17 churches offer fascinating history of the Methodist Church
This is a brief history of the Methodist church as it has grown in Indianapolis. Rather than covering the beliefs of the Methodist church, it focuses on the different types of Methodist church buildings and styles of Methodist church architecture and growth of the Methodist denomination in Indianapolis.
In addition to white and English-speaking Methodist churches, German Methodist and Black Methodist denominations are investigated. While focusing mostly on Methodist history in Indy, an attempt has been made to discuss conditions up to and after the impending split in the Methodist church.
By Lee R. Little, JD, MLS
Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis
In this article, we’ll delve into the history of the Methodist church in Indianapolis, often claimed as the first Christian denomination to be established in the city. The product of efforts of English brothers John and Charles Wesley and their companions at Oxford University, Methodism began as a revivalist and reform movement in the Church of England during the First Great Awakening.
The name itself comes from the strict “method” of life and practice laid down by the Wesleys as the central Methodist church beliefs, in their 25 Articles of Religion.
Both Wesleys were ordained priests in the Church of England and wanted their followers to remain in communion with the established hierarchy.
However, after their deaths, their followers found themselves at odds with the religious authorities and formed a new denomination, known as the Methodist Episcopal Church (commonly shortened to “ME”), indicating adherence to the Wesley’s Method of faithful living and episcopal leadership, meaning a church governed by bishops.
Early Methodists in the United States were incredibly successful in their efforts to spread the Gospel to the furthest-flung reaches of the new and mushrooming country.
The success was in large part a combination of a loose leadership hierarchy, emphasis on personal holiness through prayer and scripture study, and a reliance on a system of itinerant missionaries called circuit riders. These circuit riders took very seriously the command of Jesus in Mark 6:8-9:
“These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”
They traveled through the wilderness, visiting new settlements and preaching the Good News from horseback and returning on a regular but infrequent basis until the congregation was large enough to sustain a more permanent minister.
Other denominations related to the teachings of the Brothers Wesley are prominent in Indianapolis, including Methodist Protestant, Free Methodists, Holiness/Pilgrim Holiness, Wesleyan, and Nazarenes among others. These are unique enough in their history and development to warrant their own article – be on the lookout for that in the future!
History of the Methodist Church in Indy/Marion County
Indiana was very much on the frontier until the Civil War and as its capital city, Indianapolis was a focus of missionary activity.
A plaque in the statehouse rotunda commemorates the location of the first Christian sermon and the start of the history of the Methodist church in the city, given in 1819 by Rev. Resin Hammond of Clarksville, Indiana.
A class (as Methodist congregations were then known) on a circuit (staffed by the aforementioned circuit rider) was first established in Indianapolis at Isaac Wilson’s cabin in 1821. Wilson, a veteran of the Revolution, was an 1820 arrival to Indianapolis and built the first permanent house within the original Mile Square plat and also the first mill.
The cabin is long gone, but a marker notes the location of his grave – he refused to be buried in the city’s original cemetery for fear that his bones would be washed away in a flood and was instead interred in his front yard.
The first named Methodist minister was Rev. William Cravens from Missouri, who was sent by his state’s Conference to establish a circuit and station in the city. He and a small number of other preachers would remain in relative itineracy until 1828, when a permanent charge was established for Indianapolis and a full-time preacher was stationed here.
Among those early clergy were Revs. Edwin Ray and John Strange, who would eventually give their names to congregations in various parts of the growing city.
A permanent chapel was built for the small but growing congregation in 1825. This original log cabin served their purposes until 1829, when a newer and larger structure was built at the southwest quadrant of Monument Circle, which stood until 1846. This second church stood until its walls cracked and a larger structure was built on the same lot.
The city and its white Methodists had expanded enough by the 1840s that new congregations began to form.
As many organisms that reproduce by budding do, the city’s white Methodist congregations began to expand at an exponential rate. Records from Depauw University’s Indiana Methodist archives indicate that there have been around 200 Methodist or United Brethren congregations in and around Indianapolis since Wesley Chapel was first established two centuries ago.
The first division occurred in 1842, when the original congregation split into eastern and western charges, known as Roberts Chapel and Wesley Chapel, respectively; Strange Chapel spun off of Wesley Chapel in 1845 to minister to members living west of the canal. Of particular note are the initial two congregations, Wesley and Roberts Chapels.
Meridian Street Methodist
Wesley Chapel moved from its original building on Monument Circle in 1869 to the corner of New York and Meridian Streets, which is now occupied by the Federal Courthouse. Along with the move came a new name: Meridian Street Methodist. The 1869 church was destroyed by fire in 1904.
They moved to the corner of St Clair and Meridian Streets. This building is a magnificent example of Gothic Revival architecture and was designed by local architect DA Bohlen.
The congregation eventually left this structure in 1946 as part of the first wave of White Flight to hit Indianapolis. Their present building was constructed at 55th & Meridian Streets in a well-to-do neighborhood in the Neofederalist style, arguably the most impressive iteration of the style in the city.
Roberts Park Methodist
1876 to present
Roberts Chapel was renamed in 1843 after Bishop Robert R Roberts, who was in charge of the Indiana Conference in 1842 and died in the year of renaming.
Upon purchase and building at its current lot, the name was changed to Roberts Park to reflect the idyllic nature of the property. Their current building dates to the 1870s and is a stunning example of Rundbogenstil, again by DA Bohlen. A German variant of Romanesque Revival, Rundbogenstil reflects Bohlen’s country of origin and his ability to effectively mimic famous buildings of the time; Roberts Park is said to resemble London’s City Temple, which dates to the same time period.
This picture hangs in the history room of the current church
In 1899, the Methodist Episcopal congregations of the city banded together to form the aptly-named Methodist Hospital, which opened in 1908. The stated mission was “to establish and maintain a hospital or hospitals for the treatment of the sick, wounded and injured persons, to dispense charity to the poor, and to establish and maintain a Deaconess Home or other kindred institutions.”
In order to staff the new hospital, the denomination also started a nursing school. Despite admitting patients of all races, the hospital initially segregated the wards by sex and race, though these divisions were eventually removed.
Methodist Hospital became part of the Indiana University Health system in 1997 and remains an operating subunit of IU Health to this day. The building has grown to accommodate a growing patient population and occupies more than 57 acres on Indy’s near north side.
There are three main denominations of Black Methodism, each with their own history: African Methodist Episcopal (“AME”), founded in 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia; African Methodist Episcopal Zion (“AMEZ” or “AME Zion”), founded in New York City in 1821; and Christian Methodist Episcopal (formerly “Colored Methodist Episcopal” and abbreviated “CME”), founded by white Southern Methodists in 1870.
All are in full communion with each other and the United Methodist Church.
At the same time that white congregations were popping up across the city, congregations outside the mainstream of white and English-speaking Indianapolis began to grow and develop.
African Methodist Episcopal
The oldest of these is the venerable Bethel AME, founded in 1836. They met in private homes until 1841 when a lot was purchased at the corner of Senate and Georgia streets (now covered by the Indiana Convention Center) and the congregation was large enough to affiliate with the AME denomination.
Their first building stood until 1857, when they purchased the old Christ Episcopal church – more on that in a future article about the Episcopalians in Indianapolis.
Bethel was known as Indianapolis Station for many years before the Civil War for their work as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A mob of racists attacked and burned down this church in July 1864 causing the congregation to go underground until 1869 when a new church was constructed at Vermont Street and the canal.
The congregation was a center of the Black community in Indianapolis and hosted countless rallies and talks by luminaries such as Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass, in addition to near-daily services for members.
African Methodist Episcopal Zion
The first AME Zion congregation was established in 1886 in the vicinity of Fletcher Place, just southeast of Monument Circle. This congregation moved just over a mile southeast to its current location in 1888 and changed its name to St Marks AME Zion. There are now six AME Zion congregations in the metro area.
Christian Methodist Episcopal (formerly Colored Methodist Episcopal)
A church of the CME denomination was established in 1907 near the canal, just north of Indiana Avenue – formerly the main Black entertainment district in the city. A permanent home for Phillips Temple CME was built at the intersection of Drake and 12th Streets in 1924, which the congregation inhabited until 1992.
Citing moves by their membership away from the original building, they relocated to a former Christian Science church in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood in the Midtown region. A predominantly Southern denomination, there are currently two CME congregations in Indianapolis.
A large swath of the Midwest has been termed “The German Triangle,” which is roughly bounded by the triangle connecting Milwaukee, St Louis, and Cincinnati that was the endpoint of much German immigration starting in the 1830s.
The so-called German Triangle, home to many German immigrants from the 1830s. Evansville, Ft. Wayne, and Louisville were also major sites of German settlement.
As a major city in this area, Indianapolis is home to the descendants of German-speaking Christians belonging to denominations that are theologically similar to English Methodism that were established in the early decades of the 19th Century, namely the former Evangelical Association and former Church of the United Brethren in Christ.
Research into these denominations can be very confusing, especially given the existence of other unrelated denominations of German heritage called “Evangelical Lutheran,” “Evangelical and Reformed,” and simply “Evangelical” – the latter two of which joined the United Church of Christ denomination and none of which are related to the descriptor of “evangelical” for certain nondenominational churches in the present-day.
To muddy the waters even further, there were German-language congregations of the Methodist Episcopal denomination.
All German-speaking denominations suffered greatly during the anti-German hysteria of World War One, with German institutions of all kinds shifting to more “American” practices, such as the use of English as their primary language.
Many schisms regarding belief and church governance occurred before the remaining majority groups merged in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren (often shortened to “EUB”).
One such break involved native Hoosier and United Brethren Bishop Milton Wright, father of the Wright Brothers of aviation fame, who disagreed with the mainline Brethren stance regarding membership in Masonic groups.
These German congregations arose in neighborhoods where German-speaking people lived, with churches that easily compete in scale and beauty with their denominational rivals.
Former First German Evangelical (1883-2012)
The church, now The Cyrus Place events venue, is the “red brick church around the carner” mentioned by the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley:
Last summer there was a lemonade stand under the trees at the house beyond the red brick church. Lemonade was three cents a glass. But there weren’t many buyers. The fingers of the small venders were not comfortably clean, and nobody knew if they washed the glasses. By and by it began to rain and four of them scuttled of to the shelter of the big church doorway, leaving only the littlest boy in charge. Along came the fine gentleman, and though he didn’t have an umbrella, he stopped in the fast increasing rain to say, “I’ll take a glass of lemonade.” And he drank it, too. Then he left ten cents and didn’t want the change. He never does. Every newsboy in Indianapolis knows that. Among the little folk he meets he scatters pennies as freely as the sunshine of his words.
Articles of union between the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Episcopal denominations were compiled and brought into force in 1968, forming the United Methodist Church. Most visitors to a United Methodist church today would likely find themselves unable to distinguish a former EUB congregation from a former ME congregation.
Other Important History
For reasons best left to other writers, Indianapolis was the seat of the Ku Klux Klan during its second heyday of the 1910s and 1920s. DC Stephenson was the leader of the Indiana Klan during this period and lived in the eastern Indianapolis suburb of Irvington.
Stephenson’s 1925 conviction of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer was one of the events that led to the group’s rapid fall from power.
After his imprisonment, Stephenson released the names of prominent Klan members, including several Methodist clergymen. Indianapolis was – and continues to be – a conservative city in a deeply conservative state.
The Klan was able to gain prominence by combining its vile white nationalist ideology with calls for socially conservative policies that were popular among preachers of most Protestant denominations, particularly alcohol prohibition, limits on immigration, and opposition to women’s suffrage, among others.
The modern United Methodist Church has disavowed this ideology and has begun working to ensure that they are a place of Gospel-centered social concern.
Throughout the years, countless people have prayed, sang, and gave praise to God within the confines of Methodist churches in Indianapolis, including:
Freeman Ransom (lawyer and civil rights activist, Bethel AME); Albert Beveridge (senator, Meridian Street Methodist); Charles Fairbanks (vice president, Meridian Street Methodist); Richard Lugar (senator, St Luke’s Methodist); Oliver P. Morton (Indiana governor and senator, Roberts Park Methodist); and Joe Hogsett (mayor, Roberts Park Methodist), among many others of all professions.
Current state of Methodism in Indy
According to current counts by the United Methodist Church, they are the most prolific single organization in the United States, with more than 32,000 outposts and at least one in every county in the country – more than even the United States Postal Service.
Unfortunately, current trends in church attendance have not left the UMC untouched, and hard decisions have been made regarding combinations and closures.
As of July 2020, there were 1019 individual congregations in the state, with 78 of those in the Indianapolis metro area. These fall under the jurisdiction of the Central District of the Indiana United Methodist Conference.
A theme we’ll see across many of the denominations is the role of LGBTQ+ people in leadership and church life. A global vote on the role of LGBTQ+ members in the United Methodist Church was held in 2019, with 53% voting for a “Traditionalist Plan” that would not affirm same-sex marriage within the denomination among other similar stances.
That bloc has subsequently announced plans to leave and form their own denomination. It is unknown how many Indianapolis congregations would follow the so-called traditionalists, but many UMC congregations in the city have taken active roles in welcoming and loving non-heteronormative people in their pews and advocating for them outside the walls of their churches.
Many congregations are active in Faith In Indiana, an interdenominational advocacy group that uses Gospel-centered approaches to immigration, gun control, and race relations.
Much has changed regarding the history of the Methodist church in the two centuries since Rev. Cravens’ first sermon in the budding city.
The population now hovers around one million and there are more Methodists today than people in the city for most of the 19th Century. Stay tuned for the next article in this series about Presbyterians and some very interesting and famous figures from the nation’s history.
Resources on Indiana Methodism:
JP Dunn’s 1910 Greater Indianapolis contains a thorough history of various denominations in Indianapolis, including Methodism
Depauw University maintains the archives of the Indiana Methodist church. Indianapolis church information generally starts on page 556.
Lee R. Little
Lee Little is the creator of Old Churches Indy, a project devoted to documenting and celebrating the rich religious heritage of Indianapolis. The focus of the project is primarily churches within Indy’s old city limits that were built prior to 1955 that still stand today.
Lee also serves as Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, assisting the bishop and congregations preserve and tell the story of the Episcopalians in Indiana from its earliest days to the present.
You can find Lee on Instagram at Old Churches Indy. And, while you are here, please consider leaving a comment for Lee below in the Comment section.