First United Methodist Church Pasadena has been a part of the Pasadena community for nearly 150 years, always located in the heart of the city.
What we now know as Pasadena began when 27 stockholders from Indiana held a Founders’ Day Picnic on January 27, 1874 at which they divided up four hundred acres of barren ranch land. Seven months later, a prayer meeting was held and eventually a Sunday School was formed. In January, 1875, a one-room schoolhouse was completed and the Union Sunday School and worship services were held there. In April, a Methodist class was held in which there were eleven members.
On January 7, 1877, a one-room Methodist Church was dedicated on Orange Grove at Palmetto by a congregation of twenty-four members. The facility had two hundred seats, a pump organ, a church bell and kerosene lamps. The pastor preached every other Sunday, sharing a circuit ministry with San Gabriel and Alhambra until 1882.
Pasadena began to develop on Colorado instead of Orange Grove. Better roads and street lights were needed for evening services, so the church was put on rollers and moved near a livery stable on Colorado and De Lacey.
The congregation’s next development was the purchase of land on the “hill” at the southeast corner of Colorado and Marengo. On March 20, 1887, a frame church with a 140-foot steeple and an adjacent eight-room parsonage were dedicated. The steeple housed our present bell.
During a land boom in 1886-1888, Pasadena’ population grew from 3,000 to 14,000. The church rented space in an orange grove for hitching horses, and the congregation continued to use the church for classrooms, kitchen and offices, but worship was held in a barn-like building called the Tabernacle. It was completed in 1888 and was also used as a kind of town hall. Susan B. Anthony and Dwight L. Moody spoke there, and the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, displayed themselves there! Temperance, women’s suffrage and slavery were important issues of the day.
Pasadena incorporated in 1886 in part to rid the city of saloons. A temperance ordinance was passed, challenged, taken to the Supreme Court and upheld. The Methodist Church bell rang, the church overflowed, and the youth built a huge bonfire to celebrate the victory. On the other side, the saloon owners held an open house with free drinks. The pastor was burned in effigy, and there were abusive attacks in the press. The Methodist stand on temperance brought hoodlums to disrupt worship services, an activity that went on for about 20 years. Ushers had to patrol and guard the place.
A tornado destroyed the steeple on December 10, 1891, and the bell crashed to the street. It was later taken to the Methodist camp in Pacific Palisades, which was eventually purchased by Presbyterians. The bell, which had tolled a temperance victory, withstood a tornado and called us to worship since the 1880s, returned to us with a Homecoming Celebration in 1968 and can be seen and heard in the Cloister.
Following the tornado, the second church and its accompanying tabernacle were razed, and in their place a large stone church was built and dedicated on December 15, 1901. The basement Sunday School floor could be drawn back to reveal a baptismal pool. Soon after dedication, a “collector of pledges” was hired, and in four months, for the first time in several years, all bills were paid.
In 1926, Dr. Merle Smith became pastor and soon after, during World War I, he and Dr. Robert Freeman of the Presbyterian Church went to Belgium and Italy with the YMCA. They procured celebrities to entertain our troops and served refreshments to the soldiers as they came back from battle. The congregations were anxious for their pastors’ safety.
Back home, the congregation was outgrowing its facilities. Children were taught in the basement and adults in a real estate office and at Stevens Mortuary. There was not enough room for everyone at worship. During the ensuing building campaign the entire Sunday School filled the aisles, carrying banners with slogans like, “We want to get out of the cellar and have light,” and “We want to get away from the undertaker.” With feigned weeping, they left singing, giving a great boost to the pledge asking that followed.
To Present Day
A lot was purchased on Colorado Boulevard at Oakland Avenue, construction began, and by 1923 the congregation moved into Sunday School rooms and held worship services in the Great Hall, beginning with a full orchestra. There were also weekly movies and roller skating. In December 1924, the completed church was dedicated with eleven special services. There were dinners, concerts, and pledge-raising events. An E. M. Skinner pipe organ was installed in the new Sanctuary, which also features inspiring stained glass windows created by Roy C. Baillie Studios in Los Angeles. A Tiffany window of “the boy Jesus” was placed above the altar in the Chapel.
A renovation of the Sanctuary was undertaken in the early 1990’s, resulting in a more functional Chancel area. At about the same time, significant seismic retrofitting was undertaken on the Sanctuary and Education buildings. After a period of being unusable, the Chapel was re-opened in 2006 following a complete renovation and seismic strengthening. The decision to preserve these historic buildings reflects the congregation’s commitment to faithfully continue its presence and grow its ministry in the city’s core.
On October 23, 2011 members of First UMC voted overwhelmingly to become a Reconciling Congregation – a congregation committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. In the fall of 2015, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, the congregation voted to allow same-gender weddings to be held in the church’s facilities and to support its appointed clergy in officiating at these services.