Methodism in Boston: 1790-1880

On the 9th of July, 1790, Sunday evening, a multitude of people had gathered around the Great Elm at the Boston Commons. Under the tree, the preacher, Jesse Lee addressed the people. Without notes but not lacking vigor, Lee preached to the hearts of the people.1 Many wept, and even more were drawn to his preaching, "with four persons to hear him at the beginning, and 3,000 at the close of his sermon."2 When the preaching was over, the audience agreed that "such a man had not visited New England since the days of Whitefield."3

Under the Great Elm, Jesse Lee had planted the seed of Methodism in Boston. Through a series of religious revivals, Methodism would take root in the city and become a major Christian denomination.

This exhibit collects the founding history of various Methodist congregations and their spatial trajectories on a map. In doing so, it hopes to capture the intra-denominational interactions among the Methodist churches, and by analyzing the trajectories of the Methodist churches as a group, to visualize the social forces that pushed the churches to their respective congregation locations.

We identified three possible factors that shaped the distribution of Methodist churches in Boston. Land reclamation projects were ongoing in nineteenth-century Boston. As new land became available, old congregations might move to new land, and denominations as groups could expand by building or sponsoring new congregations. As such, congregations were drawn, in part, toward where new lands were made. The second factor appeared to be the cost of those new lands and of buildings in neighborhoods. They barred the Methodist congregations, which were financially strained in general, to expand to expensive neighborhoods, whereas cheap land or property could have been a pull factor of their heavier presence in the South End. Thirdly, the plots of various congregation locations on a Boston map revealed a flight of Protestant churches away from the North End coincident with the large arrivals and settlements of Catholic immigrants in the North End between 1850 and 1880. As the more established Protestant Americans avoided the North End, so did the Protestant congregations.

As a newcomer denomination, Methodism struggled to take root in Boston. The earliest churches were built under debt, with support from a small number of local residents and Southern Methodists. Analysis of the architecture of their church buildings suggests tendency of the denomination toward building impressive, gothic style churches despite strained finance. The interest in building aesthetic churches and the need to control debt and expenditure might be another significant factor which pushed the Methodist congregations to expand in less expensive neighborhoods.  

1. A. Stevens, Memorials of the Introduction of Methodism into the Eastern States (Boston: Charles H. Peirce, 1848), 14.
2. Ibid. 278.
3. Ware’s Memoir, Chapter 13, quoted in Stevens, 14. 



by Zi Jing Teoh