A wall plaque inside Clarence United Methodist Church provides a rich account of the Rev. Peter Van Nest's travels some 200 years ago into Clarence Hollow, where the Methodist "circuit rider" discovered regular Sunday services being held in the home of David Hamlin Sr.
Those meetings, during which Hamlin read from the published sermons of John Wesley, turned out to be the start of one of Western New York's oldest congregations.
The congregation is still active today, and Sunday about 500 members gathered for a special bicentennial service and banquet in its current location on Greiner Road.
Bishop Violet L. Fisher of the Western New York Conference of the United Methodist Church gave the sermon during a 10:30 service that also included a video history of the congregation, as well as a mix of contemporary, guitar-based praise music and traditional hymn singing.
"Two hundred years: Celebration, commemoration, testimony, witness -- in a place, in a community called Clarence. What a rich history, what a vision, what a ministry this church has had all these years," Fisher said.
But Fisher also called upon church members not to look back, but to continue moving forward as an extension of the body of Christ, involved in the larger world.
"We're not concerned about the preservation of the church," she said. "What I'm concerned about is the prevailing of the church."
Formed in 1807, Clarence United Methodist Church is believed to the first of any denomination organized within the Holland Land Purchase, an area that encompasses what are now the eight western counties of New York State.
Even before the people of Clarence Hollow formed the first local town government in what is now Erie County, they were worshipping together on Sundays.
Van Nest established the congregation with a membership of 12 people who met in family homes. A year later, in 1808, the Town of Clarence was incorporated.
Members built their first sanctuary in 1834 at Main Street and Sawmill Road.
The congregation survived through two fires, four wars that diverted many male members and a relocation in 1962 from Clarence Hollow to a campus at Greiner and Strickler roads.
"The church has always had vision. That's why its still around," said the Rev. David W. Kofahl, senior pastor.
The bicentennial celebration "marks a legacy of God's faithfulness through the years," he added.