The Old Radnor Methodist Church, part 2 – Rev. A. L. Wilson

Old record books, frail with age, are priceless possessions of the old Radnor Methodist Church. In them are such data as comes under the heading of “Historical Record”, “Probationers’ Record,” “Class Record”, “Alphabetical Record of Members in Full Connection”, “Record of Baptism”, “Record of Marriages” and several others. Specifically designed books for Methodist Church records were printed even as early as the first part of the nineteenth century. An introduction to one made in 1864 states that “any pastor who, through carelessness, fails to make full entries in all departments, is highly culpable and deserves the censure of his Conference.”

The Rev. A. L. Wilson, pastor of the old church on Conestoga road from 1880 through 1882, performed a service of lasting importance to a service to his parishioners and those who were to follow, when he painstakingly noted all the information available on the founding and early days of this historic church. After almost seventy years the clear legible handwriting covers page after page in what must truly have been a labor of love on the part of a conscientious man. Surprisingly enough, even the ink is scarcely faded.
Mr. Wilson tells of an “old, time-honored building which has been known for generations past as the Radnor Methodist – Episcopal Church”, standing on “one of the most beautiful hills of Radnor”. And so long has this church been associated with the hill that the latter is generally known as “Methodist Hill”. Its history goes back to the early days of Methodism, since many of the pioneers of that faith in the country “have declared the unsearchable riches of the Christ on the gorund”, which seems almost hallowed because such men as Bishop Coke, Richard Whatroot and Francis Ashbury had been there to counsel and encourage the church in its infancy.

According to the most accurate information available to Mr. Wilson, the first Methodists to visit Radnor were two local preachers named Adam Cloud and Matthew Greentree. This was probably several years before 1780 since it was in that year that Radnor became “a regular preaching place” which was supplied by the circuit preachers. The first class was organized in the “Mansion House” then occupied by the James family, early forebears of a well-known citizen of the present time in Radnor township, Hon. Benjamin F. James, and his brother, Evan L. James, of Wynnewood. As described in last week’s column this old mansion house still stands at the corner of Montrose and Conestoga roads, though the years have brought some enlargement to the original structure, which is now one of the most beautiful among the really old homes in Radnor township.

In 1780 Radnor was included in what was then known as the Philadelphia Circuit. In 1781 this was changed to the Pennsylvania Circuit and thereafter saw many other changes of name. The first class leader was George Gyger, while John Cooper and George Main were the first preachers from the circuit to come to Radnor. An old deed shows that on the “20th day of October, 1783, Evan James and his wife Margaret appeared befor Justice Thomas Lewis and said for seven shillings a half-acre of ground on which a meeting home was to be built . . . in which the doctrine of John Wesley as set forth in his four volumes of sermons and in his notes on the New Testament were to be preached and no other.”

At that time Methodism was evidently not in high repute in all quarters as Mr. Wilson, writing in the early eighties, says that “we who live at this age of Methodism have but little idea of the embarrassments and disadvantages under which the earnest workers for God labored.” There were even those who scoffed at the building of the first small log cabin-like church as illustrated in the story of one of the workmen. An acquaintance, climbing the hill on Old Lancaster Road, called out to him to inquire what he was doing. When he replied that he was helping to build a meeting house for the Methodists the friend is said to have replied: “There is no use of your doing that, for they will all soon be as cold as cucumbers, there will soon be no more Methodists.”

It would seem that many participated actively in the building of this first meeting house At any rate Jacob Gyger, David and Isaac James hauled water from the creek by way of a barrel on a sled in order to obtain this water for mixing the mortar which was to hold the logs together. In spite of difficulties, the meeting house was completed and dedicated in 1784. An account of those dedication services would make interesting reading but Mr. Wilson tells us that apparently no record of them was kept. But, if this is lacking there is certainly a full list of all the trustees, elders and preachers who were connected with the little church during those early days of its existence. These have been carefully preserved in the history of “Old Radnor”.

Soon after the turn of the century Methodists in this general vicinity began to hold “powerful” meetings in a house near Brother Jonathan Evans in Upper Darby, according to our historian. “Methodism”, he states, “was a new thing in that place. The Quaker inhabitants never had heard a hymn sung, and when the Methodists sang in their lusty, old-fashioned way, the effect produced was onderful. Their meetings were held in the afternoon of each day int he week (the laboring men going to work at midnight were released at noon, therefore they could spend the afternoon in worship). The most powerful manifestations of the spirit were witnessed at their meetings. Men and women would fall over and remain perfectly still and motionless . . . The good work spread through Delaware County . . . Societies were formed and meeting-houses were built. Radnor was greatly revived. About this time there was a Camp Meeting held in the woods in front of the church at which much good was done.”

This marked the beginning of what was to become the greatest week in the year for Radnor Methodists—the week in the woods camp meeting. For then Radnor Methodists “were a zealous people, full of the fire of the Holy Spirit,” according to a later historian who tells of camp meetings, randing over a period of twenty-six years. 1838-1864 in the woods in front of the church, and “in the graves of the different valleys and hillsides nearby.”

(To be continued)