History of First United Methodist Church Dothan
Humble circumstances surrounded the birth and life of our Lord Jesus Christ and the initial organization and forerunners of First United Methodist Church of Dothan, Alabama. The life, death, and resurrection of our Lord have impacted the world for almost 2,000 years. First United Methodist Church and predecessors have been forceful influences for many individuals and families in the community and surrounding areas. From both sources, rich legacies have evolved and continue to motivate and challenge adherents to a better way of life.
The purpose of Christ’s life on earth was to manifest God to man through His love, mercy, and grace. The Church was established as a means by which this goal would be accomplished. The metamorphoses of F.U.M.C. from an itinerant ministry held in a blacksmith shop and under a brush arbor with a fifteen-member congregation to the beautiful structure that exists today are evidence of man’s acknowledging God’s mission through Christ and the church.
The Bible teaches that God’s resources are always greater than man’s needs. This principle is a strong link in the chain of events that have contributed to the development of First United Methodist Church. Around 1879, two piney wood trails crisscrossed each other near the intersection of Main and St. Andrews Streets. Nearby was a beautiful spring of clear water and a crossroads store which was also used as a post office. This with a small patch of cleared land constituted Poplar Head, which later became Dothan.
In 1880, Mr. J. P. Folkes and his son-in-law, Mr. W.J. Baxley, (both good Methodists) moved from the Rocky Branch Church Community northeast of Dothan to settle here. They were not content to be without a church. Records indicate that Rev. A.J. Coleman, Presiding Elder of the Marianna District, made overnight stops at Poplar Head as he rode on horseback over his district. Meetings were held in Mr. Folkes’ blacksmith shop. They read the Bible, had preaching, and prayer.
In the spring of 1880, Mr. Folkes, Mr. Baxley, and several others who had moved in by this time, built a brush arbor for their meetings. During the summer of 1881, a church was organized by Rev. W.U. Marshall, a local preacher. At this time, the congregation boasted fifteen members. Mr. Baxley, a charter member, was appointed first steward of the church. He served in that capacity until his death in 1929.
The Presiding Elder appointed Rev. Marshall to minister to the little flock until Conference in December. Rev. W.C. Price was appointed pastor of the Sylvan Grove Xharge to which Dothan was attached, and he served one year. In the winter of 1881, Rev. J.Z.S. Connelley, settled in Dothan. By now, the little village had some youngsters who needed a school teacher. Rev. Connelley was employed to teach the first school in the settlement. A school house was needed. Mr. Folkes donated the land, and the villagers built the first school house, which was to be used as a church also. It was built on the land where Foster Street Church stood from 1904 until 1950.
The Conference of 1882 sent Brother Marshall back to Sylvan Grove Charge and in 1882 Dothan was assigned to the Headland Mission with Rev. J.T. Powell as pastor. He was the first itinerant preacher to live in Dothan. He was succeeded by Rev. J.B. Hudgens in 1884 and Rev. J.A. Noble in 1885. Following several pastoral predecessors and continued growth in membership and perseverance by the members. Rev. T. L. Adams came as pastor in 1886. It was during his ministry, that Mr. Folkes had deeds drawn up and signed to turn over to the church that part of the land on which the Foster Street Church and parsonage later stood for several decades.
In 1890, Dothan was put on a circuit and Brother R.S. Adair, who had served in 1889, was appointed pastor. At this time, the Alabama Midland Railroad had been built through Dothan, and the town showed unmistakable signs of a growing city. The Methodist Church kept pace. Brother Adair set to work to build, and did build, the first real house of worship in Dothan. The building was a long, one-room structure with a bay window in the rear, a back entrance, and two front entrances. It was painted white and had stained glass windows. One chandelier hung from the center of the building and in it kerosene lamps were used until later when electric lights replaced the lamps.
By 1891, Dothan was no longer considered a circuit appointment, and the Conference sent Brother Henry T. Johnson to serve as pastor. He served four years. One of the first organists was Miss Bertie Hill. Mrs. S. (Addie) Wilson a later dedicated organist-musician served Foster Street Church and First Methodist Church for several decades and is credited with taking the initiative to have chimes installed at First United Methodist Church. The membership grew from one hundred at the close of his fourth year. After a substantial increase in Brother Johnson’s salary, the members knew there would be no funds for a parsonage. However, the undaunted Brother Johnson prepared his famous lecture titled, “If you wants possum, ax for hit.” He delivered this lecture in many towns, letting the proceeds go to the parsonage fund. Soon a comfortable six-room cottage was built and remained until 1908, when it was replaced with a spacious, two-story structure.
Brother Donnelley followed Brother Johnson and served four years. Under his able and earnest ministry, the congregation grew and the church prospered. The membership numbered four hundred and eighty-six and the minister’s salary had been increased to twelve hundred fifty dollars.
The following three years were under Dr. H.H. Mc Neill’s ministry. It was during this period and while Brother J.P. Roberts was Presiding Elder that the first district parsonage was built on St. Andrews Street at a cost of three thousand dollars, the greater part of which was paid by the Foster Street congregation.
By 1902, under Dr. McNeill’s leadership, the Foster Street Methodist Church had experienced such tremendous growth that a new church was needed. Some members left the Mother Church and formed South Side Church on South St. Andrews Street. This church later moved to its present location and became Lafayette Street Methodist Church. Two other churches were also sponsored by Foster Street Church: Flowers Chapel on the west side and Dellwood Chapel on the north. However, this division did not negate the need for more room. During these years of outgrowth, plans were being completed for a new brick church to replace the small frame building. In 1903, the cornerstone included a Bible, the Georgia Wesleyan Advocate, the Methodist Discipline, and a copy of the Dothan Daily Siftings of that date. For the occasion, the choir sang, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”
When construction on the new church began, the ladies of the church wanted to take part and the Missionary Society subscribed five hundred dollars to the building and then doubled it. They also paid for the new pipe organ which cost twenty-one hundred dollars. Later, the ladies paid for the green carpet which covered the auditorium and Sunday School Departments. Also, they gave one of the three beautiful memorial windows which added beauty and inspiration to the church. This organization has continued through the years and is known as United Methodist Women of First United Methodist Church.
Within a year (1904), the building (Foster Street Church) was completed at a cost of $32,000. It was a model of ecclesiastical architecture built by J.C. Ward Contractors. The pastor at this time was Rev. W.M. Cox. In 1907, the debt was paid in full. Three years later, the new church was dedicated by Bishop E.E. Hass under Rev. W.P. Hurt’s ministry. The following year, 1909, a Sunday School annex was built adjoining the church at a cost of $7,000.00. By 1909, a Sunday School annex was built and its full cost was amortized in 1912.
During Rev. R.A. Moody’s ministry, the ladies were given the right of laity and they served well in this capacity. One of the highlights of the growth of First Methodist Church was a ten-day revival preached by Evangelist Bob Jones in 1920.
During the morning services, all stores were closed and more than 100 members were added to the church roll. In that same year, 1920, chimes and an echo organ were installed in the bell tower, at a cost of $8,000.00 – gifts from Mr. Joe Baker in memory of his mother. He was a member of First Methodist Church and a local entrepreneur. Ironically, the first time the chimes were played was in March of 1920 for Mr. Baker’s funeral.
First Methodist Church continued to prosper under the ministries of Brother J.B. Cummings (1905-1906) and Brother Hurt (1906-1909). During Brother Hurt’s ministry, with the church being free of debt, steps were taken to build a new parsonage. A committee was appointed and the beautiful two-story parsonage was erected that year (1908) at a cost of $7,000.00 including furnishings.
Under the leadership of devout ministers (see roster) and faithful laity, Foster Street Church experienced continued growth and in 1948, the decision was made to expand by building a church on a new and larger site. Farsighted ministers, leaders, and members rallied to the need, and property on West Main was purchased. In 1949, the Foster Street Church property was sold to Mr. George Y. Malone, a long-time dedicated member of Foster Street Church and First United Methodist Church, for the sum of $100,000.00.
In 1950, careful workmen removed the original marble cornerstone from Foster Street Methodist Church of Dothan, Alabama. A parsonage was built near the new location, and plans for relocating the church facility began in earnest. The first worship service was held there on August 21, 1950, in the fellowship hall. In 1955, under the ministerial leadership of Dr. Wilbur Walton, major additions were added: a chapel, an educational wing, and an office wing. Also, a balcony was added. Dr. Walton continued to serve First United Methodist Church after retirement in an ex officio capacity until his death.
In addition to sponsoring Lafayette Street Methodist Church in 1901, First United Methodist Church later sponsored the formation of Highland Park United Methodist Church in 1959. Two decades later (July 1979), First United Methodist Church substantially supported formation of Covenant United Methodist Church, which is a vibrant outreach in the community. First United Methodist Church was also instrumental in helping to establish Wesley Manor by donating land and $50,000.00. Each of these outgrowth facilities has made outstanding contributions to the needs of the community and surrounding areas.
On Christmas Sunday in 1979, First United Methodist Church was tragically damaged by fire. This misfortune struck in the year of the church’s centennial recognition. Following this catastrophe, it was necessary for the congregation to make arrangements to meet elsewhere. Services were held in the Dothan High School auditorium for more than a year. On Palm Sunday in 1981, there was a triumphant return to the beautifully renovated First United Methodist Church on West Main. On December 18, 1988, a Church Conference was held and voted to proceed with plans for a mammoth expansion program/project. On March 18, 1990, “Breaking of Ground” was held. On October 13, 1991, the Christian Life Center was consecrated. The Christian Life Center offers a variety of opportunities to the congregation and the community for meaningful Christian activities.
In Spring of 2004, ground was broken for the construction of a 39,000 square feet Children’s Building. With the completion of the Children’s Building in October 2005, the church was able to minister more effectively to the children and families of FUMC and to our community. The addition of the Children’s Building also made it possible to move all of the Older Adult Sunday School classes and to make space near the youth center available for youth Sunday School classes.
On the Monday after Easter, 2008, work began on renovations to the sanctuary. The renovations included: painting, refurbishing the organ and pews, replacing the flooring, and modifying the chancel area to make it more flexible. In addition, the sound system was upgraded and new television cameras and a projection system were installed.
Spiritual Life at First United Methodist Church has flourished in the past century. Under the capable leadership of the ministers (see roster) and staff, combined with the generous support of the membership, First United Methodist Church is recognized as a vital and vibrant influence in Dothan and the Wiregrass area. God has richly blessed First United Methodist Church and may First United Methodist Church continue to work to the glory of God. The first decade of the new millennium would see two more important physical improvements to our church.