When the Methodist movement began in this city in the mid-1700s Philadelphia would have looked and sounded a lot differently than it does today. The tallest building in the area was the Anglicans’ Christ Church steeple just a few blocks away. You could hear horses clopping on cobblestone and birds singing in the trees without the dull roar of traffic crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge. But Philadelphia was not quiet.
The city was booming in the mid-1700s as the nation’s center for commerce, politics, and a wide array of mostly Christian religious movements. (Jews in Philadelphia built their first synagogue in 1782 just two blocks south of St. George’s.) Philadelphia was the largest city in the nation until 1830. Methodists in the 18th and 19th centuries could be heard in this city praying quietly through open windows or preaching loudly on Philadelphia’s streets. Philadelphia had changed a lot from when William Penn established his “green country town” in 1682. It grew from a mere 2,000 residents in the early 1700s to about 13,000 by the time of Methodism’s arrival in Philadelphia in the Fall of 1739. Migration to the colonies between 1760 and 1775 was even more profound. Germans, Scots, and Irish immigrants contributed the most to the growth of this boomtown.
African Americans in Philadelphia were just under eight per cent of the city’s population in 1767. Of the 1,500 African Americans here at that time only a few dozen were free, and two-thirds of the Africans living in Philadelphia in 1767 were recent arrivals from Africa. This was the time of the greatest infusion of African culture in the city’s history. Still, for all its diversity, growth, and busyness at the time of the Revolution one could still walk around the periphery of this city in under two hours.
Historians have applied a variety of lenses to studying the followers of John Wesley who were called Methodists from the very beginning. But the lens which brings the Methodists into focus the best is one that sees them as people who believed God had called them to a great work of personal and social reform in – what they called – spreading Scriptural holiness throughout the land. They were people on a mission. And so, it is the mission of Methodism carried forth by a diverse bunch of people that will be the focus of this tour of 18th and 19th century Methodism in Philadelphia.
It is important to state at the outset that the Methodist people discussed in this tour were sometimes heroic and holy in what they did and that sometimes they made tragic mistakes which were contrary to the very Gospel they sought to live out. In short, they were sinful human beings who still strove after holiness in heart and life. This walking tour will try to give a balanced picture of these early Methodists.
Today, as you go through this approximately ninety minute walking tour of Philadelphia Methodism, I invite you to use your imagination and take a step back in time. Try to see this city, this nation, and this world as Methodists would have seen it in the 1700s and 1800s. Ask yourselves and one another (if you’re doing this as a group) questions about what you see and hear. You will hear stories of buildings – bricks and mortar – but also of conflict, heroism, and quiet faithfulness. Some of the stories will sound strange to your ears while others may sound very familiar. If you are a Methodist today taking this tour – and even if you are not – we hope that your faith will be strengthened as you follow in the footsteps of these Christian and Methodist forebears.
To navigate this walking tour it will be important that you have a map of the sites we will be covering. You can use the one provided on this site, or follow your tourist guide. Although a particular route has been followed in the design of this tour, it is possible to skip some stops to accommodate whatever time restraints you may have. Most of our sites – but not all – are within the bounds of the National Historic Park.