The beginnings of the congregation believed to be the oldest, continuously organized congregation in Shawnee County are intertwined with the pro-slavery/free-state tensions that eventually led to the Civil War.
On October 10, 1854, the Rev. Learner Blackman Stateler set up a tent and conducted the first worship service for the congregation that would organize to become the present-day Tecumseh United Methodist Church.
Methodist Episcopal Church-South
In 1844, the national Methodist Episcopal Church had split apart because of the slavery issue and remained separated until they reunited in 1939. The Methodist Episcopal churches in some of the southern states became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
In Kansas, which was Indian Territory prior to 1854, much of the Methodist mission work was done by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. It was Rev. Stateler’s work as a circuit rider for the Kansas Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, that brought him to Tecumseh to serve the religious needs of the Indians as well as those of the white settlers who were coming to the area because of the opening of Kansas Territory for settlement in 1854.
Although Rev. Stateler was a circuit rider, he moved his family to Tecumseh and they lived there while he rode his circuit, and even after 1856 when he was appointed to other circuits in the area that did not include Tecumseh. He owned land just east of town (where the power plant currently sits) where his wife, Melinda Purdom Stateler, managed the family farm very successfully while he as away for long periods of time. Other circuit riders served the congregation, which continued to meet in homes until they eventually built a church during the years 1858 and 1859.
Eli Hopkins was an important early member of the church. We have early church records from 1856 in his handwriting with his signature. The stone home that he built still stands at the corner of US-40 Highway and Shawnee Heights Road.
The small town of Tecumseh was a booming town in those early days. Founded in 1854 and designated as the county seat by the Territorial Legislature in 1855, it became the headquarters for the pro-slavery settlers who put forth a strong effort (which failed) to become the territorial capital and also hoped that Tecumseh would be the capital of the future state of Kansas.
Most Methodist Episcopal, South, ministers tried to keep clear of political issues, and did not approve of the conduct of those who tried to make Kansas a slave state. However, in the spring of 1862, after the county seat was moved to Topeka and Kansas had become a free state, Rev. Stateler was threatened with hanging because he was a Southern preacher. He asked to be appointed to Denver and left soon after. Because there was not much money, Mrs. Stateler stayed with the farm. A few months later, the home was torched by anti-slavery supporters and as soon as she could find men to drive the ox team and cattle while she drove the team of mares, she packed up what she could and left to reunite with her husband. They eventually settled in Montana.
Methodist Episcopal Church -North
In the meantime, the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) was actively working to help colonize Kansas with free-state immigrants.
The Rev. James Griffing, also a circuit rider, first came to Tecumseh on February 8, 1855, knowing that Rev. Stateler had preached his first ME South sermon there four months earlier.
He stopped at the cabin of Francis Grassmuck and they agreed upon a meeting for that evening. Rev. Griffing set out on his pony, Jacob, to notify nearby settlers. He was taunted and ridiculed by some who were pro-slavery supporters, but nevertheless a good number came for the evening preaching. They organized a society of nine members with leaders who would carry on between the circuit rider’s visits. Rev. Griffing bought land midway between Tecumseh and Topeka where he and his bride, Augusta, made their home. Rev. Griffing served the Tecumseh church until the end of 1856 and again in 1860, 1861, and 1863. The Griffing home remained in the family for three generations.
Two Become One
The two churches not only existed in the same town, but also built church buildings back to back on adjacent lots, one facing east and the other west.
Over the years, as circumstances changed, Kansas entered the Union as a free state and the town of Tecumseh, which had once been booming and full of promise, declined as quickly as it had grown.
The Civil War years were difficult for the ME South church. After the war, as the tensions of the conflict subsided, the two churches eventually blended into one.
The current church building was constructed in 1896 under the direction of Edward Goodell, a bricklayer whose family lived in the area for generations, and whose grandson was a pastor who preached his first sermon in the church his grandfather had built. An education wing was added to the church in 1964.