Blacksburg United Methodist Church
Pastor: Rev. Ralph Rowley
111 Church Street
The Blacksburg United Methodist Church was founded in 1783 and grew out of the “Methodist Society” that was started earlier by Joseph McDonald, a local businessman. While in Philadelphia near the start of the Revolutionary War, McDonald heard preaching by Bishop Francis Asbury, who worked to introduce Methodism to the United States. McDonald returned to the Blacksburg area and organized the Society. At first the Methodists depended on Circuit Riders (ministers who traveled by horseback over fairly long distances to preach at a circuit of churches and congregations) for their preachers, with local people filling in when circuit riders were not available. The date of the church founding is based on the sermon of the first requested minister. The church was formally organized in 1830.
When the Town of Blacksburg was laid out by William Black, a lot was designated for a Methodist Meeting House, and a small log structure was built on the site. For several years, the local Presbyterians shared this Meeting House with the Methodists. Later, the Presbyterians bought the Meeting House and replaced it with the Presbyterian Parsonage.
The original building was succeeded by four other buildings, all on the same lot. The second building, put up in 1830, was a larger log house which was consecrated as the first official Methodist Church. In 1846 a brick church was constructed. This building had the largest auditorium in Blacksburg and was used for college graduation exercises.
Fifty years later it was found that the walls of the brick building were deteriorating, so in 1906 a new brick church was built, named after the retired pastor P. H. Whisner. Tiffany memorial windows in the Whisner Memorial Church were installed for less than $2000 (approximately $52,000 in year 2000 money). In 1955 the current building was constructed, and the Whisner Building was remodeled for general purposes.
In 1851 the Methodist Church was instrumental in founding the Olin and Preston Institute in Blacksburg as a Methodist college. As a consequence of financial difficulties the original name of Olin and Preston was changed to Preston and Olin. Life in the South was difficult after the Civil War, and the college remained in serious financial trouble. Members of the Methodist Church and others appealed to the state legislature to convert the institute into a land-grant college. In 1872 it was re-chartered as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, which eventually evolved into Virginia Tech. The college eventually brought a large number of students to Blacksburg, many of whom attended local church services. The student population is one of the main reasons for the increase in church buildings in the 1870′s and later.
Before the Civil War, it was common for African-Americans to attend services in mostly white churches. It is known that both the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches had African-American members, some slave, some free. At that time it was illegal in Virginia for slaves to assemble for worship unless they were under the supervision of a white preacher. In most churches African-Americans were required to sit in the balcony during services while the white members sat in the pews below. For example, the Methodist Church of 1846 had a balcony specifically designated for the “colored” members. Later it is believed that the African American church members left to form the St. Paul AME church.
Donald, Christopher, “Growth and Independence of Methodist Congregations in Blacksburg,
A Virginia Town,” Smithfield Review, Volume X. 2006.
Harrison, Charles H., The Story of a Consecrated Life, Commemorative of Rev. Charles S. Schaeffer, Brevet-Captain U. S. V., J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. 1900. This book is available for reading on-line at http://archive.org/details/storyofconsecrat00harr.
Raboteau, Albert J., Slave Religion, Oxford University Press, New York. 1978.