Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Methodist movement became institutionalized in colonial America with the founding of its first influential congregation and meeting house in New York City, the Wesleyan Chapel. Still standing, the chapel is now called the John Street Methodist Church.

Summary of Event

The founding of the first Methodist Church in America is rooted in the Methodist revival movement that spread across England after 1740. The movement was centered in the Anglican Church and focused on the notion of assurance of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. In 1738, an Anglican priest, John Wesley, had a transforming religious experience, which he believed brought such an assurance to him personally. [kw]Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America (Oct. 30, 1768) [kw]America, Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial (Oct. 30, 1768) [kw]Colonial America, Methodist Church Is Established in (Oct. 30, 1768) [kw]Church Is Established in Colonial America, Methodist (Oct. 30, 1768) Methodist Church;colonial America [g]American colonies;Oct. 30, 1768: Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America[1900] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 30, 1768: Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America[1900] [c]Religion and theology;Oct. 30, 1768: Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America[1900] Wesley, John Whitefield, George Embury, Philip Heck, Barbara Webb, Thomas Asbury, Francis

Soon thereafter, an old friend from Oxford University who shared a similar belief, George Whitefield, asked Wesley to come to Bristol, England. Whitefield wanted Wesley to organize and lead those who believed they also had found this assurance during a Religious revivalism revival that had occurred during Whitefield’s preaching there. Wesley’s work at Bristol initiated the Methodist movement. He organized the new believers into societies, approximately corresponding to church congregations, for teaching, spiritual growth, and religious discipline. Whitefield subsequently traveled to North America, where for several decades he experienced similar results from his preaching in the English colonies.

The Methodist movement spread rapidly from Bristol, taking Wesley to Ireland on a preaching tour during the early 1740’s. By 1744, more than fifty thousand persons in Ireland had come under the influence of the Methodist movement. Among these were a group of German refugees from the Palatinate, who had settled in Limerick. One of their number was a carpenter, Philip Embury, who became a Methodist lay preacher (that is, a person authorized by Wesley to preach, but not ordained to offer any church sacraments). Unhappy with their life in Ireland, eight or ten of these refugee families departed for the English colonies in America in 1760. Among the emigrants were Embury, his cousin Barbara Heck, and her new husband, Paul Heck.

Settling in New York City, the immigrants found life difficult and fell into quiet inactivity in their religious life. According to tradition, one evening in October, 1766, Barbara Heck found her brother, her cousin Philip, and some others playing cards and gambling. This was a common amusement of the time, but to some, it was a morally questionable activity. The scene kindled Heck’s religious ardor. Collecting the cards from the table into her apron, she disposed of them in the fire and warned the players to repent. She then turned her comments specifically to Philip Embury, urging him to preach “or we shall all go to hell, and God will require our blood at your hands!” At first, he objected that he had neither a place to preach nor a congregation. Soon Heck had gathered a congregation of five persons into Embury’s house. These included Barbara and Paul Heck, a hired man named John Lawrence, and a black slave named Betty. Together, these individuals constituted the first Methodist Society in New York City, and apparently the second in the English colonies in America, since perhaps half a year earlier, a group had been formed in Maryland (with neither Wesley’s knowledge nor his authorization).

Under Embury’s preaching, the small house soon overflowed. The Methodist Society began meeting in a rented storeroom on Barrack Street, near the British military headquarters. Some musicians from the regimental bands began attending the meetings, drawn there by the different style of music they overheard during the Methodists’ services. A British military captain, Thomas Webb, was drawn there too. In 1766, there had been tension in New York City over the quartering of British soldiers, resulting in clashes and violence not far from where the Methodists were meeting. When Webb entered the meeting for the first time, he stirred fears of repression similar to those which Methodists had known in England, where soldiers had tried to break up several Methodist societies. However, Webb had fallen under Wesley’s influence upon hearing Wesley preach in Bristol in the late 1750’s.

Webb began preaching as well, and soon he received a local preacher’s license from Wesley. Having returned to America in 1766, Webb announced to the Methodist Society that he was not only a soldier of the Crown but also “a soldier of the cross and a spiritual son of John Wesley.” Within a week, Webb was participating in the preaching activity and the leadership of the society. Webb’s persuasiveness, and the sheer spectacle of a uniformed military officer preaching with his sword laid across the pulpit, reinforced Embury’s preaching ability. Soon the storeroom became too small for the congregation.

In early 1767, the Methodist Society moved to a rigging loft on Williams Street (then called Cart and Horse Street). The new facility provided twenty-four hundred square feet of space, was lit by a large candelabra, and was heated by a corner fireplace. In this location, the congregation continued to grow. After a year, even the loft was becoming cramped, and the group prepared to build a “preaching house.” A site on John Street was located, and a fund-raising effort began. Captain Webb gave £30 for the building—a third more than any other gift—and loaned an additional £300 to the effort. He also lobbied support from all parts of the city. Subscriptions to the building fund were made by Anglican clergymen, the mayor, African slaves, and some leading aristocratic families of New York City, including the Livingstons, the Stuyvesants, and the Lispenards.

A wood engraving of Wesley Chapel, the first Methodist church in the United States. The chapel, in New York City, was rebuilt in 1841 and still stands on John Street, its original location.

(Library of Congress)

A carpenter by profession, Embury designed and built the new preaching house, which was called Wesleyan Chapel. The new building, believed by many Methodist historians to be the first Methodist church building in America, was dedicated for religious services on Sunday, October 30, 1768. Because there was also a Methodist Society in Maryland, some Methodist historians have suggested that a log meetinghouse there may actually have predated the building in New York City. Nevertheless, in terms of growth and development of the Methodist movement in America, if not also in physical structures, Wesleyan Chapel in New York City takes priority.

On April 11, 1768, one of the members of the Methodist Society in New York City, Thomas Taylor, wrote Wesley about the congregation’s progress. Until this communication, Wesley was apparently unaware of Methodist activities in America, which were being concluded without his authorization. Taylor’s goal in writing was primarily to urge Wesley to send authorized assistants to the colony to help further and direct the work there. He believed that while Embury and Webb were doing good work, they lacked the qualifications to develop the church further. Similar requests for assistants were dispatched by Captain Webb to Wesley as well. At the 1769 Methodist conference in Leeds, Wesley responded to these requests by accepting two volunteers, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor, who were quickly sent to America. While Pilmoor worked in Philadelphia, Boardman traveled to New York City to work with the congregation meeting in Wesleyan Chapel.

Still not satisfied, Webb continued to urge Wesley to provide more assistants. At the 1771 Methodist conference in Bristol, one of the volunteers chosen to work in America was Francis Asbury. When Asbury arrived in America in late 1771, he made his way to New York City. Within a decade, Asbury had become the unquestioned leader of Methodism in America. Webb later worked in Philadelphia; Heck and her family moved to Canada, as did many other colonists during the American Revolution. Embury died in 1773. Fifty years after the Methodist Church was established in America, the number of Methodists had risen 250 percent.

Significance

The Methodist Church began as the Holy Club at Oxford in England with brothers John and Charles Wesley Wesley, Charles and others, who were derisively called “methodists” by their peers because of the group’s methodical devotion to worship, prayer, and study. This devotion would find its way to North America.

From his base in northeast colonial America, the church’s new leader, Francis Asbury, spread the movement southward and to the frontier. New congregations multiplied yearly, until Methodist churches were to be found in virtually every city and town in the growing United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Dee E. The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Comprehensive account of the origins of American Methodism. Dee places the religion’s rise within the context of the American Revolution and social conditions in the Middle Atlantic states, where Methodism was first introduced. He maintains the new religion gained popularity because it was an alternative to the exclusionary politics of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bucke, Emory Stephens, ed. The History of American Methodism. 3 vols. New York: Abingdon Press, 1964. A voluminous scholarly work that covers virtually every aspect of the subject through the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luccock, Halford, and Paul Hutchinson. The Story of Methodism. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949. A popular general survey of the growth of Methodism in both England and America, from Wesley’s time to the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McEllhenney, John G., ed. United Methodism in America: A Compact History. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1992. A history of the development of the Methodist Church in the United States. Includes a survey of the expansion and division of American Methodism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwood, Frederick A. The Story of American Methodism. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974. Focuses on Methodism in the United States, with only limited information about the religion in other parts of the world. Well researched, and with useful footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richey, Russell E. Early American Methodism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. A brief history surveying the development of Methodism in the United States, primarily in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. According to Wigger, there were 1,000 Methodists in the United States in 1770; by 1820, the number had skyrocketed to more than 250,000. The author explains the reasons for the rapid growth and describes how Methodism influenced not only other religions but also American life in general.

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