According to Dr. Aaron Wood, the first sermon ever preached in the vicinity of Terre Haute was by Rev. Jonathan Stamper, Chaplain of a regiment of Kentucky soldiers stationed at Fort Harrison during the war of 1812 to 1816. As early as 1813 a society regularly held meetings for prayer on the Sabbath Day. When Terre Haute was organized in 1816 the lot at the corner of 4th and Poplar Streets was deeded to “whatever religious society should first build upon it”. Methodists were the first to organize and secured the lot by building upon it in 1835. In 1841, having outgrown the first structure, Asbury Church was erected upon this same lot, named after Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in America. Two years later, a bell was placed in the belfry and called people to worship for fifty-two years. When the church relocated, the Asbury bell was melted down and was used to make small handbells, which were sold. We still have one of those handbells.
The idea of building a new building to replace “Old Asbury” started gaining favor in the late 1880s. The dream took definite shape under the pastorate of Rev. Isaac Dale, who served from 1889 until 1893. On January 19, 1892, a committee was appointed to secure a location for a new church building. At the meeting on February 29, 1892, it was reported that the Deming property on the northwest corner of 7th and Poplar Streets could be purchased for $8,500, and the purchasing committee was instructed to secure the property. On July 18, 1892, the Board selected the plans of J. F. McCoy of Danville, Illinois for the new building. In order to save money, we considered building a tabernacle instead of a permanent building. The Board approved building a permanent church building on April 23, 1894. The contract was awarded to J. H. Hoffman of Indianapolis on May 30, 1894 for $18,227.50.
July 1894 The Epworth Evangel reported: “The new church is fast taking shape. At this writing the foundation walls of the Sunday School room are about finished and a large force of men are moving the work along with a will. Contractor Hoffman is an experienced builder, and is giving the church the benefit of his experience, sometimes at an actual expense to himself, in improving upon the plans. The program is to lay the cornerstone on the 9th of July. Special services will be held on Sunday, the 8th, in a large tent near the church lot. Bishop Joyce or some equally prominent man will preach. It will be a great day.”
In the same edition of The Epworth Evangel, the Sunday School News section reported: “The interest holds up well, considering the hot weather. The attendance June 24 was 359.” The ceremony for the removal of the cornerstone from Asbury Church were held at 4:00pm on Sunday, July 8, 1894 with about 1,000 people present. Among the speakers were Col. R. W. Thompson, one of Terre Haute’s distinguished citizens and a typical American Christian gentleman. Col. Thompson was nearly overcome with emotion when he arose to address the gathering. He said the feelings that existed in his mind commingled–joy and sadness were side by side. He rejoiced in the fact that Asbury was soon to have a building worthy of its people and in a more advantageous location. Col. Thompson spoke of the time when he joined Asbury Church fifty years prior. He remembered Pastor Andrew Johnson took him by the arm after he joined the church and said, “Dick, don’t you feel better now?”
The cornerstone was laid the following Sunday, July 15, 1894 for the newly renamed First Methodist Episcopal Church. The building was complete and dedicated ten months later on May 26, 1895. Costs totaled $42,000, including the lot, building, furnishings, and numerous other items. In preparing to move from Old Asbury Church at 4th and Poplar Streets to the new First Methodist Church at the corner of 7th and Poplar, special services and events were planned for the entire week of May 19-26, 1895. Sunday morning services were held at Old Asbury with former pastor Rev. J. L. Smith (1848-1849) preaching the sermon. At 8:00 pm there was a roll call of the old and new church membership and the forming of the Golden Chain. Every night of the week, Monday through Friday, services were held at 7:30 pm and clergy from many other churches were involved in the services, including the pastors of Baptist Tabernacle, First Baptist, First Congregational, Centenary Methodist Episcopal, First United Brethren, Washington Avenue Presbyterian, the German Methodist Episcopal Church, Central Christian, and Central Presbyterian Churches. Friday evening’s service included a reunion and reception at Old Asbury for all of the former pastors, other visiting ministers, the city pastors, and many older citizens. Sunday, May 26, 1895, was dedication day at First Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation met at Old Asbury for the last time and marched down Poplar Street to the new property. It was a full day in the new building with Class Meeting at 9:00 am, Worship at 10:30am, Sunday School at 3:30pm, Epworth League at 6:30pm, and Evening Worship at 8:00pm, followed by the Hallelujah Chorus by the Oratorio Society. The new building was constructed of red brick, with red stone trim, a slate roof, and oak interior trim. Seating capacity of the sanctuary was about 1,000, and another 500 persons could be accommodated by opening up the Fellowship Hall, north of the sanctuary. Two cornerstones were laid in the new building. One was round, 32 inches high and 34 inches in diameter, and was placed at the base of the round column at the southeast corner. This cornerstone was eventually moved to the base of the bell tower in the courtyard of the current church property in 1969. The inscription on it says, “Organized 1826 First Methodist Episcopal Church 1894.”
First Methodist adopted the slogan The Church with a Heart in the Heart of the City. On March 22, 1903, a 77th Anniversary Grand Rally Day was held. Within the printed program for this event we find: “This day is to mark an epoch in the history of First Church. Her past has been grand, but her future is to be glorious. Let every member of the Church, Sunday School, Epworth League, Saint Paul’s Brotherhood, Epworth Guards, Ladies Societies, Junior League, all members of committees, all our dear friends– Everybody be at every service of the day, from 9 a.m. till 10 p.m. and bring all your friends with you. Let everyone feel when the day’s work is done and the victory is won, that I have done what I could to help in this splendid victory. Come and stay all day. Hot coffee will be served free in the dining room of the church to all who care to bring a lunch with them. Restroom and all conveniences will be provided for the aged to make them comfortable.“
First Methodist Episcopal Church and Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church began talking about a possible merger in 1913. It was eventually decided that the combined congregation would use the name, Methodist Temple and that together they would build a large building in the downtown area. The two congregations would continue to meet together, alternating locations until the new building could be constructed. Differences and difficulties arose, including the inability to sell the two old buildings. In 1929, the merger was dissolved and the two congregations returned to their respective locations. Those who returned to 7th and Poplar Streets adopted the name Methodist Temple.
By the late 1950s, constant repairs on the old building had become a financial drain on the congregation. Parking was scarce downtown, and the city’s population was shifting southward toward suburban areas. After much study and many long and stormy sessions, a five-acre tract on U.S. 41 south of the city was purchased at a cost of $60,000. Ground was broken on October 6, 1968, and the new United Methodist Temple building was dedicated on August 24, 1969. Sunday, August 31, the last full worship service was held at 7th and Poplar, including a service of Holy Communion. On Sunday, September 7, people gathered at the old property at 9:30am for a brief period of worship and then traveled by caravan to the new building for the first worship service at 10:30am. The new property included a landscaped courtyard containing the 1894 cornerstone from 7th and Poplar Streets and a bell tower holding the 1895 church bell. In 2001, a major renovation was completed to help provide adequate space to move into the future.