Multiple streams of Methodism contribute to Alton's history
ALTON -- In 1817, a group of six Methodist people met together and formed the first Methodist fellowship in Upper Alton. The first services were held in the cabin of Ebenezer Hodges at the corner of College Avenue and Seminary Street. In 1818, Samuel H. Thompson was appointed as the first pastor of the church that would be known as Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church.
Like the great Mississippi River on which Alton is located, Methodism in the community has been the product of several streams throughout the community’s 200 years.
The first Methodist Church building in Illinois was erected in 1805 on the land of Thomas Good of Goshen settlement, south of Edwardsville. Bethel Chapel was a log structure, as were most early efforts, and had a puncheon floor and seats. In 1817 the Missouri Conference met there. Today a historical plaque marks the site.
The early preachers in our church were circuit riders or itinerant preachers. Samuel H. Thompson, the first pastor of Methodists in Upper Alton, served from 1818 to 1820. He was reassigned as pastor in 1826. John Dew was appointed pastor in 1829 and reappointed in 1831. Many of the pastors served only one year and were appointed elsewhere. Peter Cartwright, of whom more shall be written, presided over the annual conference held in Upper Alton in 1838.
Samuel H. ThompsonWhen the Illinois Conference was formed in 1824, the presiding elder for the Illinois District was Samuel H. Thompson. (1786-1842) He had first held the post in 1816 while the Illinois District was part of the Missouri Conference. From all reports of those who knew him, Thompson rose to his position of leadership and respect because of his mixture of administrative and oratorial abilities coupled with a “spirit” that manifested their ideals. He had been born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania on March 16, 1786, and in 1806 “while engaged in secret prayer, it pleased God to give him evidence of the pardon of his sins, and shortly after, in family prayer, he attained a clean and abiding evidence of the regeneration of his nature.”
In 1809 he joined the Western Conference, through the Tennessee Conference, and came into Missouri in 1814 and served the Missouri alternately with the Illinois until 1824. He also traveled the Shoal Creek and Illinois Circuits for a year.
The career of Thompson was highlighted by five trips to the General Conference as a delegate from both the Illinois and Missouri conferences. Peter Cartwright includes a number of characteristic anecdotes about their visits to General Conference and their encounters with various antagonists.
In 1826 Thompson ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Governor Reynold said he lost because he refused to engage in dirty politics. Cartwright seemed to think it was because of his stand on slavery.
The conditions under which Thompson works—long hours, no pay, the rigors of circuit riding in the wilderness—sapped his strength. In 1827 he asked for a supernumerary relation. While he had been a power in molding Methodism during its formative stages, his health hobbled him during the remainder of his career. (Melton, p. 26)
At the General Conference of 1816, the Missouri Conference was stricken off from the Tennessee Conference, and in 1817 he (Thompson) was pointed to the Illinois District, which covered almost all the inhabited parts of the State of Illinois and Southern Indiana. He remained on this large district two years, and was aggressive in all his ministerial labors, organizing many societies in this new and rising country.
John DewJohn Dew was born April 19, 1789, in the state of Virginia. IN the days of his youth he embraced religion and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he remained a worthy member during life, and being deeply impressed that it was his duty to preach the Gospel, he was recommended by his class and obtained license to preach as a local preacher and then joined the traveling connection in the Ohio Conference.
In 1813 he was appointed to the Salt River Circuit in Kentucky and was blessed with success. The first year of his itinerancy, 1814, he was appointed to the Jefferson Circuit and labored with acceptability and usefulness to the Church. In 1815 he traveled the Madison Circuit; here he gave good proof of his call to the ministry and the Lord owned and blessed his labors. In 1816 he traveled the Guyandotti Circuit and had seals to his ministry. This fall he located, and remained local for eight years, but was an industrious and useful local preacher and was the means of doing much good in several parts that he visited. He preached with great acceptability in the southern part of Kentucky and the Illinois State.
In the fall of 1824 Brother Dew was admitted to the traveling connection in the Illinois Conference. In 1827 he was stationed in St. Louis City. In 1828 he was transferred back again to the Illinois Conference. In 1830 he was appointed to the Lebanon Circuit.
In 1836 he was appointed President of McKendree College and in 1837-1838 he was readmitted into the traveling connection and appointed to the Carlyle District. In 1839 he was appointed to the Lebanon District where he finished his useful life after an illness of about two weeks. On the 5th of September, 1840, he left these mortal shores for a better world relying confidently on the goodness and mercy of God for his salvation. He left an amiable wife and seven children, and an extensive acquaintance and circle of devoted friends to lament their loss. (Cartwright, 323)
First M.E. ChurchIn 1829, Joseph Howard gathered a few Methodist neighbors that had settled near Alton and organized a Methodist Class Meeting. They meet in the cooper (barrel making shop) owned by William Miller.
In 1832, Lyceum Hall was built and stood at the northeast corner of Alby and Second (E. Broadway). The first floor was occupied by the Alton Telegraph newspaper. Alton First M.E. Church met there from 1834 to 1836 before building its first building just a block from Lyceum Hall (Saaf, 9).
The first church building and parsonage were erected at the corner of 4th and Belle. However, in 1857, both the church and parsonage burned to the ground and lots were purchased at the corner of Sixth and Market to rebuild. A 1922 fire practically destroyed the sanctuary but services were temporarily held at the YMCA during the rebuild.
The financial panic of 1837-38 caused the congregation to lose possession of the meeting house and by 1841, they were once again looking for a place to worship.
Wesley ChapelThe first Wesley Chapel church building was erected in 1835. It was a frame structure and was used until 1849 when a brick building was erected. This building was also called Wesley Chapel. When the frame structure was built in 1835, Rev. A. L. Risley was the pastor, and Rev. Thomas C. McGee was the pastor when the brick church was erected in 1847-1849.
It was in February, 1911 that Upper Alton became a part of the City of Alton. Until 1911, Upper Alton had been a village.
Conference sessionsThe first Illinois Conference took place in 1824. This conference divided the Missouri Conference and the Illinois Conference; the former including the state of Missouri, and the latter the states of Illinois and Indiana. The eastern portion of Indiana, which formerly had been connected with the Ohio Conference, was included in the Illinois Conference. The two conferences held their sessions together at the house of William Padfield, St. Clair County, Illinois, beginning on Saturday, October 23, 1824 and closing on October 28. The journal of the session is signed by Bishop Roberts, but Bishop McKendree and Bishop Soule were also present. John Scripps was secretary. (Evers, 69).
Washington Avenue Methodist ChurchThe Washington Avenue Methodist Church was started as a Mission in 1892, in a frame building west of the foot of Washington Avenue and north of Walker Street in Alton. Afternoon Sunday school classes were held there. Mrs. Susan E. Levis was a tireless worker in this Mission and visited the homes of the glassblowers living in the vicinity.
Rev. C. L. Peterson was one of the pastors of the Mission while a student at McKendree College. Later the people of the Mission built a church on Joesting avenue where the Lowell School is located. This church was dedicated in 1894 by the Rev. N. Crowe, then of Jerseyville, Illinois. The first public school in the area was held in the basement of the church.
In 1903 plans were made to build a new brick structure on Washington Avenue in the 700 block. The old property on Joesting Avenue was sold to the public school system. The Washington Avenue Methodist Church was dedicated in 1904. The Rev. Theodore Cates, who had been pastor of the Wesley Chapel since 1918, was assigned as pastor of the new church. The Rev. T. H. Roddy, who had been pastor of the Washington Avenue Church, was assigned to the Methodist Episcopal Church at Medora..
St. Mark’s Methodist ChurchLike Washington Avenue, St. Mark began as a mission church in 1954. The Southern Illinois Conference sent Rev. Commodore Grove, a conference evangelist to lead the formation of the church, sponsored by East Alton First Methodist Church. The mission was to served the North Rodgers section of Alton. Five lots were purchased on MacArthur Drive, one block east of Rodgers Avenue. However, in 1969, the annual conference formed the Alton Metropolitan Parish with Rev. Fred Beck appointed as pastor. It continued until July 1, 2002, when the Metropolitan Parish merged with Alton First UMC. Alton First completed its mission in 2005.
Main Street Methodist ChurchThe Main Street Methodist Church was formed by the union of the Washington Avenue Methodist Church and the Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Wesley Chapel. The 1923 Southern Illinois Conference, held at Benton, recorded that the Washington Avenue Methodist Church and the Wesley Chapel would unite and become the Main Street Methodist Church.
An article appeared in the Alton Evening Telegraph on September 16, 1923, in which Rev. T. H. Roddy, pastor of the Washington Avenue Church praised his congregation for their heroic efforts to keep up current expenses and pay off all past indebtedness before the merger.
At the time of the merger of the two congregations, the Wesley Chapel was sold to the Ku Klux Klan for $4,000. The Washington Avenue property was sold to a Jewish congregation for $6,500. The site for the new church, corner or Main Street and Benbow Avenue, was then purchased for $1,500.
A frame tabernacle was built on the north side of the lot in November of 1923 where services were held for almost a year. Actual construction of the new church was started in the spring of 1924.
The new Main Street Methodist Episcopal Church was dedicated February 22, 1925.
Alton Grace UMCAlong with Main Street UMC, Alton Grace UMC is the other active Methodist congregation in Alton.
Located at Seventh and Henry streets in Alton, the church is situated in the historic Middletown neighborhood. Middletown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 1977 and expanded its boundaries in July 1982. In a December 2016 story, the Alton Telegraph noted that Middletown was “surprisingly intact” and a new inventory of buildings in the district is underway.
Although the edifice of the church building has the year 1880 embedded in it, the first mention of Alton Grace is in the 1925 Journal of the former Southern Illinois Conference. This is also the year of the first mention of Main Street as a congregation and the names “Wesley and Washington Avenue” disappeared from the appointment and statistical records.
Further research shows that Grace was part of the St. Louis Conference of the German Methodist Church. When the Conference dissolved in the 1920's following World War I, the church became a part of the Southern Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church.
Rev. E. U. Yates was listed as the pastor of Grace UMC, while Theodore Cates, who was appointed in 1918 to Wesley Chapel continued at Main Street, noting it was the eighth year of the appointment.
In 1926, Thomas Roddy, who was listed as Washington Avenue’s last pastor, returned to Alton Grace.
SourcesA Brief History of Methodism and Metropolitan United Methodist Church, 1976.
Cartwright, Peter. Autobiography of Peter Cartwright. Abingdon Press, 1956.
Evers, Joseph Calvin. The History of the Southern Illinois Conference of The Methodist Church. Parthenon Press, 1964.
History of Alton Main Street United Methodist Church
Melton, J. Gordon. Log Cabins to Steeples, Parthenon Press, 1974.