This stately edifice in downtown Hartsville is the town’s oldest brick church. It was also the first church of its denomination. The congregation dates back to 1817 when a group of Methodists began gathering just outside of present-day Hartsville. They likely met under a brush arbor until the congregation built a log structure for worship in 1831. The church was called Wright’s Meeting House, Black Creek, because the property was located along Black Creek and donated by James D. Wright, who also served as the church’s pastor from 1826 until his death in 1862.
Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century the log structure was replaced with a frame building on a different nearby site. The congregation also changed its name to Damascus Methodist Church. However, as people began to move into town during the end of the nineteenth century, the church decided to once again relocate. Beginning in May of 1893, a group of Methodists began meeting in the Hartsville home of John Wesley Davis. By that November, the newly formed Wesley was officially recognized by the Southern Methodist Conference as Hartsville’s first established Methodist church. Damascus Methodist dissolved as its members transferred to this new church.
With this new designation, the church began raising and saving money for a church building. By 1903 the church was able to afford to build the present brick Gothic structure, the first of its kind in town. Since then, additions have been made to the historic building, which still serves its congregation today.
Detailed History of Wesley United Methodist Church
Below is an article that was contributed to the South Carolina Picture Project by Bill Segars of Hartsville. It originally appeared in his local paper, The Darlington New & Press. It was published in July of 2015.
What’s in a name? For those of you who may have been able to read some of the previous articles concerning older churches in our area, you may have notice a developing trend of name changes. Today’s featured church is no different; its name has changed several times, also.
Wesley United Methodist Church (not to be confused with Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Lydia) has been located at 145 East College Avenue in Hartsville since 1903. But that’s certainly not where and when this band of believers had their start; their roots go back to 1817, just east of soon-to-be Hartsville. A church was organized as “Wright’s Meeting House, Black Creek,” and a log structure was built in 1831. Again, for those who read these articles regularly, you’ll notice the name of “Meeting House” rather than “church.” This is a holdover from the trend that Anglicans worshiped in a “church,” while Methodists worshiped in a “Meeting House.” James D. Wright served this Methodist congregation, the first in the area, as its preacher from 1826 until his death in 1862. As a local resident, he not only served as the preacher, he also donated the land for their first building near Black Creek.
At some point after 1862 and before 1893, the group changed its name to Damascus Methodist Church and built a new wood frame building in the same area of Darlington County, outside of Hartsville near the present site of the Damascus Cemetery. As the “downtown” Hartsville area began to gain population growth, a group of Methodist believers began meeting in the home of John Wesley Davis in May of 1893. This endeavor was received very well by the residents of Hartsville, as well as the members of Damascus Church. In November of 1893 the South Carolina Methodist Annual Conference placed Hartsville Methodist Episcopal Church South on the Hartsville Circuit, along with six others Methodist churches, establishing it as the first Methodist church in the town of Hartsville. By 1901 the Damascus congregation disbanded and merged with the new Wesley Church.
Upon being designated as a church, the congregation set out raising funds, acquiring property, and making plans to build their new building in Hartsville. They were able to acquire a lot on the corner of College Avenue and Fourth Street. This location possessed all the possibilities of being a prime location, as it sat between the commercial district of the new town and the established educational facility of Coker College. Time would prove that this, in fact, was a prime location for a small local Southern church to be able to grow into its full potential.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the congregation had plans and enough money in hand to begin building a state-of-the-art building for the small but growing hamlet of Hartsville. Wesley had aspirations of building a brick church building, the first in Hartsville. No congregation in Hartsville or the surrounding area had ever built a brick church building; that was simply unheard of, only dreamed of, and only seen in larger cities. But this small congregation was committed to doing this for now and for the longevity that a load-bearing masonry wall building would provide. The congregation not only elected to build its church using brick, but in a style that was not typical for small towns. Members chose a Gothic-style building with its steeply pitched roof, pointed arched windows, and a crenelated parapet bell tower, many of the identifying elements of Gothic architecture.
In keeping with Wesley’s “trend setting” architecture, they also raised the bar with the cost of a church building; Wesley paid $8,000 for their new church. Eight thousand dollars in 1903 – let’s put that in perspective. In the United States in 1903 the average worker was paid between $200-$300 per year, sugar cost four cents per pound, and eggs cost fourteen cents per dozen. So you can quickly see the sacrifices that this congregation must have made to be able to afford such an expensive building. Eight thousand: here’s another interesting correlation with that number. Would you believe that in 1903 the US Census Bureau records show that there were 8,000 automobiles traveling on 144 miles of paved roads at a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour in the entire United States? And this little congregation built a church building costing $8,000 – imagine that.
The sacrifices that this group made have paid off for future generations, because 112 years later this solid brick wall building is still being used. Wesley members who followed have been good stewards of their building in the fact that they have taken good care of it, making necessary timely repairs as needed. They also have been very sympathetic to the original architecture in regards to additions as the church family grew. The original building has seen two major additions and numerous renovations in its life here in Hartsville.
These additions have been necessitated by positive growth. Like most church congregations that grow in numbers, the purpose for additional space also changes. Wesley’s facility reflects those changes in its educational space, office space, kitchen equipment, and family life entertainment additions. While building these additions, the congregation of Wesley has also managed to continue its support of the church family and the needs of the area through its many local mission projects such as the soup kitchen, food bank, Christmas in April, and Habitat for Humanity.
In 1968 Wesley’s name changed yet again when many Methodist churches in South Carolina merged under the United Methodist Church name. As with most church name changes, Wesley maintained the same congregation and the same ultimate goals, just under a different name.