124 – Asbury United Methodist Church, circa 1879, Hagerstown, MD

The small red brick church stands proudly on Jonathan Street, between a parking lot and an abandoned house, across from the city parking lot. It is a welcoming beacon in the uninviting streetscape. A weathered marble cornerstone reads, Asbury M. E. Church Rebuilt 1879. The building is 60 feet by 32 feet with bricks laid in common bond, seven rows of stretcher bricks to one of headers. Beneath the cornice on the sides of the church are two dogtooth courses of decorative brickwork. The gable faces the street and has three bays. On the ground level, a small, cross-braced hood, topped with a cross, shelters a modern double door. Two small windows under shallow arches flank these doors. The second level has a tall, Gothic window above the door and two long windows at its sides. In the peak of the gable is a round, segmented window. All are filled with lovely, leaded-glass sashes.

Methodism began in England in 1732, the result of the Evangelical Revival and John Wesley’s effort to reform and invigorate the Episcopal Church. In 1771 Wesley appointed Francis Asbury to work in America to spread the word. Asbury first came to Hagerstown in 1776 when he was stationed on the Baltimore Circuit, an itinerant preacher with an almost endless area to serve. His journal of July 17th, 1776, notes: …When we came to Hagerstown it seemed as if Satan was the chief ruler there. The people were busy drinking, swearing, drumming, etc. My mind was disburdened and much comforted after I had delivered myself from Mark I:14-15 (The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent ye and believe the gospel.) though it seemed to answer but little purpose with the people. It is likely that the good bishop had stumbled on a public celebration of the Declaration of Independence, the news of which probably had only recently reached this area.

Early church records are scant; but the Methodist faith grew in the area, starting with Bishop Asbury’s 1776 visit. Asbury returned to preach in the Court House at the center of the Public Square in 1787, reporting in his journal, …a few of the great, and many of the poor attended, to whom I spoke, with Divine assistance. The oral history of the church says that, during one of his visits, Bishop Asbury noticed blacks being pulled from the communion rail. He thereafter asked his followers to provide a church for black believers. Elizabeth Betzhoven, a white woman from Baltimore, is said to have donated money to purchase the land on which the church now stands, probably in response to Asbury’s request.

The little church on Jonathan Street began its history on April 2, 1818, as a mission church overseen by St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church (now John Wesley United Methodist Church), becoming the first black congregation in Hagerstown. It was named in honor of Bishop Asbury, the first church to be named after the dynamic apostle of Methodism. The arrangement for the little mission church was restricting. St. Paul’s provided preachers for the Asbury congregation and provided the three white male trustees who were required to sit in council with the officers of the church when they conducted business. This was before the Civil War, before slavery had been abolished and before most of the black population had any opportunity for education.

Slavery presented a moral dilemma for churches across the country. Only Quakers were unequivocal. In 1758 they abolished slave holding among their members and prohibited buying slaves except to free them. John Wesley, in his 1774 tract Thoughts Upon Slavery, said, …I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice, mercy, and truth. Asbury held the same position. Six years later the Methodist Baltimore Conference condemned slavery. In 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to expel all members who held slaves except in Virginia. State laws in Virginia virtually prohibited freeing slaves and placed freed blacks at risk of being enslaved by anyone who captured them. But the Methodists did not enforce the prohibitions against slavery that they had enacted.

Freeing slaves was a daunting task. Before the Civil War, manumission was more risky for blacks than slavery, unless the individuals had been educated and had some means of supporting themselves, either with property or money. Unable to make a major impact on slavery and concerned for the spiritual well-being of black people, Methodists took the Word to slaves, but had to negotiate with slave owners in order to be able to preach to their slaves. Before 1800, less than four percent of the black population was Christian. By 1860, that number had risen to sixteen percent, a testament to all who preached among blacks.

It was in this milieu that the little church continued to grow, to educate its members and to support its community. In 1879, a new church was built, for $2,700, on the same spot where the original one had stood; and the members of St. Paul’s withdrew after 61 years of supervision, deeding the church to a board of black men.

The ground behind the church rises sharply toward South Prospect Street, and the church is built into this hill. The doors open into the ground level to face a broad staircase that leads to the sanctuary. The pastor’s small office is to the right of the doors. Beyond the stairs is a large fellowship room that is entered through doors to the left. This is a plain, functional space, fitted out with metal tables and chairs, with a kitchen at the back.

The stairs enter the sanctuary under a wide balcony. A fire struck the church in 1972, erupting from the boiler room in the basement and causing extensive smoke and water damage in the sanctuary. Pews had to be replaced. The Moller organ was ruined, as were the stained glass windows along the sides of the church. When repairs were made, the side windows were filled with squares of colored glass to save money, but fortunately the original stained glass windows of the street façade were saved. Most of the original altar rail, with its turned balusters, remains as well. The broad balcony escaped most of the fire damage. It is still reached by the original winding stairs and is still fitted with the original pews.

Asbury Methodist Church is part of, and in the heart of, a depressed community; yet it continues to serve and to uplift this community. Although the church is predominately African American, the congregation is attracting persons from other cultures to its membership. Girl Scout Troop 869 meets here. Tutoring is offered, as is a computer education program. The church has a Colorblind Ministry that provides multicultural/ethnic education for the broader community. Asbury UMC belongs to the Interfaith Council and Character Counts initiatives. It participates in the Hot Spots Program and provides food, clothing, shelter and medical help through the Community Enrichment Council. The church and its members are involved in the schools and in most of the community related activities.

To do all this, Asbury has a new pastor, a dynamic woman with a late vocation she tried hard to resist. Reverend Yvonne Mercer-Staten came from a career negotiating international contracts with NATO and other allied nations. It is probably these tough-minded negotiating skills that allow her to make progress in this neighborhood. For fifteen years, this congregation dreamed of having a ramp into the sanctuary because the stairs were too hard for elderly and disabled members to manage. In less than six months, Mercer-Staten made the dream happen. Church members solicited help from family members who were not affiliated with the church. Some even had problems with drugs and alcohol but came to the aid of the church. City officials, other church members, suppliers and community activists all came to build the desperately needed ramp. In the end it was built, along the south side of the church, coming from the elevation at the rear of the building to a window that was opened into a door.

Mercer-Staten eyes the empty house next door and sees space to build a much-needed educational facility. Ten more computers have been promised to the church, but there is no place to put them. Increased ministry mandates more space. She wants to put the altar rail back in its original position, remove the dropped ceiling and restore the original ceiling. It will all happen some day. Membership in the church is expanding, it is coming to life and it is bringing the community along.

This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, February 6, 2000 as the 124th in the series.