We are Seattle’s oldest church, founded in 1853, two years after the Denny party first landed at Alki to homestead Seattle. The first worship service was held in a log cabin. The church survived the great Seattle Fire of 1889, and it grew dramatically during the prosperous years surrounding the 1897 Gold Rush.
A Walk Through Time – 1853 to the present
It was November 21, 1853 when a Methodist Episcopal minister named Rev. David Edwards Blaine, with his new wife Catharine, landed at Alki Point. Seattle was just two years old, its pioneer residents scattered among stands of old growth forest. The biggest industry was Yesler’s Sawmill. Rev. David Edwards Blaine was sent to this mission outpost of the Oregon Mission Conference by Rev. Benjamin Close of Olympia. The young couple were newlyweds from New York State, who had traveled via steamer to the Isthmus in Panama, then north up the Pacific Coast by sailing ship. Rev. Blaine gave a sermon to around 30 people in the log cabin home of Samuel Russell. A generous $12.50 was raised.
The best way to travel in those days was by Duwamish Indian canoe. The following Monday, Rev. and Mrs. Blaine were canoed across the bay to Seattle. They were met by Arthur and Mary Denny, who invited them to room with them the first few days they were in town. The following Sunday, December 4, 1853, the first Methodist Episcopal Church service was held at the house of Guthrie Latimer, where services would be held for the next year and a half. Its four founding members were Arthur and Mary Denny, John Nagle, and Catharine Blaine.
Rev. Blaine immediately set to work building a home for himself and his new wife. Catharine Paine Blaine was an educated woman from Seneca Falls, New York who, at age 18, had signed the first U.S. Women’s Rights document, the 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments.” In 1854, within three months of her arrival, Catharine Blaine was commissioned by Seattle’s residents to teach school, making her the first school teacher of the pioneer town.
The first house of worship was erected by Rev. Blaine and other settlers at the southeast corner of Second and Columbia on land donated by Carson Boren, and was dedicated on May 15, 1855. But the Blaines would not remain in Seattle much longer. Just after the Seattle Indian War of 1856, they departed with their infant son for Portland. The church would struggle for the next decade or so, a new pastor or lay minister arriving almost every year. Rev. Daniel Bagley, a Methodist Protestant minister, would preach from the pulpit for a time before moving on to found the “Little Brown Church” of the Methodist Protestant denomination. In 1874, with the appointment of Rev. Albert Atwood, the Methodist Episcopalians of the “Little White Church” began to receive new members almost every week. In 1876, there were 275 members on the rolls.
The congregation grew as the city grew. When the railroads came to Seattle, so did many Chinese immigrant families. First Church set up a mission school for the Chinese in the basement of the church. During the 1885 labor unrest against the Chinese workers, rioters threatened harm to the “Little White Church” for their help to the immigrants. Rev. Denison and two others had to stand vigil on the steps of the Second & Columbia building for three days and two nights to prevent the church from being burned down, until the Home Guard could arrive to restore order.
In 1880 the population of Seattle was 3,533. By 1888, the year of the founding of the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, it had more than quadrupled to 19,000. Eighty-nine years later, in 1967, First Methodist Church and First Evangelical United Brethren Church would merge to become The United Methodist Church, a merger that occurred among individual churches, and at the national level as well. (The “United” part of The United Methodist Church comes from the name the Evangelical United Brethren.)
The first worship service of the First EUB Church of Seattle was held in Felix J. Rose’s store room on the west side of First Avenue between Virginia and Stewart Streets on July 29, 1888. The sermon was in German. J. Bowersox was presiding elder. Twenty persons were present. In the evening Elder Bowersox preached in English. The following Sunday, Rev. August Ernst preached and was soon requested to hold regular services. He organized a church with 18 members on Sunday, September 23, 1888.
A lot was purchased soon afterward at the corner of Burch (later named Taylor) and Harrison Streets at half price, namely $1,000.00, from D. T. Denny. Money for the purchase was borrowed from the Missionary Society. Due to the big fire on June 6, 1889, and the hard times following, it was necessary to borrow further funds to finish the building. The First EUB Church, erected on the present day site of the Seattle Center, was dedicated by Bishop Thomas Bowman, as Zion Church of the Evangelical Association of North America on May 7th, 1890. The congregation would worship at that site until 1907, when a new church and parsonage were erected a little to the north, at 2nd Avenue North and Valley St.
In 1889, in order to accommodate the church’s burgeoning membership, a grand Gothic Revival church was erected at Third & Marion. The building was dedicated in September of 1889, just two months after the Great Seattle fire that destroyed 125 acres of the city. The new edifice, just three blocks from the fire, had been spared. Church leaders joined the Temperance Movement and worked against alcoholism, prostitution, and crime in the city during those years.
In 1897, the Alaska Gold Rush began, leading to the rapid growth in the size and wealth of Seattle. T.S. Lippy, president of the YMCA and member of First Church, was one of the prospectors to strike it rich. His largesse in the city included the founding of Seattle’s General Hospital. Due to the growing pains of quick development, the church sold its Third & Marion building and purchased property up the hill at Fifth and Marion. T. S. Lippy was a generous donor to furnishings for the new sanctuary.
Church groups such as the Epworth League for young men and women, the Methodist Episcopal Brotherhood, and the Ladies Aid Society flourished in those days. The original president of the Ladies Aid Society, Catharine Blaine, had begun the Society’s work in part by collecting books for Dr. Maynard’s reading room (and later for the YMCA/YWCA). The Ladies Aid Society continued their good deeds through the years, including fundraising for the new General Hospital and assistance to the Red Cross during WWI.In 1919, the Seattle General Strike of 100,000 people brought difficult financial times. As a result, money was borrowed from the national church to keep the church’s thriving ministries afloat. These ministries included Bible studies for Japanese and Filipino immigrants. In 1927, weekly radio broadcasts began on KJR. While the Great Depression temporarily interrupted radio ministry, the broadcasts of Sunday services would resume in 1941 and continue into the 1970’s on KING radio.
During WWII, when the Japanese internment took place, local Japanese families were rounded up and put on trains. First Church members and others in the community who had been supportive of the Japanese went to the Tacoma train station to protest the loading of the trains.
Between 1945 and 1963, First Church received 5,800 new members. Dr. Albertson’s vision for outdoor ministry led to the purchase of 35 acres on the Kitsap Peninsula. Camp Indianola served for many years as the home of a First Church camping program. In 2002, the property was sold the property to the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Money from the sale enabled First Church to afford the startup phase of its building redevelopment plan. Camp Indianola continues to be a thriving church camp and retreat facility for the region.
In 1958, the Friendly Club for persons over sixty began under the leadership of Rev. Chester Morgan, who served First Church as an associate pastor from 1957-1959. The program addressed the isolation of a high population of elderly residents in the downtown area. Columbia Club for seniors, which offered nutrition, exercise, activities, and health clinics, was an outgrowth of the Friendly Club that operated for the next 40 years. The church also welcomed community groups to its 80,000-square foot facility, such as the Literacy Council, Alcoholics Anonymous, Seattle Men’s Chorus, Seattle Arts and Lectures, the Islamic Juma Prayer Group, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and a myriad of concerts, lectures and programs.
In the early 1980’s, high-rise office buildings emerged on every side of the church, which reduced the number of low-income housing units available in the city. In response, First Church purchased Pulliam/Wesley Haven low-income housing, and managed its 26 units for the next 17 years, before selling the building to Operation Nightwatch for emergency shelter purposes.
First Church welcomed the Church of Mary Magdalene’s Saturday worship services for homeless women in 1991, which expanded into a weekday program as well in 1997. In 1996, the church also became an evening shelter, opening its doors to King County’s Severe Weather Shelter. SHARE Safehaven took over to manage an on-going shelter, and, in 2001, a men’s shelter began operation under the auspices of Lutheran Compass Center. Shared Breakfasts for the hungry, held Sunday mornings twice a month, began in 1997.
With the expansion of Seattle’s suburbs, First Church’s congregation began to spread throughout a large geographical area. As downtown’s population declined, so did the membership of the church. In 2007 the church sold its Fifth and Marion building and purchased a new site at the corner of Second Avenue North and Denny Way to build a house of worship and a new urban outreach center. The new building was dedicated on January 31, 2010.
Important Dates in First Church History:
1853 First Methodist Episcopal Church is founded
1855 Dedication of Second & Columbia “Little White Church”
1856 Battle of Seattle Indian war, church building is damaged by bullets
1885 Rights of Chinese defended during labor unrest
1889 Third & Marion Gothic Revival church dedicated
1890 Church joins Temperance Movement
1897 Alaska Gold Rush. Member T.S. Lippy strikes it rich, helps found General Hospital
1906 Third and Marion building sold. Organ from church given to University of Puget Sound.
1907 Church worships in sawdust-floored pavilion
1908 Congregation begins worship in lower level of Fifth & Marion building.
1910 Fifth & Marion sanctuary dedicated
1919 Seattle General Strike
1927 Weekly radio broadcasts on KJR begin
1941 Post-Depression, radio broadcasts resume on KEVR, predecessor to KING
1958 Camp Indianola purchased
1961 Bayview Retirement Community on Queen Anne hill is dedicated
1982 Pulliam/Wesley low-income housing opens
1985 Court battle begins on building plans
1988 Ethiopian Orthodox Church hosted in Chapel
1991 Hospitality program for homeless women and children begins
1996 Hygiene center built to offer shelter services
1996 Evening shelter opens
1997 Shared Breakfast for homeless begins
1999 Church offers sanctuary to World Trade Organization (WTO) protestors
2000 February earthquake closes our sanctuary for six months
2001 Church begins to seek a new location
2007 Church sells Fifth & Marion site, purchases site at Second & Denny
2008 Congregation moves worship services temporarily to Seattle Children’s Theatre at Seattle Center. Shared Breakfasts temporarily held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church
2008 Groundbreaking at Second & Denny
2010 January 31, Second & Denny church consecrated