Ebenezer United Methodist Church, aka "Little Ebenezer," Turns 180

Ebenezer United Methodist Church, at 4th and D Streets SE on Capitol Hill, is one of the oldest surviving independent African American houses of worship in Washington. Turning 180 this year, the church has had a profound impact on the lives of countless Washingtonians. Many of the older churches on the Hill—both white and black—have moved to the suburbs over the years to stay close to their congregations. Ebenezer, in contrast, has stayed firmly committed to its only home and continues to grow there. Despite the challenges of remaining in a gentrified neighborhood, the church looks forward to a thriving future.

Ebenezer United Methodist Church (photo by the author).

Methodism was one of three Protestant faiths that were integral to early African American communities in Washington and elsewhere. The pioneering African American historian Carter G. Woodson claimed in his influential History of the Negro Church that Methodists and Baptists (and to a lesser extent Presbyterians) were influential “because of their evangelical appeal to the untutored mind.” Itinerant Methodist and Baptist preachers in the 18th century, who were highly successful in gaining converts during their famous camp meetings, often preached against the evil of slavery, although neither church unequivocally condemned it in the United States.

Now a condominium, the former "old" Ebenezer church on 4th Street SE was the parent church of Ebenezer United Methodist Church. This building dates to 1857. Blacks and whites worshipped together in its 1811 predecessor (photo by the author). 
At the beginning of the 19th century, African Americans and whites of Protestant faiths worshipped together in the same churches, although blacks generally were obliged to sit at the rear of the church or in upper galleries. The first Ebenezer Methodist Church in Washington—one such interracial congregation—was organized in 1802, and in 1811 it built a church nearby on Fourth Street SE. Its African American members were passionate worshippers, as an early white chronicler of the church vividly (and patronizingly) described:
The colored members formed a considerable part of the congregation in those days. They occupied the galleries, and entered heartily into all the services. Their lusty and musical voices greatly swelled the volume of praise, and their fervent prayers added fuel to the fires of devotion. Their quaint and generally apt responses showed how the truth had awakened their emotions, while sometimes with protracted shoutings they evinced an overmastering joy. Sometimes, too, their swaying bodies and upturned faces made a weird accompaniment to the more decorous worship of the whites, and their leaping suggested the danger of descent upon the heads of those who were on the lower floor.
Several African American factions separated from Ebenezer in the early part of the 19th century as black worshippers grew unwilling to accept their second-class status in the mother church. “Irked at being subject to the spiritual guidance of a slave owning pastor and at being always relegated to the benches in the gallery,” one group led by several prominent free blacks formed a separate congregation around 1820. Eventually known as Israel Bethel, this congregation is now the Israel Metropolitan CME Church, located at 7th and Randolph Streets NW in Petworth.

The Israel Metropolitan CME Church, now in Petworth, was another early African American church that separated from the old Ebenezer church on 4th Street SE (photo by the author).
In 1827, another group of African Americans, “not liking their confined quarters in the gallery, and otherwise discontented,” also separated from Ebenezer and formed the church that would become today’s Ebenezer United Methodist Church. Among the congregation’s grievances was the refusal of white ministers to take African American babies in their arms when administering the rite of baptism. As insulting as this treatment may have been, an additional motivation for the split may have been that there was no longer enough room at the back of the old church. Black membership had grown significantly faster than white membership, and the gallery space reserved for them was too small. As was typical with many early African American congregations, the splinter group did not originally organize as an independent body within the Methodist church. Instead, they served as an outpost of the older church, under the supervision of its pastor. Thus, for many years this new church was known as “Little Ebenezer.”

Little Ebenezer was able to purchase property and build a small frame building at 4th and D Streets, SE, in 1838. While still overseen by the mother church, Little Ebenezer hosted its own African American preachers. By the early 1860s, it became an independent institution with an African American board of trustees. In 1864, in part due to the urging of Ebenezer’s members, the Methodist church organized the Washington Annual Conference, an all-black jurisdiction that included Little Ebenezer. The conference appointed the church’s first black pastor, the Rev. Noah Jones.

The church’s original frame building was also used from the beginning as a school for African American children in the District. After emancipation of D.C.’s enslaved people in 1862, Congress quickly passed a law establishing a public-school system for black children. In 1864, Little Ebenezer served temporarily as D.C.’s first such school. With all the recently-arrived African Americans who had sought refuge in Washington during the Civil War, the school’s rolls soon grew to over 100 pupils. The following year, the D.C. government opened a permanent public school building a couple blocks away. Meanwhile, Little Ebenezer continued educating black children through its Sunday school program.

In 1870, the “Little” was dropped from the church’s name. It was in this year that work began on replacing the church’s original frame building with a larger red-brick structure, which was completed in 1873.

The new building served the congregation for over 20 years, until a tornado hit in September 1896. The damaging storm killed ten people, felled trees, smashed windows, collapsed walls, and tore roofs off properties all across the city. It pulled the steeple from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church downtown and struck particularly hard on Capitol Hill, where the Ebenezer Church stood on an elevated mound. Ebenezer suffered $5,000 worth of damage. Rather than repair it, the trustees decided to tear down the old church (borrowing $600 to pay for the demolition) and replace it with a new one. The replacement church, constructed in 1897, is the one that remains on the site to this day. In fondness for the church’s heritage, Trustee Daniel Webster nicknamed the new building, “the Old Cream Jug.”

This sketch of the new building appeared in The Evening Star in 1897.
This sturdy, red-brick, Romanesque Revival church is typical of its time. The tower at the building’s southwest corner is unornamented and solid-looking. At 80 feet, it’s not one of the city’s tallest church towers, yet the building has several distinctive features. Sunday School space was built as an attachment at the rear of the church, and a separate entrance for the school stands on Fourth Street, around the corner from the main entrance. The church’s auditorium is oriented toward the eastern side of the building, with a broad bay appearing to bulge from the western side of the structure to accommodate the arc of the auditorium’s pews. Inside, a sweeping gallery for up to 400 worshippers overhangs the broad auditorium. A large choir can be accommodated behind the pulpit on the eastern side. At the time of the building’s dedication, The Washington Post called it “one of the finest church structures in Southeast Washington,” noting that “the interior has been handsomely fitted and decorated.”

View of the auditorium (photo by the author).
The architect, William J. Palmer (1863-1925), was a native Washingtonian who gained professional recognition as a church designer. For Ebenezer, he partnered with architect Richard E. Crump, although many of his other projects were independent. Palmer’s other ecclesiastical commissions included the First Methodist Church of Petworth (1906) and the Union Methodist Episcopal Church (1910). He also supervised remodeling of the Dumbarton Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgetown.

Designed for immersive, inspirational services, the Ebenezer Church has served for over a hundred years as a powerful gathering place for the African American community on Capitol Hill. It has also been the mother church for several other congregations, including the Lincoln Park United Methodist Church. Its “golden era” is said to have taken place during the pastorate of Rev. William H. Dean, a young and charismatic leader who served from 1912 to 1921. Dean held rallies in a restored and redecorated church that drew as many as 365 converts and quickly paid off Ebenezer’s longstanding mortgage. The Washington Bee praised him as “the most successful pastor that has ever been to Ebenezer Church.” According to the church’s 150th anniversary history, a local bank opened one Sunday just to be able to receive a $6,000 deposit of funds collected during one of Dean’s rallies at Ebenezer.

Like other Capitol Hill churches, Ebenezer has seen many changes in its local community and its membership. As late as 1947, The Washington Afro-American reported that the church was “packed to capacity” at its 11am service on Sunday morning.

Fifty years ago, as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was organizing the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to try to force lawmakers in Washington to address the needs of the poor, many of the Washington’s churches, including Ebenezer, pledged their support. In May, after Dr. King’s assassination, Rev. Ralph Abernathy led the campaign to march on Washington and build a temporary Resurrection City on the Mall. As Marya McQuirter has highlighted in her insightful dc1968 blog, a rally was held at the church just before construction of Resurrection City began. Future delegate Walter Fauntroy and future mayor Marion Barry were among the guests at the event, which greeted busloads of visitors from the South who planned to take part in the campaign. Abernathy’s wife addressed the group, urging them to “dig deeply into history” and learn about racism and why people are poor. A month later, as the Poor People’s Campaign struggled for attention, a group of 200 area clergymen gathered to show their support. They chose Ebenezer as the gathering place to start their march.

Entrance to the church (photo by the author).
Throughout the 20th century, Ebenezer continued to engage in community outreach and development initiatives, including many targeting the disadvantaged. After segregation ended, Ebenezer began reaching out to other Capitol Hill congregations, including the white congregation from which it had initially separated. In 1990, Ebenezer and the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church—located at the other end of the same block as Ebenezer—held their first joint “unity” service at Ebenezer to express their regained solidarity. It was “an emotionally charged service that brought tears to the eyes of many,” according to a report in The Washington Post. Additional unity services and other joint activities have been held since that time.

Like many urban congregations, Ebenezer has faced challenges in maintaining an aging building in a neighborhood of increasing property values. Parking for members who no longer live on the Hill has also been a challenge. The church has taken several steps to secure its financial stability, including renting out its auditorium to other groups. In 2017, church officials announced plans to partner with a real estate developer to build rental townhouses on vacant land adjacent to the building as a way to gain income and support restoration of the church itself. Several off-street parking spaces were proposed as well, requiring a curb cut that drew opposition from some neighborhood residents. Nevertheless, the project seems likely to go forward, helping ensure that this pillar of the Capitol Hill community remains here for many more decades to come.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included: Ebenezer United Methodist Church, Souvenir Journal, 150th Anniversary, 1838-1988 (1988); John W. Cromwell, “The First Negro Churches in the District of Columbia” in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Jan. 1922); Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (1921); Rev. W. M. Ferguson, Methodism in Washington, District of Columbia (1892); Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria R. Goodwin, The Guide To Black Washington: Places and Events of Historical and Cultural Significance in the Nation’s Capital (2001); Melton, J. Gordon, A Will To Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism (2007); Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (2017); Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital (1967); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. I believe the tornado took the steeple off of Calvary Baptist, not New York Avenue Pres. Wonderful article! Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you Mary. --Regarding steeples, the Calvary Baptist steeple was pulled off in a different storm. The steeple on the NY Ave Church was torn down in the same storm that wrecked Ebenezer.


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