Historic Churches of Philadelphia
Early Congregations of the United States
Travel through a special group of buildings in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with me! In my interest in the growth of the Church and historic buildings, I wanted to research some of the first congregations and church buildings that were founded in the large city near my home. I think you will be amazed with the variety of denominations, nationalities, and building styles that have developed over the past 325 years in the city started as a place of religious freedom and tolerance, the city of Philadelphia! I hope you will like this virtual travel and history page about something that interests me.
Old City Philadelphia Photo Thanks to meghane1006 at Photobucket
"Old Philadelphia Congregations"
"It was in Philadelphia, alone of America's colonial cities, that Quakers, Jews, Catholics and Protestants "experienced the difficulties and discovered the possibilities of fruitful coexistence that American democracy was to offer." Philadelphia is a city that not only tolerated but welcomed diverse modes of religious practice from its beginning.
That diversity is still evident today in the Old Philadelphia Congregations, a consortium of historic churches and synagogues of different denominations working together to broaden interfaith understanding and celebrate Philadelphia's unique contribution to religious freedom in America.
The freedom of worship mandated in William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges ensured that Philadelphia made significant contributions to American religious history. Philadelphia is the birthplace of the Methodist Episcopal churches in America. It is here that the first African-American bishop was named, the Hebrew Bible was first translated into English and the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America was held. And in the 1730s, Philadelphia was the only place in the British Empire where a public Catholic mass could be celebrated.
In other words, Philadelphia's religious history is the nation's own.
"Because noe people can be truly happy though under the Greatest Enjoyments of Civil Liberties if Abridged of the Freedom of theire Consciences as to theire Religious Profession and Worship" from William Penn's Charter of Privileges for Pennsylvanians 1701."
Quoted from the Old Philadelphia Congregations Historical Marker located on 6th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia.
Blessed is the nation
whose God is the LORD,
the people he chose
for his inheritance.
Old Swedes' Church
The "Old Swedes Church" in Philadelphia, now known as Gloria Dei, was the second church in the American colonies built by the Swedish settlers. It was the very first church founded in what is now present day Pennsylvania long before William Penn and the English settlers came to America. Sweden had claims to much of the Delaware and Pennsylvania area as early as 1646. A renovated fort blockhouse in the South Philly area served as a church building around 1677 until 1697-1700 when the present day building was constructed at Christian Street and Columbus Boulevard.
Although many of the early records of the church were lost in a fire in 1740, a few remain of the early years such as the ordination of Pastor Justus Falckner in 1703, the first Lutheran service of this kind in the entire Western Hemisphere. The congregation remained Swedish Lutheran for over 160 years until 1845 when the congregation joined the Episcopalian denomination.
Many of the well known members of the church are buried it the churches cemetery including: founder of New Sweden colony, Sven Gunnarsson; brick mason, Richard Cantril, who constructed the first permanent building of the city for Pennsylvania proprietor, William Penn; Revolutionary War officer, William Irvine; sea captain George Ord, Sr.; painters and artists of the famous Peale family; U.S. Congressman Thomas Smith; Civil War Medal of Honor recipient, John C. Hunterson; illustrator Alexander Wilson; and scholar / founder of the American Swedish Historical Museum, Amandus Johnson.
Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish opera singer, visited and sang in the cathedral in the mid 1800's. The Swedish sculptor, Carl Milles donated a beautiful chandelier to be placed above the center of the cathedral in the early 1900s. Apparently over the years several royals and church officials from Sweden were guests of the congregation.
"The first planters in these parts were the Dutch, and soon after them the Swedes and Finns. The Dutch applied themselves to traffic, the Swedes and Finns to husbandry. The Dutch have a meeting place for religious worship at Newcastle, and the Swedes one at Christina, one at Tinicum, and one at Wicaco [present day South Philadelphia], within half a mile of this town. The Swedes inhabit the freshes of the river Delaware ... It was a feature deserving of notice in the character of the early Swedes inhabiting this country, as will more fully appear in the sequel of these annals, that in the attention they paid to other concerns and interests, they never appear to have lost sight of those relating to God, and the worship due to him. As a religious people they are presented to us in a most favorable light, and may well be held up as an example for the imitation of their numerous descendants still occupying the soil so long ago inhabited by their ancestors. In coming to this new country, they did not forget that their residence in it was to be but for a season, and that there was another, and a heavenly country, for which it was their duty to make preparation." ~ Quote by William Penn in a newsletter from Gloria Dei Church newsletter dated January 2010.
Arch Street Friends
"The Holy Experiment" ~ That's what Pennsylvania founder William Penn fondly called his colony. Penn and the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers as they are sometimes called wanted to start a colony where religious freedom and peace among all would take place. From the Friends arrival in 1681, this group of believers met at individuals homes until the first meeting house was built in 1684. Five meeting houses grew from this one, but the largest started to build their current plain building in 1803 at Arch and 4th Streets. This structure is the oldest Friend Meeting House in continuous use and is the largest in the world.
"The Arch Street Meeting House stands as an enduring symbol of the people who created Pennsylvania as a "Holy Experiment." Built to house the men's and women's Yearly Meetings, the business sessions of the Religious Society of Friends for Philadelphia and Environs, it remains one of the oldest active houses of worship in the city. Begun in 1803, the building was financed by the sale of the Greater Meeting House, which stood at Second and High (now Market) Streets, the site of Quaker Meetings since 1696. The Friends did not follow the classic revival style then in vogue. Master carpenter Owen Biddle built the Arch Street Meeting House according to the Quaker principles of plainness and simplicity. The beautiful but unadorned interior of the Meeting House is well suited to a form of worship in silence, as Friends seek to feel the presence of "The Light that lighteth everyman." Over the past three centuries, Friends have been in the forefront of the struggle for women's rights, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, humane treatment for the mentally ill, and non-violent resolution of conflict. The Religious Society of Friends, called Quakers by their early critics, grew out of the teachings of George Fox in England in the 17th century. William Penn, a Fox disciple, founded Philadelphia in 1681 as a haven of religious freedom. His "Holy Experiment" was to build a society according to Quaker ideals: absolute right of conscience, human equality, and non-violence. Today, in Quaker Meetings around the world, Friends still strive to adhere to these ideals." ~ Quoted from Arch Street Friends Historic Marker.
More interesting information about this body of faith may be found at the following.
LORD, you establish peace for us;
all that we have accomplished
you have done for us.
Early settlers of the colony of Pennsylvania wanted to establish a branch of the Church of England in the year 1695. Two years later, the Baptismal font that had been used for William Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania) in England was safely brought to America to be to be given to the church - a gift that is still being used today at 600 years old! Soon to outgrow the small wooden church building they first created, plans were made to construct the current Georgian style architecture cathedral between 1727-1954 at Market and 2nd Streets. Standing at 200 feet above the cathedral is the well recognized steeple which may be seen at several locations throughout Philadelphia.
During the new nation's independence, Reverend William White made many contributions to the modern Episcopal church. He helped to write the constitution for the church, and parts of the first American Book of Common Prayer that had been proposed to the leaders at the Church of England assembly in England making Christ Church the "birthplace" of the American Episcopal Church in America.. Chosen as the first Bishop in the country in 1786, he led the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States three years later. During his time as pastor, he also became the chaplain of the First Continental Congress and the first United States Senate.
Numerous famous historical figures have been members of this congregation including notable "founding fathers" who had a part in creating the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution such as: Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris. Jacob Broom, Pierce Butler, James Wilson, and the country's first president, George Washington. Many members of the Second Continental Congress also worshiped there a a body. Other prominent figures you may recognize are: seamstress Betsy Ross, poet Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, "The Philadelphia Lawyer" Andrew Hamilton, General John Forbes of the French and Indian War, General Charles Lee of the Revolutionary War , and early Pennsylvania governor, John Penn. Brass plated markers have been placed on many of the pews signifying those who once sat there. The cemetery of Christ Church also holds names and dates of monumental events of the country.
Presbyterian Churches in Philadelphia
First & Second Presbyterian Churches
This historic congregation began only 16 years after the arrival of the Quakers and William Penn in 1698. The members met in many places over the centuries and joined together with the Second Presbyterian Church in 1949 creating a larger, stronger congregation. The Gothic-style building with Tiffany stained glassed windows that they use to worship in today was the home of the Second Presbyterian Church constructed in 1869. It was through this church that the first Presbytery in the United States was founded in 1706 with eight Presbyterian pastors joining together, and many years later in 1789 led the first General Assembly of the Church to helped set up its constitution and government.
Third Presbyterian Church
"One of Old Pine's first pastors, George Duffield established our lively personality soon after our founding in 1768 as the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Defying British arrest, Duffield served as chaplain to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and, with many of his parishioners, joined Washington at Valley Forge in the winter of 1776-77. Because of George Duffield's activities and those of parishioners such as John Adams, and of the many members who loyally stood with Washington, Old Pine soon became known as the "Church of the Patriots." Today, it remains the only Presbyterian structure in Philadelphia dating back to colonial and revolutionary times. During that bitter winter of occupation, the British used Old Pine first as a hospital and later as a stable for their horses. They stripped the sanctuary of its plate and pews - anything that could be sold or burned. By the time the first Presbyterian General Assembly met in Philadelphia in 1789, Old Pine had become a leader in shaping both the church and the new nation, and its leadership has continued through the centuries." The Old Pine Street Colonial Churchyard lists the following as a sample of historical members of the past: signer of the U.S. Constitution, 3 Continental Congress members, 2 colonial printers, 50+ Revolutionary War soldiers, Ringer of the Liberty Bell, and 9 members of the Carpenter's Company of Philadelphia among many others. This churchyard also became a part of the movie "National Treasure" with Nicolas Cage.
Philadelphia was also the home of the First African Presbyterian Church in 1807 making it the first of its kind in the country.
The first Jewish congregation in Philadelphia founded in 1740 is known as "The Hope of Israel". For over 40 years they met in a private home until 1782 when Mikveh Israel built its first place of worship. In 1909, the congregation moved locations, but moved their synagogue back near Independence Mall in 1976.
Famous members of the congregation include "great statesmen, jurists, educators, scientists, and patriots." Specific members: Haym Solomon - Revolutionary War financier; Nathan Levy - ship Myrtilla brought the Liberty Bell to Philadelphia; and Rebecca Gratz - founder of the Hebrew Sunday School society.
Mikveh Israel continues to speak almost entirely in Hebrew in their services today, and is a very active congregation. The National Museum of American Jewish History is located on the premises of the Synagogue.
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
God is seated on his holy throne.
Old St. Joseph's & Old St. Mary's
1733 ~ 1763
Saint Joseph's Church began with about 40 people as the first Catholic Church in Philadelphia in 1733 although the earliest Mass was recorded in 1707.
Saint Mary's Church is also known as one of the oldest Catholic Churches in Philadelphia. Some sources list Saint Mary's and Saint Joseph's as a joined parish from 1763 - 1821. A place of worship during the War for Independence ~ In 1774, leaders George Washington and John Adams attended a service. Members of the Constitutional Convention worshiped at the church. On July 4, 1779, Old Saint Mary's Church held the "first public religious" commemoration of the third anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with the members of the Continental Congress. On November 4, 1781, George Washington attended a Mass of Thanksgiving at Saint Mary's after a successful battle over the British forces in the American Revolution. The US Congress also held a memorial service for the President on the remembrance of his birthday in 1800.
The graveyard of Saint Mary's is the resting place of Commodore John Barry - known as the Father of the American Navy; Thomas Fitzsimons -
Signer of the Constitution of the United States and Continental Congress member; and General Stephen Moylan - Aide-de-camp to Washington among other notables.
The Roman Catholic churches of Philadelphia were instrumental in publishing the first Catholic hymnbooks in the United States in 1787. The original books contained two part vocal arrangements in a book titled Litanies and Vesper Hymns and Anthems as They Are Sung in the Catholic Church.
St. George's United Methodist Church
Captain Thomas Webb began a Methodist Society in 1767 in Philadelphia after the French and Indian War. The growing society purchased a six year old building, St. George's Church, from the Dutch Reformed Church congregation in 1769 to form the "oldest house of Methodist worship in continuous use in America." Soon after, the church encouraged many new events which became "firsts" in America. Wesley mission sent Joseph Pilmore to proclaim the Methodist church's beliefs and fundamentals for the first time in the colonies. Pilmore then led a successful prayer meeting in St. George's sanctuary. Well known Francis Asbury began his American sermons at St. George's in 1770. The Philadelphia congregation were leaders in spreading the Methodist faith by hosting the three initial conferences of the Methodist Preachers in America starting in 1773. Thomas Coke made a public appearance at the church to define John Wesley's plans in 1784. The Methodist Book Concern began to publish for the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1789 at the church, also. Leading African Americans Absalom Jones and Richard Allen became preachers at the Methodist Church, and later broke away to form two new congregations. Although the original building contained only a dirt floor, roof, and brick walls, the late 1700's allowed them to plaster the walls and lay a wooden floor. Some additions such as the altar candelabra are still in use over 200 years later.
Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name
of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey
everything I have commanded you.
St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church
The founding of St. Thomas actually initiated at St. George's United Methodist Church. (See above.) The congregation ordained both Absalom Jones and Richard Allen as the first African pastors of the Methodist Church. When unfortunate racial segregation occurred in the parish, most of the African American church members broke away from St. George's to start two new congregations. The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church with Richard Allen became one of the leading churches while Pastor Absalom Jones helped to establish the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792 as a division of the Free African Society. The non-denominational Society worked at helping African Americans in numerous ways throughout Philadelphia. Once Mr. Jones had become one of the few African ordained priests of the Episcopalian Church in America, St. Thomas, originally know as the African Church, became the first black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the country.
Reverend Jones was born into slavery in Delaware and sold to a family in Philadelphia while still young. He was allowed to attend a night school run by Quakers where he learned to read primarily using the Bible as his text. Through extra work he did, he earned enough money to buy freedom for his wife first, then himself. When Reverends Allen and Jones broke away from St. George's, they worked hard in assisting freed Africans with social and economic needs through the Society and other local churches. A day school for African American children and other mission organizations were also started by Rev. Jones. His appeal to Congress in 1800 to work toward the emancipation of all slaves and to stop the slave trade was a brave move that would plant a seed towards freedom for all many years later. For more about this faithful, inspirational man, you may want to read this sermon celebrating the actions of Reverend Absalom Jones. I also found this article from PBS to be a fascinating narrative!
"St. Thomas has been in the vanguard of action to sustain the legacy of humanitarianism and community outreach passed down from its founders. St. Thomas' clergy and parishioners have played key roles in the abolition/anti-slavery/ underground railroad movements and the early equal rights movement of the 1800's. Over the past fifty years, St. Thomas has figured prominently in the civil rights movement, The NAACP, Union of Black Episcopalians, Opportunities Industrialization Center, Philadelphia Interfaith Action and The Episcopal Church Women. Paramount, however, has been the movement to uphold the knowledge and value of the Black presence in the Episcopal Church." ~ Quoted from Historic St. Thomas Website.
German Catholic immigrants started to arrive in Pennsylvania about the same time as William Penn in the 1680's. A hundred years later, the German settlers requested to have their own parish in which to speak their native language. Their request was acknowledged in 1789 when Holy Trinity Church began. Because of the terrible yellow fever epidemic in the 1790's, the congregation established the first home for orphans in America in 1797.
The church's graveyard has been made famous by the poem "Evangeline" by H.W. Longfellow which tells of the real life story of the Acadian people from Nova Scotia who were forcibly removed by British forces because of their loyalty to France during the military disputes of France and Britain during the French and Indian Wars of 1754 - 1763. Many Acadians fled to Philadelphia to find refuge.
"Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping.
Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard,
In the heart of the city they lie, Unknown and unnoticed."
Love your neighbor as yourself.
While researching these historic and still thriving congregations throughout the city, I am so inspired. To think how many believed in their faith so strongly as to leave their countries to search for a place of religious freedom, leaving behind family and home in search of a place of worship, is amazing. It must not have been easy to simply survive in the American colonies of the 17th and 18th centuries, let alone form a congregation of like minded folk, work together to create a new group of believers in the Body of Christ, and to build these amazing structures in which to worship the Lord most high!!
Each of the churches I read about continue to have very lively, faith filled activities and followers after the centuries. With Christ as their Rock, no wonder their foundation is so strong and lasting to be some of the oldest organizations and buildings in the country. When I enter any of the cathedrals, I feel grateful to those Christian brothers and sisters of long ago who helped set the stage for religious freedom in America and the other ideals of freedom that they, in the city of brotherly love, began for others like you and me.