Two of those sites — Gulfside Assembly and Pearl River United Methodist Church — are in Mississippi. The third — The United Methodist Building — is on Capitol Hill in the heart of the U.S. government. Together, they weave more than 350 years of Methodist ministry into their stories.
Learn more about United Methodist history
The history of The United Methodist Church and the denominations that came together to create what is today’s church is evident throughout the world. The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History is the primary agency that works with the denomination worldwide to help preserve the history of centuries of service.
Here are a few tips for learning more about United Methodist history:
According to the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, a “Heritage Landmark is a structure or location specifically related to significant events, developments, or personalities in the overall history of The United Methodist Church or its antecedents.”
Pearl River born in 1833
The oldest of the 2016 nominees is Pearl River. From its simple beginnings in 1833 as a school and church for its area, Pearl River became the launching point for missionaries who ventured as far away as China and Japan and for generations of Methodist pastors throughout the world.
Its history is intertwined with that of the Lambuth family, which has been a part of the growth of Methodism and for which Lambuth University, now the University of Memphis Lambuth, and Lambuth Inn at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, are named.
Pearl River Academy is on land near the old Natchez Trace in Madison County. The land first belonged to Native Americans of the Choctaw nation. When the Choctaw’s land came into the hands of the white settlers, the site for Pearl River Academy in 1830 became a church, school and meeting place. It was deeded to Methodists in 1833.
Pearl River began its lifelong relationship with the Lambuth family during the Civil War when members of the Lambuth family stayed in Madison County and attended Pearl River while on a respite from missionary work in China. The Lambuth family at this time already represented several generations of Methodist pastors and missionaries.
When Nettie, one of the daughters of James William Lambuth, died during a stay in Madison County, she was buried in the Pearl River Cemetery. One of Nettie’s brothers, Walter Russell, later became general secretary of the Board of Missions. Lambuth was elected bishop by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1910.
In 1900, Pearl River established a Lambuth Day celebration, which continues today.
“One of the great missionary families in World Methodism is the Lambuth family of the Pearl River Methodist Church in Madison County, Mississippi. Five generations of missionaries have made outstanding contributions to world Methodism, spanning over 150 years. In addition to the family's connection to the church and adjacent cemetery, the site has been a Methodist preaching place since the frontier days of the ‘Old Southwest’ having been established as a church, school and meetinghouse prior to 1830, deeded in 1833. It is located near the historic Natchez Trace, a main transportation artery from Nashville to Natchez in the 19th century and now a well-traveled Parkway of the U.S. National Park Service.” — From the application for Historic Landmark status.
Gulfside Assembly began in 1923
Gulfside Assembly’s contributions served thousands before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed every building on its grounds. Rebuilding to serve the future as it served the past is now front and center for the association that oversees the Waveland (Mississippi) site.
Founded in 1923 by Bishop Robert E. Jones, the first African-American bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Gulfside Assembly began its life as a place where African Americans could gather in what was then a strictly segregated South and segregated Methodist Episcopal Church, South. During its lifetime, Gulfside served in many capacities as a training center, meeting place, planning center, overnight lodging for African Americans and a simple gathering place where African American and white citizens could come together.
Thurgood Marshall, a NAACP lawyer who later became the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and his associates used Gulfside to plan strategies for legal actions to end segregation at the University of Mississippi Law School.
The great opera singer Leontyne Price, a Methodist and Mississippi native, sang to racially mixed audiences at Gulfside.
A segregated jurisdiction for African-American Methodists ended in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Gulfside was part of the Central Jurisdiction, a separate jurisdiction for African Americans before the merger.
Gulfside had just opened the Norris Center, a $3-million facility named for Bishop Alfred Norris, when Katrina hit. The hurricane destroyed the Norris Center, along with other buildings on the site, and the insurance money had to be used to pay debt.
In March 2016, the Gulfside Association dedicated an open-air chapel to the late Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, the denomination’s first female African-American bishop. The chapel is the first structure to go up on the site since Katrina’s destruction in 2005.
“We are clear about one thing as a board and that is, haste will not resurrect what we have to do,” the Rev. Elijah Stansell of the Texas Annual Conference told that gathering. “We have a huge task before us. We are going to take it slow, and we're going to work it meticulously. What we need from you are your fervent prayers and confidence in us that God is not finished with us yet.”
“Gulfside is a proud part of the history of The United Methodist Church – a historic and heritage landmark and a present part of our history. Its existence is still a physical story of a checkered past in racial matters of a great denomination, but [also] a place that has provided dynamic and effective ministry for black people and the whole church throughout its history.” — From the application for Historic Landmark status.
Since 1923, The United Methodist Building a center of activity
Methodist Episcopal Bishop William F. McDowell first gave impetus to what is now The United Methodist Building when in 1920 he suggested a “worthy building at the nation’s capital” for the Methodist Episcopal Church, which later became part of the Methodist Church. “The new building will make our church visible and multiply its power at this world's center,” McDowell said.
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society now reflects on the near-century existence of the building serving “as a witness at the center of government power to the church's beliefs — a reminder that the church is concerned for people and all that affects them. Through its halls and in its offices have begun some of the most widespread justice movements of the 20th century.”
When the building was dedicated Jan. 16, 1924, “its purpose was emphasized as being that of a ‘sentinel’ and a supporter for social reform in the Capital; a voice for the religious community, a visible witness,” the church and society board notes in its history of the building.
As the building and its activities took roots in the capital, more space was acquired as major events of the 20th century evolved from the Italian Renaissance-style building of Indiana limestone.
The Board of Church and Society history notes the building has been witness and host to participants in major social justice issues including:
- The 1963 March on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
- The 1968 Poor People's March
- The farmworkers' boycott
- Years of protest against the Vietnam War
- Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment as they worked on the amendment and planned marches during the ‘70s and ‘80s
- The 1978 Longest Walk of Native Americans
- The 1989 Housing NOW! March
- Weekly meetings of organizations that wrote, edited and rewrote the American Disabilities Act until it passed
- The ecumenical center for the 1980 and 1990 Earth Day celebrations
- A celebration including Coretta Scott King at the building the night Congress adopted the law creating a national holiday for Dr. King’s birthday
“The building has played a prominent part in the movements in support of Civil Rights at home and human rights abroad; in opposition of undeclared foreign wars; in support of appropriate public support for relief and redevelopment at home and abroad; in promotion of public morals, health and welfare; and in advocacy of proper stewardship of the natural environment.” — From the application for Historic Landmark status.
*Hillery is a correspondent for United Methodist Communications and a former news editor for the agency’s United Methodist News Service team.