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Discover the History of First United Methodist Church through bicentennial book

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By Alice Nunnery

First United Methodist Church of Murfreesboro is celebrating 200 years of faithful service to the community with the publication of The First 200 Years: A Bicentennial History of First United Methodist Church 1820-2020. In the opening pages of the book, editor Evelyn Hicks writes: “This book has come to fruition through the work of an ensemble of dedicated Christians, who over the past two hundred years have kept the faith and passed it on.” Evelyn is herself one of those dedicated Christians. The daughter and granddaughter of Methodist ministers, she has had a lifelong interest in and love for the history of the church. She says she has always loved digging through archives and church records for interesting stories about people and events of bygone times.

In 2019, as the 200th anniversary of the founding of First United Methodist Church of  Murfreesboro was approaching, Evelyn had a vision: she wanted to compile a history of the church to commemorate the bicentennial. Others had written short histories of the church, most notably Dean Beasley, who began research for a book in the 1970s but was not able to complete it. Evelyn’s father, Rev. John Mark Williams and her mother Mildred Williams had served First United Methodist Church from 1977-1986 and Evelyn, her husband Darryl and their two sons, as well as Evelyn’s two sisters, Carolyn Burgin and Donna Williams are all members of FUMC. For Evelyn, this project was a true labor of love.

Evelyn first envisioned the book as a pamphlet stapled together or perhaps a spiral-bound book with a few pictures and some of the early documents she located in the archives. But Dr. Drew Shelley, current pastor of the church, encouraged her to think bigger, to produce a fully illustrated commemorative book that would be a true keepsake as well as a contribution to the history of the Methodist Church in Middle Tennessee. Evelyn laughs about standing in the foyer of the church stopping people as they were leaving services and asking them for help  with the book. Among the first she recruited were former pastor Rev. Michael O’Bannon and retired MTSU history professor Jerry Brookshire, both of whom agreed to research and write parts of the book. Evelyn asked Alice Nunnery to help with writing and editing the book, and she enlisted Fran Dean to help proofread the manuscript. Then she invited former pastor Rev. Jerry Mayo to write about the construction of the Thompson Lane building. Finally, Rev. Andy Polk and Lucy Langworthy signed on to write chapters.

What seemed at first like an impossibly daunting task became an exciting adventure, with the help of Andy Miller and Holly Jones of Plumbline Media in Franklin. In February 2020, at a meeting with Evelyn and the writers, Andy and Holly helped the group choose a style and format for the book and offered enthusiastic support for the project. They also laid out an ambitious timeline: If the writers could submit the various chapters and articles with pictures and sidebars to the publisher by June 2020, the book might possibly be ready for sale by Thanksgiving, perhaps even in time for the bicentennial celebration in September 2020. 

Shortly after this meeting, COVID-19 forced everyone to curtail activities and meetings, including all of the planned celebrations surrounding the Bicentennial. Not knowing when or if there would be a celebration, the writers immersed themselves in the work of researching and preparing each chapter. Jerry Brookshire, whose chapter covers the years from 1820 to 1843, says, “What was exciting for me was to learn about the early history of our church and its members, both Black and white and about local history, then to share that with readers.”

He says he benefited from the work of “some really good local historians, past and present” as well as the Rutherford County Historical Society, the Rutherford County Archives, MTSU History Department’s Center for Historic Preservation and the Gore Center. Rev. Michael O’Bannon wrote about John Wesley and the founding of the Methodist Church, while Alice Nunnery covered the Civil War and Restoration years. Rev. Andy Polk wrote about the growth of the church through the 20th Century and Lucy Langworthy covered the years after the construction of the new building, up to the present time. From February until mid-April, writers sent drafts of chapters to Alice Nunnery, who worked to blend the whole manuscript into a coherent story.

As the writers were putting together the chapters, Evelyn enlisted the help of her sister, Carolyn Burgin, to sort through hundreds of photographs and documents, some of them more than a hundred years old, to illustrate each era in the 200 year history. As word spread that a bicentennial book was in the making, many church members offered pictures and mementos to be included. Amy Curtis wrote an article about 200 years of Music Ministry, and Margie Hughes contributed to an article about Youth Ministry. Evelyn added articles about Children’s Ministries and the United Methodist Women. Meanwhile, Rufus Walsh was working with Andy Miller to create an artistic and meaningful cover for the book. In May 2020, well ahead of the deadline, Alice and Evelyn submitted the chapters to Holly Jones and her team of editors at Plumbline.

The finished book is a lavishly illustrated, scholarly and entertaining story that chronicles the growth of the church from its beginnings at the Windrow Camp Meeting. There, in September 1820, a large gathering of Christians came to sing, testify and worship for six spirit-filled days on property donated by John Windrow on the outskirts of the settlement of Murfreesboro. From that camp meeting, a group of Methodists began meeting in one another’s homes and soon decided to build a church. Members of First United Methodist Church of Murfreesboro are the direct descendants of those frontier Christians, whose faith and witness helped shape the community of Murfreesboro as well as the Methodist church in Middle Tennessee. In the pages of this bicentennial history are stories about the events, the struggles, the trials and the triumphs of the congregation as they built a church to last through 200 years and beyond. Writers have meticulously researched local history as well as church history to create a rich and engaging narrative that includes the influence of the church in the growth of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. FUMC Pastor, Dr. Drew Shelley writes: “While it is impossible to capture all the details of two hundred years of history, our authors and editors have done an exceptional job capturing the depth and breadth of God’s good work in and through the people of this community of faith.” For her part, Evelyn Hicks hopes that members of the church as well as community members will enjoy the story and the many photographs of people and events of years gone by, as well as current members and more recent events. She concludes, “So here is our history, certainly not perfect or exhaustive, but told to the best of our knowledge. I invite you to enjoy the telling of the first two hundred years of First United Methodist Church of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.”

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