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Asbury United Methodist Church

February 03, 2000

Editor's note: This is the 124th article in a series highlighting the architectural and historical treasures of Washington County.






Terms to know

Stretchers - bricks laid with their long sides toward the face of the wall.

Headers - bricks laid with their short ends toward the face of the wall.

Gothic window - a window with a pointed arch at the top.

Manumission - the act of freeing from slavery.

Dogtooth course - a course of bricks laid diagonally so a corner of each brick projects from the wall surface.

By PAT SCHOOLEY

A small red brick church stands proudly on Jonathan Street, between a parking lot and an abandoned house, across from the city parking lot. It is a welcoming beacon in the uninviting streetscape. A weathered marble cornerstone reads, "Asbury M.E. Church Rebuilt 1879."

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cont. from lifestyle

Methodism began in England in 1732, the result of the Evangelical Revival and John Wesley's effort to reform and invigorate the Episcopal Church. In 1771, Wesley appointed Francis Asbury to work in America to spread the word.

Asbury came to Hagerstown in 1776 when he was stationed on the Baltimore Circuit, an itinerant preacher with an almost endless area to serve. His journal of July 17, 1776, notes: "When we came to Hagerstown, it seemed as if Satan was the chief ruler there. The people were busy drinking, swearing, drumming, etc. My mind was disburdened and much comforted after I had delivered myself from Mark 1:15 (The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent ye and believe the gospel.) though it seemed to answer but little purpose with the people." It is likely that the good bishop had stumbled on a public celebration of the Declaration of Independence, the news of which probably only recently had reached this area.

Early church records are scant; but the Methodist faith grew in the area, starting with Bishop Asbury's 1776 visit. Asbury returned to preach in the courthouse at the center of Public Square in 1787, reporting in his journal, "a few of the great, and many of the poor, attended, to whom I spoke, with Divine assistance." The oral history of the church says that, during one of his visits, Bishop Asbury noticed blacks being pulled from the communion rail. He thereafter asked his followers to provide a church for black believers. Elizabeth Betzhoven, a white woman from Baltimore, is said to have donated money to purchase the land on which the church now stands, probably in response to Asbury's request.

The little church on Jonathan Street began its history April 2, 1818, as a mission church overseen by St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church, now John Wesley United Methodist Church, becoming the first black congregation in Hagerstown. It was named in honor of Bishop Asbury, the first church to be named after the dynamic apostle of Methodism. The arrangement for the little mission church was restricting.

St. Paul's provided preachers for the Asbury congregation and provided the three white male trustees who were required to sit in council with the officers of the church when they conducted business. This was before the Civil War, before slavery was abolished and before most of the black population had any opportunity for education.

Slavery presented a moral dilemma for churches across the country. Only Quakers were unequivocal. In 1758, they abolished slave-holding among their members and prohibited them from buying slaves except to free them.

John Wesley, in his 1774 tract "Thoughts Upon Slavery," said, "I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice, mercy, and truth." Asbury held the same position. Six years later, the Methodist Baltimore Conference condemned slavery.

In 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to expel all members who held slaves except in Virginia. State laws in Virginia virtually prohibited freeing slaves and placed freed blacks at risk of being enslaved by anyone who captured them.

But the Methodists did not enforce the prohibitions against slavery that they enacted.

Freeing slaves was a daunting task. Before the Civil War, manumission was more risky for blacks than slavery unless the individuals were educated and had some means of supporting themselves, either with property or money.

Unable to make a major impact on slavery and concerned for the spiritual well-being of black people, Methodists negotiated with slave owners so they could preach to slaves.

Before 1800, less than 4 percent of the black population was Christian. By 1860, that number had risen to 16 percent, a testament to all who preached among blacks.

It was in this milieu that the little church continued to grow, to educate its members and to support its community.

In 1879, a new church was built for $2,700 on the same spot where the original one stood, and members of St Paul's withdrew after 61 years of supervision, deeding the church to a board of black men.

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