BEFORE the auspicious day when the little congregation of Methodists in Port Hope entered their first church-home, their life as a religious body was necessarily an arduous one. To keep together and alive all the scattered interests of such a community was no easy task for those devoted ministers, who in the early days endured all manner of hardships in ministering to the spiritual wants of extensive circuits. But the fruits of their labours are being reaped at the present day and the Methodist denomination in Port Hope occupies a stronger and more extensive position than that of any other religious body in the Town.
The earliest record of a Methodist communion in Port Hope dates back to the year 1813 when Smith’s Creek was the name applied to a circuit embracing all the country from Belleville to Whitby and when the Rev. Thomas Whitehead labored therein as its minister. Occasionally other ministers had visited the village, among them being Ezra Adams, Thomas Madden and John Rhodes. The Rev. Nathaniel Reeder succeeded to the circuit in 1815 and meetings were then held either in Mrs. Britton’s parlor on Mill Street or in the log school-house opposite the present Queen’s Hotel or in Mr. Jacob Choate’s building on the site of that hotel. Two years later the Revs. James Puffer and Elijah Boardman divided the work of the Circuit.
Meanwhile classes were being formed in the country surrounding Port Hope and in 1824 one was formed in Town, with Mr. Alexander Davidson as leader. The class consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Hall, Mrs. Healy, Allen Harris and W. Baker and meetings were held at either the residence of Mr. Hall or of Mr. Baker. The minister visiting Port Hope in that year was the Rev. Anson Green and the Circuit was now denominated the ” Cobourg Circuit.” The stations were as follows during the succeeding years :1825, D. Breckenridge, John Black ; 1826, W. Slater, R. Phelps, J. C. Davidson ; 1827, W. Slater, Egerton Ryerson ; 1828, J. Norris, Ephraim Evans ; 1829, D. Wright, John Carrol.
To give some idea of how the congregation was brought together in those early days, it is only necessary to tell how Mr. Aaron Choate of Perrytown was wont to harness his team to a large wagon or sleigh, drive to Mr. Hawkin’s home and next to Mr. Gifford’s where the Rev. Mr. Evans resided and then, with a load of people, come into town, where a service would be held in the school-house on the site of the present residence of H. A. Ward, Esq.
In 1829 Port Hope was attached to the Whitby Circuit, the Revs. R. Corson and C. Vandusen being the preachers, though a few years later it was restored to the Cobourg Circuit.
By 1833 the want of a church-building began to be felt. The Rev. Richard Jones, who preached here in that year, told how in rainy weather he had been obliged to move about in the old school-house to keep from getting wet whilst he preached his sermon. To Mr. Alexander Davidson a clerk in David Smart’s store, belonged the credit for setting on foot an agitation to build a church. He communicated with influential persons in the Province and wrote letters to newspapers, showing how necessary it was that a church should be erected in this part of the country. Finally it was decided to build. Application was made to John D. Smith, Esq. for a suitable site and that gentleman presented to the applicants the lot on Brown Street opposite the present Church. The deed bore date Dec. 21st, 1833 and the Trustees named were Wm. Barrett, Sr., Richard Howell, John Might, Thomas Benson, Robert Mitchell, Richard Barrett and Alex. Davidson. Arrangements were at once made for building. The contract was awarded to Messrs. R. Mitchell and P. Fox and on the 11th August 1835 the new church was dedicated.
It was a wooden structure with a steeple at the middle of the south front. The latter appendage was quite unusual in Methodist churches in those days and was put up at the suggestion of Alexander Davidson. There was a gallery around three sides of the Church, in the south end of which sat the choir. The minister occupied an old-fashioned ” candle-stick” pulpit at the north end.
From 1832 to 1840 the following ministers of the Cobourg Circuit officiated at Port Hope, viz. Revs. R. Jones, Davidson, Bevitt, Davis and Bigger. In 184o Port Hope’s independent circuit existence began and until 1860 these were the incumbents. 1840, Wm. Haw ; 1841-42, Asheal Hurlburt ; 1843-44) Wm. McFadden ; 1845-46, J. Gemley ; 1847, C. Lavelle and S. S. Nelles ; 1848, J. Scott and S. C. Slater ; 1849-5o, G. Goodson ; 1851-52, W. McCullough ; 1853, W. McCullogh and E. H. Dewart ; 1854-55, J. McCallum, W. Tomblin, W. Bryers ; 1856-57, R. Whiting, S. Tucker, A. E. Russ, W. C. Henderson ; 1858-59, L. Warner, W. Andrews ; 1860, J. Hunt and A. T. Green.
The Church had been growing all these years and minor additions had been made from time to time. By 1859 it was deemed necessary to make a decided enlargement. Eighteen feet were added to the east side of the Church and the interior was completely overhauled. The old pulpit was removed and a modern one substituted ; the organ and choir were shifted to an alcove at the rear of the pulpit ; the woodwork was tastefully done over in white, and gas and hot air heating were introduced. These improvements cost the Church $1600 but were more than compensated for by the increased accommodation. The Church could now hold woo persons comfortably and 1200 at a pinch.
This famous old church, with its odd additions stood until 1874, when on the morning of August 26th it was completely destroyed by fire. Meanwhile the growing requirements of the congregation had led to negotiations for the purchase of a new lot and the erection thereon of a new Church. The lot across Brown Street, where the present edifice stands was purchased from J. Shuter Smith, Esq. in 187o for $1600. Early in 1874 plans were obtained for a new building from Smith & Gemmell of Toronto and the contract was awarded to Mr. J. W. Wallace on June 9th. The ceremony of laying the corner-stone took place on September 2nd arid the completed structure was opened on March 2nd, 1876 by the Rev. Dr. Ives of Auburn, N.Y.
The building is large and imposing and quite the equal in all respects of many city churches. Nearly $35,000 were expended in its erection. It has a frontage of 85 feet on South Street, and, with the Sunday School at its rear, it extends 137 feet along Brown Street. This Sunday School portion was erected at the same time as the main church and in it is accommodated a school, which always regards its numbers and work with justifiable pride. The roll at the present day numbers nearly 600, though during previous years the attendance has been even larger. Immediately at the corner of the street towers up the lofty steeple, whose apex reaches a height of i80 feet. Within, the Church presents a subdued and restful appearance. Tall, narrow stained windows supply the light. A circular gallery extends about three sides and the seats on the ground floor are arranged in a corresponding manner. The seating capacity is 1200. The pulpit is raised to a considerable height and behind it rises the fine large organ, while the organist and choir occupy seats between. The organ, it may be noted, cost $2,500 and was bought from Warren & Co. In the tower hangs the bell, whose clear-sounding notes are so familiar to the people of the Town. It was purchased at the erection of the Church for $560 and has ever since done good service.
This fine edifice had a narrow escape from destruction by fire on July 31st, 1893. Early in the morning fire was discovered in the basement under the tower, which for a’ time threatened to be serious. Thanks to the efficient service of the Fire Brigade, however, the fire was got under way and the damage of $2500 was chiefly owing to the havoc played by the smoke.
Since 1862 the list of Methodist ministers stationed in Port Hope consists of the Revs. G. R. Sanderson 1862-4, W. S. Griffin 1865-6, John A. Williams 1867-69, I. B. Howard 1870-2, E. B. Harper 1873-5, John Shaw 1876-8, W. H. Laird 1879-81, J. B. Jeffery 1882, J. Learoyd 1883-5, J. B. Clarkson 1886-8, E. N. Baker 1889-91, W. J. Crothers, D.D. 1892-6, W. R. Young, D.D. 1897-1900. The Rev. C. B. Lanceley is now pastor of this church.