John Street Church is the oldest Methodist Society in continental America and is the mother church of American Methodism. The Society was organized in New York in 1766 by Philip Embury, and ardent Irish Methodist and former Wesleyan preacher who settled here in the seventeen-sixties.
The society rented the upper story of "The Old Rigging Loft" in 1767, a space sometimes used for rigging sails, located on the eastern side of William Street between John and Fulton streets. Embry was joined in his preaching by Thomas Webb, a retired British captain who was given license as a lay preacher by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
In 1768 the society built a chapel which Embury designed. The first sexton was Peter Williams, a former slave who won emancipation and helped found the A.M.E. Zion Church.
A larger church was built on this site in 1818 and the stones of Embury's original chapel were laid in the foundation. The second church was demolished in 1840 to accommodate the widening of John Street. The present structure was designed by William Hurry in the Federal style. Its foundations still hold the stones of Embury's chapel and some of its structural elements were made of the stout, handhewn beams of the 1817 building.
Called "Old John Street," the building is notable for the handsome Palladian window directly above the broad main entrance door, and the simple dignity of the interior.
John Street is also the site of an early incident of bloodshed in the Revolutionary period. In 1770 the patriotic Sons of Liberty attacked three of the king's soldiers found posting insulting placards. This culminated in the Battle of Golden Hill (an early name for John Street east of William), in which citizens and soldiers clashed briefly. This event occurred several years before the celebrated Boston Massacre.
The John Street Theater, one of the city's first, was opened in 1767 just east of Broadway. A contemporary described it as "principally of wood, an unsightly object, painted red." General Howe's British occupation forces took part in its productions, and Washington attended performances there when New York was the federal capital. The theater closed in 1798.