Northern Virginia Methodism: The Early Years

May 11, 1766 – The first Methodist-owned church property in America is deeded “for no other use but for a church or meeting house and grave yard,” in Leesburg, Virginia. Today, the site is known as the Old Stone Church site. It is believed that Robert Strawbridge, a Methodist preacher from Ireland, organized the society.

1769 – Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, the first two Methodist preachers commissioned by John Wesley to go to America, arrive in Gloucester Point, New Jersey in late October. Robert Williams also arrives this year.

October 27, 1771 – Francis Asbury, also appointed to America by John Wesley, arrives at Philadelphia. Asbury initiates the circuit-riding ministry amongst Methodist preachers in Colonial America and establishes the itineracy system in American Methodism (Pastors are obligated to serve where they are appointed.).

October 1772 – Robert Williams, another of Wesley’s preachers, and William Watters travel through Alexandria on their way to Norfolk to introduce Methodism to Southeast Virginia. This is Watters’ first preaching journey.

1773 – The first society in Fairfax County is organized at Church Hill, the home of Col. William and Ann Adams in Falls Church, and continues to meet there until 1779.

Thomas Rankin comes to America as John Wesley’s General Assistant and Superintendent of American Methodism.

June 1773 – William Watters becomes the first American-born Methodist itinerant preacher, officially appointed at the first Methodist Conference in America, held in Philadelphia.

November 20, 1774 – William Duke organizes the first Methodist society in Alexandria, which today is known as Trinity United Methodist Church. John Littlejohn, who becomes a Methodist itinerant himself in 1777, is a founding member. (The church eventually builds three meeting houses, in 1791, 1804 (both in downtown Alexandria) and 1942 on Cameron Mills Road.).

April 19, 1775 – The Revolutionary War begins, with the battles of Lexington and Concord.

November 1775 – Thomas Rankin comes to the Alexandria area for the first time, after having visited Leesburg in late October. William Watters begins preaching the Fairfax Circuit.

May 1777 – Watters is assigned to the Committee of Five, to act for General Assistant and Superintendent Thomas Rankin in case the Revolutionary War necessitates that Rankin and the other European preachers return to their homes in Great Britain.

June 1777 – Francis Asbury visits Fairfax County for the first time, the first of 37 visits to the area. He is often a guest of Col. William Adams at Church Hill.

May 1778 – At Leesburg, William Watters leads the first Methodist Conference conducted by an American-born Methodist preacher. Thomas Rankin has returned to England this year. All other British preachers have left the country or stopped preaching. Francis Asbury is in seclusion in Delaware. Watters assigns himself to the Fairfax Circuit, and in June, marries Sarah Adams, William and Ann Adams’ daughter. Watters will continue to be instrumental in preserving the Methodist movement throughout the Revolutionary War, including preventing a schism over un-ordained preachers performing the sacraments of baptism and communion.

1779 – The Falls Church society now meets at Adams Chapel, or “Fairfax Chapel,” on property owned by George Minor, son-in-law of Col. Adams. Fairfax Chapel stood in the northeast corner of present-day Oakwood Cemetery. Dulin and Crossman (now Christ Crossman) churches were formed from the Fairfax Chapel congregation after the Civil War.

May 13, 1781 – Harry Hosier delivers the first Methodist sermon on record by a black man in America at Fairfax Chapel. Although illiterate, he becomes a very popular speaker and preacher. Hosier also labors as Asbury’s carriage driver and servant.

September 3, 1783 – The Revolutionary War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

1783 – 1784 – William Watters has located, but continues to preach every fourth Sunday on the Fairfax Circuit. He acquires land in McLean and moves there in the fall of 1783.

December 24, 1784 – Early 1785 – Determining there is no other way for the Methodist Movement to survive in America, John Wesley deems that Methodists here must form a new church. The Methodist Episcopal Church is founded at the Christmas Conference, held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. John Wesley has designated Thomas Coke as a General Superintendent to go to America and to ordain Francis Asbury. Asbury is then elected General Superintendent by his preachers (The title “General Superintendent” later becomes “Bishop.”). American Methodist ministers are ordained for the first time. William Watters attends the Christmas Conference, although he has located. Harry Hosier and Richard Allen are two non-voting black representatives at the conference.

March 9, 1785 – Thomas Coke almost drowns in Accotink Creek.

May 26, 1785 – Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury visit Mount Vernon to ask Gen. George Washington to sign a petition to the Virginia Assembly for the emancipation of slaves. Gen. Washington declines, stating he does not think it fitting to sign the petition, although he shares their view.

1786 – Watters joins the itineracy once more, serving the Berkeley Circuit, but locates again in 1787.

1788 – The U.S. Constitution is ratified.

1789 – George Washington is inaugurated.

African-American slaves attending the Old Stone Church in Leesburg may now become members, although there are separate attendance rolls and seating arrangements.

Circa 1789 – A society is organized at Sudley, near Manassas.

1792 – James O’Kelly forms the Republican Methodist Church (later called the Christian Church) over opposition to the appointive authority of Methodist bishops. The O’Kellyites set up their own preaching places in the Alexandria area and cause much dissension among Methodists.

1800 – At a conference in Maryland, Martin Boehm and Philip William Otterbein formally organize the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, a forerunner of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the United Methodist Church.

“Albright’s People,” a loose coalition of Jacob Albright’s followers which later organizes as the Evangelical Association, begins in New Berlin, Pennsylvania. This group is also a predecessor of the EUB and the United Methodist Church.

1801, 1803, 1804 – William Watters serves as pastor at Trinity in Alexandria. He locates for the final time in 1806, and serves as a local preacher at Nelson’s Chapel, a forerunner of Trinity UMC in McLean, until his death.

1801- 1803 – A society is organized and a church is built at Dumfries.

1814 – During the War of 1812, John Littlejohn, now a local Methodist preacher, justice and sheriff in Leesburg, and a member of the Old Stone Church, hides the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in Leesburg, while the British burn Washington.

1816 – The African Methodist Episcopal Church is formed by free blacks in Philadelphia. Richard Allen is the founder.

March 31, 1816 – Francis Asbury dies in Spotsylvania County at the home of an old friend, George Arnold. His final resting place is at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Baltimore.

1818 – A Methodist Episcopal church is founded at Warrenton.

1820 – The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is formed by free blacks in New York City.

1827 – William Watters dies and is buried in present-day McLean, Virginia on property once-owned by William and Ann Adams.

1828 – 1830 – The Methodist Protestant Church is born out of a division in the Methodist Episcopal Church over church governance.

1829 – Former members of Trinity organize the Alexandria Methodist Protestant Church in 1829.

1832 – Roberts Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, Alexandria, is organized by African American members of Trinity. It is one of the oldest African-American United Methodist churches in Virginia.

1834 – Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church is organized in Fauquier County.

Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Raymond Fitzhugh Wrenn for his assistance in preparing this document.