Let’s get back to churches. And back downtown. I know we were gonna wait until summertime to really (drunkenly) enjoy these tiny streets, but I haven’t been able to stay away from them. And here’s one nice accomplishment: January is already over. Congratulations everybody! Looks like that whole time-keeps-passing thing is still going on. Awesome. Let’s learn some facts.
I hope you’re not bored by me writing, “this something is the oldest something in New York/Brooklyn/the United States.” I can’t help my proclivities. And there always seems to be another such something to find. This week it’s the John Street Methodist Church, about five blocks north of Wall Street by the corner of John and Dutch Street. It’s the oldest Methodist congregation in the country, having formed in 1766 when preacher Philip Embury began holding services in his living room. Its various church buildings have occupied this spot since 1768. Embury was born in Ireland, the son of “Irish Palatines,” a group of about 3,000 German Protestants who came to Ireland in 1710 as refugees from the War of Spanish Succession. They were converted to Methodism in large numbers and Embury was already a preacher by the time he emigrated to the U.S., though he had let his practice wane. It was at his cousin Barbara Heck’s insistence (supposedly after she came home to find him playing a game of cards) that he began preaching again. She’s sometimes called the “foundress of American Methodism” – by the time Embury’s first church was built in 1768 it had a congregation of around 400 people.
Methodism itself came out of the Reverend John Wesley’s 18th century revival movement within the Anglican Church, which stressed a return to the Gospel (as opposed to ornate ritual – a general theme of Protestant reform). It was Wesley who converted Embury and many of his fellow Irish Palatines. Throughout his life Wesley insisted he was a member of the Church of England, working within it for reform, though he brought about the formal separation of American Methodism from the Anglican Church in 1784 (although the American Revolution helped too), under the name of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was only four years after his death, in 1795, that Methodists in Great Britain officially split from the Church of England as well.
Methodists in the northern United States, including New York, were early advocates against slavery. From 1787 they condemned the institution and welcomed blacks as full participants in the church. One of John Street’s early members was Peter Williams, born into slavery in New York and raised as the slave of a tobacco merchant, where he learned the trade of cigar making. He was already a member of the church in 1778, when his master returned to England, leaving Williams for sale. The church trustees found it embarrassing that a well known Christian would be sold at auction, and so they bought Williams themselves for forty pounds and made him a sexton. They weren’t too embarrassed to ask that Williams buy back his freedom though, out of his earnings – in wasn’t until 1785 that he was formally emancipated.
And it didn’t take long for the congregation to feel that racial integration wasn’t really what they were after. Fear of black leadership in the church and concerns that there was a growing rift with southern Methodists, caused blacks to be pushed towards the fringe. In response black parishioners moved to form their own, independent institutions. In 1796 Peter Williams joined with James Varick to establish Zion Chapel, in the old Five Points neighborhood, as a place where black Methodists could worship free from animosity. They hadn’t intended to break away from the John Street Church, just to worship separately, but by 1799 they’d decided they would be better on their own. They obtained permission from the bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church to form a new congregation and in 1801 they formed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known as “Mother Zion.” In 1821 it broke entirely from the Methodist Episcopal Church to become its own denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their building stands today on 137th Street.
The current John Street Church building is the third such to occupy the site. The second one went up in 1817 and was torn down when John Street was widened, although the pews and a lot of the interior were saved and transferred over. The current building was finished in 1841, designed in an early Italianate, or “Neo-Renaissance” style, though I’ve also seen it called Georgian, or “Neo-Classical.” Who can tell the difference? And the distinction, as with so many buildings, only applies to the facade – the exposed sides of the building are just straight red-brick walls. To me, the neatest aspect of the church is its location – still standing on John Street after all these years, now surrounded by skyscrapers. Trinity Church and Saint Paul’s Chapel had more land to begin with, and though they’re both downtown, you don’t get the same claustrophobic, anachronistic sense that the John Street Church gives you. Who actually belongs to this congregation? What’s it like to be a Methodist – a downtown New York City 2010 Methodist?
(Originally posted Feb. 5th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)