“First” Soil of the Virginia Conference???? Friday, June 10, 2016

Those who know me well recognize that I have a very traditional soul.  I treasure old family photos.  I’ve always loved listening to stories told by my elders.  In my kitchen is a rolling pin made from the magnolia tree next to the house where I grew up and the stool I sat on in my grandmother’s kitchen. Hanging in my closet is a child’s kimono that my brother brought me from Okinawa 50 years ago.  Those of you who know me best understand that it’s the connection between people, actions, and places that hold the strongest meaning for me.

So, when I received a request from Dawn Chesser who is serving as the worship director for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference for a box of “dirt from your conference” to be used in the liturgy planned for the opening worship service, I couldn’t just fill a bag with any ol’ dirt and ship it off.  Things cannot be that easy for me.  Remember, I am the woman who on the day before Annual Conference last year was stepping into the Smith River to get water representative of my baptism to use as a visual for the Laity Gala Luncheon and carrying it to Roanoke in a mason jar.

Back on April 16th, I asked my Facebook friends for help in trying to decide the best type of soil to send.  Today, June 10th, the box is on its way to Tennessee.  Here’s the letter and explanation I sent along. Those of you who read this and are my fellow Virginia Conference laity may never want to elect me to any leadership position ever again.

Dear Dawn:

I had to think long and hard about what type of soil truly represented the Virginia Conference when I received your request for assistance with the liturgy for the opening worship service of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.  I found it challenging to decide on a single sample to send.  As a result, this request became a social media experiment.  I put the question of what soil would be most representative on my Facebook page.  As you can imagine, a wide range of responses began to be posted immediately.  One in particular started an interesting line of conversation.  That response came from one of our young clergy members who said, “Why not get soil from the site of the first Methodist church in Virginia?” Others joined in by adding sites of other “firsts” in the history of the denomination that occurred within our boundaries.

What started as a social media experiment became a true representation of our diversity and relationships in this Annual Conference.  Attached to this letter you will find a description of the many soils filling this one simple bag.  This project became a partnership of laity and clergy; of young and old; of individuals from various geographical regions of our Conference; of large church, small church, and Connectional Ministries.  It has been a true educational process for me.  I now know more about the types of soil in Virginia than I ever imagined I would learn. Believe me when I say that in the time of collecting this soil, I have been corrected about using the word “dirt” to describe what has been taking place many, many times.  I will never use that four-letter word again when talking about the fertile ground that gives us life in so many ways.

I know that you will probably not be able to use the description of this soil in any way, but you need to know what is inside this box and the effort that went into its collection.  May it be the Virginia Conference’s contribution to our mission and ministry together and a reminder that:

  • our faith is in a God that is bigger than our “institution” of church,
  • our travels as disciples of Jesus Christ take us to diverse, unique places – all of which become sacred, holy ground if we seek the face of Jesus in all those we meet along the way, and
  • while we have come far, the Holy Spirit continues to transform us each and every day, preparing us for the unknown paths that are yet ahead.”



First Peoples (Soil collected by Tim Etheredge, lay member of Enon UMC, Richmond District)

  • There are two tribes of Native Peoples in Virginia with reservation/tribal lands: the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey. Treaties signed in 1646 and 1677 with the English began the establishment of reservations. Pamunkey soil, the state soil of Virginia, is formed from sediments which originated in every physiographic province in the Commonwealth and therefore represents the whole state better than most other soils.
  • The Mattaponi tribe has one of the oldest reservations in the country and traces its roots to the powerful Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom, which encompassed most of Tidewater Virginia and was headed by paramount chief Powhatan (father of Pocahontas).
  • Archeologists, historians, and anthropologists put Native occupation of the Pamunkey reservation lands back 10-12,000 years.   

First American Methodist Church property – Old Stone Church Site, Leesburg, a Heritage Landmark of The United Methodist Church (Soil collected by Martha Stokes, lay member of Shady Grove UMC, Glen Allen)

  • The first records of American Methodism date from the 1760s. In New York and Pennsylvania, Philip Embury, Barbara Heck, and Thomas Webb were leaders in the movement. Further south, Robert Strawbridge brought Methodism to the Delmarva peninsula. It is likely that the Methodist society in Leesburg was formed under Strawbridge’s influence. It was undoubtedly the first in Virginia, although its founding date is not known.
  • What is certain is that on May 11, 1766, Nicholas Minor of Leesburg deeded Lot 50 to Methodist layman Robert Hamilton for “no other use but for a church or meeting house and grave yard.” This lot is the earliest known American Methodist church property.  The first meeting house, made of stone, was built by 1768. It was replaced by a larger building between 1785 and 1790.
  • A number of prominent early Methodists preached in the church, including Thomas Rankin, Wesley’s missionary to America; Francis Asbury (who preached there in 1776); and William Watters, the first American-born Methodist traveling preacher.

First recorded Methodist sermon by an African freedman at Fairfax Chapel in Falls Church (Soil collected by Mochel Morris, pastor at Christ Crossman UMC, Arlington District)

  • Harry Hoosier(or Hosier) (c. 1750–May 1806) has been described as one of the greatest Christian Evangelists in American History. Born around 1750 near Fayetteville, North Carolina, Hosier’s early life is not well-documented but most sources agree he was a freedman, probably born to two African slaves. Harry Hoosier moved—or was sold—to Henry Dorsey Gough’s plantation near Baltimore. Gough, a devout Methodist, had built a chapel that became a popular stopping place for Methodist preachers. It was there that Harry Hoosier became a talented religious orator who traveled throughout the Appalachian frontier.  Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence said that, “making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America”. 
  • Speaking after Bishop Frances Asbury,Hosier delivered his first sermon – “The Barren Fig Tree”, concerning Luke 13:6–9, to the black Methodist congregation at Adams’s Chapel in Fairfax County, Virginia, on May 13, 1781. His sermons called on Methodists to reject slavery and champion the common working man.
  • Oakwood Cemetery is now on the grounds of Fairfax Chapel, the first Methodist meeting house in the area.

First Session of the Virginia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held at the home of William Mason in Brunswick County (Soil collected by Shaun Smith, pastor of the Philadelphia Charge, James River District)

  • Mason’s Chapel, one of the earliest Methodist churches in Southside Virginia, was the site of the first Virginia Conference on May 1, 1785, with Bishop Francis Asbury presiding.
  • Mason’s is part of the Old Brunswick Circuit, the oldest Methodist Circuit under continuous appointment. It was first created as the Petersburg Circuit in 1773.

First Methodist school in Virginia (Soil collected by Jennifer Fletcher, pastor of the West Brunswick Charge, Farmville District)

  • Ebenezer Academy was founded in 1793 by Bishop Frances Asbury and others in Warfield (Brunswick Co.).
  • It was the first Methodist school established in Virginia and possibly in America.

First United Brethren Conference held in Virginia at Abraham Niswander’s home near Middletown (Soil collected by Steve Cunningham, lay member of Burnt Factory UMC, Winchester District)

  • In the History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Virginia Conference,Abram P. Funkhouser (1921) says the first conference was “…at Abraham Niswander’s in Virginia, May 28, 1808.”   The Virginia Conference Journals say the date was May 25, 1808.
  • The Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church is the direct descendant of the original annual conference of the United Brethren in Christ and of one of the six original conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

First American-born itinerant pastor, William Watters, died at his home in McLean (Soil collected by Jim Sprouse, senior pastor of Trinity UMC, Arlington District)

  • William Watters died at his home on March 29, 1827.
  • The gravesite of Williams Watters in McLean is a Heritage Landmark of The United Methodist Church.

First Methodist-affiliated college (Soil collected by Sandra McMillen, pastor of the Boydton Charge, Farmville District)

  • The original Randolph Macon College was in Boydton (Mecklenberg Co.).  RMC is listed as the “oldest Methodist-affiliated college still operating in the US, chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in 1830.”
  • Randolph Macon moved to Ashland in 1868.

Present Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church organized at Madison College (Soil collected by Tommy Herndon, District Superintendent of Harrisonburg District)

  • First session of the present Virginia Conference UMC was held on January 3, 1970, at what is now James Madison University in Harrisonburg.

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