Methodists in Jasper

More than twenty years of Methodism in Jasper would pass before the Jasper congregation would have a permanent home.

1857 was a milestone year for the church members in the town of Jasper—they became property owners! On May 26, 1857, Gideon J. Goode, Manley Lee Hester, A. N. Perkins and Zacheus Ryall, as Trustees of the Church, purchased one acre of the southeast corner of a 100-acre tract owned by seller, Harriet Trotti. (The one acre tract is located two blocks northwest of the Jasper County courthouse.)

Now the church is occupying its fourth house, each of which has occupied the same original lot. All have been unique.

Successive buildings have evolved from the simple, basic boxlike chapel which members built themselves of handhewn timbers in 1859. Unceiled and unpainted, so cold in the winter that services were often cancelled, lighted by candles in handmade wooden sconces attached to the walls, it perched on wooden blocks and was topped by a small flat-roofed bell tower.

Men, women and slaves sat on handhewn benches; the slaves climbed an outside staircase to reach a gallery (balcony); women, who entered via the back door, sat on the north side (the coldest side) segregated from the men by a three-foot-high partition running the length of the seating.

In the half-century between the construction of the first and second building (1906) women of the church “came of age”. Not only did they enter by way of the front door, sitting on the factory-made pews of their choice, they overcame stubborn male opposition to a new building by financing the project themselves, in their economy, even allowing two stained glass windows. In appearances, “the Church the Women Built,” replacing the old decaying structure, was an almost miraculous transformation. It served the congregation for 20 years.

The third church, of red brick, a familiar landmark here for 45 years, was dedicated in 1926. Not only was it the first brick church building in Jasper, it housed one of the only full pipe organs in this part of the country, its solid brass pipes rising majestically above the pulpit.

Though not all the members had been in agreement about the complete demolition of the old building, though there had been many complaints about its outmoded accommodations and the difficulties of mounting its 18 broad brick steps, at the last service held there on Sunday, July 17, 1969, the thoughts of most of its members were turned to earlier Sundays down the years, when they had sat with sunlight streaming in through the beautiful, full-length stained glass windows of many colors, the swelling notes of the magnificent musical instrument filling the sanctuary.

Completed in 1971, the present building – a sprawling contemporary complex — bears little resemblance to its predecessors. The only reminder of that first little clapboard chapel is the original church bell, selected by a local merchant, Cam Price, on a buying trip to New York in 1859, carefully removed from church to church, now, replaced by a carillon, hanging in its own little belfry, resting in the present church courtyard.

(Commissioned to purchase a $125.00 bell, Price received a letter after reaching New York from “a whole-souled Methodist” advising him to spend $150.00 instead. Many years later, he admitted he was never repaid the difference: “That, however, I don’t now, and never did, regret.”)

Before finally becoming known as the First United Methodist Church of Jasper in 1968, the Jasper church has survived under three previous names. Originally known simply as Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1845 the name was lengthened to Methodist Episcopal Church, South, of Jasper, and in 1939 it became The First Methodist Church of Jasper.

Always strongly family-oriented, since the earliest days of the Jasper church there have been successive generations of the same names – White, Stone, Ryall, Childers, Neyland, Renfro, Henderson, Kellie, Lanier, McKee, Seale are some that come to mind. Later came names like Campbell, Markley, Withers, Woods, Graham, Adams, Cole, Lindsey, Morrison, Odom, Swann, Tomlinson, Weissinger, Wilson and many others.

Church histories record much more than the religious aspect of life as it was in the past. They reflect social and economic trends, customs and traditions of yesteryear, and, as all histories emphasize, the swift passage of time and the ultimate frailty of man.

Official church histories are of necessity brief and to the point, but there is much to read between the lines. When Susie Eddins Ryall, an ardent worker in the Jasper church for more than 60 years, gave a Heritage Program in 1982, she said it best:

“If it seems as though the church’s members were engaged only in building – you are right – for they built character, leaders and spiritual life, and if it sounds all so easy – it was not. There were trials and tribulations; there were good years and there were lean years – when trustees sold property to the west and north – leaving only the block on which the church stands. We had never failed to pay our annual conference pledge, but during the bad years it became necessary to go from member to member to collect even a few dollars. And there was the time we almost lost the building for nonpayment. But we’ve had good years, too, though we paid very dearly to retrieve and restore lost property.”

“We have always respected, honored, loved and cared for our ministers and their families. Being people, we have not always agreed, but, being loyal, we did not desert our church.”

“Through God’s grace, His blessing and His guidance we have the great church of which we are members.”

“We pray as we move into the future we will continue in this same spirit of loyal devotion and dedicated service, as the inspired leadership of our 66 ministers and the thousands of dedicated lay persons have done for the past 143 years (at the time of writing, now 180), and that we will continue to seek God’s guidance and blessing through all the years to come.”