First United Methodist Church marks its founding year as 1850, when the Rev. Joseph Perkins Sneed, a circuit-riding Methodist minister, preached to the inhabitants of Waco Village at the foot of Jackson Street on the banks of the Brazos River. Legend has it he bedded down under a tree near the old river ford, where travelers crossed the waters in the years before the construction of the suspension bridge. Sleeping on his saddle blanket, the howling of wolves awakened the preacher just before dawn.
In the summer of 1851, Methodists built the first church structure in Waco. The building would also be used periodically by Baptists and Presbyterians, both forming congregations in the young village. Composed of oak and cedar wooden planks planed at a horse-drawn sawmill just south of the town, the original church stood at Second Street and Jackson Avenue.
In 1858, the congregation erected a new brick church at Franklin Avenue and Third Street. People reportedly traveled by wagon or horseback as far as 100 miles to attend the dedicatory services. The congregation at the time was almost 160 people. That congregation sold that structure a decade later, and the city’s Methodists met in the second-floor auditorium of Waco Female College.
The cornerstone for Fifth Street Methodist Church—which wouldn’t become First Methodist until 1920—was laid in 1876, and construction lasted more than two years on the edifice designed by W. C. Dodson. The inaugural service took place in November 1879. First Church, known as the Mother of Methodism in Central Texas, helped other congregations sprout throughout McLennan County, and served as a leader in the movement to bring the Methodist Children’s Home to Waco in the early 1890s.
First Methodist celebrated its first century in March 1950, with a two-night pageant featuring 150 church members and a historical plaque unveiling with Texas Governor Allan Shivers, as well as radio coverage in Waco and Dallas. Just three years later, on May 11, 1953, the tornado that swept through downtown Waco and killed 114 people heavily damaged the church. The steeple, a well-known community landmark, toppled from the winds, falling across the railroad tracks that ran past the church. Although the tornado caused considerable damage to the church, community contributions allowed the totally refurbished First Methodist building to be re-dedicated within six months, in better shape than it had been before the storm, according to most accounts.
In the mid-twentieth century, the decision was made to move the congregation to a plot of more than five acres of donated land in Northwest Waco. Members broke ground in April 1962 at Lake Air and Cobbs Drives for the facility that they dedicated in March 1963. The old First Methodist—the circa-1877 downtown structure—was demolished in September 1963. Bricks made of Brazos River sand, the baptismal font, plaster cherubs, and stained glass windows, and the 1953 steeple were left behind to be salvaged and sold by the demolition crew. Yet some pieces of the historic structure transitioned to the new space, including the 1876 cornerstone (given a prominent place in the history corner of the church foyer) and the old theater organ (a hand-me-down from the Waco Hippodrome when the days of silent movies ended in 1928). Today, First United Methodist Church of Waco carries on the congregation’s long tradition of providing a faith community focused upon worship, faith formation, service, and outreach.