United Methodism’s sacred space beside the Capitol

General Commission on Archives and History

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, our denomination’s book of laws, provides a designation for Historic Sites and Heritage Landmarks as places to be remembered because of their association with significant events, historical developments and personalities who have shaped the denomination’s witness.

Lisa Batten and ten students from the Kalamazoo Wesley Foundation spent spring break 2015 in Washington D.C.. They are among many who have taken trips to the capital to study topics like immigration at the General Bd of Church and Society.

It is a surprise to me that the United Methodist Building, which in Washington, D.C., houses one of the real-life, practical divinity centers of our historic tradition, has not already been so designated.

“The Methodist Episcopal Church ought to have a worthy building at the nation’s capital,” Bishop William McDowell said in 1920.

Thus, the Board of Temperance, Prohibition & Public Morals was built, opening in 1924.

For 91 years now, The United Methodist Building, as it is known today, has been a symbol of a different kind of temperance than the “roaring twenties” ever imagined: That “worthy building” has been concerned with ever-widening forms of moderation and sobriety, and virtues of justice, liberation and peace not only for Methodists, but for all people worldwide.

For 91 years, the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill has served as a witness at the center of government authority: a present reminder that a denomination which from its inception was built on the foundation of taking the Gospel to where the people are, even to the remotest and most difficult places, cares deeply for people and all that affects the abundant life God would have for them.

Washington landmark

The United Methodist Building is the only non-government building on Capitol Hill. It is designed in Italian Renaissance style and constructed of Indiana limestone.

In addition to its architectural beauty, the building is significant for the role it has played at turning-points in the nation’s history. These include the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the 1968 Poor People’s March; the farm workers’ boycott; years of protest against the Vietnam War; Equal Rights Amendment marches; the 1978 Longest Walk of Native Americans; and the 1989 Housing NOW! march.

Its adjacent apartment complex has been home to scores of congressional representatives, Methodist bishops and Supreme Court justices.

The building’s striking Simpson Memorial Chapel is named for Bishop Matthew Simpson, a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln who preached at Lincoln’s funeral. The chapel has served as a place of sanctuary and prayer for those who live and work within the shadow of the Capitol.

More recently, on the night Congress adopted the law making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, a celebration took place in Simpson Chapel with Coretta Scott King and 150 candles lighted to express thanks.

The past

On Washington’s Capitol Hill, a muddy, billboard-cluttered corner lot was spotted in 1917 as the perfect site. Construction began on the “worthy building” Nov. 17, 1922. The five-story building, located at 100 Maryland Ave., was completed in 1923 at a cost of $650,000. Money for the project was raised through individual and church gifts, some as small as 15 cents.

At the building’s dedication on Jan. 16, 1924, its purpose was emphasized as a “sentinel.” Speakers for the dedication included famed orator William Jennings Bryan. Newspapers of the time noted the loyalty of Methodists to the nation’s political form and social tradition with “civic righteousness as the true foundation of sane progress.”

The board incorporated the 110 Maryland Ave. building into the scope of a campus in 1931. Money derived from renting its apartments made possible further expansion of the social witness and action of the denomination. Its 55 apartments were rented in less than 30 days.

Soon after that, 110 became a financial burden, and it was only through generous friends of the building’s founder, Dr. Clarence True Wilson, that the building survived the depression in Methodist hands.
Broad-minded place

From the beginning, the Methodist Building represented a broad-minded place. Ecumenical concerns were and continue to be prominent. Gambling and public morals, obscenity in publications and films were fronts for action and advocacy. Some years later, during the 1960s, groups and agencies opposing the war in Vietnam coordinated their efforts for international peace, and protesters found refuge in the building.

One of the major movements to come through the building was women’s equality. Women of that day coalesced with women from the Prohibition and earlier anti-slavery movements to begin a new movement. Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment used the Methodist Building as a center for organization and activities.

Since the 1970s, the building has been the center of the ecumenical community’s work on energy and environmental issues. It was the ecumenical center for the 1980 and 1990 Earth Day Celebrations.

Human rights, a foundation of the Gospel and cornerstone of the building, found expression in many agencies working on issues related to Latin America, the Middle East, Haiti, Africa, South Africa, Korea, Taiwan and East Timor, just to name a few.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had its genesis in the United Methodist Building. When George H.W. Bush took office, he undertook a major effort to write and pass the ADA.

First Protestant agency in nation’s capital

The Methodists were the first national Protestant agency to locate in Washington, D.C. Its prime property — the only non-governmental site adjacent to the Capitol — was often the target for government expansion. At one point planners for the new Supreme Court building, which opened in 1935, had proposals in Congress to take over the neighboring Methodist site.

And of course, there have been those who complained about the denomination’s presence adjacent to seats of political power. Over the years, a handful of bomb threats and evacuations have occurred as people sought to change through violence the social policies developed by the denomination. This is not to mention the others with different theological, social and political agendas who would have been pleased to close the Methodist Building.

Then, as now, the agency follows the directions and mandates of the General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-setting body.

The present

To think that this “sacred space” exists within steps of the seat of United States power is nothing short of a miracle. The United Methodist Building today continues to draw the best of the brightest to work on issues of social holiness.

The justice emphases related to the building are based on a series of documents, dating back to 1907, when a group of Methodist Episcopal Church leaders developed, in Washington, D.C., a “Social Creed.” That statement, adopted by General Conference in 1908, became the pattern for similar declarations by other Methodist denominations and the National Council of Churches.

Through the years the Social Creed was revised, expanded and perfected to meet perceived new needs, largely under the ministry of the Board of Church & Society. Since 1972, the board has been considered the “trustee” of the Social Principles, which are a direct outgrowth of the Social Creed.

The wide array of religious and other agencies housed in the United Methodist Building are involved in research, seeking answers, proposing legislation to their denominations, informing their constituents and lawmakers about church policy and practice, answering questions, and performing a host of other tasks on a long list of interrelated social issues. The list varies by year, but over time, these issues have been at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

The future

The story of The United Methodist Building tells of the movement of God’s spirit among God’s people called Methodist, seeking to do NO harm, to DO good and live the Gospel in this present generation of its life.

The building will be here in the future, to continue to share the messages developed within its walls, to house the meetings and talks needed to research and meet needs, to witness to the denomination’s beliefs in social reform, and to continue to express concerns for people, supported by religious principles founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, across a hurting, hungry and hope-filled world.



You Might Also Like