The following essay written by William M. Fletcher concerning the history of the Radnor United Methodist Church (pictured above) first appeared in the Spring, 1961, Volume II, No. 1 issue of “The Bulletin of the Radnor Historical Society” on pages 3 through 8. In addition to being a wonderful brief history of Methodism in the United States, this essay provides the James family historian with a description of the precise location of the original James family homestead settled in 1682 with references to boundaries marked by streets and roads that can still be identified today.
In his essay Mr. Fletcher correctly reports that the ground upon which the Old Radnor Methodist Church stands was deeded to the Society on October 20, 1783, by Evan James (1715-1794), the son of David James (circa 1660-1739). This parcel consisting of approximately 253 acres was originally part of the King’s grant to William Penn. The parcel was not surveyed until 1697, nearly 15 years following David’s arrival in 1682. After the first surveys were performed in Radnor Township, then Chester County, the first patent to this particular tract was given to David Meredith, also of Radnorshire, Wales who never occupied the land in Radnor Township. On April 17, 1718 David Meredith conveyed the tract to David James and when he died in 1739 the land passed to his son, Evan James.
Interestingly, Radnor Methodist Church is situated atop a hill located in the middle of the original David James parcel described by Mrs. Isabella Batchelder James in her 1874 work “Memorial of Thomas Potts, Junior…” as being the site of a cave used by David James for shelter during the family’s first winter following their arrival on October 28, 1682. Curiously, the small plot of land upon which the hill is situated was donated by the James family to the Methodist Church shortly after the family’s 100th anniversary of their arrival in Pennsylvania.
In the picture above there appears many tombstones adjacent to the Church just beyond the road leading up to the entrance. Those furthest to the left include the tombstone’s of David’s descendants: Griffith James (-1812) the son of Evan James, mentioned above, and Rev. Isaac James, M.D. (1777-1874) son of Griffith James. A few of the children of Rev. Isaac James, M.D. are also buried beside their father.
THE RADNOR METHODIST CHURCH
William M. Fletcher
Three years before the signing of the peace treaty which officially ended the war of independence of Great Britain’s colonies in America a small group of men and women gathered in a house at the bottom of a hill in Radnor, some ten miles west of the leading city of the colonies. Thus the Radnor Methodist Church had its birth.
Although Methodism was young in the colonies, the movement had begun some fifty years earlier at Christ Church College, Oxford, where John Wesley and his brother Charles, together with other students who decried the loose living of their associates, formed a group for the betterment of their souls. Dubbed in derision “The Holy Club” they eventually became known as “Methodists” because of the methodical way in which they ordered their lives.
These two brothers, who were later ordained as ministers in the Church of England, had no idea of forming a separate denomination but hoped, rather by their diligence to bring about a resurgence of faith and vitality in the established church. Much to their dismay, however, they found that they were not welcome in the churches, and they, perforce, had to make their fervent pleas in the out-of-doors. As the people responded they saw fit to set up a system whereby those who had been converted would continue in the Christian life, so the class meetings, which met in people’s homes were established; the foundations for the new Church were laid.
John Wesley’s early missionary effort to convert the Indians in America was a dismal failure, but upon his return to England the societies began to flourish and it was inevitable that the new movement should spread to the New World.
The first society in Philadelphia acquired a partially completed building from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1769, only a year after the first Church was founded in New York City. This sanctuary, located on South Fourth Street became St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Continuing in use to the present time it is the oldest Methodist Church in the world where services have continuously been held. Prom this church many intrepid men went forth throughout the surrounding country, preaching whenever they could get a handful of people together to hear their words.
In these early years the societies were under the leadership of laymen, there being no established church, as such. The first minister was sent out by John Wesley in 1769, and two years later, Francis Asbury, who was to become the first Bishop of the Methodist Church, arrived in America. He can truly be said to be the father of American Methodism, for it was through his untiring efforts and thousands of miles of traveling by horseback that the societies were nurtured and developed.
Thomas Rankin and George Shadford were two fo the first preachers appointed at the initial conference of the societies in 1773. They divided their time between New York and Philadelphia, rotating every four months. This itinerancy is a heritage that is still preserved in Methodism in the sense that a Minister is never assigned permanently to a charge, but must be returned every year by the annual conference of the churches of the locality.
Tradition has it that in 1778, two yeas before the first recorded meeting, Radnor became a site of worship when a simple prayer meeting was held in the so-called “Mansion House” owned by the James family. Adam Cloud, a local preacher, conducted the service. This house is still standing; although many changes have been made, the original stone-work of the walls may be distinguished. It stands about one hundred feed east of Conestoga Road on the north side of Montrose Avenue.
George Gyger, a man who “hated rum, tobacco, and the Devil with intense hatred” was the first class leader in 1780, the first in a long line of members who served the church faithfully and well. His father, Jessily, had come from Germany earlier in the century and purchased a large tract of land in Radnor.
The first Trustees of the Church were Isaac Hughes, Sr., Edward Hughes, Michael Cline, Clifford James, Abram Hughes, Mark Evans, Jesse Yocum, and William Jennings, while the first pastor of the Church, appointed during this year of 1780, was the Rev. John Cooper, the Rev. George Main was “Junior Preacher.”
Over the old Lancaster Road flowed an almost constant stream of pack-horses, travelers on horseback and freight wagons which eventually gave the road its name. In 1783, as the wagoners rested their horses at the summit of what was soon to be called Methodist Hill, they might have seen great activity. The following anecdote was vouched for by Dr. Isaac James: “One day while Aquila McVaugh was at work hauling stones for the new Meeting House, one of his acquaintances passing along called to him, ‘What are you doing there Aquila?’ He replied, ‘I am helping to build a meeting house for the Methodists.’ ‘Well,’ the friend retorted, ‘there is no use of your doing it, for they will all soon be as cold as cucumbers. There will be no more Methodists.’” He certainly wasn’t much of a profit; instead of being “cold as cucumbers” they became “live coals from off the altar of God,” multiplying until Methodist Hill became the proud mother of three other Methodist Churches in the vicinity, Bethesda, Merion Square, and St. Luke’s, Bryn Mawr.
When the Rev. Mr. Cooper appealed for aid from his flock in the building of the Church, it was reported that “they gave unto the Lord stones, lime, sand, logs, boards, pounds, shilling, and pence.” The original meeting house was small, and of simple construction, being about twenty-five by thirty feet with hewn logs being bound together with mortar. There were two small windows on either side of the one story building which faced south. One aisle sufficed, with a stove in the center, vented by a chimney running up through the middle of the roof. In front of the high pulpit was a long, plain mourner’s bench.
The ground upon which Old Radnor Methodist Church stands was deeded to the Society by Evan James, the owner of the “Mansion House.” The land was originally part of the King’s grant to William Penn, the first patent to the tract being given to one David Meredith, a weaver, of Radnorshire, Wales, and was for a tract of ground which would now be bounded on the east by County Line Road, on the south by Roberts Road and extending along Roberts Road westwardly for about seven-tenths of a mile, thence north about one-half maile to a point, and thence east to County Line Road. This northern boundary, for a great part, coincides with Lowry’s Lane. On April 17, 1718 David Meredith conveyed the tract in which the Church is now located to David James and when he died in 1739 the land passed to his son, Evan James.
The deed of Evan James conveying the property to the Church is recorded in Chester County Deed Book “Y,” volume 25, page 150 and is dated October 20, 1783. Evan James and Margaret his wife granted and conveyed for the consideration of five shillings to the trustees a certain tract of ground on which a meeting house was to have been erected”… to have and to hold… never the less upon special trust and confidence and to the intent that they and the survivors of them… do and shall permit Francis Asbury and those preachers in connection with him commonly called Methodists and such persons as they met in Conference shall appoint to have and enjoy the free use of said premises… Provided always that the said persons preach no other doctrines than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s notes upon the New Testament and the four volumes of his sermons.” A photo-facsimile of this deed now hangs on the wall of the sancturary of the Church.
Among the sons of Evan James was Griffith James, one of the early trustees of the Church, who, along with other members of his family, is buried in the Radnor Churchyard. One of Griffith James’ sons, Isaac was born in Radnor January 28, 1777, and joined the Church in 1790. In 1799 he was licensed as an Exhorter and in 1801 was appointed Steward of the Chester and Jonesburg circuit. Five years later he was ordained a Deacon by Bishop Asbury and an Elder, or fully ordained minister, by Bishop Main in 1812. In addition to being an Elder he was a graduate of the School of Medicine of Columbia College, New York, and actually pursued both of his occupations until his death in 1874 at the age of 97. He is buried in the Churchyard.
During the last years of the Revolution, the Rev. George Main, the “Junior Preacher” previously mentioned, received Mr. Isaac Anderson and his wife Mary Lane Anderson into the Methodist Society, and there was preaching in the Anderson home.
Isaac was the son of Captain Anderson and was born in 1760 and died in 1838. Though but a boy when the Revolution began he entered into it with a boy’s enthusiasm; he was one of the squad who visited and searched the house of one William Moore, a Loyalist, looking for arms. In the fall of 1777 he was a lieutenant of militia whose company marched to Washington’s assistance, and while the army lay at Valley Forge, Lieutenant Anderson carried dispatches to and from Congress, which was sitting at York at that time. After the war he became a justice of the peace and was a representative in Congress from 1803 to 1807, the meanwhile maintaining his status as a local preacher in the Church.
Although the references to the Church in these early years are not frequent, Bishop Asbury alluded to it several times in his journals: “July 2, 1787 – on Monday, spoke to a few simple hearted souls at Radnor.” “Riding westward from Philadelphia” on horseback with saddle bags in the year 1790, he stopped at the hospitable home of the Fishers prominent members of the Church. When, next morning, the boy William C. Fisher brought the Bishop’s horse for mounting, the good Bishop gave the lad a New Testament which is, or was, a treasured possession of the Fisher family. The descendants of this boy were local preachers, trustees and active workers in Church for over a century.
“Saturday, June 2, 1804 – I rode through the rain in the valley 28 miles… On the Sabbath I reached Radnor. Here my little Jane was horned by a cow and lamed. She is done, perhaps, forever for me, but it may all be for the best. I am unwell and the weather is bad, but except my feeling for the poor beast I am resigned and peaceful. I am able to write but not to preach on the Sabbath. On Monday morning I desired Isaac James to ride 30 miles going and coming and purchase another little Jane at eighty dollars; he did so with great good will.”
“Wednesday, August 7, 1805 – We set out and reached Radnor. We stopped to dine with Brother Gyger, and had a serious time of prayer in his new house, which they are about to move into.”
“Tuesday, April 14, 1812 – I preached at Radnor. We dined at Brother Gyger’s and slept under the roof of Isaac James. The peace and consolations of God abound toward me.”
“The new Gyger house” mentioned by the Bishop in his journal is still standing and occupied; it is the first fieldstone house beyond what is now Meadowood Road on the northerly side of Conestoga Road, going west. Across the road from it is the house called Pine Cottage, the old home of the Henvis family, also active in the early history of the Church.
Meanwhile, in 1801, the Trustees found it necessary to have the 17-year-old frame church repaired and at the same time made some improvements in the graveyard. The money to pay for the work, $161.40 (although some of the bills were presented in pounds, shillings, and pence) was advanced by the trustees and repaid to them by means of a general subscription. The Trustees of the Church saw fit, in 1825, to acquire more land for expansion of the graveyard but did not feel the necessity to erect a new church building until 1833, fifty years after the first structure was built.
At a meeting of the Trustees on May 17, 1833, with John Gyger, Isaac James, Isaac White, Dr. James Anderson, Benjamin Yard, Jacovb Gyger, William Fisher and Sheppard Ayar present, it was agreed to erect a new meeting house, fifty-five feet by forty-five feet, “with a basement storey, but with no galleries.” (Benjamin Yard, incidentally was a Revolutionary War soldier who was purported to be in the boat with George Washington when he crossed the Delaware before the battle of Trenton.)
The original carpenter’s estimate for the work is a most interesting document: “June 3, 1833. To the building Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Radnor; this is to certify that I, the undersigned, will agree to complete all the carpenter work of said buildings, forty-five by fifty-five feet, with a basement story; to have ten twelve light windows and twelve twenty lights in each frame and no wainscot in any part of the house; for the sum of three hundred and fifty-five dollars, with fifty dollars to be paid when the basement story is done and the rest when convenient. Signed – Evan Lewis.”
The money, or at least a portion of it, for this work was also raised by popular subscription, the ladies taking an important part, as they do today, in this activity.
The exterior of the Church was much the same as it is now with the exception of the vestibule and the large chimney at the rear of the building, and of course, the two additional wings which have been added within the past ten years. The roof, also, is different today; in fact, for a number of years after the building was supposedly completed it was the complaint of the Trustees that the carpenter had not faithfully fulfilled his part of the contract for the snow would drift into the sancturary between the top of the walls and the roof during bad storms.
Camp meetings in the early history of the Church played a vital part in the life of the religious community. The first of which we have record was held in the woods in front of the Church in 1804, and a later one was held in the grove on the property of Dr. James Anderson on Mill Creek Road (later Roberts Road), when “The woods was made sacred by the shouts of many new-born souls entering into the Kingdom of God.”
Another, Camp Meeting No. 2 on the Radnor Circuit, held in September of 1842 “powerfully converted” many sinners, but one great sinner, not exactly converted, “seized, took, and carried away… one box lemons, fifty water-melons, (and) one kettle, of the value of one hundred dollars.” The collections at the camp meeting were insufficient to cover this unforeseen disaster so a law-suit was instituted “at Old Chester, May and August terms, 1843.” Whether or not a judgment was secured against the culprit is not clear, but the records show that the total expense of the suit was $138.02½. There are no recorded law-suits in the Church from that date to this.
Ever since the days of John Wesley and his societies in England the Methodists have been known for their enthusiastic singing. Evidently though the congregation had been backsliding in this endeavor by 1847, for in that year the Radnor Methodist Episcopal Singing Association was founded with the following preamble: “Whereas, There is a great deficiency in the Singing Department of the Radnor M.E. Church, which arises from a want (among the members) of proper instruction in the elements (or principals) of vocal music; and as we believe that sacred music is an important part of (Christian) public Worship; therefore
“Resolved, 1st, that we whose names are hereunto attached for benefit of the church and our mutual benefit, that we may ‘sing with the spirit and with the understanding also,’ form ourselves into a body to be stiled “The Singing Association of Radnor M.E. Church.”
John C. James was chosen president, Aaron E. Hunter, Secretary, and Daniel C. Gyger, Treasurer. The society must have had some salutary effect, for Maurice O’Neill, the watchman at the Bryn Mawr Bank remarked, “We had a great time gettin' broke in.”
The cemetery around the Church has always had an interesting part in its history. The earliest marked grave is that of Margaret Cromwell, the infant daughter of the minister, July 29, 1791. The headstone of her mother is dated only two days later. This might not be the earliest grave, for to this day, there is a plot that is merely marked on the books as being occupied by “strangers.” When funds were being raised during the first years of the nineteenth century a single grave plot was given to everyone who contributed five dollars or more.
In 1837 the trustees voted to give the church sexton exclusive right to grave digging in the churchyard. A rate scale was established – “Adults, $2 with box, and with planks $250; and for children not less than $1.” In 1849 a vault was installed in the church basement, where bodies might be stored until suitable weather for outdoor internment. It is not known whether it is of any significance or not, but this place has since been converted into one of the furnace rooms for the church.
By 1865, inflation had set in and the price for grave digging had gone up to “All over 5½ feet $4; between 5½ feet and 4 feet, $3; and under 4 feet, $2.”
Possibly to protect the Trustees against any debts that might be incurred by the Church, A Charter of Incorporation was secured in 1854 and the first Trustees included D.C. Gyger, William A. Henvis, M.A. Cline, William A. Fisher, and Dr. Isaac Anderson. Under the charter voting rights were for male members, 21 years of age and over, and having been members for two years. It was not until 1920 that the charter was amended granting women the right to vote on church matters. The charter has since been brought into conformity with the Discipline of the Methodist Church in all respects.
More land has been acquired by the church from time to time through the years; in 1865 the trustees authorized the purchase of three more acres of ground at a price not to exceed $300 per acre, and then again in 1868 one-half an acre was purchased from Mrs. Mary McClain for a new graveyard. One year later, in 1869, the old sheds which had been erected in 1833 were taken down and the stones used in the wall on the north-westerly side of the property. Incidentally, the lots in the new graveyard had increased in price to $40.00 for sixteen by twenty-two foot lot.
Meanwhile, improvements were being made from time to time in the church building proper. For example, the minutes of the trustees’ meeting of December 10, 1860 show that it was recommended “that the stove on the men’s side be moved back opposite to the one on the woman’s (sic) side and that a seat be put along the wall facing the stove.” An iron roof was also authorized at this meeting.
It was not until 1880, however, that the exterior of the Church took on its present appearance when the vestibule was added in time for the one-hundredth anniversary celebration. Then in 1903 the building was again renovated, painted inside and out, old plaster removed, new roofing added, and electricity installed. Further work was done in 1931 and then in 1946 the interior was remodeled to its present appearance, except that the cove lighting ws added when the church was redecorated in the nineteen fifties.
The Fellowship Hall was built in 1952, with provisions in the plans for a second floor to be added when needed; however, it was deemed more expedient to expand the first floor facilities first, which was done with the dedication of the Harold Gates Wilson, Sr., memorial wing in the fall of 1960. It is hoped that the Church, founded 180 years ago will continue to grow and be of service to God, its members, and the community.
Note: Much of the source material for this paper are original documents bearing the dates mentioned which are in possession of the Chruch.
Below, a current view of the Radnor United Methodist Church as it appears today.