Thursday, November 23, 2017
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History

Historic Churches
Lake Area News 1989

 
When the population of Minneapolis began to dramatically increase during the 1920's, Simpson United Methodist Church packed hundreds of parishioners and prospects into its sanctuary every Sunday morning. Local churches were thriving due to the rapid influx of people into the city, and Simpson Church was no exception.  Even without the influx, though, Simpson Church would have drawn crowds -- mainly to witness the theatrical preaching antics of Rev. Roy L. Smith.
 
"Roy Smith was almost a televangelist of the day." said Rev. Clay Oglesbee, Simpson Church Pastor."He had more credibility as a preacher, but he was one of the first pastors in the country to make significant use of advertising in billboards and newspapers."
 
During one service, for example, six parishioners carried a casket to the sanctuary alter. As a 60-voice choir stood up and sang "Up from the Grave He Rose',
the coffin lid rattled and swung open. "Roy Smith sat up in the coffin which was his Easter Sunday lesson of the Resurrection of Christ," Oglesbee said.
 
Smith who eventually moved to Los Angeles to head the world's largest Methodist church, also used costumes and the stage lighting while he preached at Simpson Church. "He was a very dramatic figure and just a real trail blazer in a lot of respects," Oglesbee said.
 
Simpson United Methodist Church at 2740 First Avenue South, was founded in May 1882 by 11 people who first worshipped as a congregation in Avery Hall, a Sunday school mission near 26th Street  and Nicollet Avenue. So in January 1883, the congregation moved to a small  church it had  built  for $5,000 on the current site of the church. In November 1886, the congregation razed that structure and built a larger frame church on the same site for $17,000 to accommodate a dramatic increase in membership. The new Church, was completed and dedicated in 1887, including a porch that faced First Avenue.
 
"The congregation expanded very rapidly as the city did," Pastor Oglesbee said. In 1886, when about 40,000 people lived in Minneapolis, Simpson Church had about 240 members. It is estimated that 1,400 Methodists then lived in Minneapolis and six Methodist churches existed here.
 
In 1907, the Simpson congregation once again rebuilt. "The concern at the time was that they build a modern facility: Sunday school classrooms, a church parlor, and a church gymnasium," Oglesbee said. The tan stucco structure they built is virtually the same as the current Simpson Church, except that in 1924 it was enlarged to accommodate the crowds that Rev. Roy L. Smith drew.
 
"They had to literally turn the church around and face it from the north to south because they had more room to expand to the north," Pastor Oglesbee explained. Previous
to 1924, the church ran east to west in length.
 
"Sunday mornings were standing room only," Oglesbee said. "With accommodations to seat 1,200 people, this was the place to be. But if you got here a little bit late you might not get seating. the church literally had to give out tickets to people so they could come back the following Sunday and be assured of a seat."
 
The interior and exterior were designed in a tudor style, with dark oak wood paneling throughout the sanctuary. The sanctuary is not overly ornate, but its striking design is a source of pride.
 
As a Simpson church historian wrote in 1922: "It is doubtful if Minneapolis can offer a more beautiful and worshipful sanctuary than the one in Simpson Church. The dark oak finish, circular choir loft...the soft coloring of the stained glass windows and the comfortable pews combine to inspire worship and devotion." That description still fits Simpson Church.
 
Two rose-colored windows at its north and south ends were removed in 1924. But a series of brown, yellow and green colored stain glass windows are still intact. When sunlight beams through them a vibrant yellow hue is cast over the sanctuary.
 
The prominent and nationally recognized architect Harry Jones, of Minneapolis, designed Simpson Church: the most dominant exterior feature, perhaps is a bell tower. The church is named after Mathew Simpson, a Methodist bishop appointed during the Civil War era admired by Abraham Lincoln.
 
During the late 1940's and the early 1950's the inner-city 'housing boom' came to a close. About a decade later poverty began to increase in the Simpson area according to Oglesbee, and consequently the church changed its mission. "The church has gone from becoming sort of your Boy Scouts and social clubs oriented congregation to now being very strong into social outreach ministries." Oglesbee said.
 
The Church has implemented three 'outreach ministries' to help the impoverished in the area. In 1977, it established a 'foodshelf program' that stores and distributes food. And in 1981, Simpson Church established a housing program for the homeless. Dozens of Minneapolis churches contribute funds to this program and numerous volunteers donate time each day to work with the homeless. In addition, Simpson Church established a 'transitional housing' program that rents numerous apartments at a reduced rate to women who need alternative housing  until they become independent.
 
Simpson United Methodist Church hasn't changed much in appearance since the days when Rev. Roy L. Smith soothed the audiences with his deep baritone voice or excited parishioners with theatrical antics. But the church mission has.