Downey Methodist Church marks 160 years

DOWNEY - Throughout 2014, Downey United Methodist Church will celebrate 160 years of service to the Downey area.

As we look to the future we can also reflect on our involvement in the spiritual, educational and cultural development of our community during our first 160 years. This is the first of a four-part series of articles about our connection with Downey and the surrounding communities.

The first wave of immigrants to California had passed -- those who were seeking the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Now a second wave had begun. Their treasure was of a different kind -- the fertile soil of California. They wanted a place to build homes, plant crops and raise their families. The Los Nietos valley was such a place.

Situated southeast of Los Angeles, between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, the area was then a wooded section, covered with willows, poplars, cottonwoods and sycamores. The virgin soil was very rich. Newly planted fruit trees and vegetables grew rapidly.

Many of these new arrivals were from the south; Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, etc., and they brought their Southern Methodist faith with them. The town of Downey would not exist for several more years.

Rev. J.C. Simmons D.D., in his book about the Pacific Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, titled, "The History of Southern Methodism on the Pacific Coast," tells about these pioneer Methodists who met in their homes for weekly prayer meetings. He writes that in 1854 a "class" of 16 members applied for a minister to be sent to them, and that the Rev. J.F. Blythe, the Presiding Elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Stockton District, visited the group that year to investigate the possibility of establishing a church in the area.

He preached for them a number of times and formally organized this Methodist class. He left them promising that they should have a preacher the next year. At the Conference held in Sacramento, April 1855, a circuit riding minister was assigned to this pioneer group.

In setting the date for the earliest beginnings of the Methodist Church in this area we have relied on the documentation included in the Simmons book and on the counsel of our Conference Commission on Archives and History. The Reverend Lyman Ellis, a member of the Commission, offered the following Scriptural insights:

"Let's look to the Bible for an answer. In all of these references the word 'church' refers to a group of people: Romans 16, 'greet also the church in their house;' I Corinthians 16, 'The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord;' Colossians 4, 'Give my greetings to the brethren at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her house;' Philemon 1, 'To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.

"A church is a group of people who get together with some regularity for the purpose of worship and education in the tradition of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. A building is not required. Not even a pastor is required.

"Our society does not see 'the church in your house.' The purchase of property and buildings does not make a church.

"The year 1854 is noted as the time when the Rev. J.F. Blythe was Presiding Elder of the Stockton District. The book written by the Rev. J.C. Simmons tells of the group in Los Nietos, the society that included 'Alexander Groves and a number of others who had united with them because they were Methodists and wanted a home.' This society existed before 1855 when Pastor 'J.T. Cox was sent to them from the Conference held in Sacramento, April 1855.' In the J.C. Simmons book it is stated, 'He (Presiding Elder J.F. Blythe) left them with the promise that they should have a preacher the next year.' This promise was made in the year before 1855. It is possible that the group of Methodists in Los Nietos existed even earlier than 1854, but there is nothing in the information provided to fix any earlier date."

Taking account of all the available information, and guided by Rev. Lyman's insights, the California Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church, Commission on Archives and History, recommended that we set the year of the beginning of the Downey United Methodist Church as 1854.

To be continued...

Richard Daggett is historian for Downey United Methodist Church.

********** Published: Jan. 16, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 40