History – Denver’s First Church, 1860
Making History – The First Church in Denver – 1860
History was made in 1860 when Rev. William M. Bradford and the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in Denver built a small brick church on the southeast corner of 14th and Arapahoe, “the first building erected for church purposes in Denver,” about where the Auraria Campus is today. It had a belfry tower. A bell arrived for it by wagon in December: the first church bell in Denver. All other church communities in Denver used empty buildings at the time, or schoolhouses, or rented theaters, but our ancestors in the faith built the first church building.
However, a year after the church was built, the Civil War broke out. Union sentiment was high in Denver, and Rev. Bradford and most of the able-bodied men of the church, who were Methodists from southern states, left to fight for the Confederacy. Many soldiers from western states fought for both the North and the South. Today most Coloradoans tend to think that the North was right (fighting for the U.S. as One Nation and against slavery) and the South was wrong, but the issues even among Methodists were more complicated than that. In 1862 it was Union soldiers under the leadership of Colonel John Chivington—the presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) in Denver—who won the battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico by attacking the Confederate supply train. Two years later the same Colonel Chivington planned and executed the massacre of 200 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, South had been formed in 1844 by a split in the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. John Wesley, the English founder of the Methodists, was strongly against slavery and an ally of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who led the successful campaign to get Parliament to ban the slave trade in 1807, and to abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1833. At its founding after the Revolutionary War in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church in America opposed slavery, and its clergy were expected not to own slaves. In time, however, many rich Methodist landowners in the South had acquired slaves. Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia had a slave, and his wife owned another. The General Conference of the church demanded that he release his slaves or be removed from office. He refused on the grounds that he was prohibited by the laws of the State of Georgia from setting them free, and in any case he could better care for and protect his slaves if he kept them. The General Conference voted to depose him, following which most of the southern Methodist churches, claiming that the General Conference lacked the authority to remove a bishop without trial, severed their connection with the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and founded a separate organization. Therefore, the roots of our church history carry some very negative karma. And we are conscious of that as we dedicate ourselves to a much more inclusive vision of human community.
The Civil War years were hard years for everyone. The church was almost empty, and when the Rev. Bradford departed, he left the property in the hands of the northern Methodists, who held services and Sunday School in it. In 1862, the building was sold to the congregation that later built our neighbor church, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, then called “St. John’s Church in the Wilderness.” The Rev. Learner B. Stateler, sent to replace Bradford, found himself without a church building, and then received news that his house in Kansas had been destroyed by arson and his wife and child were narrowly rescued. He ended up with no home at all. He brought his family to Denver, where he continued to preach and his wife ran a boarding house for a while, but having little success in this town that was under Union martial law, Stateler went on to minister in Montana. There isn’t any record of how the women of the congregation kept things going during the war, but we believe that they did, and that they must have continued to gather for prayer.
In 1871, the Southern Methodists who had remained or returned built another church under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. A. A. Morrison. This building, a frame structure, stood at 1846 Arapahoe Street.
In 1872, this building was exchanged for a larger one at 20th and Curtis Streets, which had belonged to St. Paul Presbyterian Church. Our church did not assume the name “St. Paul” at that time, however, but became “Curtis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South.” There we started our first mission, the Lawrence Street Mission for the Chinese workers who were building the railroads, working in the mines, and starting their own businesses. It seems that our mission to reach out in the spirit of justice and compassion has always been important. This Lawrence Street Mission stayed open until the Chinese community, which was flourishing by 1896, was able to organize a church.
Our Fourth Church – 21st & Welton – built in 1887
In the 1880s, downtown Denver began to boom, and the commercial growth pushed the congregation all the way out to 21st and Welton Streets, where the cornerstone for a new church was laid on July 23, 1887, and we officially took the name “St. Paul’s.” The church was St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and there were then 140 members. They provided a Chinese Sunday School for as many as 50 children.
The Epworth League, the Methodist organization for youth, was endorsed by both the northern and southern churches, and St. Paul’s had a league from 1894 onward. In the central rose window on the west side of the present church building are the letters “E. L.” which stand for “Epworth League,” and the design is the emblem of that organization, which later became the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
As Denver grew, so did the Sunday School and so did the church.
Read more about St. Paul’s history: