There is a reason our congregation and church is named "First United Methodist Church."
Records show that when the foundation was laid for Madison as Wisconsin’s new capitol, there were only four family dwellings and two or three lodging houses, each with its own barroom. In keeping with Methodism's mission to reach out in service to all who would listen, it was in one of these barrooms that Rev. Salmon Stebbins, circuit rider of the Methodist Church, preached the first sermon in the capitol city of Wisconsin in November, 1837. Records also indicate that the attendees collected a "purse" of $11 for the Rev. Stebbins. (The first offering!)
By March, 1838, a log barn "church" (the first in Madison, WI, and the first Methodist church) was completed. In this new building, Rev. Samuel Pillsbury preached his first sermon to 36 Capitol workmen and four families while several hundred Native Americans stood outside and listened.
A great need was felt for a church building, and the few members who made up the congregation purchased a lot at East Mifflin and North Pinckney Streets.
The foundation was poured by June 12, 1849, but since members of the congregation were few and their means limited, it was not until 1853 that the building was finally dedicated.
Methodism grew rapidly, and in 1863 the Methodist Episcopal Church Building Association made plans to build a $50,000 church. It wasn't until 1872 that the land on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East Dayton Street was purchased for $5,000.
Rev. P.S. Mather reported, "I stood on the walls of the foundation from seven to 10 hours a day superintending the work, acting as master builder by day and studying my sermons by night." The cornerstone was laid on September 29, 1873, but the stone was not marked, and it was impossible to tell just which stone it was.
For three years the walls of the new building remained unfinished and the floor timbers were exposed to the weather. Work resumed in 1876, and the walls and roof of the lower level made a meeting place. From that point on, efforts increased to gather money for the building fund.
Fundraising projects included public lectures and concerts, and a public excursion by train to Devil's Lake (many Madisonians had never ridden on a train and most had never seen Devil's Lake). Finally work was resumed and on November 20, 1887, the congregation met for the first time in the beautiful new sanctuary, located on the second floor of the new building. The congregation had now existed for 50 years.
During this time the church had active programs for youth and young adults, including a Baraca program for boys, and a Bethany program for girls. The programs included church school, social functions and service aspects. The groups thrived and grew, thanks to the dedicated efforts of their teachers, until the beginning of World War I, when most of the young men enrolled in the military. The Bethany group continued to meet for more than 50 years.
The programs of First Church grew to a point that additional space became necessary. After several years of planning, the Oxford addition was built in 1924, costing $140,000. This addition housed the first floor Parlor, Library and Prayer Room. Classrooms were located on the second and third floors.
During the Great Depression it was feared the building would be lost because the church had difficulty paying the mortgage. However, First Wisconsin National Bank forgave $1 of the mortgage for each $1 paid, and much of the building was rented to the state government. By 1945, the debt had been decreased from $140,000 to $30,000.
In 1953 the interior of the sanctuary was redecorated and extensive repair was made to the exterior. Some of the sandstone had to be replaced, and one of the stones being turned was hollow. The unmarked cornerstone had been found!
In the late 1950's enthusiasm was high in the church and the church membership was rapidly growing. As a result, the education annex was added to the building in 1960. The new fireside room, kitchen and fellowship hall proved to be a great asset, but the location of the sanctuary on the second floor continued to pose a problem for those having difficulty with the stairs. A long-time member of the congregation took it upon herself to raise the funds for an elevator.
Nationally, a merger between the Evangelical United Brethren (E.U.B.) Church and The Methodist Church occurred in 1968. Since a church of each denomination was located on the same city block, a merger seemed warranted. However, the majority of the E.U.B. members transferred their membership to Trousdale (now Trinity) Church.
The E.U.B. property was purchased for $90,000; another $10,000 was spent to demolish the building and grade the land for a new development by First United Methodist Church. At about the same time, the Board of Trustees was informed by the city building inspector that the old stone church structure was unsafe, and they were denied the option of repairing it.
An ambitious financial campaign was begun in 1970 to obtain funds to reduce indebtedness on various properties held by the church and to complete payment for the land on which a new sanctuary could be constructed.
In January 1973, a church conference approved the building project for a new sanctuary. The decision to rebuild immediately was given a resounding endorsement when a financial building crusade in the spring of 1973 raised the necessary funds. On February 2, 1975, the new sanctuary was consecrated. The completed building project provided not only a sanctuary, but additional offices, classrooms, and a chapel in the lower level. A few of the stained glass windows from the old sanctuary were renovated and can be seen in our present space in the Octagon area.
In 1987 First United Methodist Church, Madison, WI celebrated its sesquicentennial---150 proud years of Christian presence in downtown Madison. Through a special financial campaign, the debt was paid off and building improvements were made.
At a church conference in 1989 a vote was taken to purchase a new organ for the sanctuary. After a year of thorough study and design, the organ was constructed. The Austin organ consists of 3,434 individual pipes weighing 25,830 pounds. It arrived in Madison on August 17, 1992, was assembled and voiced, and on Sunday, December 6, 1992, the organ was played for the first time in a worship service.
In 1995 an accessibility addition on the east side of the church added new, attractive entry and narthex space, an elevator to all 4 floors, new food pantry space, and new handicapped accessible rest rooms. A memorial art glass window was the centerpiece of the entryway.
Then, in 1999, the sanctuary was remodeled to improve acoustics, lighting and sight-lines. The modern sanctuary is a warm, flexible area, ideal for a variety of programs and fully accessible for all.
Throughout our history First Church has helped Methodism grow in the Madison community. We were instrumental in the development of Methodist Hospital (now Meriter-Capitol), Meriter Retirement Center, Meriter Terraces and Meriter Health Center. First Church has assisted 10 other United Methodist congregations in getting established in the Madison community, oftentimes offering volunteers, financial assistance and, in some cases, a dedication service for those joining the newly formed congregation.
This congregation has a long history of outreach. In the early 1950s our congregation adopted a Romanian refugee family and helped them get established in the Madison community. The end of the Vietnam War brought opportunities to serve two families of refugee boat people. It was in the 1960s that Margaret Brancel, a member of First Church, and her husband, Fred, felt called to become Methodist missionaries. They served in Angola, Rhodesia and Zimbabwe.
In 1971 the First United Methodist Preschool and Kindergarten was founded. It was created as an outreach ministry in downtown Madison, providing high-quality child care to families of varied economic and cultural backgrounds.
A modest Food Pantry program began in 1986 to meet the needs of those in our area. It began with a few grocery bags in the church office and now serves more than 12,000 people per year.
In 1984, the Hispanic United Methodist Church was created and housed in our building until 1996. It consisted of people from a variety of Spanish-speaking countries.
Between 1999 and 2001, a Facilities Task Force and then a Building Steering Committee studied the needs of our older buildings, identifying repair and maintenance priorities and recommending options for building improvements.
These options included rehabilitating the older buildings, relocating the church to a new site, or adding new space on our present site. After extensive study, and congregational approval, we decided to build on our current site and remain “Downtown for Good.”
In April, 2002, the District Committee on Building and Church Location approved our initial plans for the First Church Building project. In that same month, the Church Conference authorized a Capital Funds campaign to underwrite a building program of $5.3 million that would replace the deteriorating Oxford and Education wings, replace and/or update the HVAC system and other improvements.
In July, 2006, we broke ground for the new building project and in August, 2007, began moving into the new facility.
While the new facilities were being constructed, new programs were developed, especially in the areas of adult education and outreach ministries.
In addition to remaining “Downtown for Good,” two other decisions were made that further defined our ministry. In 2007, a unanimous decision was made to open our building as an overflow shelter for men who are homeless during winter months. In 2009, our Church Conference, again in a unanimous decision, voted to be recognized as a Reconciling Congregation that welcomes all into the full life and ministry of First Church.
From a bar room in 1837, to a log barn "church," to a school house and eventually to an actual church building in 1849, to our present building, our downtown location continues to provide challenges and opportunities.
In all matters, we strive to be faithful to the mission and vision we believe God has placed before us as First United Methodist Church – Downtown for Good.