“In the Beginning…” the Rev. Jesse Walker set up a mission south of Plainfield in 1826. This charismatic preacher began “riding the circuit.” He preached at first to the Native Americans and later to the permanent settlers who began arriving in 1830.

The first settlement in what later became New Lenox Township centered on the area known as Gougar Crossing (now Gougar Road north of U. S. 30), so named for William Gougar, on whose farm the weekly mail could be picked up. (Danville to Chicago route). Among the families in the early 1830s in addition to the Gougars were those of John Cooper, Thomas Francis, and Abraham Francis.

When the circuit rider arrived services were held in the homes and barns of the various families. Walker passed away in 1835 and other circuit riders conducted services.

The First Church

By 1853 a frame church was built on the north side of State Road (now U. S. 30) near the New Lenox and Frankfort Township boundary. The church, known as the Bethel Church, served the settlers in the area of both townships. However, it soon became evident that sufficient population in the area made it possible for both townships to have a church. The church was dismantled and parts used to build a new church in New Lenox.

The First New Lenox Methodist Church

The coming of the Rock Island Railroad in 1852 brought great change in New Lenox Township. The center of population moved east to the area bounded by Hickory Creek on the north, Haven Avenue on the south and between Cedar Road and the Cold Springs Campground on the west. The Methodist Church was built on Hickory Street, just east of Pine Street in 1863.

During the Civil War the New Lenox Church, known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, had many members who believed in the abolitionist cause. Underground Railroad activity occurred at several locations in New Lenox Township. Dwight Haven, one of the leaders of the New Lenox Methodist Church, was arrested for violation of the fugitive slave law. He was known to have hid runaway slaves on his farm and in the Old Brick Tavern on the east of his property.

Harriet Francis recalled, “The [Methodist] church building faced south. It was an oblong building, with a vestibule in front where people could hang wraps and hats, etc. and a balcony above it for extra capacity. The pulpit was at the north end. There were sheds at the rear of the lot where people could tie their horses and have shelter for both horses and buggies. A high board fence was at the west side of the lot to help protect other horses not in the sheds. For our social, we rented the old Grange Hall, which stood on the southeast corner of Hickory and Oak Streets. We would have oyster suppers in the winter months, also a big Christmas cantata on Christmas Eve. Lawn socials were held at the homes in the summer with homegrown strawberries and homemade ice cream and cakes for refreshments. Rev. J. A. Lucas was the first full time pastor.” From 1868-1870 the Methodist Church loaned its building on Sunday afternoons to the newly formed Episcopal congregation until their church on the northwest corner of Pine and Hickory could be completed.

The first Methodist Church of New Lenox was razed when the congregation moved to the new building in 1899.

The Campgrounds

Leaders who organized the first camp meeting in 1868
(left to right): Charles Francis, Fred Haven, Cal Nichols and George Barr.

After the Civil War in 1867 the 21 acre campgrounds on the west edge of town was purchased by the Centenary Campground Association of the Methodist Conference for the purpose of holding religious camp meetings during the summer months. This was organized by four Methodist church leaders: George Barr, Charles Francis, Fred Haven and Cal Nichols. The first camp meeting was held in 1868.

People camped out first in tents; later cabins were added for some. Through the many years permanent structures were added: an entrance gatehouse, a tabernacle, a bath house, a dining hall. All these buildings were later razed.

At one time as many as 5000 people attended camp meetings. In the beginning campers arrived on horseback, wagon or carriage or by train. Later the automobile and the trolley car also brought people to the meetings.

Deaconesses would bring children from Chicago for fresh air work. Children, who perhaps had never stepped on grass nor seen a cow could have an outdoor experience. They would come before or after camp meeting sessions. Still later, the grounds were used for Epworth League and other groups.

In 1927 a cabin constructed of poles from the Western Electric pole yard south of New Lenox was built in the campgrounds for youth activities. Later it became known as the Boy Scout Cabin. It still remains on the property.

The 1899 Church

The Methodist Church on corner of Church Street and Haven Avenue before 1930 when the spire was damaged by lightning and the church was altered.

By the 1890s a new church was needed. A church was erected on the corner of Church Street and Haven Avenue at a cost of $11,040.65, which was paid in full in two years. This impressive building opened in 1899. It had the modern convenience of acetylene gas lighting. It was known for its many large and beautiful stained glass windows.

Harriet Francis remembered, “ W. H. Bryant of Joliet was the contractor. The laying of the cornerstone services were held July 19, 1899…[inside the cornerstone] is a copper box and inside the box is a Bible, a Methodist Discipline, a history of the church to date, the names of all the officers and members to that date and other cards and papers. While the cover was being soldered on, the band played “Nearer My God to Thee. The dedication services were held January 14, 1900… three services and services for several days following… Rev. Allison F. Clark was pastor.” In the years following World War II with the Haven School across the road bursting with enrollment, the church was used as a classroom for a short time. The church building served the congregation for about 80 years. An addition was added in 1957 to provide Sunday School and other educational and social facilities.

This church building still stands although the building was sold when the new church was completed in the campgrounds.

Back to the Campgrounds with a New Church

An after lunch gathering in the campgrounds, July 1898.

The New Lenox Methodist Church purchased the campgrounds in 1965 and the congregation began plans for a new church on the site in 1971. With the exception of the Boy Scout Cabin all the buildings on the site were razed because they had fallen into disrepair. The present church building was dedicated June 26, 1977. During this time two ministers served, Rev. Herbert George and later Rev. Leon Leatherman.

There was a national merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church in 1968 and the conjoined church became known as the United Methodist Church of New Lenox.

By 1989 more space was needed and an addition to the church was consecrated. The addition provided space for educational opportunities and a chapel which serves as a multipurpose area. The beautiful grounds were used for worship services when weather permitted. An annual Campground Festival and a FleaMarket/Auction were held on the grounds.