The First United Methodist Church had its beginning during World War One. The war required many war ships and one of the resources to provide them was the young Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. To build large numbers of war ships, the Shipyard needed many workers and they required new housing. Shipyard leaders sought and obtained government funding to construct a new town for its workers, then turned to a team of world-class town planners and architects to plan what became Hilton Village. Modeled after England’s “new-towns” movement of the late 1800s-, the town plan, a radical idea in its day especially for America, envisioned 500 new homes on a rural site located three miles from Newport News. Hilton Village was planned as a complete community of individual homes, town houses, apartments, stores, and community facilities. Church sites were part of the development. It was connected to the Shipyard by a new street-car rail line.
As the new residential community rose from the former Hilton Farm, so did the desire of Christian community leaders to have a church of their own. And so they started one despite the fact that they had no building, meeting wherever they could: a shady spot on the beach of the James River, an old house that had been used as a clinic during construction and a community room atop the former Seward’s grocery store. That store operated until after World War II, but was razed during the 1960s; the site became a parking lot.
November 17, 1919, is when Our Church was born. On that date the Virginia Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church-South sent Rev. D. Gregory Claiborne Butts to be the first pastor of the Hilton Village Methodist Church. He served for only three years but during his tenure the new church building (shown upper left) was completed. It served for the next 34 years until it was replaced in 1954 by the current sanctuary.
1954 was a big year for our church because that was when its name was changed to the First Methodist Church of Newport News. Also, in that year the Portsmouth-Newport News District was subdivided to create the Peninsula District and Dr. A. B. Clarke was assigned as our pastor that year. He was the eleventh minister to serve this church which over its 90-year history has had 21 pastors.
After World War II, and the baby boom that followed, church membership experienced spectacular growth everywhere. Nationally, there were some 80 million boomers born during the 15 years following WW II. The effect of the post-war population boom on FUMC was to increase its membership from less than 400 in 1940 to over 2000 by 1965. Average attendance during those peak days was between 600 and 700 persons and it was a common sight for the ushers to place extra chairs down the center aisle to seat the overflow. To deal with this surge, the church leadership started a massive building program. First to come in 1950, was the original educational building followed by the present sanctuary in 1954. And finally an even larger educational building was completed in the early 1960s. But alas, the boomers grew up and many moved away and that phenomenon, combined with many other demographic factors, led to a decline in membership. By the end of the 20th century, FUMC’s membership was less than half of what it had been during its peak years.
There was one more event in the late 1960s that led to the current name of our church. In 1969, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved a merger between the then Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. It was from that merger that our larger church came to be called the United Methodist Church and our church, the First United Methodist Church.
There is much more to the history of this church than could be covered in this brief article; for this presents only a glimpse of our church’s history now rapidly moving toward its 100th birthday. For those who wish to learn more, you should visit the Louise Fox History Room and browse through the many photo albums, scrapbooks and other historic documents found there. None of what you will see in the History Room, however, would have been possible without the many years of dedicated work on this project by Louise Todd Fox. Because she knows more about the history of this church than anyone else could ever hope to learn, it is appropriate that the History Room bears her name, for without her efforts the preservation of the history of First United Methodist Church of Newport News would not have been possible.
By Jack Stodghill, 2010