A Brief History of The Methodist Church on Nantucket
The Early Years
Methodism on Nantucket traces its roots to 1796, the year George Washington left the presidency. Following Jesse Lee, the great pioneering Methodist, Rev. Joseph Snelling came from Martha’s Vineyard, and for lack of a sufficiently large room, he held an open air meeting on Mill Hill.
He was followed by Rev. William Beauchamp who organized the first Methodist Society on July 25, 1799, with 19 charter members. On January 1, 1800, he dedicated the first Methodist Episcopal Church on Fair Street.
Growth in membership during the height of the whaling boom, required a larger building. Land was secured at the corner of Centre and Liberty Streets, and the church at 2 Centre Street was built in 1823.
In 1840 significant modification were made to both the interior and exterior of the church. In the main sanctuary, the pulpit was relocated from the balcony in the rear of the church, to the front, where it stands today, and the pews were turned to face it.
Around the same time, a new gable roof was built along with an impressive front portico supported by six Ionic columns, which was the fashion of the day. The ceiling is supported by 12 x 12 timbers, 60 feet long.
Maria Mitchell and The Great Fire
During the Great Fire of 1846, during which all the wooden buildings – half the town – were destroyed by fire, the Methodist Church stood at the top of Main, as yet untouched by the flames. Town leaders, alarmed at the rapid advance of the flames, gave orders to dynamite the building in order to check the fire. As kegs of powder were being rolled up to the church, the young astronomer Maria Mitchell, heard of the plan. She ascended the steps of the church and from the portico proclaimed that if they blew up the church, they would have to blow her up too. Legend has it, that at that moment the wind changed course and the church, along with the rest of the town, was saved and she became a heroine. The following year Maria discovered a comet, named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” in her honor, and in 1865 she became the first professor at Vassar College.
In the 1900’s, as church population had declined significantly in conjunction with the economic decline of the island following the collapse of the whaling industry, due to the discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania, the main sanctuary of the church was far too large and far too cold in the deep of winter.
One of the church members and a master carpenter, Thomas Hayden Giffin, led the construction of a smaller winter sanctuary on the second floor of the church behind the balconies. The space, facing Liberty Street, held a small stage at the front for a pulpit and small organ, a small kitchen at the back for coffee hour, church socials and potluck suppers, and ample space for up to 100 for worship, yet the average attendance ranged from 12-25. The space was bright and cheerful, with sun streaming in through the large windows facing Centre Street.
Yankee Ingenuity and Responding to Changing Times
As the congregation began to age and stairs became problematic, members looked for solutions. They decided to excavate the space under the church to create a multifunctional area that could be used for worship as well as potluck suppers and community events. A large kitchen was built along Rose Lane, as well as a space for an office, which was also used for Rummage Sales by the Ladies of the Methodist Church as a fundraiser. In the 1960’s the space was christened as Fellowship Hall, later renamed in 2010 as Wesley Hall by Rev. Bill Coleman, and used for winter worship from mid-October to mid-May. Some of the original hand-hewn beams, brought to the island on whaling ships for use in the construction of the main church are now visible as supports in the ceiling of the church in Wesley Hall, which is the winter worship space.
Creation of Two Centre Restoration Project and a Visit by The First Lady
In 1995, the Rev. Nancy Nelson and church member Gary Morrison, created a 501 © 3 non-profit to attract donations from outside the Methodist community to help repair and restore the historic building. The congregation was simply too small to fund the work on such a massive building, which was an important element of Nantucket’s historic streetscape.
Local church leaders worked with the New England Conference the Mass Historic Commission and the Mass Historic Commission to secure a preservation deed restriction on the building, so that the historic nature of the building would be preserved in perpetuity. Since the formation of Two Centre the group has raised over a million dollars through private donations and state and local grants from CPC to fund a fire suppression system, rebuilding the foundation on Liberty Street, repairing the façade and repainting the interior and exterior of the building, reglazing of the windows and other work.
For more information on the work of this group, or to donate to the preservation of the historic Nantucket United Methodist, go to https://www.twocentrestrestorationproject.com/
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Methodist, visited the church during the Clinton administration, and designated the Nantucket United Methodist Church one of America’s Treasures, as part of her Save America’s Treasures initiative.
Community use of the Building
Over the years the Methodist Church building at 2 Centre Street has hosted a variety of other denominations, theatre and musical arts groups, the Nantucket Film Festival, the Nantucket Book Festival, the Nantucket Arts Council’s fall show, artists such as Livingston Taylor and more. At the top of Main Street, right across from the Pacific National Bank, this historic building is a meaningful piece of the architectural history of Nantucket.