The town in which we live was developed in the 1880s as a railroad stop relating to the nearby Pocahontas coal seams. It was named "Graham" after a coal developer from Pennsylvania, Thomas Graham. Earlier post office names for the tiny agricultural neighborhood that was here before the days of coal were "Pinhook" and "Harman" (named after a Civil War hero with ties to the area). But the town of Graham was an important new development in our community. A lot of building activity took place in the 1880s and 1890s as the coal economy grew and railroad workers took up residence here. Graham became a community of workers, merchants, and professionals, neighbor to nearby Bluefield, West Virginia, which became an even more significant railroad center. The two communities grew up together with the state line separating them. In the 1920s a vote was taken to change the name of Graham to Bluefield, Virginia. This vote, which passed by only a narrow margin, was celebrated with a mock "wedding" which symbolized the coming together of the two communities in spirit and cooperation.
The town of Bluefield, Virginia, is today a town of about 5000 residents in a county of over 40,000. It is situated at the base of East River Mountain, on the waters of Bluestone and East Rivers. The beauty of the area is one of our most prized resources. The area has been called “Four Seasons Country,” and it lives up to that name. While the stability of the coal economy has not remained as strong as it once was, the community still has a fairly robust industrial base and hosts a variety of businesses, schools and colleges, and health care facilities. The proximity of I-77 and US 19/460 gives the community access to much of the eastern US. Our schools still bear the name of the old town of Graham, and our people still strive to make this a good place to live.
Graham Methodist Episcopal Church, South was established about 1883 under the ministry of the Reverend D. H. Carr, when it was decided that the town of Graham needed a new church. An earlier congregation had been established shortly before the Civil War, named "Johnson's Chapel" after a circuit riding preacher known as Reverend Hugh Johnson, from Hendersonville, NC, whose influence was felt by early residents. It is not clear if the Johnson's Chapel congregation continued through the time of Graham's establishment or not, but it was the forerunner of the present congregation, and was supported by several families who came into the new church.
Our first Graham Methodist building was located diagonally across from the present church, where the Graham Presbyterian Church now stands. It was a simple frame building, and was erected about 1888. It was destroyed by a fire that broke out in 1895, which reportedly destroyed several buildings on that corner. An effort was immediately made to erect a new building which served the congregation for about twenty years. This building was a neo-gothic brick building that had a large front spire.
By the 1920s the congregation had grown and the old building was presenting maintenance challenges. So a new building was planned. Lots were purchased across the street at the present site, and ground was broken in 1923 for a neo-classical brick structure with natural limestone details. The building was opened in November 1925, and the Kilgen Organ was added the next spring. The new building was designed to hold 600 in worship and had 16 classrooms and a commodious dining facility which was named Palmer Hall after one of the leading citizens of Bluefield, Virginia, and former town treasurer Robert H Palmer.
In the 1950s the need was expressed for an addition to the 1923 building. An education wing was added which accommodated the growing church's children, youth, and choral programs. A chapel on the ground level was named Austin Chapel to honor an active family from that era.
The Bluefield (WV) Daily Telegraph reported many local church events, and several from the early 1900s are reported in the archived editions of the paper.
The congregation was characterized by a strong evangelistic tendency, an attentive outreach, and highly organized auxiliary groups including several circles of Women's groups, youth groups, and a Men's Bible Class. Music was an important part of the worship of the church from an early day. The pipe organ was considered one of the best in the area when it was installed in 1926. Children's, Adult, and Handbell choirs have been active for a century.
In the 1990s, an effort was made to expand the music to include some of the "Contemporary" music of the day. A new worship service was developed, called the JOY! service to use this new praise and worship music.
Today the church is actively engaged in outreach in our community, offering worship and learning opportunities weekly, fellowship and sharing times, and continues to build on the strong musical traditions as we grow and respond to the times.
The 1923 Building features stained glass windows depicting the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The windows were created by the Charles Tiffany studios of New York, and are dedicated to many of the children and family members of the church at the time of the opening of the sanctuary.
The name of the church has changed as a reflection of the changes of the denomination in the 20th century. Established as Graham Methodist Episcopal Church, South, after the Methodist denominations merged in 1939, it became simply "Graham Methodist Church." As the community had become "Bluefield," it was about 1941 when the congregation voted to become "First Methodist Church" of Bluefield. In 1968 the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations merged, forming the United Methodist Church. Since that time our congregation has been known as "Bluefield First United Methodist Church."
A special gift was given to the church by Joe and Suiter Davidson. The regionally famous preacher, Robert S Sheffey, who died in 1902 in Giles County, Virginia, had been active in promoting faith and praying in powerful ways. He used a sheepskin as a "prayer rug." Today, thanks to the Davidsons, this prayer rug hangs in the hallway of our church as a reminder of the prayer ministry of Rev. Sheffey, who was also known as the "Saint of the Wilderness." His life is depicted in two books and a major motion picture ("Sheffey"). Many of our congregation have ties to people who were influenced by Brother Sheffey's ministry.
Reverend Robert S Sheffey never served our church, as he was not officially tied to the Annual Conference, but he traveled in the area extensively and helped establish faith in many of the families who are still in our church today. We have some in our membership who are kin to him as well. Sheffey was converted to Christianity by a Methodist circuit riding preacher in Abingdon, Virginia before the Civil War. He took that conversion seriously and gave himself fully to the service of his "sweet Lord Jesus."