High Street United Methodist Church


Petersburg, Virginia


Line of Descent


The age of a church is determined not by the length of time which the congregation may have occupied any particular building, but by the length of time which it has been in continuous and unbroken organized existence.  The fact that an organized church has moved from one building to another does not destroy its continuity any more than the fact that a family which has occupied several different houses destroys the continuity and identity of the family.  A church may exist without owning any house of worship if it keeps its organization intact and continues to function.


In the Beginning


In writing any history, whether it be of a person, a building or an event, it is necessary to go back to some period of time and pick up the first thread that begins to form a distinguishable picture.  Such a thread has been pulled out of a sometimes tangled knot but facts herein can be corroborated, and it must be stated that it is High Street United Methodist Church’s history and not Virginia Methodism that is being noted.  There will be a parallel of the two on occasion for without the growth of one there could have been no outgrowth of the other.


In 1773 Petersburg and Blandford were separate entities … small and straggling towns on the bank of the Appomattox River extending west from lower Blandford more than a mile to the “narrow falls” now spanned by a more modern and structurally safer bridge (Campell’s) than was there at an earlier date.  Petersburg had about 3,000 persons within its boundaries.  It is reported that people were neither more nor less moral that other communities in the State.  They had certain rugged traits of character which were admirable, but profanity, gambling and drunkenness were all too prevalent.  Sundays were spent mostly in horseracing, cock fighting and fighting with each other.  There was little spiritual guidance.  There was no church in Petersburg proper.  There was a little Episcopal one on the hill in Blandford (known as Old Blandford Church) but that was opened only a few times a year and only a few better class citizens attended at those times.  When a traveling preacher did appear and try to hold some form of religious service either in the open or in some public building it was more than likely to be interrupted or broken up completely. .. a victim of the people’s ideas of sport and ridicule rather than viciousness.


So, into this picture, stepped two prominent businessmen who had become concerned about the moral and spiritual condition of the community.  They were Gressett Davis and Nathaniel Young.  They invited Robert Williams to come to Petersburg to preach.  He was an itinerant preacher who had come originally from England.  His type of preaching had attracted attention and he had become known in the State.  He arrived in Petersburg in February 1773.  For his services, Davis and Young had secured a theatre on Old Street (a continuation of Grove Avenue).


Research has found two divided opinions as to the results of Williams’ preaching on this occasion.  One report is that he led a great revival of religion.  The second is that no immediate visible results were forthcoming and there was no great spiritual revival although a few men did listen and believe in his preaching.  Recorded data points to the fact that perhaps the second opinion is the more truthful for at the first Methodist Conference in America held in Philadelphia, June 1773.  The minutes record that there were present ten traveling preachers and 1,160 members.  Of this number, Virginia recorded one hundred of which Petersburg had about twenty-two.  This was not an omen of great enthusiasm.  At this Conference Williams was received into the traveling connection and was appointed to serve in Virginia, including Petersburg.  Minutes of the General Conference of 1823, fifty years later, showed Petersburg had 225 members, a mere gain of approximately 200 persons in half a century while elsewhere revival fires had created a spiritual upheaval in the county.


However, due to the preaching of Robert Williams, in 1774 the first Methodist church in Petersburg was built on Harrison Street.  Tradition has it that this building was used as a hospital and barracks by the soldiers of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and that it was burned by British soldiers in 1781.


After the destruction of the Harrison Street church, the small and struggling congregation met in private homes until it moved into a meeting house on Market Street.  The definite time of erection of the building and its initial occupancy is not known, but the lot on which it was built had been purchased by Francis Asbury from one Abraham Evans in 1788 for the sum of $61.50 and it is presumed the building was erected soon after.  It was altered and repaired from time to time until in 1818 a movement was made to build a larger and better house on the same site, however, it was decided to sell that property and buy on Union Street.  The scarcity of space (about 40 by 50 in dimensions) could be one reason while, too, the market value of it had in increased considerably.  The same lot previously purchased for $61.50 sold at public auction for $2,350.00.  This did not include the church building on it and which was also offered at auction.  It is thought the building was bought by the contractor of the new church on Union Street as there is ample proof that some of the timbers of the old building were used in construction of the roof of the new church on Union Street.  The new church cost about $5,600.00 including the lot which was twice the size of that on Market Street.


In 1820 the congregation, numbering 111 white members, moved from Market Street into the Union Street Church.  Methodism began to flourish in the new church, both in members and influence.  There were many leading merchants and businessmen active in it and from these men there now emerges one in particular who had a direct influence on the building of High Street Church, Thomas Branch.


Petersburg, long conservative and slow to change, did finally catch sparks from the religious fervor of Methodism which was in evidence elsewhere.  And having done so, moved with a rapidity that was astounding.  The increasing congregation of Union Street Church tells plainly of a phenomenal growth.  From 1820 to 1840 there was an increase of 590 persons.  The church had also expanded its operation and had established Sunday Schools in various parts of the town, one of which was on Plum Street in 1835.


In 1841 the congregation of Union Street Church, the only white Methodist meeting house in Petersburg, numbered 620 members with two ministers named as supplying the pulpit.  In 1842 the members had increased to 832 with two ministers supplying, one of whom was Edward Wadsworth.


(Picture of Union Street Church)


Union Street expanded at such a rate that what had been a spacious building was now crowded and inadequate.  In 1842, probably because of those crowded conditions and in view of the fact that Petersburg was expanding in a westerly direction, Thomas Branch moved that the station be divided into two.  It is said his motion was tabled at the time but was finally carried out about a year later.  However, a new church was started on Washington Street in 1842 and was dedicated on June 26, 1842, and Thomas Branch helped toward the building and organization of that.


Sometime in 1842, the majority of the congregation of Union Street Church went to the new building on Washington Street and the balance, led by Thomas Branch and other intrepid men went west – to the aforementioned Plum Street Sunday School building.  This was later to be called the Plum Street Chapel or Meeting House.  In that period of time churches were referred to as stations and the Washington Street building became the Eastern Station and the Plum Street building became the Western Station because of its being in the more westerly (at that time) sector of the town.


One must remember that Petersburg was growing and people were moving out into the suburbs and away from the center of town.  Its thoroughfares were dirt and often muddy roads and the only means of conveyance were on horseback, carriage, or by foot and with the long sweeping gowns of that period the ladies in particular were not too keen on walking any distance.  The area from several blocks above Campbell’s Bridge back down to the new Washington Street building would be considered a long distance in that day.  So, the new church being built in such close proximity to the old one did nothing to help the plight of a large number of its congregation who had moved away and found it difficult or impossible to return to it.  Thomas Branch was a man of foresight and knew the need for another church, hence his motion and push for another house of worship in a different part of town.


There has long been controversy as to the exact time the congregation of Union Street broke into two.  There is a question as to the exact time the group moved into the new church on Washington Street although it was dedicated at a certain date.  It is alleged that for some reason they did not move into it then because of an unfinished condition.  In the Minutes of the Virginia Annual Conference of 1842 dated November 16, which Conference was held at Petersburg, there still was listed only one station named Petersburg.  Why, if the congregation had moved into the new church building when it was dedicated in June and immediately taken the name Washington Street Church, did the Conference Minutes not refer to it by that name at the Conference five months later?  A black Methodist church in Petersburg called Ebenezer was always referred to by its name.  Even with the meeting being held in Petersburg in 1842 right at the site of a church’s unrest and desire for expansion it is not clear what was done in the situation.  Perhaps during the throes of changing over to the other location and while the complex business of establishing new churches was going on the Conference held everything together under the name Petersburg until each could function separately.


The foregoing may appear ambiguous but it is hard, sometimes impossible, to delve into the past and come up with a complete and accurate summation of all that has happened in regard to any specific subject, especially when it spans a great number of years.  But persons have memories that can be delved into; they had ancestors who passed along to them the knowledge they had of certain events in their lifetime.  It is by oral communication passed down through generations that the truth and sequence of events are kept alive.


It must be stated here that there are persons in High Street Church now whose forefathers were among those first few hardy souls who ventured forth to establish a new church.  And the word is that they left Union Street Church when it split into two stations – the Eastern and the Western.


Pictured is the old bell that hung in the belfry of Union Street Church from 1836 to 1903.  From its point of vantage it looked down upon and called the Methodist people to many important and history making events.  It saw the members of Union Street go forth in a great program of evangelism which resulted in formation of Sunday Schools, and finally gave birth to High Street and Washington Street Churches.  This bell called together the first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, on May 1, 1846.  It rang for the last time in 1903 at a memorial farewell service conducted by the Epworth League Union.  When Union Street Church was torn down the bell was moved to the Harding Street Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America.  The tower of this church was over the pulpit and one Sunday morning the timbers gave way under the great weight of the bell  (500 pounds) and it came crashing down into the pulpit with the minister barely escaping with his life.  The bell was never put back but was sold to Gresham and Ware where it lay unnoticed for a long period of time.  The W. H. Muse Bible Class of Trinity United Methodist Church, with Dr. H. H. Bell, teacher, purchased it for the sum of fifty dollars, and presented it as a gift to the congregation of Trinity.

(Excerpts from:  1937 Richmond Christian Advocate)


(Picture of bell)






(Picture of Plum Street Meeting House or Western Station)


Plum Street Meeting House or Western Station


The Plum Street Meeting House or Chapel as it is referred to in old records was, as stated before, already in operation as a Sunday school in 1842 when two separate units from Union Street Church went their opposite ways.  The already designated Western Station took up residence in Plum Street Meeting House, possibly with Thomas Branch leading the way as this move was something he had been wanting for some time.  Now, however, they were reduced to a small struggling band but their faith in God and in their own ability kept them striving.  Some of the best known persons in Petersburg were among that valiant group that had cut loose from the apron strings of its mother: Thomas Branch was mayor of Petersburg at that time; Thomas H. Roper – the Roper family is still a highly respected and well known name in Petersburg;  Allen Archer – he was one of the signers of the Deed when the Market Street Church was sold in order to build the Union Street Church (a copy of this Deed is among the memorabilia of our church);  P. F. Cogbill; Edward T. Floyd; James B. Reade; William Lea and a host of others.


The going was rough those first few months as Western Station struggled to keep its head above water and tend to the needs of the community at the same time.  For much like a baby carrying a baby it was contributing to the upkeep and furtherance of the newborn Ettrick Sunday School that had been organized by Union Street Church May 9, 1842, and put under the care of Western Station.  Our records show time and again payments being made for coal for the Ettrick School, payments to the Sexton there; payments of tax on lot; payment for recording need; and payments for sundry supplies for necessities and upkeep.


One vital fact of the Christian love and dedication to its mission this young church showed was the way it took care of the needs of persons in time of want or trouble.  Again and again dates and names of the poor to whom money was given are listed in the expenditures from the poor fund.  And the poor fund consisted only of what collections were taken in weekly.  At times the church could not meet its own bills.  From each weekly collection rarely was there anything left to carry over to the following week and sometimes after bills had been paid the little remaining went to the Station Preacher as part payment of his salary.  Rarely was he ever paid in full!  At times, some of the stewards would advance a loan out of their own pockets to pay a bill and often bills had to go unpaid until a later time.  But always the church strived and kept going onward with determination and dedication


In the Minutes of the Virginia Conference held in Richmond, November 15, 1843, Western Station is so named for the first time.  Question No. 13 always asks, “What numbers are in Society?” , then the report goes on to list all the Districts and the Stations that each have.  In the Petersburg District for that year were listed Washington Street, Western Station and Ebenezer (the aforementioned black Methodist church).  This is the first time Washington Street Church goes on the Conference records by that name.  So on Conference records where it counts those two units from Union Street Church became separate entities at one and the same time.  It is usual to list each church and give the number of their members but for some reason this year it still said Petersburg and gave 777 as the number of white members.  However, in setting out the appointments the record shows Edward Wadsworth returning to Washington Street Church for another year (he had been serving at Union Street Church during the breakup of that church and had also served the people at Western Station simultaneously) and Martin A. Dunn was assigned to Western Station.  It was he who, along with the young church, struggled and did without a lot of the time so that those less fortunate in the community could be taken care of.


The first tangible record of activities at Western Station is contained in the following:


“First Quarterly Meeting Conference for the Western Station in Petersburg held at William Lea on High Street on Wednesday Evening, December 13, 1843.


                        Dr. Abram Penn P. E. (Presiding Elder)

                        M. A. Dunn S. P. (Station Preacher)

                        Edward T Floyd (Exhorters and Leaders)

A.     L. Archer

T. E. Coats, A Tucker, A. Bishop, William Peed

P. F. Cogbill, T. B. Stephens, Thomas H Roper,

A. S. Archer, George Williamson,

                        W. C. James, James B. Reade, Leaders

            On nomination, A. L. Archer was appointed Secretary

            Question 1st Are there any complaints – Answer: None

            Question 2nd Are there any appeals – Answer:  None


            The nomination of Stewards came up next.

                        Allen Archer was appointed 1st Steward

                        Thomas Branch was appointed 2nd Steward

                        William Lea was appointed 3rd Steward

                        Edward T. Floyd was appointed 4th Steward

A.     L. Archer was appointed 5th Steward

James B. Reade was appointed 6th Steward

Thomas H. Roper was appointed 7th Steward

William Lee was elected as Recording Steward


There being no other business the Conference adjourned

            (Signed: Abram Penn, P. E.)


These men and their families were the central group about which others gathered and Western Station grew rapidly.  It was soon evident a larger meeting place was needed.  The Plum Street house was small and the Sunday school more than used the available space.  The Pastor, M. A. Dunn, in his report to the Third Quarterly Meeting Conference held at Plumb Street Chapel on April 22, 1844 (there is no evidence of the Second Quarterly Meeting Conference) has noted the following as to the makeup of the two Sabbath Schools.


            School No. 1 (Plum Street) 2 Superintendents, 26 Teachers, 160 Scholars

            School No. 2 (Ettrick) 2 Superintendents, 13 Teachers, 92 Scholars


The first mention of a new church building being considered is found in the Minutes of a Stewards and Leaders Meeting held January 15, 1844.  Here again, Thomas Branch is the catalyst for this change.  The Minutes read, “On motion of Thomas Branch the following persons were appointed as a Committee to solicit subscriptions for the purpose of erecting a new Methodist Episcopal Church in Western Station to be situated at the head of High Street – D’Arcy Paul, William Lea and Peter H. Cogbill were appointed for Eastern Station – M. A. Dunn, Thomas H. Roper, Edward T. Floyd and James B. Reade for Western Station.”  An interesting note here is the fact that Washington Street Church is still referred to as Eastern Station and that substantiates the evidence of there being such a named division of Union Street Church.  A week later, on January 22, 1844, at another Stewards and Leaders Meeting the following is noted:  “On motion Thomas Branch and D’Arcy Paul were appointed as a committee to purchase a site for the erection of a new M. E. Church in Western Station.”  At the same meeting came a further motion:  “On motion the chair appointed the following persons as a committee to (?) the size and plan of our new church to be erected on head of High Street, viz. D’Arcy Paul, Allen Archer, Thomas Branch, Daniel Lyon, Beverly Drinkard, Edward Floyd, Thomas H. Roper and William Lea.”  On February 5, 1844, this item was noted:  “The following brothers were on motion appointed the Building Committee – William Lea, D’Arcy Paul and Thomas Branch.  On motion it was ordered the names of the committee be registered according to the election and that William Lea act as Chairman of the same.”


            Picture of Thomas Branch, The Founder of High Street Church


The Church on High Street


Thomas Branch and D’Arcy Paul moved fast after having been authorized to purchase a site because a lot on High Street was purchased less than a week later after that January 22nd meeting.  An indenture dated January 27, 1844, and recorded in the Clerk’s Office of the Hustings Court of the town of Petersburg, Deed Book 14, pages 247 and 248, shows that one David M. Bernard and Sally Ann, his wife, did convey for the price of $525.00 cash in hand paid, a lot on High Street for the purpose of erecting a place of worship for the use of the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The first Trustees of the church were named as follows:  Allen Archer, D’Arcy Paul, Thomas Branch, William Brownley, William Lea, Jr., Edward T. Floyd, Thomas H. Roper, Barnet Crostick and James B. Reid (Reade).  A note on the margin of this deed indicated that the original deed was delivered to William Lea on October 17, 1845.  However, its whereabouts at present is not known and probably over the passage of years has been lost.


It has long been thought that Thomas Branch donated the lot on which the church stands; however, the above does not bear out that fact.  It is possible he donated the means by which to purchase the lot but nothing has been found to prove that.  He was noted for his generosity to his church and community and the lot was paid for at the time of its purchase, which in view of the fact that the Western Station was struggling along gives rise to some speculation as to where the money came from.  The rumor persists that he gave the lot and down through the ages he had been given the credit for doing so.


There is nothing further in the church records about the construction of the church.  All further Minutes of the Steward’s Meetings after electing the Building Committee are taken up with the business of running Western Station and Ettrick Sunday School.  There are no references to contractual bills to be paid, no progress reports, no discussions on how to pay for the building – it is as if it came into existence overnight and complete.  One interesting note is that in an article in the Richmond Christian Advocate dated November 30, 1899, titled Methodism in Petersburg and written by J. W. Bradbury is the statement that in 1843 the church on Union Street was sold to a congregation of colored Baptists and the proceeds applied to the building on High Street Church.  Here, too, is found opposing views because the sessions of the first General Conference of the Church, South, were held in 1846 in the Union Street Church and it is felt the Conference would not have met there if it was in the hands of the Baptist.


The building was completed and dedicated and the congregation from Western Station moved in and took the name of High Street Methodist Church, taking the name as was common in those days from the street on which it was situated.  It was, for the first time, called that in the Minutes of the 1844 Virginia Annual Conference.  Its membership that year was listed at 450, a fast rise for an infant church.  Its station preacher was James D. Coulling and the Presiding Elder of the District was John Early.


                        (Picture of High Street Church as Built in 1844)


There is a period of some years during which there is silence as records of the church were lost or destroyed.  The only way there is of ascertaining what happened at certain times is through later writings of some noted persons of the church.  The following is taken from an article in the Richmond Christian Advocate, dated October 20, 1898, and signed Mrs. R. B.  It is safe to assume, with other signs of her work and dedication to the church, that this is Mrs. Richard Bagby (Fanny).


“When Bishop Andrew, our senior Bishop in 1844, dedicated this church to God’s service, invoking His blessing on the membership and praying that the Shekinah (the Hebrew name for the symbol of the divine presence which rested in the shape of a cloud or visible light over the mercy seat) might always overshadow its altars, the choir, led by the sainted Edward T. Floyd, caught the inspiration from his words and filled the house with a song of praise and thanksgiving.  The few of them who now worship in its courts remember how gloriously sounded the words, “Let the King of Glory In!”


A note of interest here is that Mrs. Bagby was the daughter of Edward T. Floyd and certainly followed in her father’s footsteps in love of and dedication to the church.


She further indicated that at the dedication service Bishop Andrew had selected his text from Haggai 2:9 and this verse has been set out in the Forward of this book  It is a very appropriate and timely scripture and runs throughout the history of the church.


And so the congregation settled down in its new building.  The first mention of High Street Church so named appears in the Minutes of a meeting of the Stewards and Leaders held December 15, 1844, at which meeting it was noted that a sexton was employed for the church on trial for $8.00 a month.


The church, old but still majestic, has been many things during the years it has sat “at the head of High Street.”  The words of Rev. Alexander G. Brown who served two separate pastorates here during those early years tells of some of the events, trials and hardships that the church had to face.


“And what shall I say to High Street Church,