A Brief History of Our Early Church
(Dee Lindsey was the RUMC Lay Leader more
than 20 years ago. As an author, and as a lover
of history and our church, she compiled a book
with pictures that captured our long history.
This book, “Living in the Spirit” celebrates 150
years of worship by Methodists in the Riverview
area. The year 2021 will mark 175 years of
Methodism in Hillsborough County, Florida--—a
history proudly shared by our church.)
When Florida became a State in 1845,
Hillsborough County had already existed for 11
years. The Legislative Council of the Territory of
Florida organized Hillsborough County in 1834.
At the time of statehood, the county was a
sprawling jurisdiction, comprising what is now
Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Sarasota,
Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands
Counties. Although vast in area, this entire large
county only had a population of 836 settlers (not
including Indians or soldiers) on the day of statehood.
In 1846, this part of Florida was largely unsettled, and the few brave pioneers in the area still had to be on the lookout for raids by Seminole Indians. Remember that this was well before electricity, paved roads, running water, indoor plumbing, automobiles, air conditioning, and all the modern conveniences we take for granted today. County taxes in 1846 totaled $148.69, and county commissioners were paid $2 per day while the commission was in session. There was no such thing as a courthouse or a jail, downtown Tampa was still not developed, and roads were non-existent.
In 1842, relative peace had come to the Alafia River Valley. Benjamin Moody moved his family of six children to homesteaded property along the river, about 1.5 miles downstream from what is now the William T. Williams bridge that spans the river at U.S. Highway 301 South.
Moody was a devout man and it was important for him to continue religious education for his children. However, the closest church of any kind was 20 miles away in Tampa. So, after enduring that arduous trip for four years, Benjamin Moody and his neighbor, George Simmons, built a small log meeting house at the back of his property on the south bank of the Alafia. Construction was completed in 1846. It is our contention that this was the first building actually built as a Methodist Church anywhere in Hillsborough County. (Granted, the Methodist congregation in Tampa also organized in 1846, but it convened in members’ homes until its first building was dedicated in 1851.)
Moody’s little church served four families and met weekly for nearly a decade. A circuit-riding Methodist preacher held formal services there each month.
In 1866, Ben’s oldest son, William, moved his family from Lithia to Peru on land about a mile upstream from his boyhood home. Peru, Florida—now long gone—was a small town located just south of the Alafia River. People who came south to Peru, took a ferry across the Alafia River. That ferry was operated for many years by the Rev. L. G. Lesley, who also became the pastor of a new Methodist church at Peru.
Rev. Lesley and William Moody raised funds to erect a new church that was built on William’s new property. When completed in 1870 on the river’s south shore, near Lesley’s ferry operation, it was named the Lesley Chapel. Rev. Lesley served as co-pastor of the Chapel until 1880.
In 1880, Lesley Chapel was absorbed into the Methodist Episcopal Conference, and the Rev. C. E. Pelot was named as its pastor. By 1881, Lesley Chapel had grown from 20 members to 36, and, as a Methodist Episcopal church, it continued to grow throughout the 1880s.
Due to the inconvenience of ferry travel, the small community on the northern shore of the Alafia River grew much faster than Peru. Potential residents simply stopped before crossing the river when establishing their new homes. By 1893, the largest percentage of Lesley Chapel’s membership lived on the north side of the river.
Then, pebble-sized phosphate was discovered just a short distance west of today’s US 301 Bridge. This created a short-lived economic boom on the north side of the Alafia. What was once a little settlement boomed, and it became the town of Riverview. Riverview quickly outgrew the small town of Peru.
In 1894, a visiting Methodist evangelist raised money to build a new church on the north shore. This new church, initially poorly constructed, served as an alternative worship site for most of the former Lesley Chapel members. However, that 1894 building soon fell apart during an 1899 storm.
The membership replaced the fallen structure in 1900. And, at the same time, the first bridge across the Alafia was built—eliminating the need for the ferry. The replacement and substantial new church building, together with the new bridge, permanently established Riverview’s Methodist congregation on the north side of the river. That location has served as the sole home for Riverview’s Methodist congregation since 1900.
Today’s sanctuary was built in the early 1960s, and in 2021, the church will celebrate 175 years of service to the community.