First United Methodist Church - Lakeland, Florida

Our History

In 1884, the city of Lakeland was in the thrust of its infancy with homes being built, businesses beginning, land being tilled for groves, vegetation and the like, phosphate being unearthed and families beginning to move in.

As was the case across America during the settlement of this country, the need for the church was evident. Thus in 1884, the Methodist Episcopal Church South of Lakeland was born when a group of about 15 people saw this need and gathered in a schoolhouse known as the Academy. This location was on the northwest corner of South Tennessee Avenue and East Lime Street. Leading this organization congregation was William T. Taylor, who was a local Methodist minister serving as supply pastor of the Medulla Mission, south of Lakeland.

Services continued to take place in the schoolhouse for about a year, at which time the congregation moved to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church located north of the school on Tennessee Avenue. The leadership of the Presbyterian Church was generous in sharing their building with the Methodist congregation until a permanent place of worship could be built. Also during those first few years, groups within the organization of the church met in homes and in the upper story of a building on Tennessee Avenue known as the Riggins-Wagner building.

Not until 1885 did the church become an official appointment in the Annual Methodist Conference minutes, and T. J. Phillips was assigned as its pastor.

By the beginning of 1887, exciting things were happening as the city and church were growing.  With A. E. Householder as pastor, the congregation took a big step and purchased its first property on the west side of the 200 block of South Kentucky Avenue.  The 100 foot by 132 foot lot was purchased for $500.  A one-room frame structure (similar to the one pictured at right) was built and used as the church until 1889, when under the pastorate of C. A. Saunders, a larger structure was built, and the original small building was remodeled for use as a parsonage.

On February 3, 1903, an adjoining lot on Kentucky Avenue was purchased for $300. At this time, Smith Hardin was pastor and was credited with leading the congregation in raising funds for the masonry structure that was built in 1906. By 1909 the entire indebtedness of $2,200 was cleared and the church was dedicated by pastor J. R. Cason. (Picture above: Lakeland in 1910)

While the first Sunday School for the Methodist Church in Lakeland was organized in the frame schoolhouse, the first building erected specifically for Sunday School purchases was built on the Kentucky Avenue property in 1914 with J. B. Ley as pastor. The Sunday school grew to become the largest in the Florida United Methodist Conference.

In approximately 1895, the first Epworth League for young people was organized, this was a prelude of what now is called the United Methodist Youth Fellowship (UMYF). Other groups were beginning as in 1889 a Women’s Foreign Missionary Society was formed. This is the organization that is now known as the United Methodist Women.

By 1922 other Methodist churches had started in Lakeland, so the one organized in 1884 was designated as First Methodist Church by the Annual Conference. It became First United Methodist Church in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged with the Methodist Church.

As all of this was happening, the church membership was growing and additions were being made to the facility affectionately referred to as the “gray stone church.” A gymnasium was built and the Sunday School unit was enlarged.

However, even with the extensive refurbishing, it soon became evident that something had to be done to secure larger facilities for the Sanctuary as well as the fellowship areas. There was no additional lad available for expansion on Kentucky Avenue, so it was decided to purchase a new site on which to build and meet the needs of this rapidly growing congregation.

In 1945, with R. E. Rutland, Sr., as pastor, the property at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Orange Street was purchased as the site for the new buildings. The campaign began to raise funds and plans were drawn. By 1947, when R. J. Broyles was appointed pastor and $40,000 had been raised, it was realized that the location was going to be too small to accommodate the needed facilities.

This property was sold to Florida Citrus Mutual and the present location, on beautiful Lake Morton, was acquired.  New plans were drawn and construction started on the Sunday school wings and the social hall.  In 1951, with Ralph M. Pierce, pastor, the congregation moved to the new location with worship services held in the social hall until construction of the Sanctuary in 1955, under the leadership of pastor, J. Milburn McLeod.  The cost of the Sanctuary was $50,000; all of the other buildings including the parsonage and six acres of land cost $550,000.

In 1958, the Chapel, Parlor and Library wing was built;  By 1966, an additional Sunday school wing and the Music building had been erected.  In 1986, a gymnasium was constructed.  In 1989, the church purchased a building immediately south of the property, on the corner of Lake Morton Drive and Vistabula Street to be used as the administrative office complex.  A columbarium was constructed in 1994 in a beautiful and worship setting in front of the children’s wing and lakefront.

In 1995, a new youth/adult building was constructed on the east side of the complex. This 4 level building houses a medium size gathering space, various classrooms, a youth lounge, youth chapel, and computer lab.

In February, 1998, the social hall was destroyed by fire. This led leaders to work hard to determine the way the building should be replaced. The new Fellowship Center opened on Christmas eve, 1999, nearly 2 years after the early morning fire. Hundreds of people gather each Sunday to worship in this room at the Contemporary Worship service.

In 2003, nearly 50 years after the Sanctuary was built, a restoration program occurred to enhance the tired worship space. The project, not only enhanced the chancel area, but a new, larger enclosed Narthex was constructed on the east side of the Sanctuary overlooking Lake Morton. This area serves as a welcoming, reception and meeting space for various groups.

In 2006, the Chapel was restored as well. Increasing size and flexibility to the chancel area, and also adding much needed storage space in order to accommodate various types of services and events in the more intimate worship facility.

Since the beginning of Lakeland Methodism, when fifteen people of great faith and foresight gathered in the little wooden schoolhouse, to the present day congregation of over 4,700, much has happened in the life of First United Methodist Church. We have worshipped in four locations, been served by 42 senior pastors, and have seen unbelievable growth in the outreach of the church. It has taken faith, hard work, hope and vision. Our heritage, mission and vision reach out to many as we minister to our members and neighbors throughout the world.

Throughout the 123 year existence, there have been 42 appointed ministers:

T. J. Phillips (1885) W. F. Dunkle (1926)
W. H. Parker (1886) W. A. Myres (1927-28)
A. E. Householder (1887-88) H. F. Tolle (1929)
C. A. Saunders (1889) I. C. Jenkins (1930-32)
W. P. Hawkins (1890) C. K. Vliet (1933-34)
W. N. Boswell (1890) J. E. Ellis (1935-36)
A. E. Householder (1891) J. D. Hurt (1939-42)
G. W. Mitchell (1892) R. E. Rutland, Sr. (1943-47)
H. B. Frazee (1893) R. J. Broyles (1948-51)
Fred Pixton (1894-97) Ralph M. Pierce (1951-52)
W. H. Steinmeyer (1898) J. Milburn McLeod (1952-59)
John A. Hendry (1899-1900) Clare M. Cotton (1959-63)
Sam Scott (1901) Caxton Doggett (1963-67)
Smith Hardin (1902-1905) Walter B. Rutland (1967-71)
J. R. Cason (1906-1909) David G. Hortin (1971-1980)
W. K. Piner (1910-1911) James C. Rowan (1980-91)
I. C. Jenkins (1912-1913) * Robert E. Fannin (1991-92)
J. B. Ley (1914) Riley P. Short (1992-2003)
J. E. Wray (1915) Robert M. Gibbs (2003-07)
I. D. Lowe (1916-1919) W. David McEntire (2007-present)
J. F. Bell (1920-21)
J. N. Gross (1922-1925) * Elected to the Episcopacy in 1992

Excerpts from, “A History of First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, Florida 1884-1994” by Mrs. Marian Nelson for Heritage Sunday, November 6, 1994. Additional information provided by Harriet S. Mayes, Church Administrator. If you have additional information about First Church’s history, please email