While Barrat’s Chapel is the oldest purpose-built Methodist church in the United States, St. George’s United Methodist Church is actually an older building and is the oldest continually active Methodist congregation in the country. St. George’s also enjoys an important historical distinction: it ordained the first African-American ministers in the United States. This was a ground-breaking development, not only in America, but also in the English speaking world at the time.
St. George’s Church was originally constructed in 1763 by German immigrants for use as a Reformed church. Around this time, Methodism was spreading throughout the Anglican Church and was becoming popular in and around the Philadephia area. In 1767, a full-fledged Methodist congregation was established in Philadelphia and began meeting in a loft near the river.
In 1769, the congregation acquired St. George’s for its use. The Methodists at the time were still technically part of the Anglican Church and remained so throughout the American Revolution. After the war, several churches broke away from the Anglican Church, including the Episcopal Church which remained in communion with the Anglicans and the Methodist Church which broke away.
Thus the congregation of St. George’s Church was among the founding organizations of American Methodism. Because the Anglican Church allowed mixed race, if segregated, congregations, St. George’s Church had both Caucasian and African-American members. In 1784, two African Americans, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, became ordained ministers, the first in any American Church with both white and black members.
Interestingly, despite its progressiveness, the segregated seating of the congregation soon led to a schism in the the church. A few years later, most of the African-Americans, led by Allen and Jones, split off and founded a new congregation and a new denomination, the African Methodist Church. Since that time, St. George’s history has been relatively uneventful, with its congregation continually active to the present.
St. George’s United Methodist Church is one of the largest pre-colonial churches still standing in the United States. Originally constructed as an Anglican Church, it does not resemble typical Anglican architecture of the time. However, the red-brick, white-windowed structure is distinctive and in line with other contemporary Philadelphia buildings. One of the noteworthy features of the building exterior is its lack of a bell tower or steeple of any sort.
The church interior is in an excellent state of preservation, and is more decorative than typical churches of the time. In addition to the large, multi-aisled sanctuary, two long balconies run the length of the church. An extremely unusual feature is the arched ceiling, an exceptional rarity in colonial architecture. Adjoining the church is a small museum with historical artifacts from the early days of the church.
St. George’s United Methodist Church is located on the northern end of the historic district in downtown Philadelphia. The church is open daily and the museum is open weekdays from 10:00am-4:00pm. The cost of admission was not available. Web: www.historicstgeorges.org (official website).
Just a few blocks away, on the south side of the historic district, is the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This historic church was founded by the African-American congregants that split off from St. George’s Church.