All historic church buildings have stories to tell.
The stately three-story brick structure at the corner of Southwest Second and Vine Streets in Walnut Ridge has hosted worship services, Sunday school, baptisms, confirmations, children’s nursery, choir practice, potlucks, weddings, funerals, fellowship, youth functions, mission fundraisers and more.
It has even hosted the Arkansas Methodist Annual Conference, twice: back in 1923 and 1946.
Week in and week out for an entire century now, generations of local Methodists have let their Christian lives of faith and praise unfold within the stalwart masonry walls.
100th birthday party
This year, the First United Methodist Church building has a birthday story, and Rev. Beth Perdue says an official centennial commemoration event will take place on Sunday, Dec. 5.
“The church is not a building, of course,” Rev. Perdue said. “But it has buildings and this one has been a truly historical fixture in Walnut Ridge for generations of families. It’s a history of countless joys, tears, prayers and acts of Christ-like love, faith, hope and compassion.”
Designed in a classic architectural style of regal religiosity, congregants ascend a dual staircase to reach the front entrance. Towering stained glass windows shape the light within the soaring sanctuary, depicting biblical symbols and pictorial scenes and lifting spirits and eyes upward to behold the high ceiling’s ornamental and ornate pressed-tin cornice and crown molding.
There’s no steeple or belfry, but the choir loft has long welcomed members to make joyous noises to the Lord. Rear staircases leading to the balcony above and basement below showcase arched doorways, delicately detailed tin crown molding and slender windows of magnificent stained glass tucked along the narrow passageways.
The well-worn wooden pews were custom built for the church, and the framed stained glass display at the back of the sanctuary once adorned the upper choir area, and had languished for decades in an upstairs storage room before being returned to active service in its new location two years ago.
History and renovations
Prior to its construction in 1921, Walnut Ridge Methodists occupied a one-room white frame building that had been erected in 1886 near the corner of East Walnut and Northeast Fourth Streets. At the time the new church was built, it was one of the largest in the state. The cost was $60,000, partially offset by the sale of the old church property, and the remaining mortgage debt was retired in 1941.
The cornerstone lists the building committee in “A.D. 1921,” and it contains foundational names still familiar today: P. J. Cooper, H. V. Wayland, S.E. Spikes, W.O. Sexton, C.S. Henderson, Earl Mitchell, P.C. Surridge, J.C. Pinnell, Walter Southworth and John M. Lester.
A 100-year-old building typically undergoes revisions and upgrades, and the First United Methodist Church is no exception. The spectacular windows gracing the front and sides of the building – reportedly imported from France, the stained glass handwork has a decidedly “old world” quality – have been re-leaded and are now protected from the elements by exterior plate glass panels.
The 1920s-era wiring would have been knob-and-tube, and has long since been replaced by modern electrical conduit and technology.
In addition to the extant rear balcony, the sanctuary was originally flanked by side balconies, which were removed during a 1967 renovation. At that time the front entrance was modified as well, enclosing the round columns and moving the doors outward in line with the new squared-off colonnade to create a larger vestibule area. The long single staircase was also altered into the double side staircase it features today.
A major remodel a dozen years later, in 1979, included renovation of classrooms, the Wesley Room, and installation of a new roof, along with fire escapes and an elevator, to allow greater access for members to the main levels of the structure. The Wesley Room, a separate structure on the rear of the property, was renovated two years ago, as well.
A great hazard to historic structures is fire, and the Methodist Church survived a frightful incident in May of 1996, when a butane gas tank malfunctioned and ignited during preparation for a pancake breakfast fundraiser for the Kiwanis Club. The ensuing blaze destroyed the kitchen and part of the fellowship hall, seriously injured two volunteers, and caused extensive smoke damage to the rest of the building.
The major restoration effort involved installing new electrical wiring, HVAC equipment and ductwork, in addition to cleaning of every window and door on all three floors. The church didn’t reopen until February 1997.
On December 5, the church is inviting everyone who wants to help commemorate the building’s centennial to a Celebration Sunday. Former pastors and members, and members who became pastors, are expected to attend.
The current Arkansas Conference Bishop, the Rev. Gary E. Mueller, will be in attendance to deliver the message. Rev. John Fleming, the Northeast District Superintendent, is also expected to attend. Together, the Bishop and D.S. will preside over Holy Communion to the congregation and guests.
There will also be special musical selections, a slide show and perhaps a few surprises, Rev. Perdue said.
Following the service, the afternoon’s agenda includes a luncheon downstairs that will feature more fellowship and lots more memories.
“So many people have so many memories of this grand old church building,” Rev. Perdue said. “We’d like to invite anyone with any sort of fond recollection to join us for lunch and sharing in celebration.”
More stories ahead
As the building enters its second century, First United Methodist Church looks forward to continuing its role as one of Lawrence County’s largest and historic Methodist congregations, with many yet-to-be-told stories to come.
“We had eight participants in confirmation earlier this year, which is impressive for a church our size,” Rev. Perdue said. “And despite all the Covid-related disruptions, interruptions and conveniences, we’ve held services and continue to minister.
“We also have completed various upgrades and projects – and have more planned – to ensure our historic church building will not only still be standing for decades to come, but to keep improving to serve 21st century Methodists,” she said.