The Southport Church

Southport ChurchIn January of 1835, as he traveled from Green Bay to Chicago, the Rev. John Clark passed through the future site of Southport and reported not a single white settler. This would all change the following summer when representatives of the Western Emigrating Company of Hannibal, N.Y. arrived, in search of a city site. They chose an area around where the Pike River emptied into Lake Michigan and sent word east that the land was ripe for homesteading. The president of the Emigrating Company was a solid Baptist and insisted that among the first settlers that left for Southport there would be a Baptist minister. This was the Elder Lathrop. Even though he arrived with the vanguard of settlers, there is some controversy as to whether the Baptist minister or a Methodist itinerant, the Rev. Mark Robinson of the Illinois Conference, stationed in Milwaukee, preached the first sermon in Southport. This is a wondeful example of how the flexibility and efficiency of the itinerant system worked to our domination's advantage. Methodism in Southport, however, didn't really take hold until October of 1837, when Reuben Deming, a Methodist local preacher, arrived with his family from Vermont. "The following day a man called at their door, informed Mr. Deming that they had been awaiting him; that a meeting would be held at the Deming house the following Sunday, and Mr. Deming was to preach. The man then went on his way to notify the people". It is a measure of the need for spiritual care felt by these pioneers that Mr. Deming's congregation that Sabbath numbered 60-70 when the total population within a day's travel wasn't a hundred. Later that year, Southport's first Methodist class was formed with Mr. Deming as its leader and a membership of ten.

By the summer of 1840, the Methodist society had grown to the point where they decided to erect a building and "were awarded the free church lot offered by the Village to the first denomination to erect a church". Predictively, work on the church preceded slowly, as funds for the purchase of supplies were meager and the labor was largely voluntary. It was not until June of 1842, that the first meeting was held in the building, with "an Englishman for a preacher and good singing by English emigrants." At about this time, a controversy arose out of the "creative financing" used in securing funds (about $5,000) for the construction of the church. It seems that "slips or pews had been sold and regular deeds given for them." It was later determined that the Church was owned by a stock company and not by the Conference, contrary to the Methodist Discipline. It was left to the work of Rev. J. T. Mitchell and Rev. W. H. Sampson to obtain the "relinquishment of these claims" so that Rev. H. Crews, Presiding Elder, could declare the small wood-framed building the "best in the Territory", during the dedication ceremony held on January 11, 1843.

The Preachers Arrive

19th century Methodist preacherDuring the second week of July, 1848, from all over the newly formed state, some alone or in small groups, Methodist preachers began to arrived in the village of Southport. As their horses kicked up the "fine gravel soil" of the streets they must have remarked at the remarkable growth in this village that "writes it's history on the glittering page of a dozen years". The small harbor was a constant hive of activity. Steamships with names like the Sultana, the Superior, the Empire or the America arrived nearly daily, unloading their cargo of goods and, more importantly, emigrants. The emigrants, who were rapidly populating the landscape of Southern Wisconsin, looked to the merchants of Southport for supplies with which to start their new life and within a season or two returned with a crop of wheat for shipment back east. For Rev. H. R. Colman, arriving from the wilderness surrounding Lake Winnebago, the trip to Conference was an opportunity to take advantage of the bustling commerce in Southport and in his account book he carefully noted the expense of "$1.50 for watch, $1.00 for shoes-size 6½".

Southport proudly boosted two weekly newspapers, the American and the Enterprise. During July of 1848, their pages were filled with the unabashedly opinionated reporting of the newly completed Mexican War, which they viewed as being "commenced and prosecuted for the sole purpose of conquering territory, out of which to make Slave States". The same week that the Methodists preachers were congregating for Conference a war-weary regiment of Michigan volunteers passed through Southport on their way back home. Their stories of mistreatment by the military in general and their officers in particular were presented to the paper's readers as a natural consequence of the immorality of "Polk's War". The soldiers complaints led the American editor to concluded that "the officers of that regiment have done more in the way of plundering and destroying our troops than any three Mexican regiments have done since the war commenced."

Another story that the papers closely followed that July was Wisconsin's first legislative session, which had begun meeting in Madison in mid-June. Among the bills to be considered was one that sought to protect the rights of married women. Many called for the maintenance of the status quo, which essentially disenfranchised married women, but the editor of the American put the question to his readers as to whether "a women, as a human being, has the same natural rights as a man; a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, or whether love the most powerful feeling of her nature, is to be used to decoy her in a state of Slavery, and forfeiture of property, and her lord and master be allowed to beat her with anything not over an inch round, provided it is not make of iron. That's the law."

The Work of the Conference

On Wednesday morning, 8:00 am, July 1848, the first Wisconsin Conference of the M.E. Church began with "scripture reading, singing and prayer". The first order of business was the election of Rev. Weston Miller as secretary. The first page of Rev. Miller's hand-written minutes reveals that at its opening the Conference claimed 33 members, although only 20 (this is assumed from the record of standing votes) had made the journey to Southport in time to be present within the "bar" of the church sanctuary. From the count of 33 we can subtract six: two who were superannuates, one more who would be superannuated, two members who had died in the previous year and one who would be removed by trial during Conference. This left just twenty seven full members to serve an estimated 7,000 widely dispersed Wisconsin Methodists, truly a herculean task. Obviously, Bishop Morris's most pressing duty was to increase the number of preachers available to carry on the work of the Conference. To that end, on the following Sunday, Bishop Morris led a service in which he ordained eight preachers as Deacons, bringing them into full connection with the Conference. Along with five more preachers who were transferred from other M.E. Conferences , Conference membership was increased by 50%. The Presiding Elders then brought forth the names of 25 local preachers who wished to apply for membership in the Conference. After examination of their characters and the progress of their "course of study", 18 were received into the Conference "on trial" and the remainder were given permission to used by the P.E as "supply" if needed. By the end of Conference, Bishop Morris had assembled 61 itinerants, including P.E.s, who were pledged to carry Christ's Word to frontier Wisconsin.

Conference as Revival

George WhiteAlthough no first hand accounts of our inaugural Conference in 1848 have survived, we are fortunate the Rev. George White recorded his memories of the Wisconsin Annual Conference (M.E.) in 1879. Conferences have always been a mixture of organizational business and affairs of a spiritual nature. Methodist Conferences of the eighteenth century focused almost entirely on issues of faith and functioned primarily as revivals, not only renewing the call of its members, but also reaching out to the wider community, who would gather to hear the preaching. Over the years, the business of Conference has intruded more and more into Conference time and by the start of the twentieth century much of the exhorting and extended worship had been dropped. Still for White, as for present-day attendees, the most important memories of Conference are those that nourish our heart and draw us into deeper fellowship with our colleagues in faith. The following are some excerpts from White's recollections. They demonstrate that while Conference may have changed in form over the years, it still functions spiritually much the same. Conference Beginning: "After the hymn "And Are We Yet Alive and See Each Others Face" came the solemnity and manifest brotherliness of the Lord's Supper. When old soldiers of the cross knelt side by side often with arms about each others shoulders and hearts throbbing with fraternal love". The Love Feast: "Of another sort was the eloquence of the Conference Love feast. Here were the convictions of experience for more satisfying than the deductions of logic. Who can forget the first impressions of that hour and a half, "heaped up pressed down and running over" with brotherhood symbols, songs, tears, laughter, hushed solemnities, sympathy for recent bereavements, voices choked with tears, shouts of joy, and spontaneous songs that divinely fitted the fifty testimonies. One must be there and be one of them--the lonely frontier pastor, a superannuate at home again after years of absence, a hard scrabble hill "supply," a minister's wife for the time free from family cares--free to speak and "praise the Lord for the way in which we have been led" a local preacher here for his first conference visit before he can understand the "Blest be the tie" of a Conference Love feast". The Singing: "The memory of the singing remains, not the classic "best effort of the choir" but the preponderant roll of the bass and the high tenor of a congregation largely of men who know and feel the songs". The End of Conference: "The appointments are ready so they sing "A Charge to Keep I Have". The Bishop makes an inspiring address upon the unfailing grace of God vouch saved to every faithful worker and offers a touching prayer for the success of each; for the victory in temptation; for comfort to those, now unknown, who will be bereaved before we meet again. Then he stands up with the fateful roll in his hands. Then falls the hush of tense expectation as the appointments are read. These mean much to pastors and churches and the families of both. There is the beaming bewilderment of unexpected promotion and the sadly resolute faces of those sent to hard fields. Here is the smiling handclasp of pastor and wife over a good chance for the children's education and there the pitiful sadness of the new superannuate who has no strength for any field and can only wish the others God speed;. So they clasp hands in farewell and separate for a year of toil".