Natchez church celebrates 200 years

12/18/2007

Special to the Advocate

Jefferson Street United Methodist Church in Natchez has had a memorable year. The church celebrated its 200th year with several events.

On April 29 a circuit rider arrived on horseback to attended Sunday school and church. On May 5, a reception for past ministers and church members was held at Magnolia Hill Plantation, home of Dr. Michael Wheelis, followed by a Bicentennial Celebration dinner on Sunday.

The journey of the 200-year-old church began when Methodism in Mississippi was almost contemporary with the authority of the United States government in Natchez. Spanish troops withdrew from the Natchez Territory on March 30, 1798. In August of the same year, Winthrop Sargent became the first territorial governor of Mississippi. Soon afterward, at the session of the South Carolina Conference convening in Charleston, Bishop Asbury selected 28-year-old Tobias Gibson to represent the Methodist Church in the Mississippi Territory.

The first church organized by Gibson was at Washington (eight miles from Natchez), but the congregation at Natchez was strong by the time Lorenzo Dow visited six years later. In 1807 a lot was purchased on Union Street for $150.

A church was built there at a cost of $3,500 and named Cokesbury Chapel. This building served the congregation for 12 years until, during an excavation nearby, the building collapsed. The church then moved across the street and met there until the Catholic church agreed to let the Methodists meet in the rear of its chapel, which was upstairs over a saloon. The saloon keeper agreed to close the saloon “if there proved to be any rowdying or brawling or serving of liquors” while a service was being held.

In 1823 another building was erected on Union Street. It consisted of a large lecture room that served both white and black members. The church remained in this building until 1866 when it was sold. Eight annual conferences met there from 1823 to 1860.

In 1857 two lots were bought for $2,100 at the corner of Union and Jefferson Streets. The present church was built from 1869 to 1872 on a pay-as-you-go basis. The first service, a funeral, was held in the basement on Aug. 30, 1872. The sanctuary opened on Nov. 30, 1876, with another annual conference meeting. To get ready for the conference, the church borrowed money to finish the project. The pulpit was installed and other last-minute construction activities were completed the day before the conference opened. After the conference ended the church was closed temporarily because the notes became due, and money had to be collected for payment before the facility could be used again.

In 1919 the pipe organ was purchased, the annex was completed in 1927, the education building and chapel were completed in 1956 and years later the area across Jefferson Street from the church was purchased for a parking lot. By the late 1990s the church was again outgrowing its facilities. A capital funds campaign raised almost $1 million, and the Christian Life Center was built and dedicated in 2003.

On Nov. 4, through another capital fund raiser and with two-year renovation completed on the existing church, an open house was held for public view. The church has new Sunday school and children’s church rooms, a new music suite, a new nursery, a new elevator that will serve both the annex and the education building and a newly remodeled chapel. These facilities will enable the church to continue to grow and to increase its ministry to the community.