In 1818, two hundred years ago, Tuscaloosa was little more than a settlement of shanties by a powerful river. There were two substantial structures, both taverns—a combination hotel, meeting place, restaurant and drinking establishment. Ebenezer Hearn, a preacher from the Tennessee Conference with a stutter, rode into the area and stopped at one of these places—Halbert’s. There as his notes said, “by the grace of God,” he gathered together a group and preached the first Methodist sermon in the area.
On Sunday, January 14, 2018, more than 800 members and guests of First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa honored those historic roots and worshipped in four bars around town. For some, the turnaround from a night of celebrating the University of Alabama’s 17th national football championship was quick. The crowds arrived at the first tavern just before 9 a.m. Rev. Jesse Tosten preached at Wilhagan’s. Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett preached at Wheelhouse Sports Pub. Cooper Shattuck and Jesse Tosten finished the morning services at Innisfree Irish Pub and Rounders on the UA Strip.
At the first tavern, The Bridge Band sang:
Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere.
And so the Spirit did fill each place.
Why did the message of John Wesley and later Ebenezer Hearn catch fire? It was a populous message—everyone was included. The message was flexible and could adapt to the context of the frontier lifestyle. Both preachers took their message outside the confines of the church building and preached to the people where they were. And there was enthusiasm—an excitement that caused these early Methodists to develop a personal relationship with God. The spirit of these founders was recreated in each tavern.
Each tavern location had its own style of music—contemporary praise, jazz, acoustic and traditional hymns. Each location also had a common problem—standing room only! Actors dressed as Ebenezer Hearn and his wife rode a horse between each location and stayed outside the tavern so that the children in the congregation could pet the horse.
“What a great site to see the place packed this morning,” said Jon Grelle. “We thought maybe 60; hey-maybe just 12 would be here.”
“I was so surprised to see a toddler playing on the pool table. And then I looked over my shoulder and saw a senior, struggling with a walker and singing along with the band. his brought us all together,” said Donna McAllister.
There is something planned every month at Tuscaloosa First UMC for its bicentennial. The next big event is Ash Wednesday when all Methodist traditions in the area are invited to worship together in the church's sanctuary at 800 Greensboro Avenue. The leaders of local A.M.E., C.M.E. and A.M.E. Zion churches have committed to join the congregation in the service of imposition of ashes. Churches that were started by First Church are also expected to attend.
For more information on how you can get involved, please visit http://fumct.org/bicentennial-worship/bicentennial or call (205) 345-7261.
For a video recap of the day click below: