History of the American Primitive Methodist Church of Tamaqua

Excerpts from Primitive Methodist History: In the United States of America, by John Holmes Acornley

William Donaldson, Founder of Tamaqua PM Church  (courtesy of    usgwarchives.net   )

William Donaldson, Founder of Tamaqua PM Church (courtesy of usgwarchives.net)

The Beginning of Primitive Methodism in Tamaqua

The year 1830, 146 years ago, was an important and significant one for us because it saw the establishment of the Tamaqua Primitive Methodist Church.

The church was started by William Donaldson, a local preacher, who had come to American from England. He was born in Middleton, England, December 13, 1803. Mr. Donaldson with his wife, the former Maria Redfearn, - born October 23, 1807, and their child came to America in a sailboat. It took 13 weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean before they finally landed in Philadelphia. From there, they took a canal boat to Pottsville, then went to Nesquehoning, and finally settled in Tamaqua.

After coming to Tamaqua, Mr. Donaldson started a coal mine on Sharp Mt., at the southern end of Hunter St. It was the coffee mill type and was run by horsepower.

After Mr. Donaldson was settled in Tamaqua, he opened his home on the corner of Hunter and Spruce Street for religious services which he conducted. After Mr. Donaldson’s home was no longer large enough for the growing congregation, religious services were held in the Union Church on West Broad St., opposite the present Presbyterian Church.

Original Stone Church Building, built in 1843

Original Stone Church Building, built in 1843

Tamaqua Primitive Methodist’s First Church was Built

In 1843, the Primitive Methodist congregation decided to build a church of its own. A site on Hunter Street was obtained from the Little Schuylkill Coal and Iron Co. A little stone church was built about 30 x 45 feet. It was dedicated on December 28, 1846, by the Rev. Hugh Bourne, the old and respected founder of Primitive Methodism. The collection for the day amounted $180.20 which he considered excellent. A Chippendale sofa which stood upon the pulpit and on which he sat, has been preserved as a memento of this honorable visit and still remains on the platform of the Sunday School room.

 The deed for the site of the church was obtained and registered on Feb. 17, 1846. In April 1849, a charter of incorporation was obtained.

The first trustee of the church were Wm. Donaldson, Ralph Nattress, Robert Ratcliffe, Charles Vaughn, William Wood, and Thomas Williams.

For some time the charge in Tamaqua was a part of the Pottsville circuit. The New York Conference of 1849 was held in Tamaqua April 11 to 13. At this Conference, Tamaqua appears for the first time on the list of stations. There were 62 members.

On Nov. 13, 1842, the Sunday School was organized. It progressed so rapidly that by 1881, there were 35 teachers and 250 scholars. The officers in 1882 were G.S. Wilford, Supt., D.C. Barton, Asst. Supt., C.M. Greene, Sec., and W.J. Booth, Treas.

In 1850, tragedy came to Tamaqua. On Sun. morning, Sept. 1, rain began to fall. At Newkirk, the trestles of the tracks running into the mines were filled in with earth, and a great dam was formed. This gave way, and the waters rushed down the valley, meeting those of the swollen Schuylkill River, bringing a flood upon the town. Many were drowned including the wife and child of the Rev. Thomas Foster, pastor of our church. Their bodies were recovered and buried in the graveyard behind the church.

In July 1859, a sad accident occurred which was a great blow to the Tamaqua church. Mr. Donaldson, the founder and principal supporter of the church, lost his life by an explosion of fire damp. He lived eight days after the accident and died July 20, 1859. His last words to his sons were, “Take care of the church, the church I so much love.” He was buried in the graveyard behind the church. Later, when more room was needed to erect the present building, Mr. Donaldson’s remains were removed to the family plot in the Odd Fellows Cemetery. At the time of this death, Mr. Donaldson was president of the bank and took an interest in all public and benevolent enterprises in the town.


In 1872, during the pastorate of the Rev. Daniel Savage, the congregation decided to build a new church.

Rev. Daniel Savage  (photo courtesy of    findagrave.com   )

Rev. Daniel Savage (photo courtesy of findagrave.com)

On May 2, 1876, a special trustee meeting was held with the president of the Board, Charles Vaughn presiding. The purpose of this meeting, the first of many special trustee board meetings, was to decide on the specifications for the new church. Decisions reached included that the front of the new church be the same as Park Ave. P.M. Church in Brooklyn, that the church be called the American Primitive Methodist Centennial Tabernacle, that the lecture room (now the Sunday School room) by 14 feet in the clear, that the audience room (the sanctuary) be 20 feet in the clear with a circular ceiling, that there would be one stained glass window behind the rostrum and the rest frosted, that the cornerstone by laid June 21, that a slate roof of the best slate be placed, and that the stairway would be the same as the Girardville Church. 

American Primitive Methodist Centennial Tabernacle, built in 1876

American Primitive Methodist Centennial Tabernacle, built in 1876

The last service in the old stone church was held May 28, 1876. During the building of the new church, religious services were held in the Odd Fellows storeroom at the cost of $5 per month.

The new church, about 44x65 feet, was made of stone and brick and cost over $10,000 to build. A large marble slab in front once bore the inscription: “American Primitive Methodist Centennial Tabernacle, 1876”.

The building was not completed until eleven years later, and at an additional cost of over $3,000. The church was dedicated to the worship of God on May 29, 1887, with the dedicatory sermon preached by the Rev. Joseph Odell, pastor of the Brooklyn Park Ave. Primitive Methodist Church.

The church grew and prospered. The building was remodeled in 1903 during the pastorate of the Rev. Wm. F. Nicholls. At this time the beautiful stained glass windows were placed, a new Estey pipe organ was purchased the church was frescoed. Steam heat was also installed at this time to replace the two heaters previously used.

In 1915, during the latter part of the Rev. Nicholls’ pastorate, the sanctuary floor was graduated, an aisle was put up the center, and new pews were purchased.

In 1928, during the pastorate of the Rev. George Powis, the parsonage and the two houses on Hunter St. which had been willed the church by Charles Vaugh in 1877, were torn down and a new double brick building was erected.

In 1938, through the efforts of the Ushers Association, the church cellar was dug out and concreted. 

During the pastorate of the Rev. Gillard Evans, a kitchen was installed, and the Beginner and Primary Depts. of the Sunday School were moved to the basement rooms which had been constructed for that purpose. The brick tower on the side of the building was added to comply with the state fire laws requiring a fire escape or second exit.

In 1953, the church was willed a very substantial sum by Curtin Eltringham, a member of the congregation. This money made possible extensive repairs and renovations. They included a roof, perma-stone on the exterior of the building, choir lofts, an Allen electric organ, renovations to the Sunday School room, a heat plant which supplied heat and hot water for the church and parsonage. The parking lot across the street was purchased by the Dorcas Society. New lights were placed in the sanctuary by the two women’s organizations – the Ladies Aid and Edith Powis Bible Class.

During the pastorate of the Rev. Francis L. Reilly additional improvements included heat furnished to the home on the other side of the parsonage, a garage for the pastor’s car, new walls around the church property, loudspeakers and hearing aids in the church, machine broadcast system, a new sidewalk in front of the church, a new floor and new doors in the Sunday School Room, a Junior Dept. room in the basement of the church, chairs for the vestibule outside the sanctuary, new windows in the Sunday School room, a stairway elevator, and many new items in the parsonage and other improvements in the church property.

During the pastorate of the Rev. Alvin A. Reese, there have been some improvements which might be noted. New chairs have been purchased for the Sunday school room. The parking lot has been enlarged, and the retaining wall has been built.

In reporting the history of the Tamaqua Primitive Methodist Church, only tangible gains have been cited. What of the spiritual side of the Church? How many have we influenced the lives of our members, our friends, our neighbors? Spiritual life and influence are rather intangible things, and the evaluation of these are not for us. We leave that to the Great Historian.


Soon after the new church building was started in 1876, the coal trade began to decline, and the Panic of 1876 was felt, which was very hard on the local church. “The contractor placed a mechanics lien on the building for the sum of $3,187.31. To avoid litigation (a lawsuit), the trustees confessed judgment and gave in settlement of the lien, judgment notes, payable semi-annually in sums of five hundred dollars and interest. Another thing which increased the disappointment and embarrassment was the unexpected death of Mr. Charles Vaugh, who at that time was the main financial prop of the church, both in the shape of influence and direct monetary contributions.”

The late Mrs. H.K. Seligman (the former Nan Leopold) was the granddaughter of William Donaldson.

About 1857, Mr. Donaldson’s daughter, Mrs. Thompson, died. To show her interest in the church of her father, she bequeathed to it the dividend of a certain bank stock, to be continued as long as the Sunday School exists.

Soon after the tragic death of his wife and child, the Rev. Thomas Foster left Tamaqua and went West where he entered the ministry of the M.E. Church. 

The New York Conference of 1849 met in Tamaqua, Charles Vaughn was elected treasurer.

The Cradle Roll was started in 1907. Herbert Edmonds, the infant son of William and Minnie (Collins) Edmonds was the first baby enrolled.

In 1928, the double brick building containing the parsonage and tenant house was built. Financial problems again had to be faced with the collapse of Wall St. Members of the church were asked to donate monthly a “penny a meal” so the interest on the debt could be paid. Faithful members visited the homes once a month to collect this money.

“Mr. John S. Randall, of Tamaqua, Pa., a young man of excellent parts, was a Primitive Methodist of the third generation. He was a brilliant young attorney, a member of the Schuylkill County bar. In the few years he privileged to practice law, he had won the respect and esteem of his colleagues. He was honest and conscientious, attractive and honorable. He had an enthusiastic love for everything strong, beautiful and pure in humanity. He detested everything false and dishonorable. He had strong convictions and possessed the courage to express them. He loved this beautiful world, yet when he felt that it was the will of God for him to leave it, he was found ready and awaiting the call of his master.

Mr. Randall was appointed attorney of the Pennsylvania Conference at the sessions of the body which met in Tamaqua in May 1900. He was the first to fill that office since the death of his uncle Rev. Charles Miles.”

P.M. History by J.M. Acornely, D.D., pages 332-333