To Captain Thomas Webb belongs the honor of unfurling the banner of Methodism in Philadelphia.
He was an officer of the British Army, a man of good social position and of unstinted means, who bad been converted under John Wesley, and was a licensed local preacher. In 1766, he was sent to Albany, N. Y., in charge of the Barracks, and in 1768, if not a year earlier, he visited Philadelphia, and began to preach in a sail-loft which he hired from a Mr. Croft, near the drawbridge, which spanned Dock Creek. Here a class of seven persons was formed, namely— Mr. and Mrs. Miles Pennington, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fitzgerald. Mr. and Mrs. James Emerson, and John Hood. Mr. Emerson was chosen leader. Among the first converts was Mr. Croft, the owner of the room in which the meetings were first held. After a time the meeting place was changed to a house in Loxley's Court, a small thoroughfare, east of Fourth, running from Arch to Cherry Street.
October 21, 1769, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor, missionaries sent by John Wesley to America, arrived in Philadelphia, and not knowing that there were any Methodists in the city, purposed making their way immediately to New York. But while walking the street they were met by a man who had seen Mr. Boardman in Ireland, and who told them, that having heard of the arrival of two preachers, he was out looking for them. He informed them of the little company of Methodists and introduced them to Captain Webb. In a day or two Mr. Boardman went to New York as he bad intended, while Mr. Pilmoor remained in Philadelphia. He preached in the regular place of meeting above mentioned, not only on Sabbath but frequently during the week. He preached sometimes at five o'clock in the morning. Imagine the Methodists of our day gathering in their placcs of worship at such an hour. If they were to do so they would be charged with fanaticism, but let it be remembered that it was such zeal that gave early Methodism its conquering might. Mr. Pilmoor also preached to immense congregations at the race course, now Franklin Square, which was considered quite out of town. The race course gave Race Street its name. Large audiences gathered to hear him preach in Potter's Field, now Washington Square. The room in Loxley's Court soon became much too small for the constantly increasing congregation, and more ample accommodations were looked for. About this time an unfinished church building, located on Fourth Street near Story (now New) was sold at public sale. It had been erected by members of the High Dutch Reformed Church, who, becoming financially embarrassed in the project, were imprisoned for debt. It is said that some of their friends, surprised at finding them in prison, and asking for an explanation were told: "We are in prison for building a church." The Provincial Assembly passed an Act authorizing the sale of the building in order to satisfy the creditors. While the public auction was in progress, a feebleminded young man by the name of Hockley, entered the room, and by some sigular impulse bid 700 pounds. This being the highest, some say the only bid, he was declared to be the buyer. His father, unwilling to reflect on his son by taking legal measures to show his irresponsibility, paid the amount for which it was sold. He began immediately to inquire for a purchaser, and and hearing that the Methodists were desiring a larger place of worship, offered to sell them his newly purchased building. In a day or two, Mr. Miles Pennington. a prominent member of the Society, bought it for 650 pounds. It is said that the building had cost 2000 pounds, The purchase price did not include the ground, which had been taken up on an annual ground rent of 24 pounds, redeemable within ten years by the payment of 400 pounds. The size of the lot was the same as that now occupied by the Church and the Conference building on New Street. The ancient house, S. E. Corner of Fourth and New Streets, adjoining the Church property on the North, was owned by a Mr. John Washby. The Church which is 55x85, was regarded as of immense proportions, and its size was a matter of comment everywhere.
The Methodists of Philadelphia of that period seem to have been quite prompt in their Church movements. Thursday, Nov. 23, the purchase was agreed upon, though the deed was not delivered till some months later. The next morning, Friday, Nov. 24, Mr. Pil-moor preached in the Church, and also dedicated it to the worship of God. His text was Zech. IV. 7: "Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain; and he shall bring forth the head stone thereof with shoutings, crying Grace, grace unto it." The feeble congregation must have had great faith in God to have dedicated the building before having received the deed, and before having paid anything on the property, for there is no record that anything had been paid previous to this event. The owner of the premises must have had the utmost confidence, also, in the success of this strugggling band. The first Sabbath in the new place of worship was a great day to the rejoicing congregation. Captain Webb preached in the morning. Mr. Pilmoor preached in the evening he says, to 2000 hearers. This estimate, no doubt, was far above the actual number for most estimates of large congregations, at that time, unintentionally exaggerated facts. A collection was taken at the evening service for the payment of the Church, amounting to over 16 pounds. This was regarded as a large and generous offering. In a short time a section of the room was floored and provided with cheap benches, the discomfort of which gave their occupants but little temptation to drowsiness. The unfinished condition of the room made it difficult for the congregation to keep comfortable in the winter season, and the women were accustomed to bring little, "wooden stoves" for the feet, such as were used in the markets. Notwithstanding all these inconveniences the Lord was with His people in a marvelous manner and added to their number almost daily such as should be saved.
The deed for the property, dated Sept. 11. 1770. was given in the names of Miles Pennington, Richard Boardman, Joseph Pilmoor, Thomas Webb Edward Evans, Daniel Montgomery, John Dowers, Edmund Beach, Robert Fitzgerald and James Emerson. The following is the "Trust clause" in the deed:
"Nevertheless upon special trust and confidence, and to the intent that they and the survivors of them., and the trustees for the time being, do and shall permit John Wesley, late of Lincoln College, Oxford, Clerk and such other persons as he from time to time, and at. all times during his natural life shall appoint, and no other persons to have and enjoy the free use and benefit of said premises, so that the said John Wesley and such persons as he appoints, may therein preach and expound God's holy word, and after his decease, upon further trust and confidence, and to the intent that the said trustees and survivors of them, and the trustees for the time being, do and shall permit Charles Wesley, late of Christ Church College, Oxford, Clerk, and such other persons as he from time to time, and at all times during his life shall appoint, and no others to have and enjoy the free use and benefit of the said premises for the purposes aforesaid.
And after the decease of the survivors of them the said John Wesley and Charles Wesley, then upon further trust and confidence, and to the intent that the said Richard Boardman (and others mentioned above) and the survivors of them and the trustees for the time being, shall and do from time to time, and at all times, hereafter forever permit such persons as shall be appointed at the Yearly Conference of the people called Methodists in London, Bristol and Leeds, and no others to have and to enjoy the free use and benefit of the said premises for the purposes aforesaid; provided, always that the said persons preach no other doctrine than is contained in the said John Wesley's Notes upon the New Testament, and four volumes of sermons. Provided also that they preach in the said house in the mornings and evenings of Sundays and of such other days of the week as by custom of the Methodists, may from time to time be set apart for that purpose. And upon this further trust and confidence that as often as any of them, the said trustees or of the trustees for the time being, shall die or cease to be a member of the Society commonly called Methodists, the rest of the said trustees or of the trustees for the time being, shall as conveniently may be, choose another trustee or trustees in order to keep up the number of nine trustees forever."
In 1777, when the British Army occupied Philadelphia, after the battle of Brandywine, the Church was used, for awhile, as a hospital and afterward "as a riding school" for the cavalry. Long after peace had been declared implements of war lay around the building. War has never been a friend to the Church or to religion. During the Revolutionary struggle the Church was greatly distracted if not demoralized. The building, which it was thought had fallen so providentially into the possession of the needy Society, was now closed against its members, and used for military purposes. At the close of the war the membership was reorgadized with about forty or fifty persons and Freeborn Garretson, one of the greatest preachers of his day,was appointed preacher in charge. The building was not plastered until 1784. It was fitted up with galleries in about 1790 or 1791. In 1837 under the successful pastorate of Charles Pitman, the Church was remodeled and a basement constructed for Sabbath School and other purposes.
For some years after the Methodists owned the Church it was not called St. George's. It was usually referred to by Mr. Asbury as "our preaching house," and not till about 1781 did he call it by its present name. The original tablet contains the name "George" (not St. George's) probably after the reigning King. It has been suggested that the martial spirit of Captian Webb proposed the name Saint George's.
Francis Asbury the first Methodist Bishop ordained in America, was always greatly interested in Saint George's. He attended services in it on the evening of the day he arrived in America, and preached his first sermon in this country within its walls. He was its third pastor for a period of four months which was about the limit of a pastorate at that time. He collected money for it in different parts of the country. In 1772 he raised 150 pounds, and ten years later 270 pounds. In 1786 he was making an effort to raise 500 pounds to liquidate the debt for its improvements.
Dr. Coke spent, his first Sabbath in America in St. George's, preaching in the evening.
For fifty years it was the largest Methodist Church in America, and was regarded as the Cathedral of our denomination.
From its distinguished line of pastors, four at least. , have been elected bishops. Francis Asbury, Richard. Whatcoat, Robert R. Roberts and Levi Scott.
The first Methodist Conference in America was held in this Church commencing July 14 1773. The second Conference in 1774, and the third in 1775, were held in the same place. This building is the oldest Methodist Church Edifice used continuously for worship, in the world.
City Road Chapel, London was commenced April, 1777. and opened Nov. 1, 1778. The present John Street Church, New York City, was erected in recent years.
1. "Historical Sketch of Saint George's Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia", Historical Sketch and Directory of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, 1903, pages 31-47.
See AlsoSt. George's Methodist Episcopal Church 1903 Directory