Methodism in Marshall - Sanctuary Sesquicentennial: Revisiting the Days of the Desperados

Date Posted: 9/6/2011

The rough frontier days of the 1800s brought many a challenge for Methodist ‘circuit preachers’ attempting to conduct ‘camp meetings’ in the sparsely populated regions of east Texas. One such meeting described in the History of Early Methodism in Texas was abruptly shortened when a drunken desperado armed himself and came to the meeting hunting for his intended victim. When the desperado was, instead, shot and mortally wounded, the historian reports that “the preachers exhorted the wounded man to repent and prepare for death.”


These and other colorful historical details about the founding of the church came to life again for members of the First Methodist Church in Marshall, when they celebrated the 150th anniversary of the church sanctuary at a special August Sesquicentennial Celebration. The sanctuary, which originally seated 800, was a place of worship during the 1800s as well as a meeting area for the various departments of the state and national government.


“Most people would be shocked to the rich and vast history that has taken place in Marshall,” says Pastor Rodger Garbs, “so when our church sanctuary was built 150 years ago, it was actually the largest meeting facility west of the Red River for many years. Our founders actually conducted worship services above kegs of ammunition.”


The church, originally named the Methodist Episcopal Church, South of Marshall ,has a colorful past. According to historical records, the church bell was taken by Union forces in June of 1865. Shortly thereafter, nameless loyal church members traveled on a stormy night to a nearby Union campground and stole a bell for the church. The replacement bell hung there until World War II when the “Union bell” was gladly donated for the war effort.


History at a glance

  •   In 1839 the first circuit preacher arrived and stayed in the Marshall area to establish a church.
  •  Methodist leaders decided it was time to build a proper church building when membership had grown to 200 and the town’s population was nearing 2,000.
  •  During the Annual Conference held in Marshall in 1912, leaders passed a resolution to send to the state capital stating, “It is the sense of this body that the capital building is put to improper use when used for inaugural balls…a reprehensible custom.”
  •  With a current population of 24,000, Marshall now includes five United Methodist Churches. First Methodist’s worship attendance has exceeded 350.


Fifteen decades of change

Significant improvements have been made to this historic sanctuary over time, beginning with the addition of a pipe organ in 1899 and 11 stained glass windows, dedicated to outstanding members or organizations. The Sesquicentennial service on August 14 paid tribute to the founders and the inspirations behind the special stained glass windows. “There is an abundance of wonderful history throughout our church and region,” adds Pastor Garbs. First Methodist Marshall’s Celebration included a litany presented by church members commemorating the founders of the church, the denomination’s founder, John Wesley, and his brother Charles who wrote many hymns still enjoyed today. “Additionally, we applauded families who have a long thread of continuous membership dating back to the 1800s. When we recognized our longest members, we had folks standing with an excess of 70 years of attendance.”


Some 90 years after the great wooden doors were opened for the first time, the sanctuary was lengthened by 22 feet, a new balcony added, central air installed and major additions soon followed. In 2003, the sanctuary restoration initiative included the installation of television broadcasting capability since First Methodist manages a TV station in Marshall.


That was then, this is now

The Sesquicentennial on August 14 set the stage for a monumental new page in history to be written one week later. “That day in history marked our last single-service worship Sunday,” notes Garbs, who celebrated his first anniversary as pastor this summer, “because the church and trustees approved the launch of a new contemporary service starting on the 22nd in our renovated Christian Life Center.” Adds Garbs, “On our debut Sunday, the children’s classes doubled in size, we had 30% new visitors, and we launched a new student ministry to provide an outreach toward the four universities in our immediate area.”


“Never underestimate God”

The year of preparation leading up to the Sesquicentennial was a year to Let Go and Let God, according to Garbs. “While this church has energy and excitement and a great spirit dating back to its origins, I don’t think any of us could imagine what God would do in such a short time.”

In the midst of a downwardly spiraling economy and declining church attendance across the globe, First Methodist Marshall instead is experiencing a boom, both financially and spiritually. “Most churches have experienced the hodgepodge of furniture combinations of sofas and tables donated by members, and they are thankful for each donation especially in lean times,” he says, “but this year I told my staff to dream big. God deserves excellence, so we are going for the WOW factor.”


Following instructions, staff members provided the cost estimates for furniture, sound and TV equipment that would typically be found in big city churches in the likes of Dallas and Houston. “The trustees began to see that we needed to update our environments if we were ever going to be able to draw in media-oriented young people. Then they gave the staff a vote of trust by providing carte blanche approval to our plans and dreams of upgrading across the board.”


Within days after Marshall’s ministry dreams were defined with huge price tags attached, the church was notified that a woman had passed away and left a $150,000 earmarked for children and youth ministries. Several other surprise inheritances were given to pay off debt, start a contemporary worship service and significantly upgrade the television ministry. In addition, other significant donations were made in honor of John Gordon’s (United Methodist Communication leader from Marshall) that greatly strengthened the faith of all involved.


  “We don’t get that kind of money in a small town,” Garbs admits, “so it confirmed that God is with us and blessing us richly in our desire to reach those without a church.” Visitors and members attending the inaugural contemporary service and youth/children areas witnessed vibrantly painted walls, flat screen TVs and monitors, new furniture and game systems, wireless earpieces, a new stage, and the John Gordon Media Command Center where technology allows video and audio recording and editing from five other remote areas in the church. “Our contemporary worship service has a high definition projector, all new sound equipment, 28 lights including six intelligent lights, and a 16-foot screen and a haze machine to bring the message to life. These media touches immediately helped generate that wow factor and a word-of-mouth grapevine that is packing us at capacity our first month!” He adds, “Never underestimate God.”


Lessons Learned

He adds, “Once in awhile we have to ask ourselves, our members and our staff: Why are we in ministry? Who are we trying to reach and what do they need? Getting there sometimes involves knocking down obstacles and changing attitudes to realize it is not about us. We need to consider how to make it as easy as possible for people to hear the good news.”


Pastor Garbs is ecstatically proud of his leadership and team for not stifling the ministry vision.  “We do not want to change the message but we often need to adapt our technique and language—and time schedule to give newcomers a reason to go to church in the first place. I am thrilled that our church started this new era by allowing the traditional service to move to the earlier slot to allow contemporary worship visitors to be able to make it to church at the later hour. This decision reflects an amazing and authentic church that understands its central purpose as a church and purpose for starting a new service.”


The recent year was amazing in many ways. Notes Garbs, “When it comes to struggling times, I have certainly been there. But we need to remember God should be glorified in the good times and bad. We need to find opportunities and make decisions that will impact those not yet attending. God provided everything needed to make all of this happen. People that know me know I am just a traditional kind of Aggie guy, but I am willing to try new things if it speaks the gospel to those not otherwise listening.”