From its exterior, the Leesburg United Methodist Church, Loudoun County, Virginia, appears to be like any other church building scattered across the country. However, a dive into the history of this church and into Loudoun County Chancery Cause Trustees of Methodist Episcopal Church Leesburg v. Levin W. S. Hough, trustee, etc. (1852-035) reveals a rather complex past.
Sitting about a block from the church’s original site along Cornwall Street, the then Methodist Episcopal Church of Leesburg or “Old Stone Church” became the earliest known Methodist-owned church site in America. Leesburg’s founder, Nicholas Minor, deeded the property to a local Methodist convert, Robert Hamilton, for four pounds in 1766. From its founding, the church served both Black and white parishioners although Black members were considered unclassified members until 1789. After this point, while in joint attendance to services, Black members had a separate seating section, separate membership rolls, separate plots in the cemetery, and separate rules for participation and worship.
With these segregating policies in place, it is unfortunately not surprising that the issue of slavery further divided the Methodist Episcopal Church of Leesburg. Although part of the Baltimore conference which voted to remain with the Methodist Episcopal Church during the 1844 General Conference vote, in 1848 the congregation split into two groups over the “slavery question,” with slavery sympathizers forming the Leesburg Methodist Episcopal Church, South. This division left the remaining congregation, composed largely of free Black and enslaved individuals, alternating use of the church and the church yard with the new exclusively white Leesburg Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
In October 1849, the white Leesburg Methodist Episcopal Church, South, filed suit to have trustees appointed and to obtain control of the Old Stone Church property in its entirety. The trustees of the Leesburg Methodist Episcopal Church sought to restrict this application and the decision of the court stated that the two congregations would alternate use of the property until the issue of ownership was resolved. This ruling necessitated the 1852 chancery cause Trustees of Methodist Episcopal Church Leesburg v. Levin W. S. Hough, trustee, etc. In this cause, the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church explained that the members of the now Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had no claim to the property as their members decided to break with the decision of the Baltimore Conference and thereafter sought an appointment of a bishop from the Virginia Conference. As the original deed for the property concerned the congregation that became a station of the Baltimore Conference, the southern sympathizers were therefore not the intended owners of Old Stone Church, Parsonage, and Cemetery.
The court agreed with the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Leesburg and ruled that their congregation, the largely Black congregation, had exclusive right to the Old Stone Church and surrounding lot of land. Soon after the southern congregation purchased its own property in 1852 for $700. A building, now the Leesburg United Methodist Church, was erected the same year and subsequently served as a hospital during the Civil War, particularly in the Battle of Balls Bluff.
By the conclusion of the Civil War, membership in the Methodist Episcopal Church of Leesburg dropped significantly. Ownership of the Old Stone Church property still remained somewhat contentious between the remaining congregation as many white members moved on to attend the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Therefore, the Black congregation decided to form a new church, Mt. Zion United Methodist. Through the leadership of the Mt. Zion trustees and Reverend William O. Robey, by 1867 the members managed to pull together enough funds to purchase property and build a church in the location where the current building rests, making Mt. Zion the oldest continuing Black congregation in the state of Virginia.
https://callunacreative.net/mt-zion/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/150th-Anniv-History.pdf (Note: As of November 2021, this link no longer works).