History of Penn Yan UMC

Penn Yan UMC and the Methodist movement has a rich history in Yates County. It is something that we are proud of. The most exciting part is that our history is what allows us to be a church today that is all about serving our community with open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Penn Yan UMC you can find all sorts of fun and interesting facts below.

Methodism in Yates County

In 1824, Abner Chase and Abraham Prosser, representing a group of Methodists, went before Judge Oliver to file Articles of Incorporation to be known as the First Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Village of Penn Yan.  Those incorporators could not have visualized that all these years later, their society would still be thriving to the point of having two separate Sunday morning services.

Ezra Cole, an itinerant preacher from Otsego County, had been traveling around New York for several years and in the course of his trips, had heard the Genesee Country described as a land “flowing with milk and honey.”  A group of seven came to explore the Promised Land and returned home with glowing accounts.  Soon, the whole company, numbering 30, packed all their earthly belongings and began the long journey to make their new homes in the wilderness.  After a trip lasting four weeks, they landed at Kashong in July of 1792 and set about building their simple log homes.

Cole built a home a little northwest of Benton Center; George Wheeler, Jr. erected his home about a mile south, near Baldwins Corners; Eliphalet Hull built a home near Flatt Street, and Samuel Buell’s home was located at Benton Center.  Soon feeling the need of religious services, the group sought and received permission from Levi Benton, who lived near the present location of the Benton Cemetery, to use his barn.  Ezra Cole preached in 1792 at the first Protestant service in present-day Yates County (except for the services conducted by Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend).

In 1793, the little group of Methodists felt that there should be a more established relationship with the church at-large and that the circuit riders should pay regular visits.  Ezra Cole traveled to Philadelphia to request that Bishop Francis Asbury send circuit riders.  The Bishop set up the Seneca Lake Circuit and sent the Reverend James Smith and Thornton Fleming to organize the new circuit with Valentine Cook as presiding elder.

Confrontations with the Jemima Wilkinson movement were inevitable.  Arriving in the area within five years of the migration of the first “Universal Friend” families, the circuit riders were not long in invading the “Friend’s” domain.  Two early circuit riders, Reverend James Smith and Reverend John Broadhead were zealous in the penetration of the area, gradually drawing away many of the young people.  Although those early Methodists were strict in their behavior, amusements and wearing apparel, their rules were far less restrictive than the “Friend’s” dictates.  Later, when the Friend group moved to Jerusalem, the circuit riders followed.

The Methodist group continued to grow.  In 1807, a frame building was erected, finished with clapboards, but with no steeple, no lath or plaster, or any means of warming except for kettles filled with burning charcoal scattered about the floor among the crude seats to take the chill from the room.  Crude by today’s standards, it was a Methodist Church and the first church to be erected in Yates County, except for the log house of worship built by the followers of Jemima Wilkinson.  Winter services were held in the log school house in Benton Center.

At the time this Methodist activity was going on in Benton, Penn Yan was just beginning to develop as a community with mills centered on the outlet and dwellings in the Main and Head (now North Avenue) Streets area.  Main Street and the road from Penn Yan to Benton Center were surveyed in 1800.  The Methodists gathered in classes for prayer meetings and Sunday services with one of the early leaders, Abraham Prosser.  Lacking an organized society and with only occasional visits from circuit riders, the appointed class leaders were important officials.

It was not until 1823 that regular Methodist prayer meetings were held in the old Red House, built in 1795.  Dr. John Dorman ran a tavern in the house and had a tenant, a widow named Mrs. Susan Benson.  Mrs. Benson would not stay in the area without regular prayer meetings.  Mrs. Dorman offered the use of the tavern’s front room.  Joined by Mrs. Abraham Prosser and another woman living at the Prosser home, Mrs. Benson and Mrs. Dorman started weekly prayer meetings.  These meetings continued for a year in this location.

On March 29, 1824, Abraham Prosser and the Reverend Abner Chase, Presiding Elder of the Ontario District, appeared before William Oliver, Yates County Judge, to file papers for the incorporation of the First Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the village of Penn Yan.

On July 1, 1824, Yates County came into being.  At that time, Penn Yan had 70 dwellings, 2 grist mills, 2 saw mills, a trip-hammer, 4 stores, 2 printing offices, 2 school houses, and 3 public houses.  Then, there were 4 Methodist churches in the county; Baldwin’s Corners or Benton, Overackers Corners, Bellona, and Starkey.  Circuit riders conducted services at several other locations around the county.

In 1842, a faction of the Penn Yan Methodist congregation split off and formed their own church: the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  The issue was not of whether or not slavery, but rather how vigorously to oppose the institution of slavery.  At about the same time, a majority group left the Presbyterian church and built the church that the Methodists purchased in 1857.  Others joined the Wesleyan group and that church prospered for 20 years.  Some of the prominent members who left the Methodist Episcopal fold and were involved in the founding of the church were Abraham Prosser’s son, David, and Mrs. Joel Dorman.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church, on the corner of Main and Court Streets, was the scene of many antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights rallies.  Well-known speakers who appeared here were Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony.  In 1864, that church disbanded.  Its members were welcomed back into the Penn Yan Methodist Episcopal Church and the building was converted into a boarding house.  Today, it is still in use as apartments.

History of Our Buildings

Now that the Methodists were organized, they needed a meeting house.  In 1825, Abraham Wagener deeded a lot on the north side of Church Street (now Chapel Street) to the new group for five dollars, as long as it was used for church purposes.  The first Methodist meeting house was built in 1826 by Abraham Prosser.  It was a frame construction, 33 x 60 feet, with a square tower and an octagonal belfry, surrounded with a balcony and a rail above.  An image representing Gabriel blowing a trumpet stood on the steeple.

The pulpit was in the east end, the choir occupied the balcony opposite, while side galleries ran between.  Circumventing the elevated pulpit was an altar rail, where the penitent might kneel.  The walls were plastered and whitewashed, the small-paned windows had no blinds, the floor no carpet, the pews no cushions, and the choir no musical instruments.  There were wood stoves, the center chandelier used sperm oil lamps.  The pews had strict backs and doors, and were stained dark red.  Red drapery covered the front and sides of the pulpit, which was reached by climbing a flight of stairs on either side.  The high pulpit, common at that time, made the occupant invisible when seated.  The women were all seated on one side, the men on the other.  When singing, the congregation would rise and turn their backs to the pulpit and the preacher faced the choir; this practice continued up until the early 1850’s.

In 1849, the church was remodeled to provide Sunday School rooms and rooms for social gatherings.  But even this expansion did not provide the necessary room for the growing congregation so a larger structure was sought.  When the building ceased to be used for church purposes, it was used, for a time, as a school, and later moved off the property.

In 1857, after the slavery furor which had divided many churches died down, the First Free Congregational Church building was offered to the Methodists for $3,000, painted and refitted.  The problem of raising funds was serious because of the financial panic that year, but the conditions were met and the church was officially dedicated on December 10, 1857.

In April of 1896, it was decided to erect a new church on the site of the old.  A farewell service was held in August 1896.  The official board authorized $30,000 for the construction of a new building.  During construction, services were held in the County Courthouse.  The new church building, costing almost $35,000 and built by Jacob Allington and Sons of Elmira, was dedicated on January 12, 1899.

The church was constructed of Ruddy-grey Medina sandstone.  The two front entrances lead from Main Street through vestibules into the amphitheatral auditorium with the pulpit in the southwest corning, just in front of the choir loft and organ.  The pews seat 450.  The church was finished in red oak with hardwood floors.  The doors and cushions were covered with plush of soft green tint, with draperies of the same material in harmony with the rich velvet on the aisles, chancel, and pulpit floors.Sanctuary circa 1911

On the west side of the auditorium, and opening into it by glazed sliding doors, was the lecture room.  It was surrounded on three sides by nine smaller classrooms.  The north side entrance off Chapel Street led up into the lecture room and class rooms, and down into the kitchen and dining room.  In 1941, the men of the church started removing dirt from beneath the auditorium to provide for more classrooms.  This work had to be stopped after World War II began but was resumed in the fall of 1945.

In 1971, the school facilities at the rear of the church were demolished and the present educational wing was built.  The addition encompasses 11,000 square feet of floor space with entrances from Chapel Street and three on the lower floor.  The second floor provides eight church school rooms, a library, and a chapel.

A project was initiated in 1992 to address the condition of the almost 100-year-old church building.  This project included a complete repointing of the stone work on the exterior and roof repairs.  The sanctuary renovation included new wiring, improved acoustics, new pew cushions, and carpet.  After all the projects were completed, the total cost was $333,780.

The Memorial Building

The Memorial Building adjoins the church on the south side and was purchased in 1958.  While major remodeling was required, the building was sound and renovation was economically more feasible than replacement.  The large rooms were well-suited for church use.  It presently houses the Pastor’s study, church offices, staff offices, Sunday school rooms, and a kitchen, dining room and parlor for receptions.


The early circuit riders boarded with members of the congregation when they were in Penn Yan.  The first parsonage was purchased in 1848 for $1,500 and still stands today on the corner of Clinton and Benham Streets.  The Reverend Alpha Wright and family were the first to occupy the new parsonage.  The second parsonage was bequeathed to the church by Sarah H. Hollowell in 1917, her former home at 219 Main Street.  This fine old house served until the current parsonage at 10 Rosewood Drive was purchased in 1962 for $25,000.


The first parsonage, at the corner of Clinton and Benham Streets

Second parsonage, 219 Main Street

Present parsonage, 10 Rosewood Drive

Our Windows

Original Architect’s Rendering

View Down Center Aisle

View Down Center Aisle


 View of Right Wall


View of Left Wall


These windows and many more can be viewed Sunday mornings during our worship services or weekdays between the hours of 9:00 am and 3:00 pm.

open hearts. open minds. open doors.

166 Main Street, Penn Yan, NY 14527 Phone | 315 536 6711 Office Hours: Monday-Thursday | 9 AM - 11 AM Friday | 9:00 AM - Noon

© 2016 Penn Yan UMC.

Worship Times

Saturday Night | 5:00 PM Sunday Break | 9:00 AM Traditional Worship | 11:00 AM