by Susan M. Rapp
member FUMC Board of Trustees 2013-2015
With a calendar full of events, musical performances and opportunities to learn about its history, First United Methodist Church of Moorestown has spent the better part of 2015 celebrating its 200th anniversary. Founded Aug., 21, 1815, the church has grown from a few members who worshiped in an early brick meeting house on the main street of the town to 979 members, who worship today at what is the fourth location of the church’s sanctuary.
Church members formed an anniversary committee of about 15 people who started meeting in the fall of 2014 to organize everything associated with celebrating this milestone, which included a September 13 church service with preaching by Bishop John Schol. The service combined all four of the church’s usual weekend services into one and was attended by many previous pastors.
Scott McGough headed the anniversary committee, which turned to the congregation to devise a theme for the anniversary that could be used the entire year, but remain vital all year long. They settled on “200 years of faith, hope, love and charity.” McGough, Lay Leader of the church, said, “I believe the theme captures the spirit of the celebration. It isn’t what we have done, but what God has been doing through our community.”
Great, long-time faithfulness
John Wesley initially sent missionaries to the area in 1769 and two circuit ministers — John Van Schoick and Joseph Rusling — served the church when it was first formed. So many faithful people have worked, prayed and praised God at this church over the years, Associate Pastor HeyYoung Horton noted at a recent service.
Individuals who are 50-year members of the church were recognized at the large-scale anniversary service. The church has two especially long-time members residing nearby who have provided first-hand accounts of what the church was like nearly a century ago, as well as a couple, Lindsay and Suzanne Mitchell, of Moorestown, who are its resident historians.
“My mother was historian for a number of years. She collected items — programs, articles about the church,” said Suzanne (Mangeng) Mitchell, who took on the task because her mother had done it, only giving it up for a short while when she raised her children.
Many long-time members
In researching the history for the anniversary, Mitchell said she uncovered a single copy of a book about the church’s 85th anniversary.
She and Lindsay, a long-time adult choir member, met in youth group at the church and were later married there, she said. Suzanne Mitchell feels marking this anniversary is important. “It may make people aware we are there on the other side of time and will maybe enable people to come to our church or maybe to a service,” she said.
According to membership records the Mitchells accessed, the longest church member, Frances Duffner, who lives in Moorestown, joined the church in 1928. Moorestown resident Bertha Bendel, the second longest church member, joined First UMC 7 years after Duffner.
“Sometimes I think my life is in this church,” Bendel said at the history night presentation held April 26, one of the anniversary activities.
In 1815, 6 days after the original trustees of First UMC took an oath of office, the church was incorporated as the Moorestown Methodist Meeting House and a simple brick meeting house was later built on land secured from one of the trustees. In the early years, the church was part of various circuits and had about 50 members, according to an article in the Moorestown paper on the occasion of the church’s 135th anniversary. The next church building, also located in downtown Moorestown, was dedicated in 1860 and remodeled and expanded in 1901, according to the article, at which time a Queen Anne-style facade was constructed of Holmesburg granite and updates, to the physical plant and throughout the church, were made.
Relocations for the better
Senior Pastor Richard Nichols, who has been a part of a number of church anniversary celebrations during his ministry, but none so monumental as this, said one thing that impressed him in preparing for the anniversary was, “I became aware of the process of moving locations from Main Street to the present location and all that was involved in making that change.”
In the 1950s the church relocated to the western end of Moorestown, where members initially worshipped in what today is its Fellowship Hall, until the current sanctuary, designed by Malcolm Wells, was completed in 1967. The additions of a music building and educational wing were completed and consecrated in late 2003.
For more about the history, including information about early and influential pastors, visit our 200 Year Anniversary Celebration page.
Youth and missions of importance
Records show young people played an integral role in the church, its services and activities as early as the mid-1870s, and that continues today. Grace Harsche, of Mt. Laurel, N.J. who entered the 8th grade in September and was a member of this year’s confirmation class, said she was impressed by how well the church has served its members for 200 years.
“Many of my friends do not attend church or have a church home. I think the fact our church has been alive and thriving for 200 years speaks to the faith of its members. This is something to be celebrated,” she said. Just maybe the anniversary celebrations this year will cause others to look at our church, what it stands for, including missions and more local outreach, and want to know more about it, according to Harsche.
“Our current congregation may get to enjoy the celebration, but we are extremely grateful for the dedicated service and sacrifice of those who came before us,” McGough said.
When asked what is in store for First UMC Moorestown in the next 200 years, Nichols said, “Our new Visioning Team is wrestling with this very question as we consider ideas from the congregation and see God’s direction for new outreach and ministries. We will look for opportunities to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ and especially give prayerful attention to reaching persons who are not currently connected to the church.”