Recently an article about United Methodist membership decline in the U.S. described me as not confident about the church’s future in America. Actually, I am very hopeful but expect another two decades of loss before there’s a turnaround, after the Africans become a majority and help to evangelistically transform the denomination.
Driving through the Virginia countryside always reminds me of American Methodism’s past greatness. There’s an old church often every few miles as a testimony to 19th century Methodist revivalism. Yesterday driving along beautiful Rt. 50 through the Virginia hunt country I passed Middleburg United Methodist, built in the 1850s.
In a charming, historic village where “Grey Ghost” Confederate partisan Colonel John Mosby was well known, the church served as a Civil War hospital after the Battle of Second Manassas. I prefer worship in churches that were Civil War hospitals.
The brick walkway of Middleburg Methodist has an old millstone embedded within it. I'd like to think it references the biblical warning that better to have a millstone tied about the neck and to be thrown into the sea than to lead a young one astray. But there's probably a more pedestrian explanation!
Next up the highway is Upperville United Methodist, a classic example of early Methodist architecture with a surprising rounded vault at the rear.
The churchyard is full of ancient graves, including a War of 1812 veteran.
The simplicity and patina of the aging, brick church are as beautiful, in their plainness, as any medieval European cathedral. General JEB Stuart fought a cavalry battle here in route to Gettysburg. The current pastor is South African and as a member of the South African navy sang at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.
Upperville is better known for Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1960 to imitate a medieval French provincial church, thanks to the philanthropy of then nearby resident Paul Mellon. Former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, a colorful scoundrel, is buried in back, as are the Mellons.
A few miles farther is Trinity United Methodist in Paris, Virginia. Built in the 1890s, it’s the only church structure in the tiny, picturesque village. Its red metal roof can be seen for miles in one of our state’s most stunning valley views.
Sadly, the church closed last year, having only 5 regular worshippers. I wonder if the historic Ashby Inn, a highly regarded restaurant and hotel whose buildings surround the church, will eventually take it over.
In back is a stunning vista of the Blue Ridge and Sky Meadow State Park, through which runs the Appalachian Trail. I found the church’s old sign, proclaiming the United Methodist slogan “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” poetically lying in underbrush up on the Blue Ridge.
Up over the Blue Ridge, through Ashbys Gap, is Mt Carmel United Methodist, a log structure, covered by white clapboard, built in the 1790s as a bequest of Lord Fairfax, reputedly in gratitude to a servant woman.
It maybe the oldest Methodist church standing west of the Blue Ridge. (A history posted in the window erroneously says its the oldest east of the Mississippi.)
Bishop Francis Asbury preached here in 1794 after crossing the nearby Shenandoah River in a canoe. “I ventured to the church in the rain and bore feeble testimony for nearly an hour on 2 Peter 1:4,” he recorded in his famous journal.
Seventy years later Mosby’s rangers ambushed Union cavalrymen outside the church. Reportedly the current pastor began in 2005 with just five worshippers but now has several dozen.
These old Methodist churches I passed yesterday, except one, are still active places of worship. I pray they, with the rest of American Methodism, all see revival again. And I wonder if, 100 years from now, prosperous Congolese or Liberians will safely drive around their countries, admiring the by then venerable old Methodist churches that had helped to transform their nations for the better.