Sitting side by side on Church Circle in downtown Kingsport were First Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and Broad Street Methodist Episcopal Church (South).
“We visited both churches back and forth for months. We just couldn’t make up our minds,” Martha Rector said. “South and North didn’t mean a thing to us.”
The Rectors eventually joined Broad Street Methodist Episcopal which, since the merger of the two churches in 1969, is known as First Broad Street United Methodist Church.
The history of First Broad Street United Methodist Church goes back to the early 1800s. The United Methodist Holston Conference was formed in 1824, and Kingsport Methodist Church was planted in the Boatyard area on Netherland Inn Road.
In 1844, the issue of slavery divided that church into North and South, and after around 1865, both groups continued to use the Kingsport Methodist Church on alternating Sundays. The building was abandoned around 1907 because of disrepair.
In 1911, Broad Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was organized on Church Circle, followed in 1918 by the organization of First Methodist Episcopal Church, North. For 50 years, congregations in these two churches had basically the same programs and worship experiences.
In 1969, the two congregations, part of the then 1-year-old United Methodist Church, voted to merge into one fellowship. The unification of the church was completed on June 8 of that year.
First Broad Street United Methodist Church celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend. The bishop, all living past ministers, former staff personnel and members of the church were invited back to the church.
For members of Broad Street, the vote to merge was an easy one; for First Methodist members, not so easy.
“It was a close vote at First Church; overwhelming at Broad Street,” said Mary Sue Still, who had been a member of First Methodist because her late father served as pastor there from 1949 to 1952.
“Part of the opposition from First Church was this church [Broad Street] was larger and it was expanding,” Rector said. “They didn’t want to move from their church.”
By the time of the union, the former Broad Street building had added a chapel, a new social hall, offices, a choir suite and classrooms. In 1976, the sanctuary was completely renovated. In 1993, First Methodist was remodeled and a connecting underground tunnel — the Toombs Kay Interlink — was built to join the two buildings. First Methodist was renamed Woodyard Center in honor of the Rev. E.O. Woodyard, the pastor who oversaw its construction. In early 2008, First Broad’s educational building was replaced and the sanctuary was updated.
“It’s symbolic that the two are united,” Still said of the tunnel.
When the churches first joined, pastors from both shared the pulpit.
“The first year, they served as co-pastors, then the bishop moved both and brought in Tom Chilcote as the first senior pastor,” said Darres Carter, who joined the staff of First Methodist in 1966 and today serves as First Broad Street’s membership secretary.
Some who were opposed to the merger left for other Methodist churches, while some joined local Baptist churches, said Jan McCartt, wife of another former minister, Spurgeon McCartt.
The newly created church had the largest congregation of any church in the Holston Conference. Staff from First Methodist was brought on board alongside Broad Street’s staff, and great care was taken to make sure various committees had equal representation from both churches.
Also after the union, the church briefly leased out the First Methodist building to the city, and the Fine Arts Center, now the Arts Council of Greater Kingsport, was based there until it moved to the Renaissance Center. Today, that building is home to a child care center, Sunday school rooms and the Friendship Diner, which serves free breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
First Broad Street has a steady membership of around 2,520, Carter said. And, the church that was initially divided on the issue of slavery has a black senior pastor, the Rev. A. Clark Jenkins.