Our history begins in 1826, fifty years after the united colonies declared themselves to be free and independent states. The hamlet of Memphis, yet unchartered, was a frontier town, with a population of approximately five hundred and a lifestyle far different from that of today. The buildings were of roughhewn logs; the streets were mud. Women were seldom seen on the streets, where a chance encounter with a bear or an Indian was a constant threat and where drunken flatboat-men came into port to relieve the monotony of their long trips down the river. Worship was a family matter and preaching only a sometimes thing.
On the first Sunday in February, 1826, a young Methodist circuit rider, the Reverend Thomas P. Davidson, held a service of worship for a small society of Methodists. This service was the first for the group of citizens who formed the First Methodist Society. It was also the first church of any religion in the city of Memphis. Organizing members of the society were Mrs. Paulina Perkins, a young widow; Elijah Coffee, a shoemaker and itinerant preacher; and a Mr. Dickens, a Portuguese.
At first, meetings were held in a log cabin near the mouth of Wolf River. The ministers were circuit riders whose “circuit” covered all West Tennessee south of the Hatchie River. Gradually the membership grew, and by 1831, there were eleven members.
Seeking a more effective ministry, the ladies of the church wrote a letter to the bishop, promising that if a man of the caliber they described was sent as a permanent minister they would be responsible for his yearly salary of $100. At the meeting of the annual conference on November 10, 1831, Memphis was detached from the circuit and made a station. The Reverend Francis A. Owen was appointed minister.
The congregation met in various places, moving often to accommodate the growing membership. They met in private homes, in rooms over starers, in a log cabin in Court Square, and in the dining room of the “Blue Ruin” tavern. Finally, in March, 1832, the Reverend Mr. Owen made a fervent appeal to the congregation to build a church and to build it at once. Up to this time, there was not a single place in the town of Memphis dedicated to the worship of God; and this ernest minister, discouraged with the progress made in that direction, directed a plea to those who had requested his appointment. Shortly thereafter, the lot upon which the Pepper Memorial Sunday School Building now stands was purchased from John Overton for $200. It is interesting to note that no building other than the church has stood upon this land.
The cost of the church building was approximately $150. The first service was held in June, although the building was yet complete. This was the “Old Meeting House,” the first church edifice of any denomination in Memphis. Dr. Samuel Watson gives this account in his “History of Methodism in Memphis:” “The planks were loosely laid down, seats made by laying planks on blocks, some high some low. Sometimes the ready-made seats would give way and down would come a half-dozen or more persons.”
The frame building was well used during those early years. In addition to furnishing a meeting place for Methodists, it was also used by other congregations that were being organized.
By the end of Mr. Owen’s year as minister, the membership of the church had grown from 11 to 51. By 1843, a new building was needed to house the congregation. The little frame church was moved to the rear of the lot, and the construction of a new brick building began.
The new chapel, completed in 1845, was named “Wesley Chapel.” During the years in which this building stood, Memphis knew the tragic years of Civil War and the devastation of the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 that ravaged the city. Only during those two periods have services been discontinued.
During the Civil War, Memphis became an occupied city and the church was placed under a bishop of the North who appointed a minister loyal to the Union cause. The congregation refused to attend the services, most of the them worshiped with Presbyterians next door. Benjamin Abernathy, the sexton of the church, buried the silver communion service under the floor of the church basement when the fall of Memphis became eminent. After the war, the service was recovered and restored to use.
In 1885, a building committee was again appointed to investigate the possibilities of building a larger church. In 1885, construction began on a new church structure. The congregation moved into the basement of the new building in the summer of 1891 and into the completed upper portion in January, 1893. The new building of granite and limestone was one of the largest and most handsome in the South. It was built on the Akron plan with Sunday School rooms to the rear of the church. Big sliding doors separated the classrooms from the main sanctuary.
John R. Pepper was the innovative superintendent of the Sunday School from 1880 until 1930. He founded the first Epworth League in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1890. In 1924, a separate building was erected and named for Mr. Pepper. The space formerly occupied by the Sunday School was converted to provide additional seating for the increasing church membership.
First Church has been active, for over 183 years, serving the needs of an ever-growing city. It has contributed more of its sons and daughters to ministry in the church than any other in the Memphis Conference. It has stood in the downtown area as many changes occurred to government, residential areas, and within the structure of the church itself. The purpose of those who minister and those who worship within are ever the same- that the edifice built of the land purchased more that one and three quarters of a century ago stand ever as a structure for the worship of God and for ministry to the downtown area.