We do not exist for a denomination; we do, however, believe that being connected to a larger structure of churches is good for us and for the other churches we connect with. Though being part of a denomination brings more layers of church government, we believe that being officially connected to the larger church is healthy, biblical and in our best interest.
Human beings have a tendency to view ourselves as individuals, as the highest perspective of life. We are convinced that the church is designed by Christ in opposition to this human perspective. Christ institutes the church because He knows that without the structure of other believers, we will live self-centered lives, we will see ourselves as the final judge of our lives and we will end up in a dangerous place.
Therefore, we are not connected to The Wesleyan Church because we must but because we desire to do so. We need the accountability, encouragement, support, and the larger view of the kingdom that the denomination offers us. We also believe that our involvement with other Wesleyan churches enables us to be in a unique position to be a source of accountability, encouragement and support to our sister churches.
We also believe that though we do not worship the past, we are wise to remember the past and to maintain our connections to it. As God tells the Israelites to remember their past so that they would see again and again what He had done, so God calls us to remember as well. With this in mind, we present a brief history of our congregation.
The Wesleyan Church exists in the context of the historic and universal church. The English Reformation (1532-1536) birthed the Church of England. Almost 200 years later, John Wesley was born (1703) to Susanna and Samuel, who was a rector in the Church of England. Wesley’s journey to faith closely mirrors Martin Luther’s, the father of the Protestant Reformation begun in 1517.
Wesley, like Luther, was born at a time when the institutional church tended to promote salvation by works: if you just do enough good, if you follow the rules, then you will be right with God. Wesley spent his early years struggling to live up this standard. He founded the Holy Club to promote spiritual practices. He came to America as a missionary, which ended in disaster.
As the ship crossed the Atlantic, they encountered a life-threatening storm. Wesley was terrified to face eternity but in his fear he observed some folks calmly singing hymns and praising God. He inquired of them and discovered that they were Moravians and spoke to him about salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. It took the two years in America and another few months after returning to England but their words bore fruit in his life. On May 24, 1738, Wesley’s life was changed. He wrote in his journal:
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Like Luther, Wesley did not intend to found a new denomination, but desired to reform the church he knew and loved. In fact, he remained an Anglican priest his entire life. So the Methodist movement was born as a means of leading people to faith in Christ. Soon societies were formed to encourage new believers and to care for the needy among them. Caring for the poor and vulnerable has always been a mark of the people called Methodists. Wesley organized his people into class meetings and bands (what we would today call small groups) in order to create a spirit of accountability and encouragement. Many believe that these groups were the genius of the movement.
When the established churches prevented him from preaching in them, he reluctantly took the gospel message to the people preaching in the fields, city squares, about anywhere people would give him a hearing. He often faced opposition, but the movement grew. Eventually, Wesley sent Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as missionaries to the colonies. They found a ready hearing among the American people. But as the Revolutionary War became more of a reality, they petitioned Wesley to allow them to start a new denomination. He agreed and The Methodist Episcopal Church was established in December 1784, spreading across the fledgling nation with astounding success.
The Wesleyan Church
Along with Wesley’s emphasis on salvation by faith, he also preached the doctrine of holiness, which he defined as a heart and life surrendered to God that is witnessed as “loving the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.” The doctrine of holiness, variously defined as “perfect love,” “entire sanctification,” “total surrender,” “filling of the Spirit,” was central to Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. It is important to understand that Wesley always viewed holiness as a work of God not a human striving as it is sometimes preached and understood.
As the years progressed and the church grew, differences of opinion began to emerge as the essential focus of the Methodist people. The idea of holiness as central to Wesleyan theology was, in the opinion of some, fading. Beginning in 1841, pastors, people and churches who felt that their words of concern were going unheeded, began to withdraw from The Methodist Episcopal Church and in 1843 formed a new gathering of churches: “The Wesleyan Methodist Connection.”
The primary tenets of their concern were related to the teaching of holiness. They believed that the weakened perspective on loving the Lord with all of one’s heart and loving others as yourself, led the church to waffle on crucial social issues, primarily slavery and women’s rights. As the new group emerged, they tied relationship with Christ to concern for people society mistreated, which at that time were slaves and women. Most of the Wesleyan Methodists were leaders in the abolitionist and suffragette movements. They worked to free slaves and acknowledged the rights of all believers, including women, to serve the church in any way God gifted and called, including as preacher and pastor.
In 1897, a group of Methodists sensed God leading them to form an interdenominational fellowship based on the core principles that Wesley taught. Eventually, other groups joined them until they finally settled in 1922 as The Pilgrim Holiness Church. This group of believers emphasized the doctrine of holiness, evangelism and missions, sending workers into many countries of the world.
After years of discussion and prayer, The Wesleyan Methodist Church and The Pilgrim Holiness Church came to the conclusion that they could accomplish more effectively the work to which God had called them as one group rather than two. In 1968, the two merged to form The Wesleyan Church as we are known today.
The Wesleyan Church is divided into geographic districts. The Houghton Wesleyan Church is part of the Western New York District of The Wesleyan Church. Our district has 32 churches in western New York and northern PA.
Houghton Wesleyan Church
As the nineteenth century population spread across the North American continent, canals were the primary mode of transporting goods. The Erie Canal of childhood folksong fame connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie; the Olean Canal ran across the southern part of New York and the canal that connected them north and south ran through a small community named Houghton.
Canals ran six days a week and the men who worked them looked for a place to spend Sunday. Houghton became a popular destination, primarily because the road through the town is one of the few flat and straight roads near the canal. This provided a useful place to race horses, which was the common Sunday practice. While the horses raced, the men gambled and drank and engaged in every vice available to them. Houghton was known as a place of iniquity.
A farmer who lived in the hills above Houghton became burdened for the town and the people. He began to pray that God would do such a miracle in this place that the town would come to be known for godliness as it was then known for wickedness. The steam engine was one means by which God answered his prayer. Trains soon became a much more popular means of transportation until eventually the canals were closed and, in Houghton, all of the businesses that the canal men supported closed.
In 1852, a small church was established in Houghton. It had its hands full with the canal trade. Initially meeting in the local schoolhouse, by 1871 the group had grown enough to build a modest church. In 1934 our current sanctuary was completed and the Christian Education building was finished in 1972.
Houghton Academy and Houghton College
One reason for the larger building was the establishment of Houghton Seminary (now Houghton Academy) and Houghton College. Both institutions have always been closely connected to our church and we continue to work in tandem with these sister institutions.