Back in the mid-19th century, Prince George's County was evolving into a cluster of villages up and down the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. It was a convenient route for Methodist preachers, who traveled dirt roads on horseback to reach the small congregations on the Bladensburg circuit.
Eager to create a community for Methodists, Trueman and Mary Anne Lanham in 1830 donated land for a church that eventually would be known as Whitefield Chapel, named after George Whitefield, a traveling minister known as a "Horseman of the Lord."
Today, Paul Lanham and other descendants of those who worshiped at Whitefield Chapel attend church at the same site on Whitfield Chapel Road. The "e" on the street has been dropped, and the name of the church is now Lanham United Methodist Church. And this fall, the church is marking its 165th anniversary.
On a recent Sunday marking the church's anniversary, the celebrants included former church parishioners, members of a nearby predominantly black Methodist congregation and a bell choir from Parkdale High School. Although the church membership is predominantly white, the congregation prides itself on being part of an effort by modern-day Methodists to reach out beyond its own walls.
"We are celebrating 165 years of this church being an anchor for all of what the Methodist church is doing," said the Rev. Felton Edwin May, bishop for the Baltimore-Washington conference of Methodists. "We are celebrating unity. Where there is unity, there is strength." May is the first African American leader of the conference.
"The United Methodist Church is multicultural and multi-ethnic," May said. "We have made mistakes in the 250-year life of the denomination, but our goal is to pull our common resources to meet common needs in the local community."
Every Sunday, members of the church return for worship services even though many have moved to other communities. They need only to walk outside the church and look at family names on tombstones in the church's cemetery to be reconnected with their past.
"I was married in this church 36 years ago," said Cheryl Petro, 55, of Upper Marlboro. Cheryl sat on a pew between her 82-year-old mother, Mildred, and her 33-year-old daughter Angela Roberts. Somewhere roaming the building were Cheryl's three grandchildren, ages 12, 8 and 5.
Angelo and Mildred Petro were among the many couples who moved into the area during the 1950s and raised big families. "Our faith has kept us together," Mildred said, adding that she has remained at the church because of the friendships she has developed.
Paul Lanham, 83, gets a big chuckle when people ask him about having a city named after his family, which has many members buried in a cemetery next to the church. When asked about what the church means to him, he paused and said, "It means continuity."
Vera Foster Rollo has worked for more than 20 years to pull together the history of a church that for decades has been the spiritual home for a community built along the railroad track in the early 1800s.
"This church has a rich and unique history that has links with other churches in the area," said Rollo, a local author and historian who traced the roots of the church to the colonial days of Prince George's County. "It is kind of interesting and nice for people to know what has gone on before them."
The church has its roots in Ninian Beall, a Scotsman who came to Maryland as an indentured servant. Beall acquired thousands of acres and left property to his son, Horatio. Horatio Beall's daughter was Mary Anne Beall, who in 1825 married Trueman Lanham.
Before 1830, the church was holding regular meetings. Alaric McGregor already had been assembling Methodists in the area, and the first building was called "McGregor's School House." The first church building was erected in 1837 on the land donated by Trueman and Mary Anne Lanham.
The church continued to grow with ministers riding horseback across dirt roads to churches in the area. But the issue of slavery divided the church. In May 1844, the church's bishop came under fire for being a slaveholder.
The debate over slavery split the entire church into the Methodist Church and the Methodist Church South. Rollo isn't sure where Lanham United Methodist Church fell on the issue, but her research found that in the Bladensburg circuit of congregations, there were 97 white members, 140 African Americans and 50 people of other origins called probationers.
Worship for black and white Methodists was mostly segregated during this period. In 1885, having acquired the status of freed men, a group of black Methodists were no longer content worshiping with whites in a segregated church. A black woman, Jennie Key, started holding prayer services and Sunday school in her Lanham home, which was also on Whitfield Chapel Road.
That same year, when Whitefield Chapel, which was to become Lanham United Methodist, built its second building, the old wood frame church and its furnishings were sold to the African American congregation for $1. From 1881 to 1882, the Whitefield Chapel congregation dismantled the building, rolled it down the street and built a new church. That church was dedicated in 1888.
Many older memories of Lanham United Methodist, such as those from Anna Funk, 85, and Don Ross, 69, were added last month to the church's history that was laid across bulletin boards in the church's fellowship hall.
"Its astounding," Ellyn Whiteside, a hairdresser from Seabrook, said as she looked at one bulletin board where someone had tacked up her old Sunday school promotion certificate that was dated Sept. 28, 1958.
Lanham United Methodist continued to grow over the years. In the 1970s, the church had more than 1,500 members. The Rev. Kenneth Rodeffer, who led the church in the 1970s, said the church grew rapidly because "the suburbs were booming with houses and new families."
Bill and Rose Shaklee came to the event all the way from Oklahoma City. They got e-mail from the church and clicked on the church's Web site. "We were in this church 19 years ago. Our kids grew up in the church. Our youngest child was baptized here."
But Trueman Haskell didn't have to travel far to get the service. He lives next door in the McGregor School House, the church's second home. In 1893, the Rev. Daniel Haskell, Trueman's great-grandfather, pastored the church. Trueman's brother Daniel also came to the event with pictures of his great-grandfather, for whom he was named.
During the service, many people were fanning around Edna Moffitt, 93, who is supposed to be the oldest member of the church. But Moffitt quietly confessed that she has been a Methodist for only two years. "I fell from grace! I was a Presbyterian for 50 years."
The Rev. John O. Alston, the church's interim pastor for the last two years, said Lanham United Methodist is not just stuck on tradition. "The church feeds the homeless, provides food to service organizations, has a Boy Scout troop and youth camping ministry."
Every year, the church has an annual holiday bazaar where some of the best cooking this side of Heaven is featured. "There is saying that Methodists don't get together unless there is food," said Marilyn Smith, who was in charge of the kitchen for the event.
The church is at 5521 Whitfield Chapel Rd., in Lanham. For more information about the church, call 301-577-1500.
CAPTION: Ted Jenkins, above left, of the Ebenezer United Methodist Church Handbell Choir, performs at Lanham United Methodist Church. Above, Bryan Shields, of the Parkdale High School Handbell Choir, enjoys other performances.
CAPTION: Lisa M. Delity, center, directs the Lanham United Methodist Grace Note Ringers during the church's 165th anniversary celebration.