Pioneering Methodism

Photos and story by Joseph Kreiss –

Devoting time to study the lives and writings of the early Saints of our faith helps give insight into the foundations of our belief in Jesus Christ and the church. Stepping foot into a humble United Methodist Church building that hasn’t changed since the Civil War also gives a look back-in-time to the hard scrabble pioneer days of the Methodist faith. It also tends to rattle a believer’s view of modern worship of the church today, and raises the thought: “Are we focused more on the beauty of the glitzy sanctuary rather than on the steadfast beauty of our Lord?”

Lenora-01Tucked away in the bluffs of Amish country in Southeastern Minnesota stands a weathered stone and wooden testament to the lives of the pioneer Christian. The small Lenora United Methodist Church is certainly a hidden gem, way off the beaten path, far from any major city or highway. One has to know where the church building is to find it, or is maybe lost on the rural back roads and comes across it by chance. The preserved church building located in the “blink and you’ll miss it” town of Lenora on a dirt and gravel road that, even in 2015, still sees more horse and buggy traffic than cars and trucks.

Walking through the worn wooden doors into the sanctuary transports a visitor back in time. There is no electricity into the church. Natural sunlight fills the church during the day, but at night, lighting for the church, both inside and out, is from vintage oil lamps and candles. Foot-power pumps hymns from the organ next to the pulpit. Heat is provided by a large coal-burning stove in the back. And the bathroom is out back, in the outhouse.

Lenora-03The worn wooden pews show marks and scuffs, likely put there over the years by rough-textured overalls and denim pants of the early farmers who came to worship. Methodist Hymnals sit in stacks on those benches, with yellowed and dog eared pages and scuffed bindings. Don’t look for gold leaf, or brightly shined brass on the alter here.

The pulpit is roughly built from a combination of painted and raw aged wood. The interior walls are bare of decoration, except for two framed depictions of the Last Supper, a painting of Jesus tending the flock of sheep, and a vintage poster telling of the Old and New Covenants. Above the altar pinned to the wall is a worn and patched American flag. A count of the stars reveals 44 stars and dates back to the early 1890s. The Presidents to serve under this flag were Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.

The wooden pews silently invite you to sit, say a quick prayer and ponder the past generations of believers who have sat in the same spot. Hearing the clip-clop of horse hoofs as an Amish buggy passes outside easily transports the visitor back in time for a brief moment and the distractions of modern day religion slip away making it seems easier to focus on the Lord.

Lenora-02Construction of the humble church building began in 1856 by the Rev. John Dyer, pioneer United Methodist Circuit Rider preacher. The early days of this new church were not without hardships and struggle, but it was the faith and courage of those early pioneers who lived in the area before Minnesota was even a state, that helped the young Methodist church to grow slowly. They say from 1790 to 1810 camp meetings were held in the surrounding woods of Lenora, sometimes attracting crowds of more than 2,000 people to hear the Gospel preached.

The Civil War came and divided our nation and put more stress on the fledgling Lenora Church. The congregation was able to persevere and survived during those turbulent years and rebuilt the church building in 1865 following the end of the Civil War. The small rural church survived until the late 1920s. When the long-hoped for arrival of the railroad into Lenora never materialized, the population of Lenora began to decline, and so did the church’s congregation. Eventually the doors to the prairie sanctuary were closed and the church abandoned.

Lenora-05During those years when the church sat dark and empty, the Lenora Cemetery Association and the nearby Newburg United Methodist Church watched over and preserved the building from falling into total disrepair. The building sat unused all year-long except for a special once-a-year service.

These days, the structure is listed as Methodist Church Historic Site number 471, and is an outreach ministry of the United Methodist Church and the Lenora Pioneer Church Association. Visitors from all denomination are welcome to visit or reserve the Lenora church for special occasions and events, such as weddings. On weekends, vans filled with tourists stop briefly to admire the vintage church. A candle-lit Christmas service is annually held as well.

NOTE:  Information about the church history comes from a flyer handout at the church. Contact Info listed in the flyer- Rev. Mark A Woodward, Pastor of the Faith United Methodist Church of Eyota, MN. 507-545-2641

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