“The church first, and then my family” was the motto of New York City merchant William Lupton, one of the founding members of the John Street Methodist Church. The first Methodist church in America, the John Street Church was erected in 1768 at 44 John Street in Lower Manhattan and rebuilt in 1818 and 1841. Considered the cradle of American Methodism, the John Street Church still stands today. It has an active congregation and a museum that tells the story of this historically and religiously significant property.
The lot connected with John Street Church was the first place Methodists used for a burial ground in New York, and they had burial vaults under the original church building. But by the early 1800s, the congregation had acquired lots in a Methodist cemetery further uptown and stopped burying their dead at John Street. In 1817, when the congregation tore down their first chapel to build a new house of worship on the same site, they disturbed bodies buried there. Some of the bones were gathered together and reburied under one end of the new church and some were removed to other burial grounds.
William Lupton’s remains were among those removed and reburied during construction of the new church in 1817. Lupton had a private vault under the church where he was interred in 1796 when he died at age 69. One of the wealthiest of the original trustees, Lupton was an Englishman who came to America in 1753 as a quartermaster in the British Army and served in the French and Indian War. Married twice—first to Joanna Schuyler and, after her death, to Elizabeth Roosevelt—he had eleven children. Lupton and his family lived next door to the John Street Church for some time. Legend has it, when a fire broke out in the neighborhood Lupton instructed the firemen to save the church before his home, thus proving him faithful to his motto.
Construction projects at the church in the 1880s and again in the 1940s uncovered the bones of more early Methodists; these were reburied beneath the basement of the present church building. More recently, in 1986 construction workers found fragments of human bones during work on the foundation wall of the church, and these also were reburied under the basement. Archaeologist Sherene Baugher, who led excavations at the church when the bones were found in 1986, observes that “the basement of the church has become a burial ground and, in a sense, a sacred site.”
Sources: Bridges’ 1807 Plan of the city of New-York; “Died,” Daily Advertiser, Apr 11, 1796; Lost Chapters Recovered from the Early History of American Methodism (Wakeley 1858); “The General Conference,” The Methodist, Jun 4, 1864; Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); John Street Methodist Church: An Archaeological Investigation (LPC 1991); “The John Street Methodist Church: An Archaeological Excavation with Native American Cooperation,” Historical Archaeology 43(1); From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010)