Methodism in Nevada Part II
A Bridge Spanning Two Centuries
Beginning in 1878, Nevada mineral production steadily eroded over the next thirty years. The accompanying population decline in every town dependent on mining also heralded the neglect or abandonment of church facilities. One of Nevada's most influential Methodist leaders, spanning the economically depressed latter decades of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, was Dr. Eugene W. Van Deventer. He spent a quarter of a century of ministry in this state, during seventeen years of which he held the administrative post of presiding elder (known today as district superintendent). Like Wesley and Asbury, Van Deventer believed that every community, no matter how isolated, should be exposed to the Christian message. He traveled regularly to many small towns and mining camps, urging his preachers to do likewise. From his home in Reno he visited accessible localities four times a year and remote places twice a year in an area that included the eastern slope of the Sierra north to Susanville and Fort Bidwell in California, south to Las Vegas, and east to Ely, Pioche, and Caliente. In an 1890 report, he stated that after three years of unparalleled drought, there followed a winter of almost continuous snowstorms and severe cold. He reported that he traveled 7,890 miles by buggy, rail, and on foot "with a knapsack on my back," on snowplows, snowshoes, and bobsleds. Van Deventer was a large man of perhaps 250 pounds—a fervent preacher, fearless reformer, and an amusement to pastors' children captivated by his loud snoring while he took afternoon naps at parsonages after a long journey. During his tenure as presiding elder, church membership had grown as high as 1,200 and supported the erection of nineteen new churches and fourteen new parsonages. Van Deventer also presided over the demise of many congregations acquiescing to economic exigency. In his annual report of 1911, he described a scene symptomatic of the times and applied to many mining venues across the state. "Tuscarora is dead," he wrote. "Notable…for wild excitement, sometimes up and sometimes down, mostly down, at last it has succumbed to the death grip of invincible circumstances. Its only hope of resurrection is in silver…All over Eastern and Southern Nevada the cry is heard, ‘Give us silver or give us death,' and death is given."
Some Methodist ministers were employed beyond the local church either because they sensed a call to a different form of ministry or because they needed to supplement their meager income as pastors. Sometimes their congregations were no longer able to support them. During Nevada's formative years and well into the twentieth century, these ministers became teachers in local schools and county superintendents. Rev. A. N. Fisher was elected the second state superintendent of public instruction. Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Stubbs, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, was the third president of the University of Nevada, from 1894 to 1914.
Development of Southern Nevada Local Congregations
While mineral strikes in Goldfield and Tonopah at the outset of the twentieth century temporarily helped to reverse Nevada's downward spiral, it was the slow but inexorable development of Clark County which provided the seedbed of Methodist churches in the south. Described as a colorful church developer with a shock of flowing white hair, Rev. Dr. John W. Bain arrived in what was later to become the incorporated city of Las Vegas. The Union Pacific Railroad was auctioning off land parcels. For fifty dollars Bain purchased a lot on June 18, 1905, that was to be the site of First Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Las Vegas. While the first worship service was held in a side-boarded tent school on June 11, the church was officially organized six days later with sixteen charter members. Bain had arrived in the area to find that Mrs. Mary Lake and Mrs. Emily Ball had organized a tent Sunday school ten months earlier. The official minutes of the Nevada Mission Conference on September 3, 1905, stated it would be short-sighted not to establish a church there because, it was predicted, "in the future this place will have a population of 50,000." Almost a century later, in July 2003, the church merged with Sunrise Mountain Church to form Heritage United Methodist Church on Lamb Boulevard in North Las Vegas. Heritage's congregation includes Filipino, African American, and Korean members. The church's food pantry feeds over a thousand people each month. In partnership with a nearby school, the church provides supplies for needy children.
Zion United Methodist Church in North Las Vegas was organized with fourteen members in 1917 by Rev. John L. Collins. Later Mary Nettles, A. B. "Pop" Mitchell, and others successfully petitioned the Union Pacific Railroad to donate land for a church. Mrs. Nettles asked Rev. Bradford of Arizona to be their pastor. Until 1945, Zion was the only African American congregation in the Las Vegas area. In 1940 Rev. Henry Cook became the first full-time black pastor of the church. Rev. Marion Bennett, who served from 1960 to 2004 and was elected to the Nevada State Assembly, led the church to purchase a new site on Revere Street and provide the first day care center at a black church in the area.
On September 6, 1953, Rev. Dr. Donald O'Conner, who previously had been a pastor at First United Methodist Church in Las Vegas, organized the Griffith United Methodist Church with twenty-eight charter members. They met in a building donated by the Las Vegas Carpenters Union, Local No. 1780. The church was named in memory of E. W. Griffith, a charter member and first Sunday school superintendent. In April of 1954, the congregation broke ground for its church building at 1701 E. Oakey Boulevard. The church has been known for its active youth program.
Rev. Jerry Furr founded Trinity United Methodist Church with one hundred families on the western edge of Las Vegas in October of 1963. They occupied their new building on West Charleston Boulevard in November of 1965 with additions constructed in 1977 and 1987. In 1966 the congregation established the first child care center in Las Vegas, and opened its elementary Trinity Christian School in September of 2000.
In 1965 a Hispanic congregation was organized, named Wesley Methodist Church, in North Las Vegas. Rev. Lydia Moreno was the minister. However, its ministry and mission could not be sustained.
University United Methodist Church was planted adjacent to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in March of 1966 with 176 charter members. Rev. Douglas Harrell was the organizing pastor. Lester and Vera Balkins donated a mission-style chapel for the first place of worship. Additional buildings were erected in 1979 and 1999. Located in the middle of an international community, the church includes Filipinos, African Americans, and Hispanics, and offers a mix of ethnic and cultural expressions of faith.
Methodism became organized in Henderson when sixty-four charter members established First Henderson United Methodist Church in October 1981. In the previous year Mrs. Lloyd Bault had placed an ad in the local newspaper, seeking people interested in forming a Methodist church. Ten responded for an initial meeting in the Bault home. Before their first unit was built, the congregation was offered the hospitality of St. Peter's Catholic Church in April 1982, with Rev. George Bondley as first pastor. Their own facilities were constructed on East Horizon Drive in 1984.
The Green Valley Church in Henderson came into being in 1987. Laity from the Griffith United Methodist Church volunteered to become the nucleus of the new congregation. Rev. Jerome Blankinship, Sunrise Hospital chaplain, was the founding pastor. The first meeting place was a room above the "Wounded Thumb" bar in Henderson. The congregation moved to other temporary locations in Henderson and Las Vegas before property was eventually purchased at the corner of Green Valley Parkway and Robindale Road. The initial multipurpose building was occupied in 1991, an education unit was completed in 1997, and the sanctuary opened in May 2007.
The Pahrump Valley United Methodist Church came into being on February 19, 1984. The members erected adobe brick buildings, the consecration service of which was held November 11, 1985. The present modern sanctuary is situated on Highway 372. The congregation is currently led by Rev. Joanna Vessella.
The Desert Springs Church in the Summerlin-Sun City area of Las Vegas was established June 7, 1992, with Rev. Ed Ramsey the founding pastor. The congregation met at Palo Verde High School located across the street from the new church site until the first multipurpose unit was ready for occupancy October 15, 2000. A new education wing was added March 4, 2007.
The Mesquite church was officially chartered November 2, 1997. Rev. Dr. Douglas Harrell, who was busy organizing new churches in southern Nevada, became the founding pastor. The first building was completed by October 24, 1999. Classes in English as a second language are offered at the church.
Rev. Bob Gilfert founded the Faith Springs United Methodist Church in the southwest Las Vegas community of Mountains Edge. The congregation was organized in 2001, meeting at Reedom Elementary School.
Rev. Dr. Candace Lansberry organized Daybreak Church in Las Vegas in July 2006. People began meeting in homes for Bible study, prayer, leadership development, and fellowship in 2007. Since then the congregation has worshiped at space provided by Scherkenback Elementary School.
Growing out of the campus ministry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in July of 2008 was A Grain of Mustardseed United Methodist Church Fellowship (AGOMS UMF) with Rev. Daniel Young Choi the organizing pastor. This congregation has provided bilingual leadership training in the Korean community, and has had an outreach mission to North Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
Two other churches, from whom no historical information has been provided, are a part of the cluster of congregations in Clark County and deserve to be identified in this history: the Las Vegas Korean United Methodist Church, chartered in April 1986, and Advent United Methodist Church of Las Vegas at Rancho and Joy streets, organized by the ubiquitous aforementioned Rev. Dr. Douglas Harrell in 1987.
By 2009 the southern Nevada churches had an aggregate church membership of 4,230. Sunday School classes showed an enrollment of 3,501.
Addressing Social and Cultural Issues
When the General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church, North adopted its first Social Creed in 1908, prompted by a moral concern about abusive child labor practices in the United States, the denomination was continuing the tradition of John Wesley in England and Francis Asbury in America [see Methodism in Nevada, Part I for early historical background]. Both leaders had been outspoken in their opposition to slavery and other social ills. Since 1908, the denomination's only legislative body, the General Conference, has adopted social principles on a wide range of contemporary human issues related to hardship, suffering, injustice, international strife, and environmental stewardship.
Early Nevada Methodists, while giving evangelism a high priority, were imbued with that sense of the social gospel as well. For example, the 1865 Virginia City Conference proudly hailed Nevada being the first among the states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. In the formative years of Nevada's statehood, Governor Nye objected twice without success to laws prohibiting the testimony of African Americans and other non-whites in criminal and civil court cases. When in 1863 the twenty-two members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and their pastor, Rev. Jacob Mitchell, sought a temporary meeting place in Virginia City while their building was being constructed, the already established Methodist Episcopal congregation of that city offered hospitality, as did local citizens in the use of the courthouse. This AME congregation and another in Carson City were the only black churches of early Methodist heritage in Nevada at that time. Now there are three AME churches in Nevada: First AME Church and Holy Trinity AME Church in North Las Vegas, and Bethel AME Church in Sparks.
Five months after Fort Sumter fell to the provisional Confederate forces, the September 1861 Methodist Conference in Nevada issued a report on "The State of the Country," in which conferees spoke out against war as a solution to resolve political grievances as well as asserting that "secession matured is anarchy," leading to "the destruction of all government, and the disintegration of society."
In 1901 attention was given to ministry among the Paiutes, Shoshones, and Washoes throughout the state. Based in Carson City, Robert G. Pike was assigned to what was termed "The Indian Mission." Pike decided it was best to focus on a specific area—the Walker River Reservation at Schurz. By the late summer of 1905, Nevada Methodism had taken root there, when it was reported that sixteen adults were preparing for membership and 300 children were enrolled in Sunday school. The vacant church building at Gold Hill was moved to the reservation and erected.
Nevada Methodist leaders asserted their legacy of prohibition against liquor, gambling, and prostitution. None other than Governor Henry Blasdel and his wife, Sarah, led the fight against beverage alcohol, giving legitimacy to the temperance movement in Nevada. During his term in office (1864–1871), Blasdel forbade liquor at gubernatorial events. He was called the "coffee and chocolate governor." The ladies of the Silver State gave impetus to the temperance cause as the national Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), organized in 1874, suggests. A year earlier an organizational meeting of temperance groups networking in Nevada and California took place in San Francisco. Rev. Thomas McGrath, who had been busy organizing many churches in northern Nevada, attended the meeting. Some years earlier, he had addressed a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of Temperance in Virginia City. A prominent national Methodist leader, Frances Willard, who was particularly known for championing women's suffrage and the right of women to be elected as voting delegates to General Conference, held a meeting at Reno's First Methodist Church in 1883 to establish the Nevada WCTU. In 1887 Lucy Van Deventer, whose husband was a prominent Methodist clergyman, was elected state president of the organization. By 1910 local unions had been established in Reno, Carson, Virginia, Genoa, Gold Hill, Sheridan, Mason Valley, Elko, Winnemucca, Wadsworth, Lovelock, Ruby Hill, Eureka, and Tuscarora. Reno First Church pastor Rev. Leslie M. Burwell (1906–1910) reported that among his accomplished goals were to clean up city politics and abolish gambling in Reno. Late in 1930 or early 1931 a visiting temperance leader, "Dry Jones," spoke at the church. He assailed Reno's various corruptions, including liquor, calling the city a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Mayor Edwin E. Roberts demanded the right to challenge the speaker and was given a hearing. He quoted favorable statistics about church attendance, municipal improvements, and educational standards. Finally the mayor contended that the only way to deal with bootlegging was to "place a barrel of whiskey with a dipper in it on every corner." The city could distill the liquor and post a sign inviting all to imbibe "on the city." That caused a huge stir and conversations around town. Whiskey barrels never appeared.
The racial climate in Nevada at the turn of the twentieth century led to the state being dubbed "the Mississippi of the West." For example, in 1904 Reno police chief R. C. Leeper openly carried out a policy of arresting all unemployed blacks and forcing them to leave the city. The policy was endorsed by local newspapers. In the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan groups were found in many towns. In Reno, during the 1930s and 1940s, some restaurants posted signs in their windows saying "No Negroes allowed," "No Colored Trade Solicited," and "No Indians, dogs or Negroes allowed." During the same period, gamblers in Las Vegas pressured casino owners to keep blacks out. High profile African American entertainers could appear in casino hotel showrooms, but were not permitted to lodge there. These circumstances finally led Methodist Governor Grant Sawyer to sign the state's first civil rights bill in 1961. However, latent racism erupted when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968. Governor Laxalt had invited this writer, who was pastor of the Carson City church at the time and known as a civil rights activist who had marched with King, to organize an interfaith memorial service. It was held on the west porch of the capitol on April 6. With the religious leaders gathered in the governor's office prior to the service, Laxalt spoke of many angry messages he had received from around the state demanding that the American flag on the capitol dome be returned to the top of the staff. This writer received hate mail for having conducted the service and later attending King's funeral in Atlanta, Georgia.
The early 1970s found the denomination embroiled in a controversy over whether or not gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons embrace a chosen lifestyle thought by most Methodists at the time to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Others asserted that homosexuality is a God-given sexual orientation. At this writing the controversy continues. Nationally the Reconciling Ministries Network has emerged within the denomination, through which a growing number of local churches and conferences are committed to welcoming homosexuals as persons of worth and deserving access to the means of God's grace. In 2003 the church council of First United Methodist Church in Reno voted to become a reconciling congregation—the only United Methodist church in Nevada to be so designated at this writing. The California-Nevada Annual Conference is a reconciling conference.
Walking the Talk
Many Nevada Methodists have endeavored to put their Christian faith into action, dedicated to improve the quality of life for all citizens of the state. This article will report only on a limited number of persons no longer living to illustrate how individuals can make a difference.
Martha Letcher Gottschalk (1881–1973) was born in the mining town of Bodie, California, orphaned as a young child, raised in Reno by Cornish immigrants, and lived most of her life in Lovelock. She devoted herself to public service as a nurse's aide at Washoe County Hospital. She participated in the Lovelock church's Ladies Aid Society that provided refreshments for World War One soldiers being transported by trains through the area and reached out to meet basic needs of the poor and lonely widows of her community.
Bertha Rosanna Sanford Woodard was born January 25, 1916, and received her nursing degree at Washoe Western School of Nursing. She worked at Washoe Medical Center for over seventeen years before retiring. An active member of the Sparks church, Woodard was dubbed the matriarch of the Reno-Sparks branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was the local president (1971–76) and served at the regional and national levels of the NAACP. Governor Grant Sawyer invited Bertha Woodard to be present when he signed Nevada's first civil rights law in 1961. Governors Laxalt, O'Callaghan, and List appointed her to serve on many state advisory boards. The University of Nevada Board of Regents presented her with the 1981 Distinguished Nevadan Award.
In addition to his having signed legislation that ended segregationist policies and promoted equal rights, Governor Sawyer (1959–67) created the Nevada Gaming Commission to help liberate the industry from organized crime. Also he championed the cause of environmental conservation. In many ways Sawyer's public policies reflected Methodist social principles.
Dr. Richard Petty of the Carson City church was, in addition to his general practice from 1941 to 1972, a part-time state prison physician (1941–71), medical consultant with the Department of Rehabilitation (1947–71) and with the Disability Determination Unit of Social Security (1954–71). At the request of governors Charles Russell, Grant Sawyer, and Paul Laxalt, Petty served on the State Hospital Advisory Board (1952–63), the State Board of Medical Examiners (1960–69), and the State Welfare Board (1968–72).
A native of Genoa, Clarence K. Jones was a student at University of Nevada, Reno (1927–31) and an active alumnus and benefactor of the university. He built a career with the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal, and was an active member and officer at Reno's First Methodist Episcopal Church well into the 1980s prior to his death.
An early pioneer to Las Vegas in February 1905 was Delphine Squires, whose husband, Charles, was the proprietor of Hotel Las Vegas. As an active community leader, she organized the women's suffrage movement in Las Vegas in 1912. Frances Farnsworth, a prominent member of First Methodist Church in Las Vegas, was also active in the women's suffrage movement.
Bob Baskin, a member of First Methodist Church, Las Vegas, was a city and county commissioner in the 1930s. He owned a restaurant on North Las Vegas Boulevard. His church gave countless hungry people food tickets and referred them to Baskin's restaurant. He covered the cost of the meals and also paid the bills of unemployed friends as well as gave food baskets to the needy.
Another member of First Methodist Church in Las Vegas was Ellie Manson Popp, who came to the area in 1929. She loaded her car with food and clothing to take to the Paiutes. With the help of others, Popp opened a thrift shop at the Westlake House at Fourth and Bridger streets.
Mrs. Edna Farnsdale, a Las Vegas Methodist, chaired a committee in the summer of 1941 to provide for the spiritual needs of soldiers when the Las Vegas Air Base opened. Her group met soldiers at the train with coffee and doughnuts.
Commitment to Ecumenism
The denomination's commitment to higher education has been evidenced by the support of university and college campus ministries. Methodist minister John L. Dodson was director of the Campus Christian Association (CCA) on North Virginia Street near the University of Nevada, Reno campus in the 1960s. With the support from the diversely Protestant CCA board of directors and Catholic Newman Club director, Father John Marschall, the CCA and Newman Club merged to form the Center for Religion and Life. Dodson properly hailed this as a milestone in ecumenical relations. The Center's codirectors worked directly with university faculty and student groups to defuse racial tensions in the early 1970s. In 1968, during his tenure as the pastor at University Church (1966–1975), Rev. Jerome Blankinship formed a cooperative campus ministry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas patterned after the Center for Religion and Life in Reno. Giving the group the same name, the Center drew together American Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics.
Through the efforts of Rev. Dodson, Mr. Don Winne, and others, the Nevada entity of the former California-Nevada Council of Churches reorganized January 26, 1967, to create the Nevada Council of Churches. Nevada became the second state in the nation to unite Roman Catholic and Protestant judicatories choosing to covenant together. Over 130 clergy and laity attended the organizing event, at which Don Winne, a leader in the Carson City Methodist Church, was elected the first president. A former Marine and FBI agent, Winne served as Nevada Deputy Attorney General (1965–69) and was the recipient of the 2008 B.J. Fuller Excellence in Teaching Award for his thirty-five years of outstanding teaching in the College of Business, University of Nevada, Reno on the subject of business ethics and law.
Over time the composition and mission of the state's official ecumenical movement changed. On January 15, 1997, the Religious Alliance in Nevada (RAIN) became a successor organization, drawing together clergy and lay representatives of the Nevada Roman Catholic Conference, Episcopal Diocese of Nevada of the Episcopal Church U.S.A., Nevada Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Nevada of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church, bridging districts in southern and northern Nevada of two distinct conferences—Desert Southwest and California-Nevada. The mission of RAIN is to provide public advocacy regarding biblical principles of justice, compassion, reconciliation, love for and service to others and to call upon state government to reflect these values in public policy.
In Methodist polity, a bishop is the chief pastoral and administrative leader of a geographical area called an Annual Conference. Since 1968, Methodism has made history in the northern Nevada area (Carson, Churchill, Douglas, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Pershing, Storey, Washoe, and White Pine counties) with the assignment of its first African American bishop, Rev. Charles Golden (1968–72), first Chinese American bishop, Rev. Wilbur W. Y. Choy (1980–84), and first African American female bishop to be elected anywhere in North America, Rev. Leontine T. C. Kelly (1984–88). Likewise the southern Nevada area (Clark, Esmeralda, Lincoln, and Nye counties) made history with the first Hispanic bishop to be elected in the United States, Rev. Elias G. Galvan (1984–96), and the first female Hispanic bishop, Rev. Minerva Carcaño (2004– ). In addition, the 1990s welcomed the first Korean district superintendent in northern Nevada, Rev. Suk-Chong Yu. In southern Nevada, Rev. Dr. Candice Lansberry (2008– ) became the first clergywoman appointed as district superintendent.
On October 24, 2008, the Sparks United Methodist Church was one of thirteen national recipients of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 Energy Star Small Business and Congregation Award for its energy-efficient renovations. The church's pastor, Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler, said: "This was a decision by our board to reduce costs in an aging building. We're grateful so many people have recognized our work." The church, started in 1906 by fourteen settlers, is reducing annual greenhouse emissions of more than 160 tons, the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity use of more than nineteen homes according to the news story published October 26, 2008, in the Reno Gazette-Journal.