Methodism in Nevada Part I


The United Methodist Church in Nevada has its roots in a spiritual awakening among members of the Anglican Church in eighteenth-century England who were influenced by the German pietism of that period. John Wesley, a young Anglican priest, and his hymn-writing brother, Charles, were major catalysts of the spiritual movement initially identified with "the people called Methodists"—so called because of the methodical, disciplined nature of their living the principles of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Wesley referred to that as "spreading Scriptural holiness."

When in 1739 John Wesley pronounced, "I look upon all the world as my parish," he could hardly have imagined the rapid spread of Methodism throughout the British Isles, European continent, the American colonies, eventually a territory called Nevada, and ultimately the rest of the world. At Christmas of 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland, the Methodist movement became an organized denomination called the Methodist Episcopal Church. Since that time the denomination has passed through schisms and mergers, culminating in the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968.

It was Wesley's innovative use of field preaching by trained lay preachers on horseback that enabled Methodism to spread by taking the gospel message to where people were. If people migrated, then circuit-riding preachers and ordained ministers moved with them. What John Wesley was to the movement of Methodism in Great Britain, Bishop Francis Asbury was to the rapid spread of Methodism in North America. Asbury had been converted by Wesley in England and made a superintendent of Methodism in the newly-formed United States of America at the 1784 Baltimore Conference. Called "the Prophet of the Long Road," Asbury logged about six thousand miles a year on horseback as a circuit-riding bishop. He insisted that his ordained ministers and lay preachers not get too comfortable settling in a city parish, but follow his example of taking the gospel into the expanding western frontier. Asbury became arguably better known than Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, or Kit Carson. Mail sent to him from overseas was usually addressed to "The Reverend Bishop Francis Asbury, North America." It was Asbury's circuit-riding missionary zeal that accounted for the seeds of Methodism eventually being planted in Nevada.

The Emergence of Methodism in Nevada

The first white man to set foot in the territory now called Nevada was the hunter, trapper, and expedition guide, Captain Jedediah Strong Smith, in 1825. He was called a "Bible toter" by those who considered him a devout Christian. He was also a staunch Methodist, though he may not have established a congregation or preached a sermon. During the nineteenth century, pioneers ventured west searching for gold and silver, building a railroad, taking advantage of the Homestead Act, and escaping Civil War hostilities. Among them were trained lay preachers who earned a living behind the plow or as merchants. They established Sunday schools and conducted worship. Tireless ordained circuit-riding ministers made the rounds to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, unite brides and grooms in holy matrimony, and occasionally preach and teach.

The title "Father of Nevada Methodism" goes to Rev. Jesse L. Bennett, who ministered at Genoa in the Carson Valley and at Eagle Ranch—the future site of Carson City—in 1859. He had been ordained in Illinois in 1839, and made his way into Nevada by way of California's Gold Rush. It is said he was a gentle, modest man, but tough. He walked his two-hundred-mile circuit of preaching stations, including the Comstock. He is credited with preaching the first sermon ever heard in Virginia City, on C Street in 1860. A hat was passed for the collection, and Bennett was amazed to receive several hundred dollars from prosperous folks ready to pay well for such a novelty as street preaching. Bennett also planted a church in Washoe Valley by 1861. By 1862 a dozen Methodist preachers had been appointed to serve the circuit covered by Bennett, who at that point disappears from the Nevada historical record.

Among a host of historical figures who nurtured the growth of Methodism in Nevada was Rev. Francis Marion Willis, who was appointed to the Truckee River Circuit in 1863. He settled with his wife and child among a handful of Methodists in the lumbering camp of Crystal Peak north of Verdi, where he also became the town's school teacher. Until he could afford a horse, Willis walked his circuit as far as Glendale Station in what is now Sparks. In his memoir he wrote: "I preached in sitting rooms, vacant houses, carpenter shops, or any old place until the little schoolhouse that now stands about one mile below Sparks was built in the spring of 1864. The site of the present flourishing town of Reno was then populated with an abundance of jackrabbits and cottontails." Because the cost of hay was very high, he could not afford to keep a horse in the winter. At Glendale someone stole his saddle and bridle, but generous Methodists covered his loss. He taught and preached in the Reno area for eight years before being reassigned to the Walker River Circuit, where he served until 1885. Willis family members were still living in Yerington, Nevada, and Mono County, California, in 1910.

A colorful and controversial figure of early Nevada Methodism was Rev. Thomas H. McGrath, a former Irish seaman who jumped ship in San Francisco, became a barroom entertainer, and later converted to the Christian faith and became an active supporter of the temperance movement. He was trained for ministry under the tutelage of a presiding elder and was likely ordained at the California Conference in 1862. That same year, McGrath was assigned to Carson City and served as chaplain to the territorial Legislature. During one legislative session an elected representative was heard complaining that the chaplain was taking up valuable time giving prayers at the opening session each day. The detractor was a miner who said he could endure the prayers if some good would come of it; for instance, that a huge rock in his mining tunnel would be softened or the water flowing there would be more plentiful. Word of the complaint reached McGrath. The next morning when the Assembly was called to order, the Methodist preacher offered a supplication to God: "Oh Lord: We pray Thee to remember [our Assembly member]. Make the rock of his tunnel as soft as his head and the water in the ditch as abundant as the whisky he daily drinks. Amen." McGrath's liberal theological views led to his severance from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1873.

Not all prominent leaders were clergy or lay preachers. Not to be forgotten were Methodist Episcopal men and women who sustained their religion before the arrival of ordained clergy and lay preachers. Circuit rider Willis dubbed these stalwarts "picket guards," because—as in the Civil War—they held an outpost until professional reinforcements arrived. Among those he singled out were Mr. and Mrs. Orin Van Aiken whose home at Crystal Peak was the meeting place for a cluster of Methodists; Jake Fox, a miner in Mason Valley nicknamed "Father Moses" who single handedly built a small church at Aurora in 1862; and Captain Henry G. Blasdel, Nevada's first elected governor and a member of the official board of the Virginia City congregation when it erected Nevada's first Methodist church building in 1861. The territorial governor, James W. Nye, also a Methodist, was a planning committee member for a church building in Carson City, but it was Blasdel who motivated the congregation to start its building project in 1865–66. He and his wife, Sarah Cox Blasdel, championed the temperance cause during his two terms from 1864 to 1871. They banned liquor at gubernatorial functions, earning Henry the sobriquet "the coffee and chocolate governor."

Development of Northern Nevada Congregations

The origin and growth of Methodist churches in Nevada is marked by an incongruous mix of dates when people in a particular locale formed a Methodist society, or when congregations were known to have been officially chartered, or when the record indicated a congregation constructed its building. Churches flourished or closed down as the silver and gold mining industries cycled through periods of boom and bust. In general, Nevada churches grew from 1860 to 1880 and then declined until after the turn of the century.

Nevada church historians have identified the Carson Valley as the "cradle of Methodism in Nevada." At Genoa, in what was then western Utah Territory, there is evidence of a desire to form a Methodist society in 1855. Ira P. Hale was assigned by the California Conference in 1857, but there is no record indicating that he arrived at the post. The Conference in 1858 sent four hundred dollars in mission funds to jump-start the Genoa ministry. Jesse L. Bennett arrived in 1859 to preach there occasionally, until the arrival of Rev. A. L. S. Bateman in September of that year. When he left for another assignment six months later, the band of Methodists in Genoa seemed to have dissolved. By 1861 the work there was revived and the site of the first church building is now the Genoa Fire Station. Merging with another congregation, a second church was built in Gardnerville in 1896 on the corner of Main and Mission streets. Over the decades, a growing congregation necessitated the building of a third edifice in 1998 at a new location in Gardnerville on Centerville Lane.

Organized in 1859, Carson City's Methodist Episcopal Church completed its building in 1867 at a cost of ten thousand dollars. Rev. Warren Nims possessed construction skills, and almost singlehandedly constructed the church using sandstone blocks quarried by state penitentiary inmates. The Carson Appeal newspaper characterized Nims as "a brave, cheerful, prayerful little man whose plug hat loomed up from the springless seat of a stone laden mule cart." The building has been modified several times and stands as the oldest continuing existing church in Nevada. It was awarded a state historical marker (number 71) in 1968.

A congregation was established in Virginia City in 1861, the year Rev. Samuel B. Rooney erected the first Methodist church building on the corner of D and Taylor streets at a cost of two thousand dollars. It was destroyed by fire. A second structure was built in 1863, which collapsed due to a powerful Virginia zephyr. A third building was left in charred ruins during the great city fire in October of 1875. A fourth structure was built, which, along with the parsonage, was moved to Sparks at the turn of the twentieth century.

Soon after the Virginia City congregation erected its first building, a church was established in Dayton in 1863 at a cost of three thousand dollars while Rev. J. H. Maddox was pastor. In 1876 a drifter set fire to the building. Nevertheless, occasional worship services were held at Dayton over the next two decades. In Washoe City to the west, the congregation organized by Jesse Bennett in 1861 built its church two years later under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Thomas McGrath. In disuse by 1888, it was dismantled and transported to Lovelock.

In the near center of the state at the Austin mining camp, Rev. C. A. E. Hertel organized a Methodist congregation in 1864. Two years later, Rev. J. Lewis Trefren built what was then the largest religious edifice in the state, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church in Virginia City. The brick structure, with an impressive pipe organ and adjoining parsonage, cost thirty-five thousand dollars. Before the building could be paid for, the mining boom went bust and the building was sold to the county for use as a courthouse It was later redeemed by the Methodist Church Extension Connexional Board and currently serves as an Austin community center.

A church was established at Gold Hill in 1865 when Rev. A. F. Hitchcock was pastor. In 1873 Rev. Valentine Rightmyer was pastor, who died of starvation. He had chosen to feed his large family on a tiny salary, while denying necessities for himself. He never complained, according to the record, but had his congregation known of his plight they would have helped. In 1876 the church building was sold to the city fire department and moved a block away.

By September 7, 1865, when the first Nevada Conference convened in Virginia City, the official report stated that congregations were being served in Virginia (City), Gold Hill, Dayton, Carson (City), Washoe City, Truckee River, Aurora, Austin, Honey Lake, Indian Valley, and Humboldt with membership totaling 267, and 803 participating in Sunday school classes. Of that total, Carson claimed 80 members and 250 enrolled in Sunday school; and Virginia listed 77 members with 352 of all ages in Sunday school. Other preaching stations listed were Silver City, Owens River, Genoa, Carson Valley, Steamboat Valley, Fort Churchill, Como, Dun Glenn, Canyon City, Surprise Valley, and Sierra Valley. The Nevada Conference also served some preaching stations across the California border, such as Bodie and Markleeville.

Methodist services in Mason Valley and Pine Grove began in 1866, the congregation was officially organized in what is now Yerington in 1874, and the building was erected in 1875 with only a handful of members. In adjacent Smith Valley at Wellington, circuit riders from Antelope Valley began serving Methodists in 1875. Rev. W. N. Bott served the Smith Valley-Antelope Valley Circuit (1893–1895) and helped construct the church building on the site of the old schoolhouse purchased for a five dollar gold piece. About twenty families contributed $1,200 toward the $1,500 cost of the structure. Rev. George C. King became pastor in 1895. Rev. Joseph Wilks was assigned to the church in 1903. It was he who planted the first strawberry patch in the area that launched the Strawberry Festival, a popular annual fund-raiser for the church that continues to this day.

Five years before Reno became a chartered town in 1868, a Methodist fellowship had gathered and was served by circuit riders Rev. Francis M. Willis and Rev. George B. Hinkle. It was Rev. Thomas McGrath, however, who officially organized the First Methodist Episcopal Church in 1868, meeting in a schoolhouse on the corner of First and Sierra streets. By 1871 the church's first building on Sierra Street between First and Second streets was occupied under the pastoral leadership of Rev. A. R. Ricker. Due to the congregation's growth, new church structures were built at different locations. The present edifice at the corner of First and West streets was completed in 1926.

The ubiquitous McGrath also formed in 1868 a congregation among the fifteen thousand people at the Hamilton mining camp. In 1872 a hall that had formerly been used by mining stock brokers was purchased for a house of worship but was soon abandoned as mining declined.

In August of 1869 the church at Winnemucca had its start with the leadership of John Sipes, assigned to the Humboldt Circuit. He was followed by a reformed California gambler, Rev. Lorr Ewing, who started worship services in a schoolhouse and also preached at Unionville. By 1875 a church was built in Eureka when Rev. John A. Gray was pastor. It burned down in the great fire of 1879. A rebuilt structure was completely destroyed by fire in 1880 and then rebuilt again the following year. It is currently a privately owned bed and breakfast inn.

Grace Methodist Episcopal Church of Lovelock came into being in 1886 with Rev. Dr. A. J. Polglass from Winnemucca as its first pastor. When the house of worship burned down, Rev. Patrick H. Willis was assigned to rebuild the meeting place in 1922. The church merged with a small Protestant Episcopal congregation in 1978 to form the Grace–St. Francis Community Church, a Methodist and Episcopal fellowship. To the east, the church at Carlin was organized in 1904. It became a part of an ecumenical parish with the Presbyterians in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the thirty members of Battle Mountain's Methodist Church, which had begun in 1943, closed its doors in 1983 and yoked the congregation to Grace–St. Francis Church in Carlin.

The Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church in Fallon was established in 1905 with Rev. J. F. Price the founding pastor, who also served a preaching station in Hazen. The building was completed in 1907 when the membership reached 110. Following a fire that destroyed the facility in 1928, the membership moved to its present site in 1929 and completed a new building in 1931. The master plan was finished in 1955 with the construction of a new sanctuary. History was made when one of the earliest ordained women, Rev. Jesse O. Todd, was appointed to serve the Fallon church (1934–1943).

When the city of Sparks was incorporated in 1905, Sam Prose of Reno moved his family to the new city and gathered eighteen other Methodists into a fellowship that was officially organized in December of 1906 by Rev. James Gregory, who died a week later of pneumonia. Under the new pastor, Rev. Leslie M. Burwell, their first meeting place was the former church structure of Virginia City, which was dismantled and shipped via the Truckee and Virginia Railroad to Twelfth and C streets in Sparks where it was re-assembled. After World War II the congregation outgrew that facility, and a new site was purchased on Pyramid Way at Oddie Boulevard. Ground breaking for the new sanctuary building took place on June 19, 1963, with the consecration service held in the new facility on February 9, 1964.

The articles of incorporation of the first church in Ely were recorded on April 30, 1910, but as early as 1908 Methodist people were meeting in the home of John W. Meyers in East Ely. In 1909 Meyers had drawn up plans for a church building on the corner of Avenue G and Ninth Street. At this time Rev. J. R. Barr was on the scene. Construction was never completed due to the copper mines and mill shutting down in 1912 and people deserting the area. The cornerstone and foundation, however, remain at that location. In 1916 the congregation rented the Odd Fellows Hall, and received six hundred dollars in mission funds from Philadelphia to construct a church. Pastor B. M. Charlton worked with the congregation to erect Ely's first Methodist church edifice on Lyons Avenue, which was dedicated on November 18, 1917. It was remodeled in 1941. In 1994 the congregation purchased property on Great Basin Boulevard to build a new facility in an area of new commercial and residential growth. Construction began in August of 2000. The Lyons Avenue property was sold in 2002. During this period the congregation met in temporary rented space downtown. Due to faulty construction problems and prolonged mediation with the contractor, the new edifice has stood incomplete. In June of 2007 a vacated Nazarene church became available. The congregation began leasing the site in East Ely, having come full circle from Avenue G in 1909 to Avenue M in 2007. The church has been a food pantry distribution center, and the congregation began a large "Garden of Eat'n" to provide freshly grown produce for the community.

In 1916 Rev. Ira E. Price organized a congregation in Ruth, with the Consolidated Copper Company of that town constructing the church building in 1919. When the mining operations wound down, the congregation merged with the Ely church in the 1960s. The same copper company established a church at nearby McGill in 1919. After mining shut down, the church had difficulty maintaining a congregation large enough to support a pastor and was yoked with East Ely. By 2010 no pastor was assigned and the remaining faithful of the congregation were redefining their ministry as a community center with a food pantry program.

The early 1980s found an influx into the Reno-Sparks area of Methodists from the South Pacific island of Tonga. Many of the Tongans began worshipping at the Sparks church in October of 1984. Under the mentoring of Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler, Opeti Aonga, a truck driver, completed a course of study that qualified him to become a local pastor for the Tongan Fellowship. He and his wife, Mehi, followed in the footsteps of Aonga's late father, Rev. Tevita Lika Aonga, the fellowship's founding pastor. Butler, with the assistance of Rev. Dr. Silvenusi Tiueti, who was a doctoral candidate at Claremont School of Theology, enabled nineteen members of the Tongan Fellowship to complete basic and advanced lay-speakers training. In October 2003 the Sparks Tongan Fellowship established a church site in Sun Valley, an area northeast of Reno. Meanwhile, another Tongan Fellowship developed at the downtown Reno First United Methodist Church, whose minister provided pastoral service for the group.

Due to the rapid growth of northwest Reno, St. Paul's United Methodist church was organized in 1957. Members of Reno's downtown First Church living in the northwest sector provided the core group, which built its church on Grandview Avenue across from Peavine Elementary School. Reno's southwest growth led to the establishment of the South Reno United Methodist Church in 1986. Again, a group of members from First United Methodist voluntarily formed the beginnings of the new congregation, with Rev. John Ruby as the founding pastor. His tenure lasted twenty-three years until he was removed in 2009. He surrendered his ordination and conference membership credentials under complaints in 2010 and left the denomination.

The Nevada Mission in 1898 listed Elko as one in a cluster of mining camp preaching stations linked to a church in Battle Mountain. Soon after, the Methodist Conference entered into an agreement with the Presbyterian denomination that the Presbyterians would develop churches from Elko eastward to Wendover, and the Methodists would develop churches west of Elko. In the twentieth century, as mining operations subsided, the Presbyterians could not sustain their work in Elko. Another opportunity presented itself in 1988 in response to local residents expressing interest in a Methodist church. Organizational meetings took place. In January of 1990, Rev. Ted Virts was appointed to serve as pastor. The congregation met in a dance studio downtown and subsequently moved to other temporary quarters. Since 2007 the congregation has been led by laypersons with the hope of receiving a part-time ordained minister in the near future.

By 1909 the churches in the Nevada Mission Conference that were to have assigned pastors included Austin, Carson City, Eureka with Ruby Hill, Ely, East Ely, Fallon with Rawhide and Fairview, Gardnerville with Carson Valley, Goldfield, Schurz, Las Vegas, Lovelock, Manhattan with Round Mountain, Reno, Sparks with Hazen, Searchlight, Tuscarora, Wells with Battle Mountain and Carlin, Wellington, Winnemucca with Paradise, and Yerington. Eventually some of these locales became a part of a different Conference serving southern Nevada while other locations failed to be sustained. The aggregate of church membership totaled 912.

By 2009 the northern Nevada churches that were a part of the California-Nevada Conference with assigned pastors included Battle Mountain, Carlin, Carson City, Ely, Fallon, Gardnerville, Lovelock, McGill, four churches in Reno, Schurz, Smith Valley, Sparks, Winnemucca, and Yerington. The aggregate of church membership totaled 4,119. Sunday school classes showed an enrollment of 836.

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