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In Lower Manhattan, John Street Church Is a Living Link to Methodism’s Origins

An unassuming 19th-century building in the Financial District holds the history of the Methodist faith

Lower Manhattan is an absolute treasure for lovers of history and architecture. The layers of history run deep, with streets and sites bearing vestiges from as far back as when New York was inhabited by Native Americans, then the Dutch, and later on, during British rule in the colonies. It’s not uncommon to come upon a place containing a remnant from the city’s earliest days—and one such remnant is the John Street United Methodist Church, located between Nassau and William Streets.

The brownstone-facaded building, home to what’s considered "the oldest Methodist congregation in America," was built in 1841. (It’s the third structure to rise on the site, with earlier structures built in 1768 and 1817.) The architectural style has been described as Federal or Georgian, with strong precursors to hallmarks of the Anglo-Italianate style. According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report, the structure exudes a "simple dignity," featuring a central Palladian window directly above the main entrance. On both sides of the central window are two elongated windows with semi-circular arches, which correlate in size and height to the central one. Framing these elements is a gable "creating overall proportions of great charm and dignity."

The congregation was formed in 1766 under the leadership of two Irish immigrants: Philip Embury and his cousin, Barbara Heck. At first, Embury held worship services in his home but was soon forced to rent out facilities nearby to accommodate his growing congregation. In 1768, two lots were purchased on John Street; the first building constructed would be the Wesley Chapel, after John Wesley, who is credited with the foundation of Methodism in the mid-18th-century.

Although the Emburys and the Hecks would leave New York in 1770, the commitment to the church would live on through the work and preaching of subsequent Methodist missionaries, most notably Francis Asbury. In 1817, this first church was demolished and a larger chapel was built and dedicated a year later. However, this second church was short-lived; it was demolished in 1840 due to the widening of John Street from Broadway to the East River. Despite the loss of the two preceding buildings, they have not been completely forgotten; the foundation of the existing chapel still contains the stones of Embury’s original structure, and "incorporates the heavy-timber roof trusses and much of the masonry shell from the second building."

Within the chapel, below the sanctuary, the Wesley Chapel Museum contains many artifacts depicting 18th and 19th century Methodist history within New York. Such artifacts include: "church record books, the Wesley Clock (a gift from John Wesley, 1769), love feast cups, class meeting circular benches, the original 1785 altar rail, the original 1767 pulpit made by Philip Embury and his owned signed Bible." (You can visit when the church is open, or schedule a 60-minute tour ahead of time.)

This congregation also lays claim to another pivotal piece of American history: One of the country’s most prominent African American denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, originated at John Street in 1796. Peter Williams, a slave, was a cherished member of the congregation who would go on to become the sexton of Wesley Chapel in 1778. After the Revolutionary War ended and his "owner" fled to England, Williams was then auctioned and purchased by the trustees of the Wesley Chapel; he soon repaid them, thus gaining his freedom. Williams would go on to play a role in forming the Zion Chapel in 1800, becoming one of its original trustees.

Amazingly, this building has remained unobstructed, despite being located in an area that always seems to be undergoing some form construction. Its founding members would be pleased to know that the congregation is still very much alive, offering worship services, Sunday school, discussion groups, and public tours. Even if you do not choose to walk in the church, I do suggest you walk by it, to marvel at this historic site. Or better yet, if you are looking for a quiet respite in the middle of your exhausting work day, take a seat in the garden area adjacent to the church. Within lies a statue of John Wesley and a mural depicting the early days of the church, physical reminders of the 250 years of history that has stood on this site.