America’s first Methodist church more than a historic monument

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A Methodist church is not the usual place for a fight. But when John Street Church in downtown Manhattan held a meeting on a sweltering July afternoon in 1856 about moving to upscale neighborhoods, what happened was not very Christlike.

The Reverend Jason Radmacher of John Street Church.Tamara beckwith

“There were people – parishioners – fighting each other on the streets,” current John Street pastor Jason Radmacher told The Post. “It was a terrible moment in the history of the church.”

And it all fell apart because some members wanted to move to Union Square.

“There is more where it came from,” Radmacher said. “Once upon a time there was a lunge on a carpet.

Despite such internal struggles, John Street Church – the first Methodist congregation in the United States – celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. A small, low-key place of worship tucked away on a narrow street in the Financial District, it’s also a New York landmark, architectural gem, and religious museum with a rich and colorful history.

Brian Zak

In addition to internal battles, the church survived a fire and two upheavals, the War of Independence and September 11. She helped spawn the abolitionist movement and spawned the city’s first all-black church. Its members included Sojourner Truth, a descendant of publishing and former Mayor James Harper, and one of the first American Methodist bishops, Francis Asbury, of Asbury Park fame.

“There are a lot of interesting stories connected with the church,” said Radmacher, who arrived at John Street at the age of 28 in 2003. “This is what happens when you are the oldest. Methodist church nationwide. “

Barbara Heck insisted that Philip Embury preach to five people in their home on October 12, 1766.Getty Images

John Street Church was founded in 1766 by Philip Embury, an Irish immigrant who had served as a lay preacher in England. Embury actually had no interest in starting his own parish and had moved to the New World in hopes of buying his own farm and raising a family. But according to David Dunlap’s “From Abyssinian to Zion,” Embury changed his tone after his strict Calvinist cousin, Barbara Heck, walked in on some of their family playing an evil card game.

“Philip, you have to preach to us or we’ll go to hell! Heck would have said. And so, six years after arriving in the New World, Embury took over the chair.

The church took off, especially after Embury enlisted a second preacher, the ever-popular Thomas Webb, a British Army officer who wore a patch on his right eye and delivered his sermons with his sword resting across his face. the flesh. By 1768, the church had outgrown Embury’s living room and erected its first official home, Wesley Chapel, a blue stucco barn located at 44 John Street.

Church of rue Jean.Library of Congress; Brian Zak

Loosely affiliated with the nearby Trinity Episcopal Church, a revolutionary stronghold, Wesley Chapel still had close ties to the Church of England and became a haven for loyalists during the War of Independence. However, it was not immune to pranks perpetrated by British occupation soldiers, who cut women’s skirts or dug pits in front of the chapel for worshipers to stumble upon exiting services. Once, drunk soldiers – including one dressed as a devil – interrupted a service. The British government had to give the Methodists a guard to protect them during worship, which was far more than what they gave to the treacherous neighbors on John Street.

After the Revolution, the church became one of the first defenders of the abolitionist movement. Even before the war, the John Street community was surprisingly diverse – black men and women, including slaves, could join – and it even hosted black preachers and deacons, although black and white members had to. sit each other.

Objects from the original St. John’s Church.Brian Zak

The Methodists took an even more active role in social justice when one of their first African-American members, a slave named Peter Williams, expressed fear of going up for auction after his loyalist master fired him in Europe. Wesley Chapel bought Williams and granted him his freedom in 1784. A decade later Williams had his own thriving tobacco business and a house on nearby Liberty Street. And in 1796, he and one of the black deacons on John Street formed the country’s first all-black Methodist congregation, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, out of Wesley Chapel. This church now operates out of Harlem.

“The Methodist Church begins here in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Five Points, one of New York’s first African-American settlements,” New York historian Kenneth Jackson said. important role of John Street in African American history. “For many people, the civil rights highway is the church.”

During this time, there were other schisms. When John Street decided to build a new structure to house more people in 1817, some members were so offended by the lavish carpets and the extravagant architectural design that they founded a rival congregation about half a mile to the north. from rue Chrystie.

Church of rue Jean.Brian Zak; Library of Congress / Survey of American Historic Buildings

When a fire ravaged the entire block of John Street Church in 1839, many of its members wondered whether the parish should move downtown. “No one lived downtown anymore,” Radmacher said. “It had become the financial district, and many churches had already left the district. But the trustees – loath to abandon such a historic place – decided to stay put, erecting the current structure of John Street in 1841.

Still, the church continued to bleed limbs, and some of the more affluent parishioners again caused them to move to the more glamorous area of ​​Union Square.

“They had the numbers on their side, but the problem was, we’re not talking about the first Methodist congregation in New York – we’re talking about the first in the country,” Radmacher said. “It was sacred ground, the mother church. People who wanted to stay downtown felt this greater sense of history.

After the two warring factions clashed in the street fighting of 1856, the congregation had a lot of work to do – mainly to increase its numbers after its embarrassing implosion.

“It has been great to celebrate 250 years and to do all of this in hindsight. But it is still an active church, not a museum.

It began by making the neighborhood a place of work, by launching a “businessmen” service on Wednesday afternoons in 1858. Attendance increased. Over the following decades, he added more afternoon prayer meetings and worship services throughout the week. In the 1920s, it offered free soup kitchens and meals, and as more women began entering the workforce in the 1930s and 1940s, it included programs designed especially for them. Concerts and evening entertainment were used to draw those who worked in the community into the building and possibly get them to return for prayer.

After the September 11 attacks on the nearby World Trade Center, the church was a place people ran past to escape the chaos and destruction that surrounded them.

Suddenly John Street found himself at the center of a community trying to come together to seek solace in the wake of terrorism.

“It was really a turning point,” Radmacher said. “There were a lot of mom-and-pop stores that closed, and there was sadness. But there was a wave of people who came here, and I found a real pioneering spirit. I have heard young people in their twenties say, “We love that this church has deep roots in the neighborhood. “

The church continues to evolve, as the neighborhood gives way to a new rush of owners of condos, luxury malls and parks. John Street’s most popular service is still Wednesday afternoons, but Radmacher said he sees many more families living in the community coming on Sunday.

“It has been great to celebrate 250 years and to do all of this in hindsight,” he told The Post. “But it’s still an active church, not a museum. It’s a balance I’m looking for.

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