First UMC (Parkersburg) Celebrates 225th Anniversary

By John Langenstein

The Choir of First United Methodist Church, Parkersburg, led by Jimmy Sundquist, sings
“Zion Hears Her Watchmen’s Voice,” BWV 140.IV as part of their anniversary celebration.

The congregation of First United Methodist in Parkersburg, W.Va. recently celebrated 225 years of ministry.

The celebration began with a concert held on June 1 featuring Bach’s Cantata 140, as well as a medley of hymns performed by music lead Jimmy Sundquist. Rev. Dr. Alicia Randolph Rapking began the concert with a brief welcome message: “This Church has been about music for so long, and it is important for us to make music today in celebration of 225 years. The Cantata which served as the centerpiece of the concert is an adaptation of an old Lutheran hymn, “Awake for Night is Calling.” The piece features chorales and recitations which capture the dialogue between God and God’s people, adapting the language from Jesus’s parable of the Virgins and the Bridegroom.

Rev. Dr. Alicia Rapking welcomes the congregation to the celebration.

Sunday morning, the congregation gathered for a special anniversary service. First United Methodist’s sister church, Logan Memorial, worshipped alongside the congregation as well, foregoing their usual service to allow for this special extended one. Guests included Rev. Amy Shanholtzer – District Superintendent of the MonValley District and one time head of Christian Education at First Church, Rev. Dr. William Wilson – who grew up in the Church, also Rev. Dale Waters, Jerrie Green, and Sue Jones who each served at First Church. Former District Superintendent Rev. John Campbell was also in attendance. The guest preacher for the day was Bishop Rev. Dr. Sandra Steiner Ball.

The founding of First Church is tied to the early days of Methodism in the United States. Though Francis Asbury is credited with much of the spread of the early Methodist movement in the state, he only records being in the area of Parkersburg once in his journals. Lay people had first founded societies in the area, among them William Beauchamp and Reece Wolf.  Wolf’s arrival on June 1, 1799 marks the date that the congregation that would become First Church was formally brought together. Rev. Robert Manley would later serve as the first ordained minister in the area. The congregation moved between five buildings before settling into their current one on Juliana Street in 1911.

As the service opened with an instrumental setting of “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” the people were prepared for a day that celebrated the past, present, and future ministries of the Church. Dr. Rapking’s call to worship asked the congregation to remember their spiritual predecessors and to follow their example. Dr. Rapking introduced the next hymn, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” with the reflection, “We good Methodists can’t have a celebration without singing a Charles Wesley hymn.”

Rev. Dina Andrews led the opening prayer, calling the congregation to look forward to the ministry that God was working among them, even as they celebrated the past. A children’s moment culminated in singing happy birthday to the congregation and was followed by excerpts from the previous day’s cantata.

The first scripture lesson was from 1 Samuel 3 and described Samuel’s call while working at the tabernacle alongside Eli. The second was from John 1 and told the story of the first disciples’ call to follow Jesus. The scripture lesson was concluded with the singing of, “Give Me Jesus.” The church bells rang once for every 225 years of the Church’s existence, “And one to grow on,” said Dr. Rapking.

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball delivers the message.

Bishop Steiner Ball opened her message with the words of “Fill my cup, Lord,” calling to mind the continued need for ministry in the world. Her message looked to Samuel’s call as an example of our own tendency to stay in place. “All Samuel was looking for was to keep things running smoothly in the temple… Even though he had spent many years living and sleeping in the Temple he did not know the Lord.” The refrain of the message entered in, “225 years… What are you looking for?”

The message called for the people to redirect their attention away from the distractions of life toward God and what God was calling them to do. “Eli was too focused with protecting what he had and had forgotten what God willed,” Bishop Steiner Ball continued. The reading from the Gospel provided the opposite potential, with Nathanael’s cynicism in the face of Jesus reflecting the resignation many feel when the hard work of ministry seems to change little. “What tempts us to stop expecting that we will see or experience God in this world?” she asked. The congregation was asked to see themselves as one of the parties in the scripture – whether it be those hearing God, those seeking God, or those who had stopped seeking God – and to open their hearts and minds to hear what God was calling them toward. “This world needs to expect to hear and experience Jesus.”

The Offertory piece was, “Love Divine.” The Church then celebrated Holy Communion with Rev. Wilson and Rev. Shanholtzer presiding at the table. The Great Thanksgiving called upon God to bless the memory of those who had made the congregation what it was, declaring the truth that it was God who brought growth out from the work of the congregation. The closing hymn was “Here I Am, Lord.”

To watch the archived video of the service, and hear the Bishop’s full message, visit First United Methodist Church, Parkersburg Facebook page. For another view of the Anniversary celebration and to learn about the ongoing restoration of the Church’s belltower, you may read the Parkersburg News and Sentinel’s coverage.

John Langenstein is a provisionally ordained elder and pastor of North View United Methodist Church and United Methodist Temple.