1. Historic St. George's UMC
Our tour of Methodism in Philadelphia begins at St. George’s. While the first Methodist preaching and worship did not happen here, this is the oldest Methodist church building in continuous use in North America.
At the time that Methodists began meeting in this place in the late 1760s, Methodism was still a tiny movement. In late 1760s Pennsylvania there were already 142 Lutheran churches, 64 meeting houses belonging to Quakers, 24 Anglican churches, a handful of Roman Catholic parishes (but only three in the city), and sizable numbers of Presbyterian and German Reformed congregations. But Methodism grew fast to become the largest Protestant movement in America by the middle of the 1800s. In the Philadelphia area alone, in a span of less than 70 years, the Methodist Episcopal Church established 82 congregations.
Tours of St. George’s are available to the public by appointment, so we will not review the details of the church building or the famous and tragically infamous events of its history in this tour. We will take this opportunity, however, to speak about one of the portraits that hangs in the sanctuary of this church. It is a portrait of a man who influenced the shape of early American Methodism more than any other person. Any guesses?
If you guessed Francis Asbury then you are correct. Asbury preached regularly here at St. George’s, but the portrait that hangs in the sanctuary seems to depict someone who was uncomfortable in the midst of the comforts of the city. Another portrait in St. George’s sanctuary – literally on the other side of the aisle – depicts another early pastor of this church, Joseph Pilmore, whom Asbury criticized for loving the comforts of the city too much!
The son of an English farm laborer, Francis Asbury was not a highly educated man, and his preaching was unremarkable. He did, however, love the preachers under his charge and he was devoted to the mission of Methodism. His journal records his decision at the age of twenty-six to leave his parents in England to begin his ministry in the colonies. He never went back. Before leaving he wrote: “Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others to do.”
His biographer, John Wigger, has described him as an “American Saint” and says that:
[Asbury] never claimed that he was especially holy or pure, though he diligently tried to be. Like any good eighteenth – or early nineteenth – century evangelical, Asbury was never satisfied with his own piety or labors. Yet people saw in him an example of single-minded dedication to the gospel that they themselves had never managed to attain, but to which, on their better days, they aspired. In their eyes he was indeed a saint. Though he spent his life traveling, he insisted on riding inexpensive horses and using cheap saddles and riding gear. He ate sparingly and usually got up at 4 or 5 am to pray for an hour in the stillness before dawn. No one believed that Asbury was perfect, and even his most ardent supporters admitted that he made mistakes in running the church… Yet his piety and underlying motivations seemed genuine to almost everyone.
Asbury died in 1816 after forty-five years’ service in America. Know that as we visit nearly every other stop on this walking tour that the people whose stories we tell at those other sites were often deeply influenced by Francis Asbury.
A lot has happened at this church in its nearly 250 year history. Check out the wealth of material on the website.