According to Dr. Aaron Wood the first sermon ever preached in the vicinity of Terre Haute was by Rev. Jonathan Stamper, Chaplain of a regiment of Kentucky soldiers stationed at Fort Harrison during the war of 1812 to 1816; and as early as 1813 there was a society which held meetings for prayer on the Sabbath Day. When Terre Haute was organized in 1816 the church lot at the corner of 4th and Poplar Streets was deeded to whatever religious society should first build upon it. The Methodists were first to organize and secured the lot by building upon it in 1835. In 1841, having outgrown the first structure, Asbury Church was erected upon this lot, named after Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop. Two years later in 1843 a bell was placed in the belfry and for fifty-two years called the people to worship. After moving from this location the Asbury bell was melted down and was used to make small hand bells, which were sold. But we still have one.
For several years prior to 1891 the idea of building a new church to take the place of Old Asbury was discussed. This took definite shape under the pastorate of Rev. Isaac Dale, who served from 1889 until 1893. On January 19, 1892, a committee was appointed to secure a location for the new church. At the meeting on February 29, 1892, it was reported that the Deming property on the northwest corner of 7th and Poplar Streets could be purchased for $8,500, and the purchasing committee was instructed to secure the property. On July 18, 1892, the Board in regular session chose the plans of J. F. McCoy of Danville, Illinois as the ones for the new building. Due to money being tight, it was thought wise to build a tabernacle in place of a permanent building. This was discussed through the winter of 1893 – 94, but in a meeting of the Board on April 23, 1894, it was approved that we build a permanent church. This was passed and on May 30, 1894, the contract was awarded to J. H. Hoffman of Indianapolis for $18,227.50, this being the lowest bid.
Dateline: July 1894 The Epworth Evangel “The new church is fast taking shape. At this writing the foundation walls of the Sunday School room are about finished and a large force of men are moving the work along with a will. Contractor Hoffman is an experienced builder, and is giving the church the benefit of his experience, sometimes at an actual expense to himself, in improving upon the plans. The program is to lay the corner stone on the 9th of July. Special services will be held on Sunday, the 8th, in a large tent near the church lot. Bishop Joyce or some equally prominent man will preach. It will be a great day.”
In Sunday School News in the same edition of July 1894 we find “The interest holds up well, considering the hot weather. The attendance June 24 was 359.” The ceremonies attending the removal of the cornerstone of Asbury Church were held at 4:00 on Sunday, July 8, 1894 in the presence of about 1,000 people. Among the speakers were Col. R. W. Thompson, one of Terre Haute’s distinguished citizens and a typical American Christian gentleman. Col. Thompson was nearly overcome with emotion when he arose to address the audience. He said the feelings that existed in his mind commingled–joy and sadness were side by side. He rejoiced in the fact that Asbury was soon to have a building worthy to itself and in a more advantageous location. Col. Thompson spoke of the time when he joined Asbury Church fifty years ago. Andrew Johnson was pastor of the church. Col. Thompson remembered when the minister took him by the arm after he joined the church and said, Dick, don’t you feel better now.
The cornerstone was laid the following Sunday, July 15, 1894 for the new First Methodist Episcopal Church. Ten months later on May 26, 1895 the building was completed and dedicated, costing a total of $42,000, which included the cost of the lot, building, furnishings, and numerous other items. In preparing to move from Old Asbury Church at 4th and Poplar Streets to the new Methodist Church at the corner of 7th and Poplar, special services and events were planned for the entire week of May 19-26, 1895. Sunday morning services were held at Old Asbury with Rev. J. L. Smith, pastor in 1848 and 1849 preaching the sermon. At 8:00 pm there was a roll call of the old and new church membership, and the forming of the Golden Chain. Every night of the week, Monday through Friday, services were held beginning at 7:30 pm and clergy from many other churches were involved in the services, including the pastors of Baptist Tabernacle, First Baptist, First Congregational, Centenary Methodist Episcopal, First United Brethren, Washington Avenue Presbyterian, the German Methodist Episcopal Church, Central Christian, and Central Presbyterian Churches. Friday evening’s service was a reunion and reception in Old Asbury for all of the former pastors, other visiting ministers, the city pastors and all the older citizens. Sunday, May 26, 1895, was dedication day at First Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation met at Old Asbury for the last time and marched down Poplar Street to the new church. It was a full day in the new church with class meeting at 9:00 am, worship at 10:30, Sunday School at 3:30, Epworth League at 6:30, and evening worship at 8:00, concluding the day with the Hallelujah Chorus by the Oratorio Society. The new building was of red brick, with red stone trim, a slate roof, and oak trim inside. The seating capacity of the sanctuary was about 1,000, and another 500 persons could be accommodated by opening up the Fellowship Hall, north of the sanctuary. Two cornerstones were laid in the new building. One was round, 32 inches high and 34 inches in diameter, and was placed at the base of the round column at the southeast corner. It was eventually moved to the base of the bell tower in the courtyard of the current church in 1969. The inscription on it says, Organized 1826 First Methodist Episcopal Church 1894.
On March 22, 1903, First Methodist Episcopal Church, whose slogan was The Church with a Heart in the Heart of the City, held a 77th Anniversary Grand Rally Day. Within the program for this day we find: “This day is to mark an epoch in the history of First Church. Her past has been grand, but her future is to be glorious. Let every member of the Church, Sunday School, Epworth League, Saint Paul’s Brotherhood, Epworth Guards, Ladies Societies, Junior League, all members of committees, all our dear friends– Everybody be at every service of the day, from 9 a.m. till 10 p.m. and bring all your friends with you. Let everyone feel when the days work is done and the victory is won, that I have done what I could to help in this splendid victory. Come and stay all day. Hot coffee will be served free in the dining room of the church to all who care to bring a lunch with them. Rest room and all conveniences will be provided for the aged to make them comfortable.”
In 1913 talks began about a merger between First Methodist Episcopal Church and Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church. It was eventually decided that the combined congregation would use the name, Methodist Temple, and that together they would build a large church in the downtown area. Until a new church could be constructed the two congregations would continue to meet, alternating services between the two existing locations. Differences and difficulties arose which could not be resolved, and the two old buildings could not be sold. In 1929 the merger was dissolved and the two congregations went back to their respective locations, with those returning to 7th and Poplar Streets taking the name of Methodist Temple with them.
By the late 1950’s the constant repairs on the old building had become a financial drain on the congregation. Parking was scarce, and again the city’s population was shifting, this time to the south with its many suburban areas. After much study and many long and stormy sessions, a five acre tract on U.S. 41 south of the city was purchased at a cost of $60,000. Ground was broken on October 6, 1968, and the new United Methodist Temple building was dedicated on August 24, 1969. Sunday, August 31, the last full worship service was held at 7th and Poplar, including a service of Holy Communion. On Sunday, September 7, people gathered at the old church at 9:30 for a brief period of worship and then traveled by auto caravan to this building for the first worship service at 10:30. The new building was constructed around a landscaped courtyard containing the 1894 cornerstone from 7th and Poplar Streets and a bell tower holding the church bell that dates back to 1895. In 2001 a major renovation and addition was completed to help provide adequate space to move into the future.