Church of the Week: Wesley United Methodist Church
By Bill Segars
What’s in a name? For those of you that may have been able to read some of the previous articles concerning older churches in our area; you may have notice a developing trend of name changes. Today featured church is no different; their name has changed several times, also.
Wesley United Methodist Church (not to be confused with Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, in Lydia) has been located at 145 East College Avenue in Hartsville since 1903. But that’s certainly not where and when this band of believers had their start; their roots go back to 1817, just east of soon to be Hartsville. A church was organized as “Wright’s Meeting House, Black Creek” and a log structure was built in 1831. Again, for those that read these articles regularly, you’ll notice the name of “Meeting House” rather than “church”. This is a holdover from the trend that Anglicans worshiped in a “church”, Methodists worshiped in a “Meeting House”. James D. Wright served this Methodist congregation, the first in the area, as its preacher form 1826 until his death in 1862. As a local resident, he not only served as the preacher, he also donated the land for their first building near Black Creek.
At some point after 1862 and before 1893, the group changed their name to Damascus Methodist Church and built a new wood frame building in the same area of Darlington County, outside of Hartsville near the present site of the Damascus Cemetery. As the “downtown” Hartsville area began to gain population growth, a group of Methodist believers began meeting in the home of John Wesley Davis in May of 1893. This endeavor was received very well by the residence of Hartsville, as well as the members of Damascus Church. In November of 1893 the South Carolina Methodist Annual Conference placed Hartsville Methodist Episcopal Church South on the Hartsville Circuit, along with six others Methodist churches, establishing it as the first Methodist church in the town of Hartsville. By 1901 the Damascus congregation disbanded and merged with the new Wesley church.
Upon being designated as a church, the congregation set out raising funds, acquiring property and making plans to build their new building in Hartsville. They were able to acquire a lot on the corner of College Avenue and Fourth Street. This location possessed all the possibilities of being a prime location as it sat between the commercial district of the new town and the established educational facility of Coker College. Time would prove that this in fact was a prime location for a small local Southern church to be able to grow into its full potential.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the congregation had plans and enough money in hand to begin building a state of the art building for the small, but growing hamlet of Hartsville. Wesley had aspiration of building a brick church building, the first in Hartsville. No congregation in Hartsville or the surrounding area had ever built a brick church building; that was simply unheard of, only dreamed of and only seen in larger cities. But this small congregation was committed to do this for now and for the longevity that a load bearing masonry wall building would provide. They not only elected to build their building using brick, but a style that was not typical for small towns, they chose a Gothic style building with its steeply pitched roof, pointed arched windows and a crenellated parapet bell tower; many of the identifying elements of Gothic architecture.
In keeping with Wesley’s “trend setting” architecture, they also raised the bar with the cost of a church building; Wesley paid $8,000 for their new building. In 1903, $8,000, let’s put that in prospective. In the United States the average worker was paid between $200- $300 per year, sugar cost four cents per pound and eggs cost fourteen cents per dozen. So you can quickly see the sacrifices that this congregation must have made to be able to afford such an expensive building. 8,000, here’s another interesting correlation with that number; would you believe that in 1903 the US Census Bureau records show that there were 8,000 automobiles traveling on 144 miles of paved roads at a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour in the entire United States? And this little congregation built a church building costing $8,000, image that.
The sacrifices that this group made have paid off for future generations, because 112 years later this solid brick wall building is still being used today. Wesley members that followed have been good stewards of their building in the fact that they have taken good care of it, making necessary timely repairs as needed. They also have been very sympathetic to the original architecture with their additions as the church family grew. The original building has seen two major additions and numerous renovations in its life here in Hartsville.
These additions have been necessitated by positive growth. Like most church congregations that grow in numbers, the purpose for additional space also changes. Wesley’s facility reflects those changes in their educational space, office space, kitchen equipment and family life entertainment additions. While building these additions, the congregation of Wesley has also managed to continue their support of the church family and the needs of the area through their many local mission projects such as the Soap Kitchen, Food Bank, Christmas in April and Habitat for Humanity.
In 1968 Wesley’s name changed yet again when many Methodist churches in South Carolina merged under the United Methodist Church name. As with most church name changes; Wesley maintained the same congregation, same ultimate goals, just a different name.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821 . He uses his 39-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 700 religious edifices throughout the state.