodist Church. That same year First Methodist, St. John’s and Hedding joined to become Christ’s United Methodist Church with its home at the Hedding building. At the time, First Church was sold to what is today Elm Chevrolet and eventually demolished in 1972. St. John’s was sold to the Quakers.

June 22-23, 1972 was devastating for Elmira when Hurricane Agnes unleashed the “Flood of 72” on the city. Christ’s Church’s basement was flooded with water coming within two feet of the sanctuary. Centenary had water one to two feet in the sanctuary with 75% of its member’s homes flooded. Riverside had its parsonage heavily damaged and the sanctuary was partially flooded. Methodist churches did not suffer alone as the flood was ecumenical in its devastation. Recovery was slow. For all the churches, crews of Methodists and work teams from other denominations helped clean up. With Central N.Y. Conference support, loans from the Small Business Administration along with the faith and commitment of their members the buildings were restored. The flood and changing economics within the Elmira area would negatively impact membership in the city churches.

The African-American Methodist Community also experienced changes over time. In 1885, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church became the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1894, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was rededicated as the Frederick Douglas African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. “In 1895, at the death of Frederick Douglass, “Memorial” was officially added to the name of the church commemorating the renowned abolitionist.” The Frederick Douglass Church moved from its site on Fourth and Dickinson Streets in 1951, when the property was purchased by the Elmira Housing Authority for the construction of Jones Court. A new building was constructed at 414 Baldwin Street and became the home of the church until 1995. In that year, under the leadership of the AME Zion, Northeastern Episcopal District presiding prelate, Bishop George W. C. Walker, it merged with the Minnie L. Floyd AME Zion Church located on the corner of Madison Avenue and Second Street, the current site of the Douglass Congregation. [27]

The first decade of the 21st century has been a marked contrast to the opening of the 20th century for the Methodist Churches of Elmira. Beautiful big buildings, opened with large and committed congregations in 1901, and 1902, are now closed with the congregations merged. Centenary and Christ’s (Hedding) Churches had fallen on hard times with shrinking attendance and spiraling maintenance costs. When Centenary discovered that its south wall was pulling away from the roof (with estimated costs for repair over one million dollars) options began to be considered. Christ’s, Centenary and Riverside Churches began “visioning” conversations with a potential goal of merging. When Walgreens made a purchase offer for the Centenary property (the second such offer within four years) it seemed as though a message was being sent. The congregation agreed to sell and “co-habitat” at Christ’s Church with the commitment to build a new building. Merger discussions became more serious.

Centenary UMC was deconsecrated on June 7, 2007 and on March 11, 2007 Christ’s UMC and Centenary UMC merged to form the New Beginnings United Methodist Church. Riverside Church, which had participated in the visioning process voted not to merge. With proceeds from the sale of the Centenary property a new church was built at 330 East Miller Street. It is a modern facility, handicapped accessible, technologically up to date, economically efficient and debt free. Christ’s UMC was deconsecrated on January 17, 2010 and on February 14, 2010 The New Beginnings UMC celebrated its grand opening.

The opening of New Beginnings Church was less auspicious than the openings of Hedding and Centenary Churches, but faithfulness and commitment are no less. There are fewer Methodist Churches in the city today. From a peak of nine churches only four remain: Westside UMC, Riverside UMC, New Beginnings UMC, and the Frederick Douglass Memorial AME Zion Church. Methodists in Elmira no longer have the doors barred because of the noise they make, but they continue to take their work of making disciples seriously.


[1] Elmira Daily Advertiser and Free Press, July 1, 1901.

[2] Sheldon S. King, Christ’s United Methodist Church, Christ’s United Methodist Church, Elmira, N.Y. March 21, 1983.

[3] Elmira Daily Advertiser and Free Press, July 1, 1901.

[4] Elmira Daily Advertiser and Free Press, September 22, 1902.

[5] Centenary United Methodist Church Centennial and 130th Congregational Anniversary Booklet, Centenary UMC: Elmira, N.Y., September 16, 2001.

[6] The Rev. Donald Hoff, The History of Methodism in Webb Mills, January 7, 1992.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Rev. Donald Hoff, The History of Methodism in Webb Mills, citing: P2. Reminising with Dr. Alfred P. Coman (Methodist of Central N.Y.)Published 1969, Centenial Committee of CNY.

[9] The Rev. Donald Hoff, The History of Methodism in Webb Mills, citing: Journal of William Colbert.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hoff, The History of Methodism in Webb Mills.

[12] Edward B. Hoffman, First Presbyterian Church of Elmira, The First 200 Years, Donation of Fred Petrie: Elmira, N.Y., 1995

[13] King, Christ’s United Methodist Church.

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Calvin Brewer, Chemung Co. Historical Journal, Vol. 54 No. 1, September 2008: “Elmira’s First African American Church Finding Faith and Freedom, 1841.” Chemung Co. Historical Society, Elmira, N.Y.


[18] Brewer, “Elmira’s First African American Church Finding Faith and Freedom, 1841.”

[19] Centenary UMC Centennial and 130th Congregational Anniversary Booklet.

[20] Sherrill Van Riper, Riverside United Methodist Church Booklet, Riverside UMC: Elmira, N.Y. 1993.

[21] Directory Westside Methodist Episcopal Church, 1922.

[22] King, Christ’s United Methodist Church.


[24] King, Christ’s United Methodist Church.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Centenary United Methodist Church Centennial and 130th Anniversary Booklet.

[27] Brewer, “Elmira’s First African American Church Finding Faith and Freedom, 1841.”



Brewer, Calvin, “Elmira’s First African American Church: Finding Faith and Freedom 1841”, The Chemung Co. Historical Journal, Vol. 54 No. 1 September, 2008.

Byrne, Thomas, Chemung County: 1890-1975. Elmira, N.Y: Chemung Co. Historical Society, 1976.

Centenary United Methodist Church Centennial and 130th Congregational Anniversary Booklet.

Elmira, N.Y: Centenary Church, September 16th, 2001.

Directory Westside Methodist Episcopal Church, 1922: Elmira, N.Y.

Elmira Daily Advertiser and Free Press, July 1, 1901 and September 22, 1902.

Hoff, The Rev. Donald, unpublished article, The History of Methodism in Webb Mills, January 7, 1992. Used references from The Journal of Rev. William Colbert and Reminiscences with Dr. Alfred Coman.

Hoffman, Edward B. First Presbyterian Church of Elmira, The First 200 Years. Elmira, N.Y: Donation of Fred Petrie, 1995.

King, Sheldon, Christ’s United Methodist Church, Elmira, N.Y: Christ’s United Methodist Church, March 21, 1983.

Van Riper, Sherrill, Riverside United Methodist Church Booklet, Elmira, N.Y: Riverside UMC 1993.

1 comment: