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September 11, 2019

Wesley United Methodist marks 175th year Sunday

Contributed Photo
The original stone church (left) and the Tom Evans Social Hall (right), completed in 1986.
Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church near Orlean will celebrate its 175th anniversary Sunday, Sept. 15.

The celebration will include:

• A 10 worship service with former pastors, a brief history presentation and special music.

• 12:15 p.m. catered buffet lunch with activities on the grounds.

• A 1:30 p.m. hymn sing, with a history presentation and closing with communion.

A recently-written church history:

By Lyle W. Minter
Church Member

Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church dates its founding to October 19, 1844, when its trustees received a donation of land from Dr. Jaquelin A. Marshall, a son of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Mr. Marshall gave the trustees the land “upon which Clift Church now stands.” The trustees were laymen, led by Jacob Hume, John H. Gaskins, John Blackwell, and six other members of the Warrenton Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The 1844 date is also confirmed by the words “Abram Johnson 1844,” carved in the keystone over the northwest door. It is said that the beautiful stonework was laid by Mr. Johnson, a free black man who was obviously an experienced master builder. He worked in the local stone and used old-growth timber to finish the interior of the structure.

Around the corner from the northwest door on the outside of the building, visitors can still see Mr. Johnson’s elevation of two sides of the building carved in perspective in one of the stones and inside, the adze marks on the central interior support beam hewn from a single tree trunk. According to custom, the stone was whitewashed regularly because a white finish was considered more attractive than bare stone.

The church building has two doors, and the custom of the time would have been for the women to enter through one door and sit on one side of the church, and the men to enter through the other door and sit on the opposite side of the sanctuary. At the back of the church, there once was a balcony entered through an exterior door on the northwest corner; the outline of the door is still visible in the exterior stone. It would have been the custom of the time for any African-American worshippers to have sat in the balcony.

Actually, the faith community that was then known as “Colonel Digges’ ” had been meeting for worship and preaching at least since 1835 when the Reverend N.J. Brown Morgan’s report for the Warrenton Circuit that year names the communities he serves. The society had first met in the home of Colonel Edward Digges, at “Pilgrim’s Retreat,” near what is now Cliff Mills. Jacob Hume was a class leader there.

Later the society met at “The Glen,” in a mill building at Waterloo, near where the old chimney still stands at the intersection of Routes 613 and 688. At the time the present stone building was erected the community was known as “Clift Church” for the high ridge (“clift” being an archaic version of “cliff”) on which it stands between the Rappahannock River at Waterloo on Route 613 and Carter’s Run at Cliff Mills on Route 681.

The Methodist movement since its founding by John Wesley had been emphatically anti-slavery. In the United States, the Methodist Episcopal Church split geographically north and south in 1844, with the churches in the slave-holding Southern states organizing as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The trustees of the Clift Church, like so many other groups of people in their day, disagreed over the division of the church.

As it happens the Rappahannock River was the agreed-upon dividing line between the northern and southern churches in the region, with “border churches” like the Clift Church given the option to associate with either church based on a congregational vote. In about 1847, the trustees who favored the South changed the locks on the building and excluded the preacher sent from the Baltimore Conference in the North, the Rev. George D. Chenoweth, in favor of another preacher, the Rev. Leonidas Rosser, who was appointed by the Virginia Conference to the South.

The dispute within this faith community became quite sharp and resulted in a legal case, “Digges vs. Trustees,” that proceeded from Chancery Court in Fauquier County to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia in Richmond. A trustee named Digges disputed the reception of Rev. Rosser and sued the other trustees for admitting him to preach in place of Rev. Chenoweth.

On October 8, 1850, the Fauquier Chancery Court ruled in favor of Rev. Chenoweth’s admission to the pulpit. The judge in that court, Judge John Webb Tyler from Buckland in Prince William County, was possibly anti-slavery, since he manumitted some of his slaves in the early 1850s. The matter was ultimately resolved on May 23, 1856 with the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in Richmond reversing Judge Tyler and ruling in favor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the trustees who supported Rev. Rosser.

The Supreme Court of Appeals in Richmond had a strong pro-slavery majority at that time. The papers for “Digges vs. Trustees” have been lost from the chancery court records of Fauquier County, so we know very few particulars of the case; even the names of the trustees on either side remain unknown. It would be very interesting to see what Judge Tyler in his decision called “a mass of evidence, an accumulation of pleadings, and numerous exhibits.”

Sadly, like the Methodist church, the nation split politically and entered a bloody Civil War that resulted in the deaths of nearly 700,000 Americans. Just as it mirrored the discord in the nation, the Clift Church community suffered the horrors of war from August to November 1862, when Confederate and then Union troops marched through the area and bivouacked on the way to and back from the Battle of Antietam. The stone church building was reportedly used as a hospital, and many period items of medical and military equipment have been found on the property.

Both Jacob Hume and Mrs. John H. Gaskins filed claims with the Southern Claims Commission seeking damages for their property requisitioned or destroyed by the occupying Union troops; both had their claims denied since it was demonstrated to the Commissioners’ satisfaction that both had favored secession.

The church’s first postwar minister, the Rev. John T. James, rode the Warrenton Circuit from 1865 to 1867 and preached at what he called “Wesley Chapel.” He complained about the church-goers:
One drawback at Wesley Chapel was the slowness of the people to assemble for Sabbath service. One morning I attempted their cure by dismissing them a little before 12 o’clock, just as members were riding up. They were on hand the next time at 11 o’clock sharp….

Joseph Arthur Jeffries, in his memoirs about Warrenton and Fauquier County, tells an anecdote about the church in the 1870s when the Rev. James Higgins of the Warrenton Circuit preached one Sunday at Wesley Chapel. Jeffries tells us:

Bushrod Washington T. who was a member of the Rev. Mr. H.’s country church, had for half dozen years gotten religion at the summer camp-meetings and fallen from grace at the following Christmas holidays. His church got tired of the performance and the pastor was riled, so he turned Brother T. out again. And the rigor with which it was done indicated it was for the last time. As was the custom Mr. H. rose at the close of the service and said; “Bushrod Washington T. is no longer a member of the Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, praise God from whom all blessing flow." Between the indignant preacher and the laughter-convulsed congregation that was unable to sing the doxology, there did not appear the perfection of brotherly love on retirement.

A search of Census records and death registers shows that a Bushrod Washington Thompson (1813?-November 10, 1886) lived at Waterloo during the 1870s and 1880s. Could this be our “Bushrod Washington T.”? There were two Methodist preachers on the Warrenton Circuit who were “the Rev. Mr. H.” James Higgins was the preacher from 1875 to 1879 and Wesley G. Hammond succeeded him from 1879 to 1882. In another anecdote in his book, Jeffries refers to “Mr. H.” as having “mutton chop whiskers.” A contemporary photo of Hammond shows him clean shaven. So is our “the Rev. Mr. H.” really James Higgins?
The church continued to grow and praise God over the years, sharing a preacher with other nearby churches on the Warrenton Circuit, then the West Fauquier Circuit, then the Marshall Circuit. In 1949 Wesley Chapel was added to the Linden Charge and shared its minister with six other churches in northern Fauquier and Warren counties! The Wesley Chapel congregation had a sermon from the minister on the first Sunday of the month at 11:15 a.m., on the second Sunday at 7 p.m., and on the third Sunday at 10 a.m. There was usually no preaching at all on the fourth and fifth Sundays of any month; the preacher was elsewhere on the circuit on those Sundays.

Sunday School was held every Sunday without fail from the 1890s, unless the weather was bad and the roads were flooded, blocked by snow, or just too muddy to navigate. There were four classes, from primary grade to adults, which met in the four corners of the sanctuary. Early music was limited to a capella hymn singing with the preacher or a song-leader setting the tunes and “lining out” the verses.

By the early 20th century, a piano accompanied the singers, and in 1992 an Allen organ was added. Vacation Bible School, the Sunday School picnic, and a week-long revival service held during the second week in August were highlights of the church’s calendar.

Extensive renovations of the church interior were carried out in 1982, as reflected in the date carved into the northwest corner of the exterior wall, near Abram Johnson’s perspective of the church. The floors were replaced, the foundation was stabilized, cracks in the interior stucco were repaired, the windows were repointed and reglazed with double panes, and a fresh coat of paint was applied. Two bathrooms were added in a small addition accessed through a former window in the southwest corner. Much of the work was done by church members themselves, and the then-preacher, the Rev. William Roberts, did the plumbing.

The Social Hall was built in 1985-86. It provided a social hall, kitchen and storage space on the main level and downstairs an office for the pastor, a workroom, three classrooms, a mechanical room and additional storage.

Faithful women have carried on the Gospel work as worshippers, Sunday School teachers, church officers and leaders since the early days. In 1949, the women formally organized for service and mission as a local unit of the Women’s Society for Christian Service (WSCS) which became the United Methodist Women (UMW) in 1970. The WSCS conducted rummage and bake sales as early as 1952, and since 1972 the UMW has sponsored a church bazaar every autumn. Through these activities, the women of the church raised sufficient funds to furnish and equip the kitchen in the Tom Evans Social Hall when it was built. They also published a series of popular cookbooks, beginning with the first in 1955, and continuing with the fifth to be published in 2019 to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the church.

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