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How Did Barbara Heck Convince Philip Embury to Preach?

America’s first, reluctant, Methodist preacher.

WHEN PHILIP EMBURY arrived in America on this day, 11 August 1760, he was the first Methodist lay preacher to settle in the American colonies (John Wesley had been to America some decades earlier, as a priest and missionary for the Church of England.) Although Embury had preached in Ireland, he did not continue his ministry in the New World. He was too busy scraping out a living as a carpenter and joiner in New York. Instead, he attended Lutheran services. 

It took his cousin Barbara Heck to get him moving. One day she came home to find a card game in progress in her home among some of the other Irish immigrants. Furious, she flung the cards into the fire and strode into Embury's room. Drawing herself up to her full height, eyes blazing, she spoke fiercely, “Philip, you must preach to us, or we shall all go to Hell together and God will require our blood at your hands!” 

Embury had heard this lecture before. However, he had never seen Barbara so upset. He fumbled for excuses. “I cannot preach, for I have neither a house nor congregation,” he argued. 

“Preach in your own house first, and to your own company,” she retorted. 

Embury met her part way. If Barbara would gather the audience, he promised he would preach. Five people attended his exhortation, thought to be the first Methodist sermon preached in the New World. After that, Embury held services every Thursday evening and twice on Sunday. The little congregation grew. Soon the Methodists had to rent a large room. 

Rumors spread and people came to see for themselves what this new group was about. Several appreciated what they heard and joined Embury’s little company. Their numbers increased even more when one-eyed Captain Webb arrived from England. Webb, who had been converted under John Wesley’s preaching, boldly spoke to the patrons of the neighboring rum shops and to soldiers in their barracks, attired in his scarlet military uniform. He told them “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.” 

Eventually the growing Methodist society built a church in John Street. Wesley learned of America’s need for experienced laborers, and sent two lay preachers named Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore to conduct the work. Relinquishing the John Street preaching to them, Embury moved to Camden where he labored as a carpenter during the week, and preached to a newly formed Methodist congregation in Ashgrove on weekends. 

Philip Embury died of heat stroke in 1775 while mowing a field. 

Dan Graves

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Two sources for more information about early American Methodism are Christian History #114 Francis Asbury: Pioneer of Methodism

and People of Faith which tells the rich story of the United States’ religious roots.

People of Faith can also be streamed at RedeemTV

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