THE HISTORY OF ATLANTA FIRST
Atlanta First United Methodist Church will celebrate its 175th year of existence in 2022. With such a long history of service to God and the community, our story has come to hold great meaning for us. Many interesting and prominent members of the community have worshiped with us over the years.
Our beginning dates back to early missionary efforts. At that time, Atlanta was known as Marthasville, a little railroad village, and terminus for four railroad lines then under construction. Local preachers were gathering groups together for services. Small groups met in private homes, in warehouses on Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, even in the Georgia Railroad offices, where services were conducted, and future plans were discussed.
In 1845, a public spirited citizen by the name of Samuel Mitchell donated a lot of land to the Methodists. It was a triangular lot, surrounded by Peachtree, Pryor and Houston Streets (near where the Georgia Pacific building stands). Here was built a small log house with a chimney at each end (pictured above). It was a used as a school during the week and as a church on Sunday. An interdenominational Sunday school was organized, known as the Union Sabbath School. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists held preaching services, each group alternate their Sundays to avoid conflicts.
After using the log cabin for some months, the Methodists decided to build their own house of worship. They were the first denomination in Atlanta to take this important step. In 1847, the same year Marthasville was renamed “Atlanta,” a committee raised $700, of which $150.00 was used to buy additional land on Peachtree Street. A first board of trustees was organized, and a large frame building, outstanding for that day, was constructed (pictured above). This new chapel was named Wesley Chapel to honor John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and dedicated on March 24, 1848.
There was no provision for a bell in the original Wesley Chapel Church. However, a drive to secure one was begun in 1850, and three hundred dollars was collected. Once the bell arrived, its weight prevented installation on top of the chapel, so a separate bell tower was erected. Click here to read more about the bell.
Though many of the edifices being built in Atlanta in this era included a belltower and bell, the one cast for Wesley Chapel is the only one known to have survived to this day. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 found the South woefully short of metal, and public spirited churches donated their bells to be melted down for cannons. Citizens of the city felt that one bell should be retained, however. Wesley Chapel’s bell was selected to remain intact. The bell was used for religious purposes to call people of all denominations to worship, and for civic purposes: to call slaves from the fields, soldiers to the colors, fire and riot alarms, and ultimately, the near approach of General Sherman’s army. The people of Wesley Chapel were active during the war: the men in the Confederate army and the women in hospital relief work. In fact Wesley Chapel is the only church mentioned by name in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Gone With the Wind.”
The Wesley Chapel congregation experienced tremendous growth over the next two decades, and due to that growth, groups were encouraged to step out and form new churches. Quite a number of large churches in the area were formed as a result of this outward growth, giving Wesley Chapel the distinction of being the “Mother of Methodism” in Atlanta during this era. Trinity UMC, Grace UMC, St. Mark’s UMC, and many others are among Wesley Chapel’s daughter churches.
In 1870, in spite of the economic difficulties imposed upon the region by the Civil War and the destruction of Atlanta, a grand new structure was built. This new building would be the home of newly rechristened First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, for the next thirty three years. The design was grand and gothic, 96 by 62 feet, with a center spire 180 feet tall–the equivalent of a 12-story building–and two 90-foot pinnacles at the forward corners. Gothic stained-glass windows went down each side and could be opened to allow ventilation. The sanctuary seated 1,000 worshippers, including the balcony, under a high, flat ceiling. There was a large choir loft and a square altar rail. A full basement provided space for Sunday School and social activities.
In 1902 the congregation sold its property to Asa Candler, the founder of Coca Cola. He built the Candler Building on the site as the headquarters of Coca Cola and the bank he founded. The Candler Building was the tallest building in Atlanta when it was completed in 1906 and the first building to have elevators. The Candler building is still recognized as a classic example of architecture in Atlanta.
In 1903, First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, built a new building at its current location at 360 Peachtree Street . The new edifice, designed by architect Willis Franklin Denny, was built using granite from Stone Mountain, at a cost of about $161,000.00 (about $4.3 million today). The corner stone was set into place in a ceremony on Saturday April 18, 1903. The bell, which made the journey to the church that was built in 1872, was installed in the new church’s bell tower. The bell still rings on Peachtree Street as it has for almost 170 years. Some organ pipes and part of the pulpit also survive from the previous building. The adjoining education building, also known as the Centennial Building, was built in 1948.
The name of the church changed from First Methodist Episcopal Church, South to First Methodist Church in 1939 when the ME Church North and ME Church South reunited. In 1968 the name changed again from First Methodist Church to First United Methodist Church when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Bretheren formed the United Methodist Church.
Though this short history speaks more about locations and buildings, the story of Atlanta First United Methodist Church is really about people: their faith, generosity and sacrifices throughout the years have carried Atlanta First through 170 years of growth and development. Its history is richly adorned with noteworthy and recognizable names relating to the founding of Atlanta and its modern development. Atlanta First has always chosen to remain in the center of town where it can minister to the spiritual needs of all who wish to come and attend, both rich and poor.
If you have any questions about our history, please feel free to email our Church Historian and Archivist at email@example.com
Pastors of Atlanta First
|1847-1848||Ray Anderson||1884-1886||W. F. Glenn|
|1848-1849||J. W. Yarbrough||1887-1890||H. C. Morrison|
|1850||Silas Cooper||1891||W. D. Anderson|
|1851||C. W. Thomas||1892-1895||J. B. Robins|
|1852-1853||W. H. Evans||1896-1897||I. S. Hopkins & Walker Lewis|
|1854||J. P. Duncan||1898-1900||Walker Lewis|
|1855||S. Anthony||1901-1904||C. W. Byrd|
|1856||J. P. Jewett||1905-1906||C. E. Dowman|
|1857-1858||C. W. Key||1907-1910||J. T. French|
|1859-1860||J. B. Payne||1911-1912||S. P Wiggins|
|1861-1862||W. J. Scott||1913-1915||H. M. DuBose|
|1863||J. W. Hinton||1916-1920||J. E. Dickey|
|1864||L. D. Houston||1921-1925||C. J. Harrell|
|1865||A. H. Thigpen||1926-1935||S. T. Senter|
|1866-1867||W. P. Harrison||1935-1940||E. G. Mackay|
|1868-1869||F. A. Kimball||1940-1965||Pierce Harris|
|1871||W. P. Harrison||1966-1989||Robert V. Ozment|
|1871||Arminius Wright||1989-1997||Sam R. Matthews|
|1872-1873||W. P. Harrison||1997-2003||C. R. Allred|
|1874||E. W. Speer, Jr.||2003-2007||Wayne Johnson|
|1875-1877||W. P. Harrison||2007-2010||Jim Ellison|
|1878-1879||H. H. Parks||2010-2016||Charles Z. Gardner|
|1880-1883||Clement Anselm Evans||2016-*||Jasmine R. Smothers|
Our Historic Bell
Atlanta First’s bell, rung every Sunday morning at 11 am to signifiy the beginning of our worship services, is probably the single oldest surviving piece of our church’s history. The bell was commissioned and cast in 1850, only three years after the town of Marthasville changed its name to become Atlanta. This was during the time when the church resided in Wesley Chapel. At the cost of $300 (about $8,800 today) the bell was cast in bronze, with the silver of 100 Mexican Dollars mixed into the alloy to improve its tone and range. Due to its heavy weight, the structure of Wesley Chapel was unable to support the bell when it arrived, so a seperate bell tower had to be built. The Meneely Bell Foundry, of Troy New York, was the company chosen to cast the bell.
The arrival of the Civil War in 1861 spelt doom for many a church bell in Atlanta. Donated by the spirited members of the churches, almost all of Atlanta’s church bells were melted to provide the precious metal needed to make cannons for the Confederacy. Wesley Chapel’s bell was spared because the citizens of Atlanta felt at least one bell should remain, and due to the chapel’s location at the geographic center of the one mile circle that marked the limits of the city, it was chosen. During the war the bell, in addition to calling all denominations to worship on Sunday, was used to call soldiers to the colors, warn of fires and riots, call slaves in from the fields and, ultimately, to warn the people of Atlanta of the approach of Sherman’s army and its ensuing conflagration. The bell was again spared from being melted, this time at the behest of Sherman himself. William A. Osborn later reflected:
“Though Sherman’s men seemed a trifle careless about how they handled fire among Atlanta homes, the old church building and bell remained unmolested. The latter kept guard over the former. Sherman’s protection may have resulted from a kindred sentiment that throbbed within. It may have been a memory – ‘Woodman, spare that tree; touch not a single bough. In youth it shielded me, and I’ll protect it now.'”
The bell served Wesley Chapel until 1870, when it was moved to the new church built where the Candler Building currently stands. There it served until 1903, when it was moved into the bell tower on the southeast corner of Atlanta First United Methodists’ current home, where it still resides and rings for all in the city to hear to this day.
Case of the Missing Clapper
When Wesley Chapel’s bell was first installed, an invalid woman who lived nearby was annoyed by the noise. Her husband paid some boys to steal the clapper out of the bell to placate her. The boys successfully climbed the belltower and removed the clapper (these boys were probably the forefathers of the infamous Georgia Tech “T” stealers). To compound the prank, they dropped the clapper down the well belonging to the pastor of the First Baptist Church! When the prank was discovered, it almost caused an interdenominational crisis, but First Methodist’s pastor managed to calm things down.