St George's United Methodist Church — The Birthplace of Methodism in America
Preacher John Wesley and his brother Charles originated the order of Methodism at Oxford University as a religious club for students interested in increasing their spirituality. As the club grew, Wesley wanted to see this religious movement spread to the American colonies. Though Wesley never stepped through its doors, one of the main tools for the achievement of Wesley’s dream was historic St. George’s United Methodist Church of Philadelphia. The founding of St. George’s Church actually came about as the result of a fortunate series of events.
In 1763, a group of German reformed Christians had originally separated from the congregation of the Old First Reform church and began to build a new church for themselves. They, however, ran out of money. These Reformists allowed a Methodist group to meet in the unfinished building. When the Reformists needed to sell the property, the Methodist group was able to purchase the church for a reasonable price. In 1769, the historic St. George’s Methodist Church officially opened in Philadelphia in this building.
In November 1769, Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman, John Wesley’s first Methodist envoys in America, gave their first sermons at historic St. George’s in Philadelphia. Pilmore and Boardman went on to visit various colonial congregations spreading Methodist beliefs during their time away from St. George’s Church. John Wesley, himself, only visited America once when in 1735 he visited the colony of Georgia. He became discouraged when the colony members were not very receptive to his point of view. He never came back to America again.
Upon arriving in America in 1771, Francis Asbury, another of Wesley’s preachers, delivered his first sermon at St. George’s in Philadelphia. Asbury spent a great deal of time at St. George’s getting used to American colonial life. Pilmore and Boardman returned to England after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Asbury became the only British preacher in America to spread the word of Methodism. He opposed the colonists’ use of violence even for the noble cause of independence. He continued to preach during this period but chose to remain in hiding. Through Asbury’s efforts, 15,000 Methodists were served by 83 traveling preachers.
During the 1770’s, many members of the Continental Congress including John Adams attended services at St. George’s. In 1771, Adams listened to a sermon by Captain Thomas Webb who was known for wearing his British uniform during services. Adams later wrote in his journal that Webb was one of the fieriest preachers that he had ever seen.
St. George’s Methodist Church also helped with the founding of two other Philadelphia congregations. For example, Jacob Reger had agreed to take his mother-in-law and new wife every Sunday to St. George’s. Shortly after getting married, Reger helped to establish a Methodist Church in Germantown, which later became the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. In a more controversial case, the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded after two African American Methodists preachers, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were asked to leave St. George’s Church in 1787. The followers of Allen and Jones left St. Georges because they were only able to sit in the balcony. Despite the dispute, St. George’s was the first church in America to allow African Americans to preach and give sermons.
St. George’s church had to deal with a major crisis in the 1920’s. The Bridge Commission decided to tear down St. Georges, along with St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, to make way for the new Delaware Bridge, later named the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Thomas Neely, a retired Methodist preacher, started a campaign to save the historic church. Neely and members of St. George’s congregation took the Bridge commission to court over the issue. Neely and his group managed to save St. George’s, which then became known as “The Church that moved the Bridge.”
In the early 21st century, the members of the Church educate the public about their past with a Methodist museum. The Church also remains supportive of present-day Philadelphia. The Church hosts a weekly interfaith dialogue. Church member’s helps Old First Reform Church’s to run a men's homeless shelter. The Church also holds a yearly community street fair known as Philaberry. Even after 200 years, the congregation of St. George’s strives to be a force for good within the Philadelphia community.
- http://ccel.org/ccel/wesley: “A Biography of John Wesley”
- http://fumcdenison.tripod.com/h-umc.htm : “The Methodist Church: A Brief History”
- William Gold “Interview of Pastor Fred Day at Historic Saint Georges Methodist Church on January 22, 2013.” Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 2013.
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