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Key West: Methodist Church

Key West: The Old and the New



The Methodist church was introduced into Key West by the Wesleyans from the Bahama Islands, and as late as 1845 the congregation was composed almost entirely of people from the British West Indies, there being but one American among them.

In 1837 among the very many worthy persons who came to Key West from the Bahamas, was Mr. Samuel Kemp, who though long dead, still lives in the sacred regard of our people. He was a Wesleyan Methodist and worshipped with those who resorted to the court house for that purpose for some time, but later erected at his own expense (assisted in the labor by some of his neighbors who were mechanics) a small building for public worship on land owned by himself on Eaton street near William. This was the first place of public worship in which the denomination known as the Wesleyan Methodists congregated in this city, and was the foundation of the Methodist church here.

"Father Kemp," as he was usually called by reason of his advanced age and somewhat clerical demeanor, officiated as pastor of this small congregation, and was often assisted in the devotional exercises of his church or chapel, by Captain Ogden of the United States army stationed here at the time.

The congregation becoming too numerous to be accommodated in this small building, a larger one was erected on a lot on the southeast side of Caroline street, between Simonton and Elizabeth streets.

In 1844 a break in the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States occurred, which resulted in the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. It grew out of the contention of the abolitionists that the general conference had the power to depose from the Episcopacy one who had previously been elevated to that rank. The Rt. Rev. James Osgood Andrew had married a lady who inherited some slaves from her first husband, and it was demanded of him that he get rid of them or desist from the exercise of his office. In Georgia, where Bishop Andrew resided, the law prohibited the manumission of slaves. Notwithstanding this a resolution was introduced in the conference that "The Rev. James Osgood Andrew be and he is hereby affectionately requested to resign his office as one of the Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church." After several days discussion a substitute for this motion was offered by two members of the Ohio conference, to the effect "That it is the sense of this general conference that he desist from the exercise of his office so long as the impediment exists."

On May 31st a motion was made to postpone any further action in the matter until the next general conference, and the southern members to a man supported it, as did a few of the conservative members for the Middle and Northern conferences, hoping thus to avoid the schism which the abolitionists were bent on effecting. It was defeated by a vote of ninety-five to eighty-four.

Finley's substitute, deposing Bishop Andrew from the Episcopacy, was then adopted by a vote of one hundred and eleven to sixty-nine. This action accomplished what the abolitionisst had been working for - a separation of the Northern Church from that of the South-and a plan of separation was adopted June 8, 1844. By this plan all the property within the limits of the Southern organization when formed was to be free from any claim by the general conference. The Southern church was also to receive an equitable share of the common church property, etc.

A Southern conference was called to meet in Louisville, Ky., on May 1, 1845, and on May 15th the Methodist Episcopal Church South was duly organized. It may not be out of place here to show the bad faith of the Northern abolitionists. In 1848 the general conference of the Northern section of the Methodist church repudiated the plan of separation, and the Church South was forced to go into the courts to maintain its rights under the plan. Suits were brought in the United States circuit courts in New York and Cincinnati. In the New York suit a decision was rendered in favor of the Church South, but in Cincinnati the case went adversely to them. It was carried to the Supreme Court of the United States, where on April 24, 1854, by a full bench-Mr. Justice McLean, a Methodist declining to sit in the case-the judgment of the circuit court in Ohio was reversed, and the plan of separation sustained in all its provisions.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South having begun its existence in 1845, it thus appears that Rev. Simon Peter Richardson, who was sent to Key West by the Florida conference in 1845, was the first minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South to officiate in Key West, although Rev. Andrew Graham was stationed here the year before.

Mr. Richardson thus describes the condition of the Methodist Church and its congregation at Key West in 1845:

"By the conference of 1845 1 was appointed to Key West station. Brother Graham of California memory, was stationed there the year before, and gave me a very unfavorable account of his ministry on the island. He told me there were thirty-two grog-shops there, and that he had encountered many difficulties. The whiskey men had threatened to wash him, which meant to tie a rope around his waist and shoulders and from the wharf to cast him into the water and then haul him in, and then cast him out again. It is a terrible ordeal to put a man through. He eluded their grasp by taking refuge on the boat that brought him over. He suffered many other indignities that were heaped upon him during the year. His church building was a small unceiled structure twenty by thirty feet. His flock was composed of Wesleyan Methodists from the West India Islands. There was but one American among them, and the more I thought over the treatment he had received, the more indignant I became. The devil made a flank movement on my piety and consecrated life, until I felt that if I ever heard of any attempt to 'wash' me they would smell fire and brimstone. I resolved that I would wipe up the earth with the first man that insulted me. The devil had got complete control of me.

"I was the only regular preacher on the island. Other preachers were occasionally there, but the Catholics came regularly to my church. When I reached the island I was met by several of the brethren, who kindly conducted me to my boarding place, with one of the best families I ever knew. They held family prayers three times a day. I looked around for trouble but found none. Everybody was polite and kind to me. I soon began to cool down and feel repentance for my sins.

"In a few days the judge, lawyers, doctors and prominent citizens called to see me, a reception I never had before nor have had since. I was invited to the Masonic lodge and chapter, and made chaplain of both. My little chapel was soon filled with the women, the men standing around outside. This brought prominently before the public mind that I must have a larger church. I collected about four thousand dollars, and from the rock of the island put up and paid for a large stone building; but it was not covered in when that ever-to-be-remembered storm came and prostrated all to the ground, a mass of ruins, and carried my little chapel entirely away, out to sea, and we never saw nor heard of it any more.

"This was the condition of affairs in October. I took the lumber and what I could bring from the wreck of the stone church and put up a small building to preach in, and large enough for my Sunday school.

"I was married in 1847. 1 had been married only a few weeks when the Catholic priest and the Episcopal and Baptist preachers came to the island, and all determined to go to the mainland and collect money to build churches, because of the storm. This was one of the trials of my life. I had the island largely under my control. Many of the best families had joined the church but had nothing left after the storm. They were utterly helpless to build, and if those preachers succeeded in building the people would have to go to their churches, having nowhere else to go. I had spent one of the hardest year's work of my life to make it a Methodist town, and had succeeded far beyond My expectations; but I saw that all was lost, in that still formative state, unless I had a church large enough to hold my congregation together. I had had a hard experience in getting: money abroad to build my St. Augustine church. I could not see how I could well leave my young wife, for I knew I should be kept months away. But go I must, I did not consult feeling nor the relations of my young wife. I simply informed her that I would have to leave her with her good mother for a time until I could get money to build a new church. I left on the first vessel for New Orleans."

Mr. Richardson canvassed all the principal cities of the South and succeeded in raising over three thousand dollars. He thus describes his return to Key West.

"I had the lumber sawed at the mills in the upper part of the city, and engaged a sloop to take it to Key West. I never believed in spirit-rappings or any other superstitions, but I had a distinct presentiment that that vessel was going to be wrecked. So strong was my impression that I left a duplicate of the bill at the mill. I went to the insurance office and proposed to insure. The agent dissuaded me, declaring there was no danger on the coast at that season of the year. The captain said he would be glad if he could get wind enough to carry his vessel to Key West. But with all this, I insured. I still felt a presentiment that the vessel would be wrecked. On July fifth I left Charleston, with thirty-two hundred dollars in gold, on a United States propeller for Key West. The thermometer stood at one hundred and five in Charleston. The brethren declared I would burn up at Key West, but when I reached the island the thermometer stood at eighty-seven. I immediately employed workmen to commence the building, but my vessel failed to put in her appearance. Finally I saw a large yawl coming into port with flag up. It was the captain of the sloop on which I had shipped the lumber, or a part of it, for the church. His vessel was wrecked on the Florida reef, and was a total loss. I soon had the bill duplicated and sent forward and collected my insurance. I had the church built storm-proof, and by October it was finished, paid for, and I was in it and preaching. The church I built remained for fifty years, and was removed only a few years ago and another erected. We now have four churches on the island. Mine was the third church we had built during the two years I was there."

The church built by Mr. Richardson in 1847 was afterwards lengthened to sixty feet and could accommodate eight hundred persons.

In 1877 plans were adopted for a church to be built of native coral rock, and the corner stone laid in the latter part of the year. Work was to progress only as funds were in hand. At the end of three years the walls were up about twenty feet, a temporary covering put on, and the congregation began worshipping in it. This was during the pastorate of Rev. John C. Ley. In his work, "Fifty-two Years in Florida," he says: "The plan after I left was finally changed, the congregation becoming discouraged in regard to carrying out the original design, and finished it up as a one-story building."

Rev. C. A. Fulwood has to his credit the longest term of service as pastor of this church. He served from 1872 to 1876, both inclusive, and again in 1888. Rev. E. A. Harrison comes next with four years; Rev. J. C. Ley also served four years, from 1877 to 1880, and Brother Henry Hice three years, 1895 to 1897. Brother R., Martin with three years, from 1883 to 1885; Brother Barnett, 1886 to 1887; Brother J. P. DePass in 1898 and 1899, were distinguished ministers who left their impress on the comunity as well as their congregations. Rev. J. D. Sibert is the pastor in 1911.


In 1868 the Methodists having decided to introduce instrumental music in their church, about thirty members severed themselves from the congregation and formed a new organization. Those enrolled for the new church were: Mr. Joseph P. Roberts and Mrs. Emma Roberts, Mr. T. B. Russell and Mrs. Sarah Russell, Mr. Benjamin Russell and Mrs. Sarah Russell, Mr. Philip Albury and Mrs. Mary N. Albury, Mr. Randall Adams and Mrs. Catherine Adams, Mr. George Curry and Mrs. Mary Curry, Mr. Joseph Ingraham and Mrs. Elizabeth Ingraham, Mr. Samuel Kemp, Mr. John Demeritt, Mr. Jabez Pinder an Mrs. Druscilla Pinder, Mr. Joshua Pinder, Mr. William Saunders and Mrs. Elizabeth Saunders, Mr. Benjamin Roberts, Sarah Thompson, Sarah Curry, Mr. Thomas Adams, Mr. John Roberts and Mrs. Margaret Roberts.

It was called Sparks Chapel after Rev. J. 0. A. Sparks, its first pastor.

A lot on the corner of Fleming and William streets was procured and a frame building erected, which was used as a place of worship until 1887, when the new church was built, under the pastorate of Rev. W. H. F. Roberts. The deed of gift to the land contained a clause intended to prohibit the use of in, strumental music in any church erected thereon. Rev. Mr. Sparks drew the deed, but it was not properly worded and failed of its purpose, and in 1892 instrumental music was introduced in the chapel, over the objection of some of the older members. The first service in the new church was held September 5,1887, During Rev. S. Scott's pastorate the church was remodeled and made very attractive both inside and out.

On October 11, 1909, it was totally destroyed by a hurricane, and for over two years the congregation worshipped in Harris high school auditorium. On the second anniversary of its destruction, work was begun on the foundation for a new church which will be completed in 1912.

Beginning in such a modest way, Sparks Chapel has maintained a healthy and normal growth, and been in the forefront of the most aggressive evangelical work in Key West.


In 1886 a small band of earnest Christians, members of the First Methodist church and Sparks Chapel, who lived too far to attend services with much regularity, organized a congregation, and met for the worship of God in Russell Hall school. Their first pastor was Rev. John A. Giddens, who was then living in Key West on account of ill health.

In 1887 they bought a lot on the corner of Watson and Virginia streets, and the old Sparks Chapel building moved thereon, and Memorial Church, M. E. South, began its mission for good. In 1903 they bought an adjoining lot, and erected a pastor's home.

Among the members of this church were Mr. T. J. Pinder and family, Mr. Blake Sawyer and family, Mr. William McClintock, Mr. Hubert Roberts and family, Mr. E. E. Archer and Mr. Benjamin Carey.

The membership is now one hundred and ninety-two, and two hundred and fifty scholars are enrolled in the Sunday school.

The Rev. T. H. Sistrunk, the pastor in charge, is a gifted orator, with the courage of his convictions, and aggressive in all movements toward civic uplift.


The Methodists were among the first of the Protestant churches to make converts among the Cuban refugees, and the Rev. H. B. Someillan was ordained minister and placed in charge of the Cuban Mission. It was not until 1877 that they had a church of their own. In that year Rev. J. C. Ley, pastor in charge of the First Methodist Church, interested Bishop Pierce in the importance of providing a place of worship for this congregation, and through him a thousand dollars was furnished by the Missionary Society, and a lot purchased on the corner of Duval and Angela streets. The small house situated on the lot was remodeled and furnished, and has since been the place of worship of the Cuban Methodist congregation. Rev. H. B. Someillan was the pastor for many years. He was succeeded by Rev. A. Silviera. Miss Annis Pyfrom, a highly cultured, talented, Christian woman, devoted some of the best years of her life in work connected with this mission. She conducted a parish school which wielded a great influence on the Cuban population.

One of the first preachers to the Cuban Mission was the Rey. Van Duzer, who died of yellow fever in the epidemic of 1875.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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