It would seem eminently proper to have placed this denomination first in the history of churches in Menard County, for it is to all intents and purposes pioneer in its operations. Its policy for spreading the Gospel is exactly adapted to the wants and needs of new and sparsely settled sections of country. The itinerant system, so long practiced and brought to such perfection among the Methodists, is the method of sending the Gospel to the remote settlements. It is not surprising then, that the Methodist "circuit-rider" is found in every new country. The first Methodist that ever settled in Illinois was Capt. Joseph Ogle, who settled here in 1785. The first preacher of the Church to come into the State was Rev. Joseph Lillard, who formed the first society in the State. This class met in the house of Capt. Ogle, in St. Clair County, and he was appointed the leader. Some years later, Rev. John Clark, who had preached in the Carolinas from 1791 to 1796, desiring to get beyond the limits of slavery, wandered westward, and was the first to preach Methodism west of the Mississippi River, and subsequently came to Illinois. Rev. Hosea Riggs was the first local preacher to settle in the State. The first regular work of the Church in the State under authority of Conference, was in 1803, when Rev. Benjamin Young was appointed missionary to the State by the Western Conference holding its session at Mt. Gerizim, Ky. In 1804, the missionary reported sixty-seven members in the State. In 1806, Rev. Jess Walker was sent to the State; he was a man of great zeal and energy. He held the first camp-meeting in the State during this year. This meeting awakened a revival interest, which was felt in nearly all the settlements in the State. At the close of the year, he reported 218 members. The Western Conference then included Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and all the Northwest. In 1812, it was divided, and Tennessee and Illinois formed a Conference. In 1816, the Missouri Conference was formed, and Illinois was included in this. In 1824, Illinois Conference was formed, including Illinois and Indiana. In 1832, Indiana was separated from it. We speak of this to show the rapidity with which the Church increased in the sparsely settled regions of the West and North. From about the close of the war of 1812, the itinerants of the M.E. Church were constantly traversing the country from East to West, and from North to South, organizing classes wherever opportunity offered. There are no means of leaning who the first minister of this denomination was who first preached in Menard County. We have positive proof that in the summer of 1820, a class was formed in the settlement near where Athens now stands. One James Stringfield was perhaps the first Methodist preacher in the county: certainly he was the first local preacher who settled here. He came in 1819 or in the early part of 1820. About the time that the class was formed near Athens, or not long after, a society was formed west of the river, but it precise locality cannot be determined. The matter is not positively decided, but it is believed that the first regular circuit formed included the societies on both sides of the Sangamon River. In 1821 or 1822, a regular circuit was laid out, including the classes here. Rev. Isaac House was the first preacher placed on the circuit, and Rev. Mr. Simms was Presiding Elder. The Methodists, perhaps (in fact, it is absolutely certain), built the first house of worship that was erected in the county; this was in the year 1825. This house was built on the farm of Mr. Harry Riggin. The land was donated by Mr. Riggin, with the understanding that it was to revert to him or his heirs, so soon as it ceased to be used for religious purposed. This was a neat hewed-log building, 22x36 feet. It had glass windows by chance; we say by chance, because Mr. Riggin brought quite a large quantity of window-glass with him when he came to Illinois, and this was part of his contribution. This house was used constantly till about 1839 or 1840, when it was sold, and is now a barn on the farm of Henry Rankin. The proceeds, with a considerable subscription added, was expended in the erection of a new frame church in Athens. This house was built about the year 1840, and is still used by the M.E. Church there.
This portion of the Church has been blessed with the services of very able men. The venerable Peter Akers, D.D., was for years Presiding Elder of this district. Peter Cartwright, of national reputation, was Elder of the district longer than any other man, and Dr. Akers next. Cartwright has preached in every part of the county; indeed, we might say in almost every grove of timber. The fruits of the labors of this people are to be seen in every locality. The denomination has, in the county, four church edifices, three frame, and one brick. (This, of course, is exclusive of the Free Methodist Church at Athens, and the German M.E. Church on Sand Ridge). Besides these, there are several classes having no house of worship. A large volume might be written, giving interesting accounts of the labors of the Methodists here. The ministers in the county at present, are as follows: Rev. Mr. Coombs, in Petersburg; Rev. Mr. Eckman, at Athens; Rev. Mr. Finity, at Greenview. These are on the circuits in the county, and the only local preachers are Rev. Starling Tuner (he being a Protestant), and Rev. F.E. Foster, Greenview.
Reminiscences of Methodist ministers rush on our mind, demanding to be recorded, but, if the flood-gate is once opened, no telling where the end will be. But, in imagination the portly form and smiling face of Rev. Barrett rises up, and with the face an interminable store of remembered incidents. That eye, so full of humor, looks out on the world no more; the voice, so sweet in persuasion, so dire in denunciation, and so convincing in argument, is long since silent in death, but those who knew him will never forget the power of his pulpit efforts, or the unrivaled point and potency of his witticisms. Ever a devoted and consistent Christian, but at the same time ever ready to see the ludicrous phase of everything, and lead others to see, and, with his anecdotes, to convulse everything with merriment. Sometimes, though seldom, this characteristic of the man would manifest itself in the pulpit, and when this was the case, the house was sure to be "brought down." Pardon one illustration, kind reader, and we will pledge ourselves to give but the one.
Mr. Barrett was a plain Western man, used to Western habits and customs. He was also blessed with a powerful physical constitution, and being a man of very active habits, his nature demanded, and he relished most heartily, good, plain, wholesome food. At one time, he was on a circuit, one of the preaching points being in a settlement of New England people, and most of the class were "Yankees." Of course, their manners differed widely from his, and especially in the matter of diet, they were totally unlike. In that early day, "sweetmeats" were scarce, and those Eastern people had no idea of eating meat like the Western people. They lived nearly without meat, and the inevitable "pumpkin-pie" was nearly the standard part of their food. Bother Barrett visited different houses, but it was everywhere the same-pumpkin-pie confronted him where'er he went. At last, almost starving, he hinted very broadly that he wanted meat, but all of no avail. Finally, one Sabbath morning, when a large congregation had assembled, he decided to present his case in prayer. So, when they bowed for the opening prayer, after addressing the throne of grace for a time, he continued: "Oh, Lord, we thank Thee for this good land, for this productive soil, and for sunshine and shower. And we pray Thee, oh, Lord, if Thou canst bless under the Gospel, what Thou didst curse under the law, that Thou wilt bless the hogs. Oh, may they fatten and thrive; and do Thou send abundant crops of corn, that they may be made fat, that Thy servants may have meat to eat, that they may grow strong to serve Thee and do Thy Will. Oh, Lord, we pray Thee to blight the pumpkin crop. Send blasting and mildew on every vine, for Thou knowest we cannot serve Thee on the strength they give." He then went on and closed his prayer in the usual way. Suffice it to say that the brethren took the hint, and after that Brother Barrett had meat to eat. The foregoing anecdote is literally true, otherwise, a number of men of unimpeachable character for truth and veracity have stated falsely. Rev. Mr. Barrett lived and continued to preach till some time during 1878; during that year, while living in Jacksonville, he went to an appointment at Grigg's Chapel, in the Sangamon Bottom, in Cass County, and preached morning and evening with his usual power and energy. Retired at night as well as usual, and was a corpse in a few hours. Thus passed away this eccentric, though faithful and successful minister of the Gospel. The M.E. Church could boast a great many faithful and devoted men among her early ministers, as well as among those of later years. This Church is still, with great energy and zeal, performing her part of the work in sending the Gospel to men in this county. She has here a large, devoted and wealthy membership, and a faithful and zealous ministry.