Methodism Beginnings

Methodist Origins

John Wesley, an Anglican Priest, founded the first Methodist Societies in England in the Eighteenth Century. He wanted to take the faith beyond the church walls to the people directly. He was concerned about the conditions of the industrializing society in his day. (such issues as education, poverty and prison conditions). In John Wesley's words:

In 1729 two young men in England, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness: followed after it, and incited others so to do. In 1737, they saw, likewise, men are justified before they are sanctified: but still holiness was their object. God then thrust them out to raise a holy people.

These goals caused Wesley to travel 250,000 miles by horseback and preach over 40,000 sermons in a period of sixty-six years. His theological emphases included holiness, justification by faith and Christian Perfection. He composed over 400 publications on nearly every conceivable subject. He was concerned with the health of those in his movement as well as their souls. Participation by lay people was especially important when clergy were not available. Beginning in 1739 a strict set of rules was drawn up and regular conferences of all lay and ordained preachers were established. A disciplined Christianity has been the hallmark of Methodism.   Each Methodist society was made of classes, which met to care for each member’s needs. Music was especially important to reinforce the values taught. John Wesley wrote quite a few hymns, still in use, but brother Charles wrote thousands of hymns (sometimes only the words), some of which are found in most Christian churches today. Mission work was a priority from the start, thus causing an interest in the developing Americas.

Methodism in America

Followers of Methodism brought the movement to the New World, following Wesley's model, for the most part. The early Disciplines describe the development of Methodism in America:

In the year 1766 Philip Embury, a local preacher of our society, from Ireland, began to preach in the city of New-York, and formed a society of his own countrymen and the citizens; and the same year, Thomas Webb preached in a hired room near the barracks. About the same time, Robert Strawbridge, a local preacher from Ireland, settled in FrederickCounty, in the state of Maryland, and preaching there, formed some societies. The first Methodist church was built in   New-York in 1768 or 1769; and in 1769 Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor came to New-York; who were the first regular Methodist preachers on the continent. In the latter end of 1771 Francis Asbury and Richard Wright, of the same order, came over. We believe that God's design in raising up the preachers called Methodists in America, was to reform the continent, and spread Scripture holiness over these lands.

Francis Asbury arrived in Philadelphia on October 27, 1771. He found already established societies in Maryland, New York and Philadelphia. The itinerant Wesleyan approach was especially successful in a frontier land. Annual conferences were held to assure a common approach. Then in 1784 John Wesley dispatched Thomas Coke to America to further organize the movement. Coke and Asbury called the "Christmas Conference" of 1784 in Baltimore where Asbury was elected (he insisted on this) and ordained the first Bishop of a new church. The Methodist Episcopal Church of America had 104 preachers and 18,000 members. Thus the "tree" of Methodism was planted in America from the roots of the movement in England.

Methodism in the Lehigh Valley

Francis Asbury traveled 270,000 miles in America, preached over 16,500 sermons, and ordained more than 4,000 preachers. His Journal recounts two visits to the LehighValley area. In July of 1807 Asbury visited Bethlehem to observe the Moravians. He found a comfortable German community with a fine organ. He then recounts crossing the Lehigh River to Allentown, which he proclaimed to be "beautifully situated". Passing through the area in 1809 he stayed overnight in Allentown and expressed a concern about "gambling sinners.” But the LehighValley was not receptive to non-German speaking evangelists for some time. The Pennsylvania German language was almost exclusively spoken and used in worship, and outside Catasauqua and Allentown, the English language was not spoken or readily understood.

First Allentown Methodist Society

In 1842, the Reverend John Boyle of Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) began preaching in the Lehigh Valley. His energies led to the formation of a Methodist Society in the home of the sisters Elizabeth and Sarah Muffley. They generously opened a small house behind their home on Walnut Street west of Ninth Street for services. Occasional meetings were held in this place. They then asked the Conference to assign a preacher.

 It’s interesting to note that John Boyle joined the 111th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers when the Civil War broke out. He continued to profess the saving grace of Jesus Christ as he served as an officer. He was killed at the battle of Chattanooga.

In 1843, Rev. Solomon Higgins, Presiding Elder of the North Philadelphia District, sent the Reverend Newton Heston to take charge of the little nucleus established the preceding year. The Reverend Heston was only nineteen, but was known to be "full of zeal and energy, pious and devoted." Preaching and other services were established in a building known as Free Hall located on the north side of Linden Street, east of Ninth.

The organization of the first Methodist church in Allentown occurred on the ninth day of July 1843, and consisted of six persons: Elizabeth Muffley, Sarah Muffley, William Kelley, Elizabeth Kelley, William Ruhe, and Sarah Ruhe. A chronicler of the early history of this organization states "the society was sorely persecuted owing to the prejudices existing against the use of the English language. ... The opposition, indeed, proceeded so far as to secure the imprisonment of one of its members under a prosecution for assault and battery for preserving order during a church service." It seems some German-speaking parents were resisted when they attempted to remove their children from the English church service. But growth continued and resulted in adding another forty souls.

In 1844, land located on the southwest corner of Linden and Law Streets was purchased for $200. Before the year was out a church edifice was built at a cost of $1500 (all but $150 of it paid). The building measured forty feet wide, sixty feet deep, and sixteen feet to the ceiling. It was referred to as a "model of neatness, with carpets in the aisles, cushions at the altar, and Venetian blinds at the windows.”   When Rev. Heston was transferred in 1845 he left behind a membership of fifty-seven, a Sabbath school and a class he established in Catasauqua.

In 1868 the congregation decided to expand the church by adding a second story. The pastor, the Reverend John F. Crouch, led the planning for the additions and did some of the actual labor. The Presbyterian Church at Fifth Street near Hamilton (now the site of the Allentown Art Museum) offered the use of their church for Sunday afternoon services free of charge during the construction period. During that time the Sunday School classes were held in the female department of the common school buildings on Penn Street, south of Hamilton (today the Allentown School District Administration Building).

Linden Street Church

As the church continued to grow, a new site was sought. In 1907 the congregation decided to build a new church at Linden and Lumber Streets. On June 21, 1908, the last service was held at Law and Linden Streets and the first in the new building.   Bishop Luther B. Wilson led the dedication ceremonies. The entire construction was to be accomplished in stages.

Calvary Church

In 1872 the residents of the first ward requested a separate charge be created for that area. The Reverend J. Hepburn Hargis began his first appointment in this area on March 1st, 1872. A circuit was created known as Allentown, Furnace and Lime Ridge.    A revival increased the membership to 22.   The church met for a while in the first ward schoolhouse, until a lot could be purchased. The lot and new one story chapel were located on Chew Street east of 2nd.   This building cost $3000, including furnishings. Dedication of the building to the worship of Almighty God took place in June 1872. Selling part of the church lot and raising individual subscriptions paid most of the debt paid by April 1874. This second congregation became known as Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church.

Both of the Allentown churches continued to grow slowly, but steadily. Soon after World War I a common need for expansion brought talks of cooperation between leaders of both congregations.


Asbury's detailed history was researched and compiled by John H. Gauger, Asbury Church Historian