Barbara Heck's eyes blazed as she stood in Philip Embury's living room. "Philip, you must preach to us, or we shall all go to Hell together and God will require our blood at your hands!"
It wasn't the first time that Barbara had confronted Philip about this. In fact, she'd become a nag on the subject. But Philip could not remember ever seeing her so upset before.
Barbara Heck, a Methodist from Ireland, believed that it was a sin to fritter time. When she returned home from an errand one day to find a game of cards in progress in her home, it was too much. Her family well-knew that she thought cards frivolous and sinful--a worldly amusement! She chewed out the players, flung the offending pack of cards into the fireplace, and fell on her knees in prayer. Then she told Philip Embury that he must preach.
Philip was well-known to the Hecks. In fact, Barbara was his cousin and both families had emigrated from Ireland, although Barbara came over a year later than Philip. In the old world, Philip had been a Methodist preacher. When he arrived in America on this day, August 11, 1760, he was the first Methodist preacher to settle in Britain's American colonies. Since then, he had been too busy scraping out a living in New York to take up church work, although he held family devotions and attended Lutheran services. However, the little group of Methodists had lost their thirst for divine things and grown spiritually lukewarm.
Barbara saw the danger. But Philip took some convincing. "I cannot preach, for I have neither a house nor congregation."
"Preach in your own house first, and to our own company," said Barbara.
Philip gave in and preached his first sermon, to five people, in his own rented house. This is believed to be the first Methodist sermon preached in America. Embury held services every Thursday evening and twice on Sunday.
The five people increased. Soon the congregation had to rent a large room. Rumors about the Methodists helped the church grow, because some of the people who came to investigate them were impressed and joined. A Methodist military man who had been converted in Bristol, England under John Wesley's preaching, also joined Philip. This Captain Webb was a bold evangelist and began to speak to the neighbors and in the soldiers' barracks and rum shops near where the Methodists rented their hall.
Standing in his scarlet uniform, Webb proclaimed "that all their knowledge and religion were not worth a rush, unless their sins were forgiven, and they had the witness of God's Spirit with theirs that they were the children of God."
The little Methodist society began to grow. Eventually it built a church. One of the members wrote a letter to John Wesley, describing the situation and asking for legal advice on how to deed the land. Noting that Embury and Webb lacked training, he added, "We want an able and experienced preacher; one who has both gifts and grace necessary for the work." This prompted Wesley to send his first Methodist missionaries to America.
- Daniels, W. H. Illustrated History of Methodism. New York: hunt and Easton, 1890.
- "Embury, Philip." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- "Philip Embury." Famous Americans. http://www.famousamericans.net/philipembury/
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles and paragraphs in Methodist histories.
Last update June, 2007