In the early 1900’s, Epworth University was the first college in Oklahoma City, built on the location of the current Epworth United Methodist Church. It was founded as a federated organization supported by two major denominations of the Methodist church: the Methodist Episcopal Church (also known as the “north” branch), and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. These denominations had split over slavery in 1844 and re-merged in 1939. Reconciliation found a home at Epworth in the early part of the century, as it did at the end of the same century.
Funds came from both denominations, and organizational support came from what is today Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. The main campus building was constructed in 1903, along with a wood-frame dormitory to its north and a small power house to its west. Classes began in 1904. Statehood was declared in 1907, with the capital at Guthrie. In the latter part of the decade, one of the denominations stopped its subsidy, and the inter-denominational federation canceled. The school struggled until it declared bankruptcy and classes ceased in 1911.
A portion of the University’s land was transferred to the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which transferred it to the Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church South congregation, which was founded nearby in 1911.
The west portion of Epworth church was built in 1903 with a sanctuary added in 1926. The Children’s Building, built in 1955, on the south side, is attached to the university building by only a short open breezeway roof.
This resource is individually eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, under criteria for Community Planning and Development, Education, and Architecture. In addition to the National Register nomination, Epworth University was recently designated as a United Methodist Historic Site. There is only one other in the state, the Mt. Scott Kiowa UMC in Lawton.
Lives in the surrounding community were affected by this majestic building, first as a medical school and later as an active Methodist congregation. Young and old alike living in the neighborhood attended services on Sunday, learning about their religion in Sunday School classes and worshiping together in the large new sanctuary. Pictures still hang on the walls of the building showing men’s classes of 75- 100 men. Pianos with memorial plaques, art donated by family members, and memorials line the walls, attesting to the many families and beloved members who worked and worshipped, died and are remembered for their contributions to the community which surrounded the building.
The Current Congregation
As an “inner city church”, the Epworth Community began to face the same reality as many inner city churches. Families moved to the suburbs to get away from changing neighborhoods and those families moved their church memberships to newer, more modern churches. They wanted their children to go to church with school friends and neighbors. And yet, some at Epworth continued to try to minister to the neighborhood around the church. They welcomed after school programs for neighborhood children, offices for connected ministries in the neighborhood and tried to continue to minister to their neighbors. Maintenance to the beautiful, historical building suffered though, because the congregation chose to spend their resources on the mission of the church and also because the numbers of participants continued to diminish.
In 1994, when the Oklahoma Bishop of the United Methodist Church and his Cabinet agreed to an experiment – a church welcoming and affirming of all persons regardless of race, age, gender, financial status or sexual orientation – the existing Epworth Community, about 30 – 40 mature members, agreed. And this wonderful group of existing members welcomed some 100-150 Reconciling Methodists: Methodists who welcomed all, including gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons, as full members and brothers and sisters in Christ. In 1995, Epworth United Methodist Church joined the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, a grassroots organization seeking full participation in the church for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons.
One of the phrases that best describes Epworth United Methodist Church today is “Epworth is a good place to be.” While a large number of churches have chosen to close their doors to many people, the community at Epworth works hard to keep the doors wide open to all people. Epworth’s mission statement says it all.
“We are striving to follow in the reconciling ministry of Jesus as an inclusive, nurturing, justice-seeking community.”
The Epworth United Methodist Church will continue to worship in this historic place and honor the contributions of the saints of this congregation whose dream it was to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood in love and support. Epworth continues to support the vision of reconciliation, begun in the early 1900’s and continued throughout the century.
Working together, with the support and encouragement of the neighborhood, the new community of the Epworth Building can continue to evolve and grow, responding to the current and future needs of a neighborhood in transition, stay sensitive to changing times and needs, and to continue to make a difference to the people, institutions, and organizations which make up the Epworth neighborhood. What an exciting and wonderful vision for a very old building which has long been a part of an historical neighborhood visioned by some of the very founders of Oklahoma City!