Methodism began in the Alabama Territory in 1818, one year before Alabama became a state. In 1836, under the Reverend F.G. Ferguson, the Methodists of Athens bought a tract of land on Marion Street, about one block away from the town square. This was deeded to the trustees of the church. Soon afterward, a large brick building for worship was erected designed in the popular architectural style. This building was two stories in height and had a large steeple, visible from much of the city. As there was no steel reinforcement, the walls of this church were nearly 18 inches thick on the ground level. This building is the second-oldest church building still standing in the state of Alabama. In 1899, the Alabama Courier reported that the Methodists in Athens were getting a new pipe organ, which had been in the planning for several years, and Mrs. W.P. Chandler, the organist, was credited with being the “moving spirit of the enterprise.” About the same time, the building was renovated, fashioning a new front facade and replacing the original steeple with a federal style copula. Electric light fixtures were also added to the church.
In the early 1920’s, as the capacity of this church was reached, interest originated in building a new church. The original building which had been built in 1836, was then sold to a company with the future plan of ultimately turning the building into a handsome hotel. After this sale, the Methodists rented the church building until such time that a new building could be completed. In 1923, Mr. L.C. Hightower presented to the church the parcel of land known as the T.M. Hobbs lot on which to build the new church. The 100′ x 344′ lot was accepted by the Conference, and many expressed the opinion that it was the most handsome church lot in Alabama. At a bid of $83,000, ground for the new church was broken in 1924. On March 19, 1925, the first service was held in our now present day church. Dr. Thomas J. Tyler, who had witnessed the church from planning to completion, presented the first sermon in the new church to an immense congregation entitled, “The Regeneration of Man.” After a pipe organ was installed, the completion cost was about $115,000. Of interest, due to economic hardships, the old 1836 church was never fashioned into a hotel, and in 1925, it was sold at auction and became the Ritz Movie Theater. Later, in 1970, the building was again sold and became Gilbert Furniture Store. In an interesting twist of fate, in 1990, the building was acquired by the Church of Christ and was restored to its 1900 facade and once again became a place of worship as the Marion Street Church of Christ.
The next few years were vibrant for the Athens Methodist Church. Dr. Edward S. Mackey, the pastor following Dr. Tyler, quoted that “The church organization is in a flourishing condition with a membership of nearly eight hundred and a Sunday School enrollment of over six hundred.” In the late 1950’s the church was again overflowing, and construction was begun on building a new education building which was attached to the original structure, as well as another attachment, the Garth Chapel. In addition, the sanctuary and several other areas of the church were remodeled. These projects were completed in 1964. Also, in 1965, due to the westward expansion of the population, the membership helped to establish a new congregation west of town–Friendship United Methodist Church. Meanwhile, on a national level, The United Methodist Church was founded in 1968 by the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Locally, aside from the name change, various other improvements to the church were added over the next few years, including a Prayer Garden and the current pipe organ, which was installed in 1982.
In 1992, the Jim and DeWeese Beasley Activity Center was completed. This was a 15,000 square foot activity center located across the street from the original structure. In 1997, the church was again completely renovated, and and a newly constructed bell tower was added, along with the gift of a three bell peal. In 1999, discussion began about creating a contemporary worship service. After a successful preview service, the first weekly First Light contemporary service was begun in February, 2001.
Someone described history as “a parade of human beings in action.” It has been so with the Athens First United Methodist Church. Many families over the past years have help to establish a firm foundation for our church and both the descendents of these original families and new families alike continue with the commitment to make the church what it is today. “Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be.” Job 8:7 (NIV).
Written by Seth Rayburn, with references to histories formerly written by Lib Brett, Richard Martin, the Fred Martin family, Julie Martin, and Ann Deemer