Salem United Methodist Church has many pieces of history

Salem UMC ooutside church

SELBYVILLE – Biblically speaking, “Salem” stands for “peace.”

Salem United Methodist Church in Selbyville has a piece or two of history in its 225 years of existence.

The church on Church Street that boasts some of the most stunning and beautiful stained glass windows in the region has a fiery and noteworthy past.

Perhaps Salem UMC’s most famous – and generous – congregation member: John Gillis Townsend Jr., a successful Sussex County businessman and politician who served as a state representative (1903-05), Delaware’s Governor (1917-21) and then U.S. Senator (1929-41).

Through his powerful Republican Party connections, the church has welcomed such dignitaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon, at that time Vice President under President Dwight Eisenhower.

Salem UMC Nixon

As Vice President, Richard M. Nixon visited Salem United Methodist Church in the late 1950s, for John G. Townsend’s 85th birthday celebration.

Vice President Nixon attended Mr. Townsend’s 85th birthday celebration in the late 1950s.

Mr. Townsend died in April of 1964 at age 92. He is buried in Red Men Cemetery, several blocks from Salem UMC.

As history goes, Salem UMC roots date back to 1790 when a small chapel-type structure was built near Sandy Branch, serving the purposes of the Methodist “society” as it was called then.

Prior to that worship services were held in the residence of David Murray, among the prominent names several centuries ago.

“If you’ll notice that everybody is either a ‘Murray’ or a ‘Long,’” said Fred Stevens, Salem UMC’s historian.

Salem UMS fred stevens

Fred Stevens, Salem United Methodist Church historian, points to one the historic items on display at the church in Selbyville.

Located north of present day Selbyville, the first church, which doubled as a school, was used until a new building was constructed near the old one on property purchased in 1849.

As the town grew and prospered, a new building was constructed in 1884 at the present site. It remained in use until 1911 when it was moved to an adjoining lot where a school had formerly stood. The old building was destroyed by fire in 1922.

Construction of the present Salem UMC began in 1911, along with a new parsonage. Project completion was celebrated in July of 1912.

Church history is showcased on walls of a long hallway featuring scores of nostalgic photographs, newspaper articles and memorabilia.

“We had most of the photos,” said Ms. Stevens, 77, nearing his 10th year as church historian.

A sign at the front entrance welcoming congregation members and visitors capsulizes the history. It reads: Salem United Methodist Church … serving the community with Methodism … 1790-2015 … 225 years … “from basket and porch meetings to present day.”

Today’s church features a wooden-floor roller skating rink, complete with skate rental.

A pipe organ – the organist is Geraldine Stevens, Mr. Stevens’ wife – augments worship services.

Salem UMC stained glass

Stained glass windows are a radiant work of art at Salem United Methodist Church in Selbyville.

And then there are those stained glass windows.

“When the sun is out there is no prettier glass windows anywhere on the Eastern Shore. They are beautiful,” said Mr. Stevens. “When people come in for weddings, funerals … it’s like (wow!) …”

In commemoration of its 225th anniversary, Salem UMC held a special celebration Aug. 30, with a peach ice cream festival and a re-enactment of Francis Asbury, the eventual first bishop of the Methodist church who came to America from England prior to the Revolutionary War and became a Methodist recruit rider.

Francis Asbury was portrayed by Thomas McCabe, Mr. Stevens’ grandson.

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, Asbury was the only Methodist minister to stay in America.

“When war between Great Britain and the colonies broke out Asbury retained his Tory loyalties,” explained Fred Stevens, Mr. McCabe’s grandfather who serves as Salem UMC historian. “For self-preservation he hid himself during the war. A sympathetic Methodist who lived outside Harrington, Delaware allowed Asbury to quietly reside in a remote outbuilding, a humbling experience for a future bishop.”

A state historical marker stands at the site west of Harrington where the structure once stood. Fundraising to raise the purchase price failed, and the farm owner “unceremoniously” demolished the dilapidated structure, Mr. Stevens said.

Salem UMC sign

This sign spans the history of Salem United Methodist Church, celebrating its 225th year this year.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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