history_1.jpgFirst United Methodist Church has a long and rich history. Its roots are in the first Methodist society formed in our city, in 1831.The first location, founded in 1833, was a small brick structure located between Main and Louisiana Streets on Cherry (now West Second) Street. Three years later, in 1836, the year that Arkansas achieved statehood, the church received the designation of “station” and its first full-time appointed pastor, William P. Ratcliffe. During the Civil War, this original location served as a hospital for two years. Then, in 1878, the building was sold.

The women of the church, with money earned by their various mission endeavors, bought one and one-half lots at the corner of Eighth and Center Streets, then deeded the property to the church trustees. A handsome brick structure was begun in 1879 and completed in 1880.
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During the prosperous period between 1880 and 1895, the church’s outreach was significant. West Side, East End and South Side missions were well served, as was the growing congregation at its central location. Then, late in 1895, tragedy struck. Early on Sunday morning, December 15, the church burned to the ground. Only the records of the Board of Stewards and the silver communion service set were saved. Yet within hours, in an act reflecting their deep faith in themselves and in their God, the Board convened and voted to rebuild. By 1896, the oldest part of the present structure was completed. This area includes the choir room, the Bethell Sunday School classroom and the rooms off the sanctuary balcony on the third floor. This structure originally served as chapel, offices and classrooms until the new sanctuary was completed in 1900.

By 1924, two floors of new classrooms were added, due to a phenomenal increase in membership. This section is now used as the kitchen and fellowship hall on the ground floor, and children’s classrooms on the second floor.

In 1931, centennial celebrations included many special services and social events as a grateful congregation looked back on its first one hundred years of service. The installation of a new Moller organ, a new lighting system and complete redecoration of the sanctuary also marked that significant anniversary year.
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Between 1940 and 1960, the growth of the congregation stabilized at slightly more than 3,000 members. By 1951, when many churches were relocating westward in newer areas of the city, the First Methodist Church made a commitment to remain downtown. This decision resulted in enlargement of the building, including the addition of the education building and Riggs Chapel, as well as the purchase of much of the city block for future expansion.

In the 1970’s, the building was again enlarged, housing an activities building, which included a gymnasium, several new classrooms, the United Methodist Headquarters for the Arkansas Area and a Cokesbury Bookstore. In 1974, the church’s historical materials were collected and safely housed in the new Robert E.L. Bearden History Room.

In 1981, the congregation celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary and published a history, written by Kathryn Donham Rice, of its 150 years of ministry in the heart of Little Rock. History Hall, a museum of the church’s historical holdings, was established and dedicated during this time.

In the early 1980’s, with the purchase of a large building at Eighth and Spring Streets, the church broadened its commitment to address community needs, when its daycare center expanded to become the Gertrude Remmel Butler Child Development Center. This Center serves more than 300 children in full-time and after-school childcare. Also within this period, the church school received recognition as one of the 12 most outstanding church schools in United Methodism.

history_4.jpgIn 1998, the congregation welcomed its first female pastor, the Reverend Jeanie Burton, who was appointed by Arkansas’ first female bishop, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie. In the year 2000, a great celebration was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the sanctuary.

In the new millennium, the church can look back at its remarkable history with joy and thanksgiving and can anticipate the future, trusting in the amazing grace of God through Jesus Christ to continue to guide and strengthen its ministry and service.

More information about the history of the Church can be found in History Hall or books about the topic, available in the church office.