Methodism did not get off to an auspicious start in New Castle, in fact, just the opposite.
As early as 1769, Captain Thomas Webb, a pensioned officer of the British army came to New Castle and preached as a Methodist minister. From Thomas Scharf's History of Delaware ."His teachings were received with so little favor that the doors of the courthouse were closed against him, though open to various forms of frivolity. "
Future visits by Methodist ministers received similar or worse treatment.
According to various accounts, the most detailed from the 1910 church directory, other attempts to bring Methodism to New Castle date to the 1770's. Francis Asbury, the pioneer bishop of American Methodism, visited New Castle during the spring of 1772. His account of this visit is less than complimentary to New Castle: April 1771, 'I rode to New Castle and stopped at the house of brother Furness, a tavern keeper, but a good man. I preached there to a few people, but met with opposition, and found that the methodists had done no great good,,,,"
He went on to praise Robert Furness who 'has lost his company by receiving us." Despite the fact that he lost his business as a result of entertaining Methodist preachers, he continued to be a haven for Methodist preachers.
Francis Asbury made three additional visits to New Castle with some degree of success. December 15, 1772, 'I rode to New Castle and preached to a large company," then again in July of 1773, ' At New Castle the company was small, though great power attended the word." More than one of the early ministers found preaching in New Castle could prove hazardous to one's health. Crowds of ruffians often interrupted the gatherings and according to the Reverend Benjamin Abbott's account of his visit in 1779, one man stood with a bottle of rum in his hand, swearing that he would throw it at Rev. Abbott's head.
Again, it was Mr. Robert Furness, his host, who came to his rescue and prevented the attack. Mr. Furness is mentioned prominently in every account of these early attempts to bring Methodism to New Castle. Despite the loss of business and threat of personal injury, he continued to practice his faith and made heroic attempts to bring others into a fellowship of believers. He was referred to in one account as the 'father" of Methodism in New Castle.
It is not known how long the first class, as they were known, had been in existence, but in 1820 forty-two Methodists came together to become the first organized congregation of Methodists in New Castle.
Of the forty-two persons listed, there were seventeen males and twenty-five females. Seventeen were listed as married but there were only seven couples; three were listed as widows and two had no marital status listed,
Considering the time period, it is not surprising that twenty of the members were single. The industrial revolution was just beginning to reach into the economy of the New Castle area. Iron foundries and brick yards attracted the young men who came from England to find opportunities in America.
Methodism was a movement made up of middle class and working class individuals who would have been considered "low church" in England. None of the early members would have been professional people; the long established Anglican and Presbyterian churches had the more prominent residents of New Castle on their rolls,
The leader of the congregation was Thomas Challenger, a shoemaker who came from England in 1817. His name remained in positions of responsibility until 1863.
Before the first church building was constructed in 1820, the group met at the home of Thomas and Elizabeth Marshall. According to existing records, the Rev. Joseph Rushling was appointed as Methodist minister to Wilmington and in 1819, extended his ministry to include the devoted band of Methodists who met Sunday afternoons at three o'clock at the home of Thomas Marshall.
The complete list of members from the 1820 class roll is documented in a previous church history. Just a few of the family names, some of which are still familiar names among New Castle residents are Morris, McCalmont, Sanders, Wilson, Price And Tatlow.
Some of the names that appeared on that first list are not repeated on subsequent lists, but this is not surprising. New Castle was probably a first stop for immigrants who would move on to other areas as they sought their fortunes in this young nation. After all, this was the land of opportunity.
The year 1820 is a memorable one in the history of the New Castle church. In the fall of that year the group organized into a regular society and elected trustees and stewards.
The first board of trustees consisted of the following persons: Samuel Wood, John Hayes, Noah Morris, Thomas McCalmont, Thomas Marshall, James Wilson And Thomas Challenger.
On September 28, 1820, the board of trustees purchased from Richard Sexton and wife a lot which forms a part of the present cemetery, and they proceeded to build the first Methodist meeting house in New Castle. In 1820, this location was definitely considered to be out-of-town. Official records are silent about the specifics concerning the building and its cost, but from an early record book, it appears that at first they only ordered materials as they had cash to pay for them. There are several references to payment for a load of bricks and the cost of hauling them to the site.
A letter written by William J. Hunter September 1932 (?) recalls these details: "It was a small brick building about 50 x 30 foot front. It stood at the northwest corner of the graveyard about 20 feet from the building line. The entrance was double doors in the center front. Two large weeping willow trees stood on either side of the front entrances."
One account details the financial difficulties experienced in the construction of the original building. At a time when seventy-five cents a day was considered a fair wage, these people were making family pledges of ten dollars or more to the new building.
Some prominent citizens of New Castle, members of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, made pledges to the church, but by 1824, the church found itself in serious financial difficulty. Pledges dried up because a devastating fire destroyed a large portion of the community.
Still owing $150.00 on the new church and threatened with being sold out or dispossesed, the trustees sent out one of their number,Edward Page, on a journey to appeal to other Methodist congregations. He traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Centerville, Dover, Greensboro, Delaware and Easton and Chestertown, Maryland," contributions were secured and the financial crisis was averted,
The first class list has the name of the church listed as the Methodist Episcopal Church, but by the time the church was dedicated, the name Nazareth had been added. Perhaps because it was a church that had undergone hardships in a community where it was looked down upon, that the preacher chose as his text for the dedication "can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
Again, quoting from the 1910 church directory: 'It may be true that the early Methodists of New Castle were poor and considered of little importance, but it is an inevitable fact that when a church responds to the needs of the poor and receives them with open arms, they who have been received, soon become business, professional and social leaders in a community. Such has proved true in the case of the New Castle Methodist Episcopal Church."
Life in new Castle was changing during the next few decades. New Castle continued as an important center for transportation. The Strand provided many taverns for the comfort of the travelers passing through New Castle on their way to or from Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Cobblestone streets were ordered in 1815 and in 1820, New Castle's first drugstore was opened by Hugh W. Ritchie. Also, the Penn Fire Company was organized--all signs of -- the growth of New Castle,
However, tremendous social changes were in the wind. The controversy over slavery was gaining momentum and the issue was settled only temporarily when in March 1820, President Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise limiting the spread of slave states.
Although Delaware was listed as a slave state, and residents of New Castle were known to hold slaves, it is highly unlikely, given the financial status of most members of the newly-formed Methodist class, that any of its members owned slaves.
It also appears that early on the New Castle Methodist church began ministering to the spiritual needs of the African American residents of the New Castle area, whether slaves or freemen. The Membership book for the years 1839 - 1863, have listed, using the terminology of the day, "colored members.
The record for 1839-40, lists on a separate sheet, seventeen colored members. Perry Moore was designated as the "colored exhorter". Thomas Challenger, who had been in a position of leadership from the beginning of the church was designated as the "white exhorter."
There are also separate listings for baptisms and marriages up until 1858 when Mt. Salem church was built to serve the needs of the African American residents of New Castle.
The term "class" has been used in previous accounts referring to the early church. At first, we were a united society of Methodists. Each society was divided into smaller classes of about 12 persons, one of whom was the leader. Very early in the organization and administration of the societies, John Wesley insisted on having female class leaders as well as male leaders. Here in New Castle, this was not to be; in all the years of class records up to 1869, no woman served as class leader.
Quoting from the 1984 church history, these were the duties of the class leader: A. To see each person in his class once a week in order to: 1. Inquire how their souls prosper. 2. Advise, reprove, comfort or exhort as the occasion may require. 3. Receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preacher, the church and the poor. B. To meet with the minister and/or stewards of the society once a week in order to inform the minister of any who are sick or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved;
The class system is not to be confused with Sunday school. Although the Sunday school movement began very early in England, and the American Sunday school union was organized in 1813, the idea was not adopted by the Methodists until after the demise of the classes.
The origins of the early Methodist classes are not known for sure. There is some evidence that the organization into small groups may have been modeled after the original holy club which John Wesley and other pious undergraduates instituted at Oxford University. Other evidence suggests that the Methodist classes began in Bristol, England as a means to solve the pressing problems of finance and control.
The class arrangement was ideal for instructing and keeping tabs on members. An important side benefit was that the church gained strong leaders.
As long as the early membership was a homogeneous group of English working class families, the class system prospered, but as the congregations became less homogeneous, and non English names began to appear on the rolls, and as the members prospered and economic conditions improved, members were not inclined to accept the close supervision imposed by the less than democratic system . By the late 1850's, the class system of oversight by one's peers had become intolerable to many and as a result the class system declined rapidly.
While it was in use, the class system proved effective in keeping the congregation a close-knit society, but times change and the church had to change as well. Now, more responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the congregation rests with the pastor.
It is interesting to note that the original church building of 1820 would only serve the congregation for 43 years. Another interesting fact is that the new edifice would be built in the middle years of the civil war when surely New Castle as well as the rest of the nation was experiencing the hardships of war.
Once again drawing on the account of Reverend F.X. Moore in the 1910 directory, two factors figured prominently in the decision to build a new church: "the original meeting house was the scene of many manifestations of divine power. In the year 1837, during the pastorate of Pennel Coombe the church enjoyed a wonderful revival, which added greatly to the strength of the church ..."
The second factor came as the result of the Tasker Iron Works being established near the town which brought in many workers. Thomas Tasker, president of the iron works, was a staunch Methodist and a eloquent local preacher. His interest and financial support made it possible to erect the main building of the present church in 1863.
At that time the name Nazareth was dropped and the new church was dedicated as New Castle Methodist Episcopal Church. Rev. M.H. Sisty was preacher in charge at the time of the building of the new church and according to the official records " proved to be a leader whose untiring efforts helped greatly to make the project a success."
One account states that the bricks from the original building were saved and cleaned by the Sunday school boys for use in the construction of the new church. If that is so, then we still have a part of the original church with us in fact, not just in spirit.
In 1876, the Sunday school building was erected across the rear of the church. . Then in 1883, during the pastorate of Rev. N.M. Brown, it was decided that the church should build a parsonage at 523 Delaware street (across the street from the church) rather than continue to pay rent for a home for the pastor .
Again from the 1910 directory, "it would not be at all surprising in, within a few years, the church should own a more modern parsonage! Erected on a larger plot of ground, where The preacher might have an opportunity to exercise himself by use of lawn mower and hoe."
It took 84 years for this prediction to come true, and on October 8,1967, ground was broken for a new parsonage at the corner of Sixth and Tremont streets. However, as to the second part of the prediction, only the pastor can supply the answer.
Over the years other improvements and additions have been made to our physical plant to enable the work of the church to continue. Between the years 1887 - 1890, several major improvements were completed. The beautiful stained glass windows were installed and the circular pews that we still have were added. The pipe organ that was installed in the same time period was replaced with an electronic organ in 1981, which was recently replaced with a new state-of-the-art instrument.
In 1954 - 1956, the fellowship hall was added and a downstairs Sunday school room was renovated and made into a lounge. A kitchen, church office and rest rooms were added. The church purchased and removed a small house on Delaware street next to the church which allowed for the construction of a walkway to and access to the office and lounge areas.
Recent improvements have added to our comfort and safety; these include air conditioning, a new roof, upgraded sound system and new wiring.
What does the future hold for the faithful worshippers at New Castle United Methodist church? We owe so much to those earlier members who had the vision and zeal to begin a church in what was a very hostile environment, but they persevered and their visions prevailed. Can we do less for the generations that are still to come?
Helen Hoagland, Church Historian