By Charles Nelson
Before 1842, the Alafia River valley was an untamed, unsettled wilderness because of threats of Seminole violence. When relative peace came to the area, Benjamin Moody moved his family of six children to homesteaded property on the river about one and a half miles downstream from today’s US 301 Bridge in Riverview.
Moody was a devout man and it was important for him to continue religious education for his children. The closest church, however, was 20 miles away in Tampa. After enduring that arduous trip for four years, in 1846, Moody, with help from neighbor George Simmons, built a small log meeting house at the back of his property on the south bank of the Alafia. It was likely the first church building in Hillsborough County. (The Methodist congregation in Tampa also organized in 1846, but it convened in members’ homes until its first building was dedicated in 1851.)
The little church served four families and met weekly for nearly a decade. A circuit-riding Methodist preacher held formal services there about once a month.
In 1866, Ben’s oldest son, William, moved his family from Lithia to Peru on land about a mile upstream from his boyhood home. In that same year, Rev. L. G. Lesley, the third pastor of Tampa’s Methodist Church, moved to Peru as a result of a throat ailment. (It was Lesley who built and operated the sole ferry across the river for many years.)
Lesley was active in the small church, and he and Moody raised funds to erect a new church to be built on William’s property. When the new building was completed in 1870 on the river’s south shore, near Lesley’s ferry in Peru, it was named the Lesley Chapel. Rev. Lesley served as co-pastor for the first decade.
In 1880, Lesley Chapel was absorbed into the Methodist Episcopal Conference, and Rev. C. E. Pelot was named as its pastor. By 1881, Lesley Chapel had grown from 20 members to 36 and continued to grow during the 1880s. It was, however, not destined to stay on the south side of the Alafia.
Because of the inconvenience of ferry travel, the small community on the northern shore grew much faster than Peru. Potential residents simply stopped before crossing the river when establishing their new homes. By 1893, the largest percentage of Lesley Chapel’s membership lived on the north side of the river.
One year later, in 1894, pebble phosphate was discovered a short distance west of today’s US 301 Bridge, creating a short-lived economic boom on the north side of the river. That little settlement became the town of Riverview and quickly outgrew the small town of Peru.
In that same year, a visiting Methodist evangelist raised money to build a new church on the north shore. This new church, although poorly constructed, served as a beacon for the majority of Lesley Chapel members. The building fell during an 1899 storm.
Undaunted, the membership immediately replaced that structure in 1900. In the following year, the first bridge across the Alafia was built, replacing the ferry. The new, substantial church building and the new bridge permanently established Riverview’s Methodist congregation on the north side of the river. That location has served as the sole home for Riverview’s Methodist congregation since 1900.
Today’s sanctuary was built in the early 1960s, and in 2021, the church will celebrate 175 years of service to the community.