4:10 AM / Sunday January 29, 2023

5 Nov 2015

Philadelphia’s Continuing “Holy Experiment”

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November 5, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Mother Bethel Church


By Renée S. Gordon

“We must give the liberty we seek.”  –William Penn

William Penn received a 48,000-square mile tract of land from King Charles II as payment of a debt owed his deceased father in 1681. Out of this inheritance, Penn’s Woods, later known as Pennsylvania, was created. In October of the following year, he landed near Chester and began to layout the site for his “Holy Experiment,” Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love,  based on the beliefs of the Quakers that included equality, tolerance, integrity and peace. On June 23, 1683, he signed a treaty with the Lenni Lenape at Shackamaxon. This treaty was never broken and was in force until the American Revolution.

On October 28, 1701, Penn signed the Charter of Privileges for the Province of Pennsylvania. This astonishing document outlines the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in the colony. In the very first provision, he states that there will be religious freedom and tolerance, setting the stage for Philadelphia to become a haven for people of all religions and the most tolerant of all the colonies. This document served as Pennsylvania’s constitution until the 1770s.

A tour of Philadelphia’s houses of worship is a timeline of history and architecture as well as a snapshot of the city’s more than 300 years of cultural and ethnic diversity. Founded in 1976, Old Philadelphia Congregations was formed to provide information on the city’s earliest religious institutions, some of which are included here. Sites are listed by the date of establishment and were selected for inclusion because of their historic impact. All of the sites are active and most are open for visitors and tours but you should check the website for hours of operation.

Christ Church was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970, 275 years after it was founded as the first Episcopal Church in the country and the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania. The list of congregants reads like a who’s who of the Colonial and Revolutionary era Benjamin Franklin, Absalom Jones, William Penn, Betsy Ross and George Washington. Early on,  the church began renting box pews to generate funds, but no lists of names exist prior to 1778. Pew assignments were of huge social importance and on at least one occasion an individual was put out of church because they created a problem over the location of their pew. We do know that GeorgecWashington’s pew, marked with a plaque, was pew 56 and Benjamin Franklin’s pew was number 70. A limited number of free balcony seats were available for servants and slaves. Absalom Jones was ordained in Christ Church in 1804.

The current Georgian church was completed in 1744 and was one of the largest buildings on the continent. The foundation for the steeple was laid n 1727 and it was completed by 1755. The steeple, still a Philadelphia landmark, stands 200-ft. tall. The original eight bells were dated 1754 and were transported from England on the Myrtilla, the same ship that carried the Liberty Bell. Highlights of tours of the interior are the font in which William Penn was baptized and the 1769 wine glass pulpit, Second Street, between Market & Filbert Streets.

Christ Church Burial Ground is one of Philadelphia’s most often visited sites largely because it contains Franklin’s grave. The two-acre site was purchased in 1719, and is now the final resting place of many prominent Philadelphians including four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Arch Street Meetinghouse, dating from 1804, is the third in the city. The first two, the Great Meetinghouse (1695-1754) and the Greater Meetinghouse (1755-1804), were both situated at Second and Market. The land was sold and the Arch Street Meetinghouse was constructed on land granted to them in 1701 by William Penn for burials. Owen Biddle constructed the building that today houses the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. There are interior rotating exhibits. 320 Arch Street.

Catholics were not looked upon with favor when the colonies were settled because the vast majority of the settlers were English and many were Puritans. Maryland was a relatively safe haven under the Religious Toleration Act until it was ended in 1692. Of the 13 colonies, the most tolerant was Pennsylvania and gradually Catholics began to settle there. The Rev. Joseph Greaton, an English Jesuit, moved from Maryland in 1729. Two years later, Greaton purchased land on Fourth Street, erected a chapel and the first Mass was held in the 18ft. by 22-ft.  St. Joseph’s Chapel on February 26, 1732. The smaller building was attached to Greaton’s residence. A larger, more substantial church was constructed in 1757 and remains the oldest Catholic Church in the city. Even though Philadelphia was at that time the only colony where Mass could be publicly held, members were still careful.

Entrance to the church was via a courtyard obscured by other structures.

St. Joseph’s has always been at the center of events. The Marquis de Lafayette worshipped there, slaves fleeing the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s became members and St. Joseph’s College was founded at the site in 1851. St. Joseph’s University has since relocated to City Line Avenue. 321 Willings Alley.

There were Jewish traders in the region from the mid-1600s and it is believed that Nathan and Isaac Levy were Philadelphia’s earliest Jewish permanent residents in 1737. They were joined by other family members, and in 1754 Barnard Gratz. Nathan Levy was granted land for a burial ground at Eighth and Spruce in 1738 and religious services were held in a house. The earliest existing document that mentions the name Mikveh Israel Congregation dates from 1773. In 1782 the first two-story synagogue, 30’ by 36’, was erected on Cherry Street at Third. A larger structure was built on the same site in 1825. A fifth synagogue was constructed near the location of the first one, on Independence Mall, in 1976. 44 N. 4th.

Mother Bethel AME Church looms large in African American and the history of Philadelphia. It is a National Historic Landmark situated on property that been continuously owned by African Americans longer than any other plot of land in the nation and Mother Bethel is the mother church for the first African American religious denomination in the United States. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the first black organization in the nation, the Free African Society, in 1787 and that same year they left St. George’s in protest of segregated seating policies. Jones founded St. Thomas Church in 1794.

Richard Allen was born a slave of Benjamin Chew at Cliveden in Germantown. When he was 7, he and his family were sold to a Delaware farmer who sold his mother and siblings 10-years later and he never saw them again. By the age of, 20 Allen had purchased his freedom for $2,000 and had begun to preach. In 1786, he was invited to preach at St. George’s and returned to Philadelphia.

Allen tried to start a Methodist church in 1794 on a plot of land he had purchased, at 6th and Pine, in 1787. He used his personal funds to buy a blacksmith’s shop and had it moved to 6th Street and the building was renovated and dedicated as a church in July of 1794. The name Beth-el was selected because it is cited in the Bible in several places, most notably where Jacob has his dream, as a place where God communicates with man.

The current church, the fourth,  was dedicated on October 2, 1889. A museum is located on the lower level with three of the rooms exhibiting photographs, documents and artifacts. The highlight of the displays is the wooden pulpit that was used in the blacksmith’s shop, original pews and Allen’s Bible. The tomb of Richard and Sarah Allen is also located on this level and the space was used to hide fugitive slaves until they could safely leave the city. 419 Richard Allen Ave.

The 1890s Church of the Advocate has a history of leadership and political activism that dates from its beginnings as a religious institution for wealthy, white, Episcopalians. The complex was constructed as a memorial to George W. South and consisted of several buildings. Church architect Charles Burns incorporated the design of European cathedrals in this cruciform Gothic Revival structure. The exterior of the church boasts gargoyles, flying buttresses and a semicircular apse. The interior has three types  of gothic sculptures and a frieze on the west wall depicts 36 cherub heads. Stained glass windows are located throughout.

Fourteen murals created by Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds were placed on the walls around the nave to pictorially represent the Bible and the Black Experience. They were the result of the decision to infuse black culture into an otherwise European inspired space. The mural themes were selected using biblical references that represent God’s impact on man’s fate. They took three years to complete, from 1973-76.

The neighborhood changed in the 50s as did the congregation and in 1962 Rev. Paul M. Washington was appointed Church Rector, where he remained there for 25-years. During the Civil Rights Era, the  church opened its doors to political groups and the both the Third Annual National Conference on Black Power and the 1970 Black Panther Convention were held there. Equally as groundbreaking was the church’s July 29, 1974 ordination of the first 11 women to become Episcopal priests. At this time , the  ordination of women into the priesthood was not sanctioned and would not be for another  two years. 18th & Diamond

The University of Pennsylvania’s  chapter of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) was founded in 1963 in response to the growing student Muslim population. Initially, religious services were held on campus.  But when the need for space became evident, they began a search for a suitable site for a mosque and community center. The MSA selected the Commodore Theater and, after raising the funds, purchased the building for $100,000. Masjid Al-Jamia was established in 1973 and was unique in its founding and operation by the community. Masjid, once the largest mosque in the city, 4228 Walnut Street, has been superseded in size by the Masjidullah complex. The recently purchased religious complex, at 7401 Limekiln Pike, includes a mosque, school and a community center.

The neoclassical Philadelphia Mormon Temple is nearing completion at 18th & Vine Streets. The design will blend with the surrounding architecture and it will be the only Temple in the state. Scheduled to open later this year, visitors can obtain information in a temporary visitors center located across from the site.

One of the wonderful things about living in Philadelphia is the fact that there are always new ways to look at old sites and this has been a year to take a closer look at the forces that helped form our religious institutions. There is always more to the story.


Berlin has been designated the “European Vegan Capital” and it is fitting that it should host the first vegan/vegetarian Holiday market. The Green Christmas Market takes place on Sundays from November 20th to December 24th.  Shoppers can peruse and purchase German vegan/vegetarian products and organic clothing while being entertained by live music and sipping mulled drinks.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” will be on view from October 27- January 10, 2016. Almost 100 artists’ works are displayed ranging from the 18th to the 20th-centuries. This is the first major show of its type and emphasis has been placed on Philadelphia’s contribution to the development of the genre. Highlights of the galleries are a painting of the Peale family and Audubon’s original specimens. Entrance the first Sunday of each month is “pay what you can”.

Read Up for Your next Vacation:

Akashic Books debuted two poetry collections that capture the culture and sensibility of the Caribbean. Colin Channer the author of Providential, has written a story cycle that speaks of fathers and sons, violence and the impact of historic colonialism. The book has been featured in “O”, (Oprah Magazine.) The works of eight Caribbean poets have been included in “Coming Up Hot,” edited by Peekash Press. Following in the footsteps of other great islanders they explore their island heritage through the written word.

Carlisle Richardson, an economic affairs officer for the United Nations, wrote “Island Journeys” to provide understanding of how travelers can best experience diverse cultures and environments and retain a sense of self and stay true to one’s roots. He imparts these lessons through vignettes about his own journeys, both physical and spiritual.

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