The Founding of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church

barbara r heck
Barbara Ruckle Heck

Last time, I introduced you to two sets of Irish immigrant families that are crucial to the story of American Methodism: Barbara Heck and Philip Embury in New York, and Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge in Maryland. We looked at the Strawbridges in that earlier post. Today, let’s get to know Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, and Captain Thomas Webb.

Several families of German immigrants, including some who had associated with the Methodists in Ireland, settled in among the New York Lutheran community. Among them was Barbara Ruckle Heck, who enjoys credit for initiating New York Methodism. Yes, a woman was responsible for Methodism in New York! Finding members of her family trivializing their time by playing cards, one day, she had seen enough of this creeping moral corruption among her family members. Barbara Heck swept the cards into the fire and then implored her cousin, Philip Embury, who had been a Methodist class leader and local preacher in Ireland: “Philip, you MUST preach to us, or shall we all go to hell together, and God will require our blood at your hands!” Wow, that ought to put the fear of God into him!

It did. Philip Embury complied – how could he not? In his own room, with five others, including two servants, one a

Philip Embury
Philip Embury

Black woman named Betty, a class meeting was formed. With continued preaching, the members soon outgrew Embury’s room and moved to a ship’s rigging loft. Onto this small Methodist community in 1767 stumbled Captain Thomas Webb.

Thomas Webb had seen a lot by this point in his life. He had seen military service in the colonies in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), he had lost an eye, married, became barrack master at Albany, returned to England to sell his commission, underwent Christian conversion, gravitated into the Methodist orbit, did some preaching himself, returned to Albany, and there began preaching and conducting meetings. In 1766 he and his wife moved to Jamaica, New York, and he began preaching there, elsewhere on Long Island, and in the city. He converted two dozen, over half of them African Americans.

Captain Thomas Webb
Captain Thomas Webb

Wherever the Captain met success, he established class meetings in true Wesleyan fashion. Eventually associating with Embury, Webb encouraged the New Yorkers to buy land on John Street and build a preaching house there. He himself provided the largest donation of thirty pounds, and he also raised a comparable amount.

Thus began the John Street Methodist Church, in which we will worship the day after our arrival. Philip Embury preached a dedicatory sermon in the church on October 30, 1768 – 247 years before our arrival.

On a fund-raising trip to Philadelphia, Captain Webb encountered another small group, a legacy of George Whitefield’s efforts, and organized what would become St. George’s Church, in which we will also worship. So Captain Thomas Webb had a hand in both of the earliest Methodist legacy churches that we will visit.

Like Otterbein, Boehm, and Strawbridge, Thomas Webb itinerated widely to preach and to organize. He made contact with religious communities already in the process of formation. His efforts contributed to Methodist beginnings … at Albany and Schenectady in NY, on Long Island, in the Philadelphia area (Chester and Bristol), in New Jersey (Trenton, Burlington, and New Mills), and in Delaware (Wilmington and New Castle). Everywhere, he convinced “his fellow sinners of sin,” offered “free and universal grace,” taught the divinity and coeternity of Son and Spirit with the Father, grounded hope on Christ’s tasting death for everyone, insisted that sinners were justified by faith alone, but that grace could be resisted or lost, and pointed believers toward the holiness that the Spirit made possible. All very consistent with what John Wesley was teaching in England.

Next time, we’ll pause to explore the importance of the Methodist Class Meeting, and its leader, and then we’ll reconsider how the Pietist impulse was beginning to shape early Methodism in America.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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