Dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers of the Financial District lies a small church, a still functioning chapel that has been faithfully ministering to its parishioners for nearly 250 years. It is so old, that it dates from a time when its founders were instructed to establish the chapel by John Wesley himself.
Organized in 1766 the church on Manhattan’s John Street is America’s oldest and first Methodist chapel. Rightly known as the Mother Church of American Methodism, the church held its first meeting on October 12th, 1766.
Barbara Heck was a German Lutheran living as a refugee in Ireland where she was converted to Methodism by Wesley himself. Emigrating to New York with her cousin Philip Embury, she was horrified one day to walk into her kitchen and find her cousins playing cards. She beseeched Embury, “Philip, you must preach to us or we will all go to hell together.” The cousins rented out the loft space of a ship’s rigging outfitters at 120 William Street as their first meeting house. Soon outgrowing the cramped quarters they built the first Methodist chapel in America in 1768 around the corner on John Street, where it still stands today.
During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers would harass the peace keeping Methodists, slashing the women’s dresses with their swords, and digging ditches outside the main entrance during services to trip the exiting Methodists. Once soldiers dressed as devils interrupted a service, storming the pulpit.
Hidden away down one of the Financial District’s smallest streets, today the Methodist chapel carries about its work as it has down the past two and a half centuries. The chapel is small, but beautifully maintained and well appointed. Underneath the chapel are recreation rooms used for smaller meetings and Sunday schools. It also houses a quite remarkable museum. The collection includes a still working clock given to Embury and Heck by John Wesley himself in 1768. There is also the original lecturn handmade by Embury and used to preach from in the old rigging loft. Central to Methodism was the idea that close personal fellowship could only be attained by meeting in small groups. Called Class Meetings, the church-goers would sit in a close knit circle; one of their original distinctive circular set of chairs dating from the 18th century is here as well.
A quite remarkable find, and one hardly known about or visited, the John Street church still prides itself not just on its long and illustrious history, but on preaching Methodism to its surrounding community today just as it did nearly 250 years ago.