Joan Wiggins, Cokesbury's organist and Ames United Methodist Church's historian, researched and wrote this history of Cokesbury Memorial UMC for an event celebrating the 250th anniversary of Harford County
If you happen to be driving on Route 7 in Abingdon near the McComas Funeral Home, you may not notice the church that sits up on the hill. It is hidden from the road yet so rich in history for Methodism in Harford County and the United States. The church stands as a testament to a town named Abingdon located near the Bush River.
The First Methodist College in the World
First called the Abingdon Methodist Chapel, the church was built on land purchased on July 3, 1782 from John Paca, the brother of the Governor of Maryland. Mr. Paca received 66 pounds sterling ($300) for the land, and a deed was made to Richard Dallam, Thomas Kell, and others, "for the use of the people called Methodists, to expound God's Holy Word and for no other purpose." The church is located on the site of Cokesbury College, which was founded in 1784. A few years later, classes began at the college. Founded as the first Methodist College in the United States, Cokesbury College received its name from two gentlemen. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, who were ordained as the first two Methodist Bishops in America at a meeting held on Christmas Day, in 1784, have the distinction of having their last names used for the college. On June 5, 1785, Bishop Asbury laid the cornerstone for the College building.
In December 1788, there was an attempt to burn down the college. However the fire was put out by some of the students before it caused significant damage, and the edifice that served as the chapel to the college survived. In 1794, the college was granted a charter by the state of Maryland. It opened for worship in 1784. The wood-framed chapel on the site of the original college in Abingdon that survived the first fire, burned to the ground in 1896. A new church was immediately erected on the foundation of the old one, and it still stands today. The name was changed to Cokesbury Memorial Methodist Church in 1940.
The Mystery of the Cokesbury College Fire
Cokesbury College ceased to exist after a fire destroyed the building in 1785. An article in the June 3, 2009, Aegis may solve the mystery of the college fire. Bonnie McCubbin was an undergraduate student of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. For her senior thesis project, McCubbin researched Cokesbury College and came to the conclusion that James O’Kelly, a Methodist dissonant was responsible for burning down the college. His motive was to destroy the church and upset Francis Asbury. Sadly, none of the college building remains, however, there is a bronze model of the building on a platform in the center of the church property. Cokesbury College was said to have been in "dimensions and style of architecture fully equal, if not superior, to anything of the kind in the country." It was brick, 108 feet in length, 40 feet in width, and three stories high, and it stood on the center of the six- acre tract, with an almost equal slope on each side. In 1841 Abingdon Church obtained the surrounding land for its use. The origins of the church cemetery dates back to 1840 or 1841 after the church gained control of the land where the college once stood. When several families picnicked at the gravesites of their loved ones, some visited the Abingdon Methodist Chapel for worship services.
A Postwar Boom
The leaders of Abingdon Chapel, adjacent to the property, renamed it Cokesbury Methodist Church after the history of the college became well known. Around 1940, the church grew with the addition of the Education building. The building serves as the center of activities of Cokesbury Methodist Church. Housed in the Education building are the offices of the pastor and church secretary. Improvements followed including installing a dropped ceiling and new wall paneling. As congregants continued to worship at the church, the youth raised funds to install a stained glass window above the rear door in the church in 1945. Five years later on January 29, 1950, the church held an Organ Dedication Service. Rev. J. Huddleston Tackett, pastor, and Miss Virginia Nicholas, organist, introduced Mr. Miller Scarborough as the guest organist for the dedication.
During the pastorate of Rev. R. Dennis Schultz, the church school building was dedicated on September 12, 1965. At the same time the congregants and church leadership dedicated the memorial church sign that can be seen on Abingdon Road as you approach the church driveway. The sign was given in memory of Frederick Eugene McComas, Jr. (1936-1963) by his parents. His father, F. Eugene “Duke” McComas (1905-1977), served as the Sunday School Superintendent for many years. The McComas family have been ardent supporters and worshippers of Cokesbury Methodist church. Howard Kennard McComas, (1876-1943) father of F. Eugene McComas, founded the McComas Funeral Home in Abingdon, adjacent to Cokesbury church. In addition to serving as the pastor in 1965, Reverend R. Denis Schultz captured the history of Cokesbury Memorial Church in a historical written document.
Caring for Widows and Others in the Community
Following the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church in 1968, the name changed to Cokesbury United Methodist Church and later Cokesbury Memorial United Methodist Church, in commemoration of its historic location. Until 1980 Cokesbury Memorial and Calvary shared the East Harford Circuit with Smith's Chapel. In 1980, the Baltimore Conference established the Abingdon Circuit with Cokesbury and Calvary the constituent parts. Smith's Chapel, near Churchville, became a separate station.
When Rev. Katherine Moore served as the pastor in 1986, she created a Widow’s Support Group. The initial group had five members: Edna Gallion, Elma Goff, Margaret Oakley, Lillian Sonberg, and Alma Thomas. The membership later grew to ten women. Rev. Jacobson became the pastor in the fall of 1990, and the group was renamed “Golden Girls.” Ladies other than widows could now join the group. Changes occurred again when the Rev. Janet Dietiker became the pastor (2002-2004), and she suggested to have married couples, single men, and friends of the community join to increase the diversity of the group. A new name change occurred- “Golden Circle of Friends.” The group continued to meet on Thursdays at the Bayou Restaurant until the restaurant closed in December 2021. Currently, the “Golden Circle of Friends” is seeking a new facility to hold their monthly gatherings.
Vitality at the Turn of the Millennium
With Rev. Richard Goode leading the church as the pastor, a Consecration Service was held on October 11, 1998, for the Cokesbury education room and church- illuminated cross. A light lunch was offered after the service with tours of the new classrooms and a view of the church cross on the hill. In 2004, Cokesbury was blessed to be led by two female pastors, Rev. Janet Deitiker and Rev. Linda Hopkins. These two ladies not only opened their homes to Adult Bible Study classes but organized the 220th Church Anniversary Celebration. The church held a service at 10:30 am followed by a Historical Pilgrimage at 11:30 am. The congregants then gathered in the fellowship hall for a pot luck luncheon at noon with a Pie “Bake-off.” When the pie- judging was over, all persons in attendance ate the pies for dessert. Cokesbury Memorial was then a place full of activity. A children’s church for pre-school, kindergarten and toddlers took place in the newly renovated nursery at the education building.
Another important activity that occurred in 2004 was a memorial calendar that was presented to the congregants of the church from Betty Lauterbach Ward in memory of her husband, R. Walter Ward (1925-2003). This calendar recognizes the stained glass windows of the church and those who are memorialized on the windows. Cokesbury designed an effective way to preserve the history of the church through the visual medium of the stained glass windows.
A Decade of Firsts
In July 2009, the church welcomed its first full-time Pastor, Frankie Allen Revell, who enjoyed playing the banjo during worship services.
Cokesbury continued to research ways to recognize church members who made a significant difference in the life of the church. Rev. Brenda Lewis became the first African-American pastor in 2014 and held the first Homecoming service for Cokesbury on October 29, 2017. The theme of the afternoon celebration “Remember the Past, Celebrate the Present & Embrace the Future” recognized several members of the church for their faithful service. During the celebration, the church also dedicated the new electronic piano that was purchased to replace the organ. A former pastor of the church, Rev. Byron P. Brought, Sr. (1970-1976) gave the message for the service. To enhance their community involvement, Cokesbury held trunk-or- treat Halloween parties, ham & turkey dinners and continued their annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner. Financial increases for the church were received from the rental of the education hall for outside groups.
Rev. Sarah Elliot and her family joined the congregation of Cokesbury in 2018 and she quickly saw the need to continue with community outreach for the church. In 2019, Cokesbury partnered with the Harford County Hope for the Homeless Alliance (2018-2019) with the Winter Emergency Rotating Shelter. Meals were served, housing was provided and recreational activities were all provided by the members of Cokesbury.
A new worship experience occurred in July 2021 for the church. Cokesbury became a member of the Mission Central Parish (MCP) with eight other churches in Harford and Baltimore counties. The Mission Central Parish is a cooperative of nine United Methodist Churches in Harford County and Baltimore County, MD, working together to better serve our communities and make disciples of Jesus Christ. The Parish is led by two pastors, Rev. Dr. Karin Walker and Rev. Danny Breidenbaugh. They are joined by a contingent of retired pastors and lay speakers who assist in leading worship at many of our churches. As a member of the parish, Cokesbury participates in the Emergency Rotating Shelter, the Afghan Resettlement Project, the Women’s Book Club and the Summer Tutoring program. Other churches in the Mission Central Parish are: Cranberry, Ebenezer, Fallston, Frames, Poplar Grove, Presbury, Smith’s Chapel and Texas United Methodist Churches. Cokesbury served as the host for the MCP for Family Movie Night by the Graveyard on October 30, 2021.
Mr. Paul Cresthull gave remarks at a Cokesbury service in 1965 titled “Cokesbury of the Future”. I wonder if he ever knew what the future was in store for Cokesbury!