Denominational History

When John Wesley was a student at Oxford in 1729, he and his brother Charles, along with George Whitfield, formed “The Holy Club” for the purpose of studying scripture. They were so methodical in their studies that other students mocked them by calling them “Methodists.”

Wesley became a devoted priest in the Anglican Church, but always felt the church needed reform. It was in 1738, while at an Armenian worship meeting, that Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” and suddenly felt he understood a personal relationship with Christ. He later identified this as the moment the Methodist movement was born.

Wesley began to set up Methodist Class meetings in London, in Bristol, and eventually throughout England and into Scotland and Ireland. These meetings were meant to supplement Sunday worship, and were connected by preachers who rode a circuit, keeping the Methodist Societies “in connextion.” In time Wesley would come to accept lay preachers as important leaders of the movement.

In 1761, Robert Strawbridge emigrated from Ireland to America – to the Sam’s Creek area of western Maryland. He had become a devoted practitioner of Wesleyan Methodism, even though he had not met, nor had he been appointed by, John Wesley. He began to set up Wesleyan Class meetings – the first in the new world. The first class meeting group met in his home, but others soon followed in neighbors’ homes, and then on the eastern shore of Maryland, in Virginia, and Delaware.

In 1771, Francis Asbury (another lay preacher) responded to Wesley’s call to go to America to preach to the Methodists there. As the American colonies were moving closer to war with England, ministers of the Church of England had begun to leave and there was a great need for preachers. Asbury landed in Philadelphia and began to preach a circuit. He considered it his mission from Wesley to organize the American Methodists into a more governed movement.

In 1772, Asbury and Strawbridge were assigned to the Baltimore circuit and became the appointed first pastors of the Lovely Lane Chapel and Baltimore City Station.

Philip Embry was another of Wesley’s missionaries appointed to establish the movement in America. Settling in New York, he (at the urging of Barbara Heck) formed a Methodist society in 1766, which would become the John Street Congregation – today the oldest continuously worshiping Methodist congregation in America.

In 1767, Captain Thomas Webb, a veteran of the French and Indian War, organized a Methodist Society in Philadelphia. Two years later, the Society bought St. George’s Church – which today still stands as the oldest house of Methodist worship in continuous use in America. The church had been built in 1763 as a Dutch Reformed Church, but was auctioned when the church was unable to borrow enough money to complete the structure. On November 1, 1770, the first Watch Night service in America was held in St. George’s, and a year later, Francis Asbury preached his first American sermon at St. George’s. In 1773, 1774, and 1775, St. George’s hosted the first three conferences of Methodist preachers in America.

John Wesley

John Wesley

Robert Strawbridge

Robert Strawbridge

Francis Asbury Portrait

Francis Asbury

Barratt’s Chapel

Barratt’s Chapel

Old St. George's

Old St. George’s

John Street Church

John Street Church

The American war for Independence began in bloodshed in 1775 and continued until 1783. For much of that time, Asbury was in hiding because he refused to sign an oath that would require him to join the fighting forces and possibly take another’s life. Strawbridge passed away while preaching in Baltimore County in 1781.

Following the war, the American Methodists could no longer tolerate being a part of the Church of England, and they entreated Wesley to allow them to form their own church. Wesley was reluctant, still desiring that Methodism be a force of reform for his Anglican Church, but he relented in the case of the nation that “God has so strangely made free.” He ordained Dr. Thomas Coke as a general superintendent and dispatched him to America along with Thomas Vasey and Richard Whatcoat to effect the new adventure. They met Asbury at Barratt’s Chapel in 1784 and made plans for a conference that would establish the new denomination.

Because of the early work of Strawbridge, more than half of the Methodists in America were in the areas around Baltimore, so the conference was planned to take place at the Lovely Lane Meeting House beginning Christmas Day, 1784. At this Conference, the Methodist Episcopal Church was born – the first Methodist denomination.

The Denomination would see many splits. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1816 by African American Methodists who found themselves excluded from being equal members of the Church. Around the time of the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church South was formed primarily over the issue of slave ownership. The Methodist Protestant Church was created when a group of lay people could no longer bear what they viewed as too much control by the bishops and not enough governance by lay people.

In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal, the M.E. South and the Methodist Protestant Churches merged to become simply The Methodist Church. In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become the present day United Methodist Church.

Pilgrimage Opportunities

Book a Tour

Request a visit to Lovely Lane and the museum, library and archives. Tours are available after Sunday worship, or through the week by appointment.

Lovely Lane Museum Entrance View

The Lovely Lane Museum

The Museum at Lovely Lane provides an overview of the United Methodist history of this area through artwork and artifacts and the landmark 1884 Lovely Lane Church, the ME Church’s Centennial monument to the Christmas Conference.