PHI Intern Kevin McPartland Works with Tuscaloosa’s First United Methodist Church

By Kevin McPartland

This image shows the historical marker placed in front of the the Tuscaloosa First United Methodist ChurchI became interested in this project because of the time period spanned by the Church. The Church has its beginnings in some very unique times in American history. Not only was it a product of the second great awakening, but it also comes about during Alabama fever, and the establishment of a slave economy in what was then the American Southwest. Early America through the Civil War is my area of interest, so this project provides a chance to really examine these times on a local level.

I am particularly interested in seeing how the Church reacted to the Civil War itself. The University was essentially an officer training school, and members of the congregation almost undoubtedly fought for the South. It would be great to know who went, and why, and how the congregation dealt with the war. How did they feel about the cause? Were they pushing for secession beforehand? Was the Church political at all?

As for this semester, I plan on working mostly with the Church’s roll book from the 1830s. This is an amazing primary source document that could really shed light on who attended the church and what their lives were like. I would like to try to match the names to census records and tell some of the biographical stories of these early members. Additionally, the book can serve as a great view into the world of antebellum religion. The Church had slave members and they are listed on the roll. What was it like to be in the Church then? How did things change post-Nat Turner? What was the socio-economic status of the people in the Church, and how did they interact with each other? The court cases also give insight into the nature of the law in what was still largely frontier Alabama. The book as a whole is a tremendous piece of information, and it will be harder to narrow down options than to come up with them.

I really would like to build research skills during this project. The book will require some archival research to be sure, and the sources might be scant. It will be a challenge to synthesize these stories with the little information I will have. I also want to work on writing for a lay audience. Most people will not care about the broader historical implications, but they will want to feel connected to their Church ancestors. I want to be able to connect with them in a way that will leave a lasting impact.

Ultimately, that is the goal for the whole project. I want to situate the Church of 1831 with the congregation of 2018. This is their history, and it is my job to help them learn and understand it. They have given us free reign with the project, and I would like to see it be something they will reference and something that will anchor them in the past as they look towards the future. I want the average Church member to feel a connection with the past, even if they do not fully understand the full historical context.