Wesley Chapel, the oldest Black Methodist church in Arkansas, has its origin in the combined membership of whites and blacks that was the custom throughout the South before Emancipation.
In 1853 the black members of the Cherry Street Methodist Church in Little Rock outgrew provisions made for them in the white church. A large, neat frame building was erected near Eighth and Broadway, to which the black membership moved and named it Wesley Chapel. This congregation, still governed by the white organization, was allowed a more liberal share of self-government under the leadership of their own local preacher. After Emancipation, Rev. William Wallace Andrews, Wesley’s first pastor, called upon the members of Wesley to vote themselves out of the Methodist Church, South, back into the Methodist Episcopal Church. The following year Rev. Andrews journeyed to Missouri, where Wesley was admitted into the Missouri Conference.
In 1863 the first school for children of freedmen was organized in Wesley Chapel by Rev. Andrews. In 1867 Philander Smith College was organized in Wesley. The school, called at first “Walden Seminary,” was conducted for some time in the church before moving to its current location.
In 1879 a serious dissatisfaction among the membership developed under the administration of the Presiding Elder, resulting in the withdrawal of a number of persons who organized what became St. Paul Temple AME Zion Church at 33rd and Gaines Streets. (This church closed in 2012.) Again, in 1880, dissatisfaction arose, and a large number of members withdrew and formed the First Congregational Church. This “split” would occur on at least two more occasions. “White’s Chapel,” (now White Memorial UMC) in the west end, was organized by members of the “old” Wesley to accommodate members who lived in that section of the city. The land upon which the first White Memorial Church was built was donated by Brother Burl and Sister Chaney White, hence the original name of “White’s Chapel.” “Duncan Chapel,” (now Duncan UMC) in the south end, was also an offshoot of Wesley Chapel. Former members of Wesley Chapel were also influential in organizing Bethel AME. The remaining members continued to worship under the pastorate of Rev. W. O. Emory.
In 1883 the current site was purchased, and our first brick sanctuary was built. This building was demolished in 1903-04. The building of a larger brick structure began under the leadership of Rev. J. H. Reed and was completed in 1905 during the pastorate of Rev. J. L. Wilson. The second brick building was partially destroyed by fire in 1924. The present structure was completed in 1927 (Med Cullins, contractor) and stands as a testament to the sacrifices made by members and pastor, Rev. J. C. Brower.
In 1968 Wesley became part of the Southwest Conference of the newly formed United Methodist Church and became known as Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church. In 1972 the Southwest Conference merged with the Little Rock, North Arkansas, and Oklahoma Conferences, forming the Little Rock Annual Conference, of which Wesley became a part. In 2003 the conferences of Arkansas merged and became the Arkansas Conference.
Throughout the years a number of improvements and additions have been made to the original structure. New pews were installed under Rev. Charles Golden’s administration. The pipe organ was purchased and the mortgage retired under the leadership of Rev. J. Walt Moore. In 1949, under Rev. Garfield Tipton’s pastorate, the Amanda E. Law Annex was constructed. It provided not only classrooms for a growing Sunday school but, through a series of folding doors, provided additional seating for the sanctuary, especially when commencement services for Philander Smith were held at Wesley. Central air-conditioning was added under Rev. Alexander Anderson, and the parsonage was remodeled. Rev. Negail Riley led the church into a project resulting in new carpeting being laid in the sanctuary. Ceiling fans were installed under the leadership of Rev. Varnell Norman, Sr. In 1974, under Rev. W. Harry Bass, a one-fourth block of land was purchased from Philander Smith College. A major restoration and renovation project was undertaken in 1990 under the leadership of Rev. C. E. McAdoo, during which major structural changes were made to the pulpit and choir areas, all of the wood in the sanctuary was re-grained to a consistent honey-colored light oak. Stained glass windows were installed, and the one-of-a-kind pipe organ – which was built in Germany in 1906 – was reworked. New carpeting was installed and pews, heat and air conditioning units, lighting, and sound systems were updated.
Under the leadership of Elder Ronnie Miller-Yow, a sign was installed on the church in 2005 that can be seen from I-630 as a result of a designated contribution from Mrs. Jewel Mays. Major portions of the sanctuary roof were repaired or replaced in 2007, a project funded through a successful capital campaign. A second Sunday morning service was begun in 2009 to satisfy the diverse needs of a growing congregation. The Wesley Chapel Scholarship Fund was started in 2010. Funded by donations from Wesley members and other constituents, more than $100,000 has been awarded to undergraduate students in the form of scholarships and assistance. Scholarship recipients also benefit from the Dollars for Scholars partnership between Wesley Chapel, the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, The United Methodist General Board of Higher Education, and Philander Smith College. In August 2012 the remaining debt stemming from the 1990 renovation was retired; the balance had been more than $300,000 only ten years prior. In 2014 a significant renovation and restoration of the parsonage were completed, resulting in a multiuse facility, primarily for children and youth.
Ministries begun during the pastorate of Elder Yow include the Broadway Bridge (providing food for the homeless) and Ronald McDonald House (serving dinner to families of children being treated at Arkansas Children’s Hospital) outreach projects, the My Soul’s Desire women’s ministry, a prayer ministry that includes daily prayer calls and weekly evening prayer services, various Bible studies, a revitalized Sunday school, and a women’s day prayer breakfast. Communications were enhanced by the creation of a website and a Facebook page. Pastor Yow has been instrumental in training and mentoring young people discerning a call to the ministry, including Rev. Tariq Z. Cummings, Rev. Kevin Cooper, Rev. Carissa Rogers, and Minister Andrea Cummings (currently attending Candler School of Theology). The South Little Rock Teaching Parish was created in 2015, a joint effort of Wesley Chapel, Duncan, and White Memorial UMCs to provide guidance and instruction to young people exploring a call to ministry, with Elder Yow as director.
Wesley Chapel continues a strong relationship with Philander Smith College and the community at large. Several Wesley pastors and laypersons have also served on the college’s staff or board of trustees. Current Wesley senior pastor Ronnie Miller-Yow serves as the Dean of Religious Life and Campus Culture for Philander. Other distinguished members have included Charlotte Andrews Stephens, the first African-American teacher in Little Rock, for whom Stephens Elementary School is named; and former pastor Rev. J. W. Lofton, who was the first African-American district superintendent in the Little Rock Conference (now the Arkansas Conference) of the United Methodist Church.
This historical sketch is based on “A History of the Church” written by Charlotte E. Andrews Stephens in 1945 and “Historical Observations on Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church” written by Dr. Crawford Mims in honor of Wesley’s Sesquicentennial in 2003. The information was last updated on September 2015 by William E. Brown and Pamela Ligon Harris.