A Brief History of Washington Street United Methodist Church
Methodism came to Alexandria in the early days of our city and was first mentioned in the minutes of the annual meeting of Methodists (called a Conference) in 1791. A small group of Methodists had been meeting in various locations in the city since 1774 and built their first church on Duke Street. Two early and influential Methodist Bishops, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, came to Alexandria in 1785 and visited General George Washington at Mount Vernon.
In 1803 a new church was built between King and Prince Streets on the east side of South Washington Street. Alexandria Station, later to become Trinity Methodist Church, was our mother church. Various groups began to withdraw from Trinity as early as 1828 to form their own congregations. These included the Methodist Protestant Church and Roberts Chapel (now Roberts Memorial UMC) composed of black Methodists. Methodism continued to grow rapidly, but in 1843, the question of slavery began to have its effect on the members. Some members of Trinity finally declared on June 1, 1849, that they were “Southern in position, feelings, institutions, and interests,” and they wanted a minister from the Virginia Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The minister of Trinity, Rev. John M. Jones made a notation in the church register in July 1849 that showed the loss of Trinity members to the new church: “Secessionist, Male Members 33, Female 63.” Washington Street Methodist Episcopal Church was formed by almost a quarter of the Trinity congregation.
The first worship services of the new church were held in the Lyceum building that still stands at the corner of Washington and Prince Streets. Rev. James A. Duncan was the temporary pastor who worked diligently to get the new church on firm footing and he added 159 members in five months. The Virginia Conference appointed a young man of thirty-four, Rev. Leonidas Rosser, as the first regular minister of the church. Rev. Rosser conducted a fund-raising revival throughout the South to raise funds for a church building for his congregation. He preached whenever possible to various denominations and raised $10,000 in eight months.
Both the Northern and Southern members of Trinity claimed the original church built in 1803. During the dispute neither group could occupy the building. In June 1850 the suit was decided in favor of the North.
The Southern congregation paid $1,800 for a lot on the west side of South Washington Street directly across the street from Trinity, and the cornerstone of the sanctuary building was laid on September 12, 1850, with a Masonic ceremony. This is the same structure in which we worship today.
During the Civil War Years, Alexandria, a Southern city, was occupied by Union troops just one month after the attack on Fort Sumter. On January 6, 1862, the U.S. military forces took possession of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and used the sanctuary as a hospital while the first floor served as a stable. The church was returned to the congregation in 1865 and reopened for use in October of that year after major repairs. The Federal Government paid reparations for damage to the church in 1915 in the amount of $3,680.
Additional major renovations occurred in 1875-76 changing the front of the building from Greek Revival to reconstruction Gothic and again in 1899 when the stained-glass windows, oak pews with cushions and many other improvements were made.
1906 brought the purchase of the lot on the south side of the building where the Education Building now stands. The George R. Hill Memorial, Young People’s Building was built at a cost of $30,000. This was the Sunday school building until 1952 when approval for an Education Building was given. The Education Building opened in 1954 and was used until its sale in 2013.
As the Methodist Church in the United States evolved over the years, our church name changed several times. The names were: Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1849), Washington Street M. E. Church, South (1907), Washington Street Methodist Church (1939), and Washington Street United Methodist Church (1966).
Church Cemetery: Prior to 1860 Union Cemetery was established off Wilkes Street and is still maintained by the church. Because cemeteries adjacent to some Alexandria churches were too small for future years, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist churches centralized their cemeteries on the banks of Hunting Creek and Hooff’s Run.
Over a period of 150+ years, WSUMC has become a steadfast landmark in the heart of Alexandria, Virginia, serving the people of the community in countless ways. Leaders of the city have often been members of the congregation so there is a strong connection to many civic entities. Our strong mission program has supported many missionaries for years in the Philippines, China, Congo, Rhodesia, and Japan. We continue our mission work both locally through ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, and other programs, and in places like Appalachia and by providing relief from natural disasters.