Late in the cold afternoon of January 30 1892, fire broke out in our church. Quickly, the wooden structure was fully engulfed. A bucket brigade and the town’s horse drawn pump were no match to the inferno. The building was totally destroyed.
Our congregation was stricken by the loss. With little insurance coverage, financing the reconstruction seemed impossible.
They struggled with their doubts and feelings that somehow they had done something wrong. They worried that their membership would not survive. Yet through prayer and study they pulled themselves right, realizing the gift God had given them in the revelation that faith can move mountains.
Resolved to build a church that would last through the generations, they were committed to preserving this community of faith in our neighborhood.
“Best of all God is with us”
Our origins root directly to John Wesley. We’ve been in existence since the beginning of Methodism.
John Wesley was trained at Oxford and ordained in the Anglican Church. At 28 he and his brother resolved to conduct their lives by rule and method – seeking to achieve a holy life by means of highly disciplined self-denial and austerity. It was this “method” of practicing one’s religion that led to the nickname “Methodist”
Ironically, this focus on controlled living by strict rules lead to a liberating salvation justified by grace through faith. That is to say, Wesley was convinced that if a person was converted to the joy of Christ’s love, then acted with self sacrifice to the Lord, they could believe and know in their hearts, their sins were forgiven. Salvation was theirs, and indeed, was the choice of every person.
In Middlebury, the first record of Methodist preaching in the area was 1798 with the founding of the Vergennes Circuit. It is believed with near certainty however, that the faith was being practiced well before this date. Ministers preached day after day, riding horseback between towns.
Wesley’s thinking was clear and radical. Methodists were blazing new ground, and for this, our forbears suffered. Rev. Ebenezer Washburn was on the Vergennes Circuit in 1801. Writing of his experiences as a circuit rider: “I have had stones and snow-balls cast at me in volleys. I have had great dogs sent after me, to frighten my horse, as I was peacefully passing through small villages.”
Wesley personally sent Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to take charge of the growing American church in 1784. Asbury, as the first American Bishop, was urged to come to Middlebury to sanction the construction of our first church. In 1810 he wrote in his journal: We crossed the “Grand Mountains” and came to Middlebury. “We have a respectable little society (here), but no Chapel. I preached in the Court House. I have moved a subscription to build a house 64 by 44 on the lot fronting the college. The lord will visit Middlebury.”
Within three years a Chapel was up and was quickly too small, requiring a larger replacement. With the Great Revival in the early Nineteenth Century we built an imposing wooden structure in 1837 on our current site.
The priesthood of all believers.
Ardent enthusiasm coupled with open-minded practical thinking is a powerful combination of forces that has guided us through two hundred years of tumultuous social and political upheaval. The Methodist hot house has germinated profoundly important ideas and given individuals the tools to carry those ideas into action.
For example, John Raleigh Mott, a Methodist Layman active in New York, started the World Council of Churches, spawning the most expansive ecumenical movement in the history of Christianity. For this he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.
The Chautuaqua Institution, in Western New York, was started as a summer training institute for Sunday school teachers. Today, the Institution thrives as an unparalleled center for culture, arts and education.
The founders of the NAACP included the powerful Methodist Bishop Alexander Walters.
Women have preached since the beginning of our church and in the United States were officially sanctioned as local preachers in 1924.
Methodists introduced the first Hymnal in the United States with the founding of our own publishing company.
The idea of social justice came into sharp focus in reaction to the Pullman Car strike during the industrial revolution. From the pulpit, preachers denounced corporate policies that threatened worker’s rights. We formally adopted a Social Creed in 1908. Today it reads, in part: “We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.”
We have one the largest networks of hospitals in the world.
We’ve started many colleges including: Duke, Syracuse, American, and Boston universities.
Five Presidents were Methodists: James Polk, Ulysses S Grant, Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley, and George W. Bush.
Today we are the third largest denomination in the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt said about Methodism: “Its history is indissolubly interwoven with the history of our country…Its essential democracy, its fiery and restless energy of spirit and the wide play that it gave to individual initiative… make it peculiarly congenial to a hardy and virile folk…”
“On this rock I will build my church”
We have had a steady hand carrying out the work of the Lord over the last 100 years in this church. The ingenuity, tenacity, and willingness of our members to do what it takes to get the job done stake an important claim in Addison County. We help stock the Christmas Room at Addison County Community Action Group, make bag lunches for hungry children, and participate in the Food/Fuel program. We provide Youth scholarships to Summer Church Camp. For over twenty years we coordinated and ran the Greens Project, selling Christmas Trees and Wreaths to the community, raising as much as $5000 a year to support the mission and operations of our church.
Missionary work, so important to the world church, has been exercised from our congregation consistently over our entire life, from trips to India in the 19th Century through work in Russia, the Philippines, the Balkans, and England today. These efforts, in turn, have spawned new mission projects to other countries. In Mozambique when a hospital was failing from poor management, we paid for the education of Jeremias Franca so that he could become the administrator. Mission work this expansive is highly unusual for a church of our size and is something for which we should be proud.
Our building has served us well. We have opened our doors, offering it as a sanctuary to dozens of organization committed to the betterment of humanity –SHARE, Addison County Home Health and Hospice, Counseling Service of Addison County, ACCAG, to name a few. This selfless act of giving what is ours to others has compounded the good deeds of our congregation. Mary Johnson Children’s Center and Project Independence both were founded in this building and are now cornerstone organizations in our community.