An Informal History of Methodism in Pleasantville, New York
By David Durfee
A congregation is rich when it can profit from the discipleship of those who have gone before. We have used during this month of November, 1980, to recall. to remember and to reflect upon the development and — history of the Methodist fellowship in which we now live out our commitment to Christ and His Church.
We are grateful to David Durfee, current Chairman of the Council on Ministries, for his history which is the major component of this booklet. Our thanks also to Rachel Durfee and Ellie Liu for the sketches and map which is included. We are thankful that several members of the parish have provided written memories of their recollections of earlier days. These, I am sure, will prompt others to reminisce in similar fashion.
The body of Christ does not start or stop – it continues. And so this United Methodist fellowship looks back across the years at this time is in a sense one with and the same as that first group of Methodists which came together in the young Pleasantville community in the late eighteenth century.
May the evidence of commitment which emerges from these pages lead us to redouble our own in thankfulness for the blessings of God which have so graciously been bestowed upon us.
Robert E. Osgood, Pastor (1980)
An Informal History of Methodism in Pleasantville
The United Methodist Church is a “connectional” Church. It is part of a much larger body of Christians who differ in many ways but who share a faith and work together to serve God in this world. To understand Methodism in Pleasantville, therefore, one must understand something about the history of this larger body. Methodism began and grew in England. It came to America in the last decades of the 18th century and became the most effective denomination in the frontier society.
The beginnings in England and the transplantation to America are both parts of our own story.
The Origins of Methodism
The story of the beginning of Methodism is the story of two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. John was born in 1703 and Charles in 1707, two of the 17 children of Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Samuel Wesley was a clergyman of the Church of England. The boys were raised as devout Anglicans in the rectory at Epworth.
Both young Wesleys attended Christ Church College, Oxford. There, with other devout Anglicans including George Whitefield, they formed a “Holy Club.” The members of this group were so rigorous in their efforts to control their behavior and to lead lives of devotion in the way they considered prescribed by the Anglican Church and the Bible, that they were nicknamed “Methodists” by outsiders who felt that they went too far. The name, Methodists, stayed with them even after they broke away from such efforts to be the most Anglican of Anglicans.
While they were still in their devout Anglican period, both John and Charles Wesley went to Georgia on a missionary venture in 1736. Their “High Church” Anglican approach was not at all successful on the frontier and they became quite discouraged.
While in Georgia, the Wesleys had come into contact with German pietists who placed much more emphasis on the direct experiencing of God’s grace in 1738, they continued to meet with Moravians and other pietists. These meetings had a profound effect on them.
On May 24, 1738, at an Anglican meeting at Aldersgate Chapel, John Wesley underwent an experience in which his “heart was strangely warmed.” Speaking of the next few days, he reported that, “all these days I scarce remember to have opened the New Testament but upon some great precious promise.”1 Charles, it should be noted, had also undergone a profound religious experience on May 21.
The message of the Wesleys was not popular in the Churches. Prodded by Whitefield, Wesley began preaching in the open air. His preaching had great power and he attracted larger and larger crowds. The Wesleys and Whitefield, but especially John Wesley, were constantly on the move around the countryside of England. They would preach and gain followers anywhere a crowd would gather in the open to listen to them. No special church buildings or expensive fixtures were needed. These practices – willingness to preach in the simplest of settings and itinerancy – were to serve Methodism well in the frontier society of America.
Although the beliefs were not popular in the Church of England, the Wesleys were determined to remain as faithful members and ministers of that denomination. They did not form a separate Church. What they did form was Methodist “societies.” Anglicans and others, for example, Quakers, already had societies. Societies usually met on a weekday and engaged in prayer, study and mutual support. They did not take the place of a formal Church or of formal worship, but rather supplemented these. The Methodist societies, therefore, were not a separate Church but rather groups, usually of Anglicans, who met regularly in addition to attending Sunday worship.
Societies could be quite large, and it was difficult for a layman to conduct their meetings. Although the Wesleys traveled as much as they could, they could not lead all of the meetings of all of the societies. They prepared simple rules to serve as a guide in the conducting of the societies. The rules described a society as, “a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.” 2
Even with rules some societies had difficulties. One solution to many of these problems was the division of the societies into “classes.” A class was a group of about 12 members of the society. Each class had a leader. The groups “were called on to meet together each week, and it becomes the business of the leader to conduct a public examination into the manner of life of each member of the class, to praise those who were living well, to admonish those who were falling before temptation, and to exhort all to go on in the way of holiness.” 3
This pattern of organization into classes, societies, circuits and conferences also served Methodism well in a rapidly growing area like America.
The beginning of Methodism in England took place at the same time as the religious revival known as the Great Awakening in America. George Whitefield came to America in 1738 and found many ready to listen to his preaching. The Great Awakening insured him of a hearing; his preaching magnified the effects of the awakening. Whitefield made several trips to America between 1738 and his death in 1770. He generally landed in Georgia and made his way up the coast, preaching with power wherever he could find a group to listen.
Societies and circuits were established in the coastal areas he visited. Rather than being tied together into American conferences, however, these circuits reported back to Wenley’s annual Conference in England.
The first society in New York developed in the 1760’s. Philip Embury was a member of a group of Palatine Germans who had settled in Ireland in the first half of the 18th century. When Wesley had visited Ireland, Embury had become a Methodist lay preacher. Not happy in Ireland, Embury and others migrated to New York in 1760. The group remained quiet for five years. In 1766, however, Embury’s cousin, Barbara Heck, became so concerned about the sinful life of the New Yorkers that she convinced Embury that he should preach in his house and a society was formed. The society soon outgrew the house, a store-room, and a rigging loft so that. By 1769, a “preaching house” had been built on the site currently occupied by the John St. Church in New York.
The New York society called upon Wesley for preaching help. In Leeds, in 1769, Wesley asked for volunteers for America. Two young ministers, Joseph Pilmoor and Richard Boardman were on their way to America within two weeks. One of these volunteers. Joseph Pilmoor, visited New Rochelle in 1771 with a Robert Williams and introduced Methodist preaching into Westchester County.4
As the Revolution began, the Methodist societies and chapels in America were still a part of the Anglican Church, a Church controlled from England. Methodists also had a connection with Wesley in London. In 1775, John Wesley published A Calm Address to Our Own American Colonies. In it he called upon Americans to be thankful for the benevolent rule of England and to remain loyal to her. This publication did little to make Methodists popular among those who felt the struggle to be a just one. Many Methodist preachers and all of the leaders except for Francis Asbury returned to England when the war became one clearly aimed at independence. This series of events does much to explain both the notable role of Asbury in the early days of the United States and the development of a separate Methodist Church in America.
Pressure for an autonomous American Church began in the South, especially in the strong Methodist area of Virginia. The Southern Conference appointed a committee with power to ordain ministers in 1779 in spite of Asbury’s objections.
In February of 1784 John Wesley signed a Deed of Declaration which placed the Methodist chapels in America in an American Annual Conference which had the power to perpetuate itself without any further reference to Wesley or England. In September of that year he sent three men, Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey to America to see to the organizing of the American Church.
Under Asbury’s leadership, and with the special characteristics which made it effective on the frontier, Methodism grew rapidly to become the largest single American denomination.Writing in 1915, the Reverend Harry Williams, pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pleasantville, stated:
Westchester County, more than any other, had suffered materially and morally, from the effects of the Revolutionary War. In some places the churches had been burned, others closed, and the ordinances of religion suspended.
The people in many places, not only impoverished, but morally destitute, greatly needed the gospel, whether they were ready to welcome it or not.
The faithful messengers of the Cross penetrated to nearly all parts of the country, entering every open door, preaching and exhorting and organizing classes which were the germs of future churches.
And so it came about that in 1780 Methodism breathed its first breath in Pleasantville, and became a living soul. A class meeting was instituted in a house on Bear Ridge, which rapidly grew, and was organized in 1815 as part of the Croton circuit, which had been set off from New Rochelle.5
Other sources cite the same year and name Jesse Baker or Barker as the owner of the home and the leader of the class. If the date of 1780 is correct, then Methodism is 200 years old in Pleasantville
–Methodism is 200 years old in Pleasantville
The conditions existing at the time make it likely that 1780 could have seen the first class meeting. A Methodist society has been formed in New York 14 years earlier and Methodism had reached New Rochelle nine years before. Francis Asbury had been in America for nine years. Methodist preachers were itinerant and had spread the word to as many communities as they possibly could. The conditions at the end of the Revolution, as described by Mr. Williams, were ones that could make people thirst for the kinds of experiences a class meeting could offer.
There are, on the other hand, no primary documents which can prove that such a meeting took place in Pleasantville in that year. The wording used by Mr. Williams, that it grew rapidly and was organized in part of the Croton Circuit in 1815 causes some concern. Since 1815 is 35 years after 1780, one part of the statement must be in error, either the growth was not rapid or the beginning date was not 1780.
It is quite possible that the class meeting did take place in 1780. Given the circumstances, it is also quite possible that similar class meetings took place in many other villages in the area in that same year, or even earlier.
The first official circuit in Westchester County was the New Rochelle Circuit formed in 1787 with Samuel O. Talbot as pastor. Pleasantville would have been in the area covered by that circuit. When the Croton Circuit was formed out of part of the area covered by the New Rochelle one, Pleasantville was included in that area. As the Reverend Mr. Williams wrote, Pleasantville was organized as a part of that Croton Circuit in 1815. It is from that year, then, that the official history of Methodism in Pleasantville begins.
A recorded deed shows that the land for the construction of the first meeting house was conveyed to the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Society of Pleasantville for the sum of five dollars, lawful money, on April 28, 1818. The land was three-quarters of an acre on the west side of the “road leading from the White Plains to North Castle Church” and was to be used to “Build a Proper and Suitable Meeting house thereon for the laudable Purpose of Divine Worship for Ever and for no other use of Purpose Whatsoever.”
There were two doors to the church allowing men and women to enter and sit separately during the services. Worshipers entered in the front, right by the pulpit. If a parishioner arrived late he or she could not slip discreetly into a rear pew, but had to come in in front of the entire congregation.
The dead were buried in the Churchyard around the building. That area continued in use as a cemetery long after the original building had been removed from the site.
In 1822, the first Sunday School was organized. Classes met in the parsonage of the Reverend Samuel Bushnell. The School grew slowly at first, then more rapidly. Mr. Williams reports that it reached its “high water mark” in 1850 “in having 100 scholars enrolled, also 425 volumes in the library, 80 Sabbath School advocates taken, and the number of Scripture verses committed to memory by the scholars from June to March was 20,000.”
Apparently reflecting continued growth of Methodism in the country, the Mount Pleasant Circuit set off from the Croton one in 1826.
By 1851 the need for a larger and more modern church building, in contrast with the older meeting house type, was seen. Harvey Palmer had purchased a parcel of land on the opposite, or east side of Broadway in 1850. In 1851 he and his wife sold an acre of that parcel to the trustees for $300. The price of $300 per acre in 1851, when compared with $5 for three-quarters of an acre in 1818, would seem to indicate that a sharp rise in land values had taken place during the intervening years.
The new and larger church was dedicated November 24, 1852. Bishop Foster preached the sermon at the dedication service.
The deed of 1851 had stated that, in addition to the construction of the church, there would be built “also a Parsonage or dwelling House for the occupation of the family of such Ministry or Preaching.” The Methodists did not, however, build a new parsonage. Instead, they transformed the original church building across the street into a modern and spacious parsonage. They accomplished this by breaking it down into sections, transporting the sections across Broadway, and reconstructing the building on the east side next to the new church. To make it suitable for a home instead of a meeting hall, they installed a new floor halfway up and divided the two resulting stories into rooms. Four large rooms, with hallways and stairways for access, were constructed on each floor.
The reconstruction had apparently been completed by 1854, for in that year Harvey Palmer, who still owned the surrounding land, signed a grant allowing the construction of a water pipe from his spring to the parsonage.
This reconstructed building served as the church’s parsonage for nearly one hundred years. Major refurbishing, in 1912, helped make it a building suitable for 20th century ministers.
Mr. Williams, in his history, records that “a very gracious revival” took place under the ministry of Paul R. Brown in 1855. He describes the critical moment:
John I. See sat in the audience, and as the pastor tenderly pleaded, the fountain of John’s heart was broken, and with the arms of Eliot Hobby around him he was led to the alter sobbing bitterly. That was the “break” for which they had been praying and believing, and before the people dispersed arrangements were made to continue the meetings for another week, and a wonderful in-gathering of souls resulted. 6
Williams also records a second great revival in 1871 under Rev. Haviland which resulted in an in gathering of nearly 100 souls.
The construction of a railroad was partially responsible for a 70 year division among Pleasantville Methodists. The churches on Broadway had been located very close to the center of the original village of Pleasantville, more recently referred to as “The Old Village.” When the railroad was built it was put through nearly a mile to the west of that original village. Because the railroad offered travel convenience that was much greater than carriages and muddy roads could give, new businesses and houses soon clustered around the tracks. The new settlement was sometimes referred to as West Pleasantville and sometimes as Pleasantville Station. By the 1880’s this new settlement had become larger than the original village.
In 1887 about half of the congregation of the first church, including the minister, decided to leave it and establish a new church in a more convenient location near the station. The other half of the congregation refused to move, in part because there were a number of saloons in the new settlement and they did not want their church near those saloons.
Since travel was difficult in 1887, and since Methodists enjoyed Sunday morning and evening as well as midweek services, convenience of location could have been the most important cause of the split. It seems somewhat unusual, however, for the minister to have left the original church if it was merely a matter of location. His home was in the reconstructed parsonage next door to the original church. The fact that he departed would seem to indicate that there was some other matter of contention – theological, political, or, most likely, the minister himself.
The new West Pleasantville Methodist Episcopal Church, built at 391 Bedford Road, was dedicated in May, 1889. The Annual Charge Conference accepted the West Pleasantville Church in 1890. It proved to be an active and growing church.
A major effort to reunify Pleasantville Methodism began in 1917. With improved transportation, the distance between the two churches was no longer critical. Other Protestant denominations were well established in the village, notably St. John’s which had opened in 1853 and the Presbyterian church which had begun in 1880, so that Methodism had no monopoly within the area. The unifying cause of World War I was probably also an influence to bring the two groups together. A Board of Trustees for one consolidated Pleasantville Methodist Episcopal Church was established under New York State Law. That Board worked unsuccessfully for nine years. It disbanded in 1926.
The original church had long been calling itself the First Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1926 it changed its name legally from “Pleasantville Methodist Episcopal Church” to the “First Methodist Episcopal Church.”
From 1926 until 1947, therefore, Pleasantville had two Methodist Churches, one proclaiming its geographical and the other its chronological advantage in its name – the Central Church and the First Church.
In the 1940’s talk of reunification began again. The results might have been the same as those of the 1917 to 1926 talks had not an “act of God” intervened. On January 3, 1948, a tremendous snowstorm hit the Pleasantville area. The weight of the snow was too great for the low pitched roof of the First Church. (The sturdy old original church turned parsonage with its more steeply pitched roof withstood the storm.) Many of the old wooden pegs had, apparently, come out over the years, and the roof collapsed. The sides were pushed out. The church had been destroyed by nature.
The loss of the First Church building pushed the two congregations together. On February 6, 1948, the two groups merged to form The Methodist Church, Pleasantville, N.Y.
The unified congregation used the Central Church building for its worship for 14 years. The structure, though referred to as “warm and comfortable” proved to be too small for the enlarged congregation. In 1961 funds were raised an construction begun on a new building at 70 Bedford Road. Construction was completed in 1962 and the congregation moved and dedicated its new home. The new home became debt free when the mortgage was burned in 1968.
The Old Central Church was sold to the Presbyterians, located across the street, for use as a Church School annex until they constructed a new wing. In 1967 the Central building was demolished by “an act of man;” a bulldozer pulled it down to make a parking area.
In 1980, two hundred years after the reported beginning of Methodism in Pleasantville, three of the buildings which were houses of Methodist worship still stood – the old Baker or Barker house, not in use but at least minimally preserved; the original church turned parsonage, a private home since 1950, and the present United Methodist Church. Symbolically, all three are the ones in which Pleasantville Methodists have been united as one group.
My memory goes back to June 13, 1913, when my sister Nellie and I were baptized in Dr. Cassels’ brook located in the old village, south of Romer’s farm. In those days boys would make dams and have good swimming holes. They really worked hard. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and it was about a mile and a half walk through the country from the Methodist Church on Bedford Road, opposite the Presbyterian Church. My parents were Baptists and there was no Baptist Church in Pleasantville so we went to the Methodist Church. My mother wanted baptism by immersion and Pastor Ross agreed to do it. There was a barn on the Cassel property near the stream and we changed clothes there. Mother, Arvid Jacobson (a cousin of mine) and of course Pastor Ross were in the party. I’m wondering if the church has a record of this.
Mr. Everett Hall was a member of the old village Methodist Church, corner of Broadway and Bear Ridge Road and he used to tell the story of the time they war a havin a prayer meetin and all of a sudden the hounds started a barkin so they all ran outside to see what the hounds was a chasin and tyis broke up the prayer meetin.
VOICES FROM 1922
As originally constructed the Central Methodist Episcopal Church building housed both the Sanctuary and Sunday School in separate rooms located on the main floor level. The front door opened into the Sanctuary and the Sunday School was at the rear of the structure.
In 1922, during the pastorate of the Rev. Mr. Ridgeway, an extensive remodeling project was undertaken. The Sanctuary was enlarged to occupy the entire main floor area, and Sunday School facilities were constructed in the basement. The sanctuary seating plan was rotated ninety degrees. Curved pews facing a pulpit at the east side of the room were replaced by straight pews facing north.
The following comments concerning the project have been extracted from Letters written by members of the congregation to a teen-age girl student in her freshman year at Oneonta Normal School:
October 2, 1922, from her former Sunday School teacher
The church is coming on slowly but surely. The plastering is finished and ready for the decorating. There will be a memorial window in front from the Sunday School and we will have to raise $700.00 to pay for it with the rummage sale.
October 18, 1922, from the student’s mother
They are going to put a new organ in the church and are putting a new stoop on the front. All the old shrubbery has been cut down. I don’t know how they are going to pay for it all.
October 19, 1922, from the Sunday School teacher
We started our S.S. drive for our Memorial Window. I am sending these cards to you and Florence (another freshman from the Central M.E. Church). Each member of the school bus has one and I tho’t perhaps you girls could fill your cards among your friends there. As you see it is 5 cents per square inch and every 5 cent piece is welcome. The church is being painted inside now, two shades of buff and the new windows are in. The new entrance is also being fixed. A straight flight of steps, and I think two stone steps and cement walk. The memorial window here shown will be in front and a small one for Lila (Guion) on the side. A new organ is to be installed and a large choir is to start training tomorrow night for an oratorio to be sung the opening night.
October 23, from another 1922 high school graduate
Our church is beginning to look fine after its alterations. I believe it is to be opened with a big musical service. I hope so.
October 25, from mother
Inez Bell (mother of Ruth Bell) was here today, wanted me to bake a pan of beans for the supper the church is going to have.
October 31, from mother
I made a box of peanut butter fudge this afternoon for Gertrude (a Guion girl, later Mrs. McCarthy) for the fair tomorrow night and a big pan of baked beans for the supper.
November 3, from mother
Well, the fair is over and it was a great success in every way. Our sister churches came to the front beautifully and spent money freely, which made it very nice. We had many very nice things and they were sold very reasonably. The receipts are far beyond our expectation. I think we will clear $600.00. Isn’t that fine for our little church?
December 7, from mother
I hear they are going to have a very elaborate exercise at church on Sunday – the Presiding Elder and several other speakers, and outside singers, and everything.
December 10, from mother
I went to church, but it did not seem a bit like home. I can’t see why they went into so much debt; they surely had lots of room before. Now it is so deep, it seems more like a hall. The floors are bare, with just a runner of matting between the seats. They had about 25 singers.
December 11, from mother
I can’t get over how dreary the church seemed; it was cozy and not too big before, but now it is like a Movie Hall.
When the writer came to Pleasantville in May, 1924, in the first year of the pastorate of Rev. James Brimelow, the price of the Sunday School Memorial Window had not yet been fully paid. In those days President Coolidge was reducing the Nation’s Debt and people had not learned that incurring private debts to stimulate the economy was a patriotic duty. To the contrary, the antipathy toward debt expressed in one of the letters quoted above was quite general among Methodists who delighted in burning mortgages.
To remedy the situation Mrs. “Polly” Polglaise enlisted the aid of a group of young people to present a program of three one-act plays in the fall of 1924 at “Patsy’s Theater,” located on the westerly corner of Bedford Road and Marble Avenue, where “movies” were shown prior to construction of the Rome theater. I believe that Patsy (real name Pasquale) donated the use of his building to help this good cause. The plays were directed by Miss Gladys Cripps, a Pleasantville High School English teacher, who also directed productions of the Pleasantville Players of that era. The two actors in the first of the plays were Judson Laire and his sister Marguerite, then active in the Pleasantville Players. Jud later had a successful career on Broadway; one of his roles was that of the grandfather in “I remember Mama.” The second play, titled “Love on a Railway Train” also had a two-player cast; the writer and the former Oneonta student, who had returned to Pleasantville and was studying voice in New York City. In the third play were Betty Guion (Smith), Mildred O’Donnell (Fridy), Laura Larry, Eugene Liesler, Lester Zarr, Tony Rickles, Charles Mager, and Garfield Gardner (an automobile dealer and member of the Pleasantville Players). The performance was well attended and I cannot recall ever hearing anything more about the memorial window debt; so I presume that the proceeds which were realized sufficed to wipe it out.
Incidentally, on May 29, 1926, I married the girl on the Railway Train in the Central M.E. Church.
I like to recall my growing up in the Central Methodist Sunday School. The annual picnic, Christmas party with Santa’s gift of a box of candy and an orange, and the parties given by the individual teachers were quite the social events of the year. (Remember the time, Alinda, when one of us spilled a good humor all over your new carpet?) I also enjoyed the children’s choir under the able leadership of Marjorie Olewiler and Edna Titlar. (My voice didn’t crack then, Sheff.)
But most of all as I look back I think of the beautiful stained glass window at the front of the church, “suffer little children to come unto me” and my small part in obtaining it. Each child was given a booklet with squares representing nickles, dimes and quarters, requested to ask our family, friends
and neighbors to donate coins. I don’t know how much the project netted toward the window, but we did feel a part of it. I used to wonder which square was mine! Yes, it’s fun to look back, but more fun to look ahead and predict a great future for Methodism in Pleasantville.
It was a bitter cold Sunday. The temperature dropped below zero. My seven year old Brian, didn’t want to miss Sunday School. He had over a mile to walk each way as I had no car. When he arrived home his hands were frost bitten, but he didn’t mind. He it. In those days, pins were given for perfect attendance, but all those years he never received a pin, due to illness only. Brian participated in the Communion breakfasts, ____ as president of Youth Fellowship, and in college recognition day.
He was married in the Methodist Church that was at Bedford Road he had attended all those years. I must add that his good friend, Barney Carlson, was a great influence on his spiritual and every___ life.
In the high ceiling New England style building it was the First Methodist Church, the heating of the building was a costly problem. When it came time to raise money for the heat, a pledge service ___ the Sunday morning service was held.
Mother used to tell how grandfather John Wesley ___ would start the pledging at a figure that pledgers might meet. This figure was always more than Grandmother Palmer felt they could afford and she would groan, for she knew he would pay it. And, of course, it did help move the other brothers in the right direction.
1Quoted in Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 325.
2Quoted in Luccock and Hutchinson, The Story of Methodism, 165-6.
3Luccock and Hutchinson, Story of Methodism, 168.
4Williams, “History of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pleasantville, N.Y.,” in the Souvenir and History, 1915, 3.
5Williams, “First Methodist,” 3-4.
6Williams, “First Methodist,” p.9