Northwood News ♦ April 2014

Marvin Methodist Church’s History in Four Corners

‘History Corner(s),’ by Ken Hawkins

On Sunday, 16 March 2014, current and former members, neighbors, and friends gathered to celebrate Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church, share history and memories of over 140 years of worship in Four Corners, and move the new church into the future.  In 2009, Marvin and Woodside United Methodist Church joined to form the Silver Spring United Methodist Cooperative (UMC) Parish.  Sunday worship will be held at the former Woodside location; the Marvin location will be used for mission and community activities.

The two campuses will work as a “Reconciling Congregation,” part of a movement within the UMC that aims to open the church to all, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community.  These developments may be unsettling for some, but they keep the Four Corners church in the currents of change that have shaped it throughout its history.


Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church about 1949, showing the original “Little White Chapel” from 1872 at left.  The photo was taken from the Woodmoor Shopping Center looking across Old Bladensburg Road, now University Boulevard.  [Photo Courtesy of Don Messersmith, Silver Spring UMC.]

When the Four Corners Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was organized in September 1872, this area was made up of farms, fields dotted with springs, and woods of oak, pine, and chestnut.  Land for the church was donated by Oliver H.P. Clark, whose family had owned and farmed the land south of Old Bladensburg Road (now University Blvd.) since the 1780s, and George N. Beale, the superintendent of roads for D.C. whose summer retreat, Indian Spring farm, lay north of that road and mostly east of the road from Colesville to Washington.  Neither were members of the church they helped establish:  the Clarks worshipped at Grace Episcopal Church in nearby Forest Glen while the Beales attended Christ Episcopal near their main house by Georgetown.

The two men sold to the church trustees for $1, a small lot on a rise “beginning at a chestnut tree standing on the south side of the Bladensburg road.”  The church members held services in a barn diagonally across the intersection, while they and neighbors built a small frame church (36'x36'), dragging lumber to the site with horses and chains.  The Wesley Chapel, or Four Corners M.E. Church, South, was completed later that fall.

The “Little White Church,” as it came to be known, settled into the traditional rhythms of the country, enlivened with autumn revivals, oyster suppers, and a boisterous Sunday school.  For most of the next 75 years, it did not have a full-time preacher.  As one of several stops on the Beltsville “Circuit,” an itinerant preacher visited perhaps once a month; otherwise, church members took to the pulpit and led services.  The first pastor was Samuel W. Haddaway, who later formed Marvin Church in South Washington, D.C.  Sunday worshipers who, after 1888, came to services by the newly paved Colesville and Ashton Turnpike, were exempt from the usual toll of one cent per mile per horse, collected at toll gates set up at what are now Georgia Avenue, Dale Drive, Four Corners, and White Oak, unless they made more than one Sunday trip.  Electric lights were installed only in 1926 and, until 1932, the church was heated by wood stove.  Water was carried from the general store across Colesville Road until a few years later.  The church did not have a belfry or bell until 1930.  Membership varied from about two to three dozen people.

The Four Corners M.E. Church and the surrounding area were greatly affected by the growth of Washington suburbs and the Federal government.  For years, Washingtonians had flocked to the area to enjoy the scenery, swimming, and picnics at Burnt Mills and, after 1922, to golf at the Indian Spring Country Club.  They moved into the area by the thousands with the opening of Northwood Park (1936-38), Woodmoor (1937-40), Indian Spring View (1937), Indian Spring Club Estates (1940), and other nearby developments.  Many of the new residents visited and joined the church, especially when gas shortages during World War II made driving to churches farther away more difficult.  In downtown Washington, the demand for government office space led in 1941 to the U.S. purchase of Marvin Memorial Church at Tenth Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.  Proceeds from this sale — along with the pulpit, altar rail, pipe organ, and furniture — came to the Four Corners Methodist Church, along with the name “Marvin Memorial Church” in late 1941.  (Enoch Mather Marvin was a M.E. circuit rider in Missouri, chaplain for the Confederate army, and bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South).

The church’s membership grew through World War II (from 88 to 245) and a full-time pastor was finally hired, but expanding physically proved challenging.  Apart from the scarcity of building supplies and construction workers, the church had to buy additional property from Abraham S. Kay of the Indian Spring Country Club.  Kay resisted including enough land for a proper set-back on the south side of the church (he had already reduced the size of the golf course when he developed Indian Spring Club Estates).  When the church and country club agreed on terms in 1944, Kay required the church be responsible for protecting the new building from any damage by errant golf balls.  The design for the spacious colonial revival sanctuary, consecrated by 400 members in late 1947, placed the front door and steeple facing Old Bladensburg Road, opposite from the golf course.


Four Corners in 1878, showing the location of the Methodist Episcopal Church and adjacent landowners and businesses.  Detail from G.M. Hopkins Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington, including the county of Montgomery, Maryland (1878).  Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Marvin Memorial Church continued to grow with the surrounding area in the post-war boom.  The Little White Chapel was razed in 1951 to make way for the three-story educational wing that was built and dedicated the following year.  The church considered relocating but decided to remain in Four Corners even as the state roads commission widened Old Bladensburg Road, renamed it University Boulevard in early 1957, and routed it around the south side of the church in 1959.

The church had the largest Sunday school in the Baltimore conference in 1962, and almost 2,000 members by the time it added the west wing in 1967.  Church leaders also reversed the sanctuary at this time, moving the main entrance and the steeple to the south side, facing the Kay tract and the new Beltway that bisected it.

Along with the physical changes and growth at Marvin, social changes also affected the church.  It was among the congregations that pledged with the Council of Churches National Capital Area in 1962 to accept members without regard to race or social or economic status.  In 1968, Marvin’s first black pastor, the Rev. Edward G. Carroll, was appointed and served for four years before becoming Bishop of the church in Boston.  While Carroll’s appointment caused some internal controversy and defections, members look back on his tenure with fondness — noteworthy for a church named after a chaplain to the Confederate army.

Throughout its history, the Four Corners M.E. Church reflected changes in the larger society around it, by growing, declining, merging, and moving ahead.  The congregation has aged, attendance and income declined, and the church is grappling with issues that directly affect its ability to survive.  Commercial offers to buy the property were considered but turned down.  The last scheduled worship services at Four Corners were held on 2 March 2014, but the old church will continue to be a beacon of faith, mission, and outreach to the community around it.    ■


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