Two historic Phila. churches mark milestone anniversaries
Two of the most historic United Methodist churches in America—Historic St. George’s UMC and Mother African Zoar UMC—will celebrate milestone anniversaries in November in grand and humble ways. Sharing the same month may be fitting, since the two are related by birth.
Founded in 1769, Historic St. George’s UMC, in the Old City section of Philadelphia (at the corner of 4th and New Streets), turns 250 this year. It is the “oldest continuously operating Methodist church in the U.S.” The congregation was established in 1767 before purchasing the current building two years later.
On Sunday, November 24, the small but active congregation will celebrate in worship at 10 AM. The Rev. Fred Day, former pastor and now head of the denomination’s General Commission on Archives and History, will preach.
Bishop Peggy Johnson will join Day and the Rev. Mark Salvacion, pastor, in celebrating Holy Communion. A light lunch will follow, along with tours of the church’s building, which is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and its historical museum. St. George’s is the home of the Eastern PA Conference’s cherished archives.
Mother African Zoar UMC, in North Philadelphia, was born in 1794, when 18 African American members of St. George’s tired of the racism and restraint they experienced there and began holding separate religious services in their homes. In 1796 they purchased property and built African Zoar.
But unlike other black members who left to form or join other denominations, these members maintained their ties to the Methodist Episcopal Church, making Zoar the oldest black congregation in the United Methodist tradition in continuous existence. The church added the name “Mother” because it gave birth to at least six offspring congregations, five of them United Methodist, in other parts of the city.
Mother African Zoar will celebrate its 225th anniversary with a grand banquet on Saturday, November 9, from 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM, at the Hilton Hotel at 4200 City Avenue in Philadelphia. Bishop Gregory Palmer, a Philadelphia native who leads the Ohio West Episcopal Area, will address the gathering. The Rev. Shayla Johnson is Zoar’s pastor and also president/coordinator of the Philadelphia Black Methodists for Church Renewal caucus.
Mother African Zoar, led in its earliest days by famed preacher “Black Harry” Hosier, was where the first Convention of Colored Local Preachers and Laymen convened in 1852. It was the site of many black church assemblies, including the Delaware Annual Conference, which, from 1864 to 1965, was the first of 25 “Negro Annual Conferences” formed in the racially segregated Methodist Episcopal Church.
At Historic St. George’s, where Joseph Pilmore preached the first Methodist sermon in America in November 1769, the church has played “an integral role in the life of the UMC,” according to a media announcement, “and in the fabric of Philadelphia’s colonial churches, who were attracted to Pennsylvania by the offer of religious freedom to such immigrant Christian movements as the Quakers, the Amish, and the Moravians.”
Indeed, the church has survived a history of raging fires, civil unrest, the city’s 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak, urban development, membership losses, and the racial discrimination and division that marred its early years with the loss of its black members.
The Conference Commission on Archives and History will cosponsor the two November celebrations because of their significance. While both of these venerable, resilient congregations are marking their related, milestone anniversaries in several ways, their celebrations will likely climax a year of remembering their pasts, while envisioning their futures.
Tickets to Mother African Zoar’s banquet and souvenir book ads may be purchased from Betty Henderson by calling 215-226-5268. Or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Historic St. George’s celebration, worship, lunch and tours are open to the public. But an RSVP for attendance is requested by October 25 to Caitlin Gordon at email@example.com. The church office can be reached at 215-925-7788 weekdays from 10 AM to 2 PM.