St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania early on established a precedent for women in leadership. Appointed by John Wesley’s leading itinerants like Joseph Pilmoor, Richard Boardman, and Francis Asbury, these women of faith helped to grow the spiritual lives of many of the faithful of St. George Methodist Church. Of these innovative women, Mary Thorn was the first female Class Leader in American Methodist history. She would inspire many other women to follow her lead.
Mary Thorn Early Years
Of Welsh descent, Mary Evans Thorn was the child of Thomas and Diana Evans. She was born in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania somewhere around the year, 1740. Eventually, the family settled in New Bern, North Carolina. At a very young age, her father, Thomas Evans, passed away. Her mother remarried in 1767 to Mr. James Mills. In North Carolina, the family, Mary included, had joined the Baptists. Four years before her mother remarried in 1767, somewhere around 1763, at the age of twenty-three, Mary became convinced of her need for the Savior: “In my twenty-third year I was convinced of sin, and joined the Baptist Church.” One year before her conversion experience in New Bern, Mary Evans met and eventually married a young man by the name of James Thorn. Sadly, like her father Thomas, James Thorn died July 24, 1762, at the age of twenty-eight. This loss several years later prompted Mary Thorn and her parents, James and Diana Thorn to move to Philadelphia.
Mary Thorn and Richard Boardman
Around the age of thirty, in the year, 1770, Richard Boardman, Joseph Pilmoor, and Captain Thomas Webb spoke in Philadelphia. Mary witnessed the powerful preaching of these Methodist men. According to Mary Thorn, “these men made a very great stir in town.”
Inspired to question the current condition of her already existing faith, Mary Thorn set apart a day for fasting and prayer. “To be guided aright,” she ventured to hear the three men again. At St. George’s Methodist Church. According to a letter of Mary Thorn, “Mr. Boardman preached, and the Lord convinced me they were no false prophets. Upon my knees, I cried out in my soul to God, ‘this people shall be my people, and their God my God.’ “
Mary Thorn a Thorn In the Flesh to Suffer
Mary Thorn’s decision to leave the Baptist Church she and her family were part of did not occur without opposition. According to Mary: “I lived with my dear parents; my dear mother I loved as my life, and strove to get them all to preaching. The Lord blessed his word. One brother and one sister were convinced of sin, and cried out for mercy. This alarmed my mother. She cried out, in the bitterness of her soul: ‘These birds of passage have bereaved me of my children; they will all soon be in bedlam.’ My mother used her authority, and positively forbid us having any connection with them. (Methodists). This was a sore trial to us, but we schemed it so as to deceive her for a little while; but she soon found us out, which made the matter worse than before. She said: ‘Is this their religion, to teach their children to be disobedient to their parents? I now say you shall either forsake them or me, for I will leave the country.’ “
Once again, Mary Thorn went to the Lord. In prayer the prompting of the Holy Ghost was clear, “he that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Applying this Biblical truth to her heart, Mary was resolved to return to the Methodist Church. As per Mary: “I gave my final answer to my dear mother, and they took their passage from Philadelphia to Newbern, North Carolina, and left me alone, and I have never seen one of them since.”
Mary Thorn Class Leader
Despite the awful sacrifice Mary Thorn had to make- losing the fellowship of her parents, Mary according to her own words: “gave myself wholly up to the cause of God.” This bold commitment to God did not go unnoticed. It wasn’t long before Joseph Pilmoor approached Mary Thorn with the offer to become a leader of a Methodist Class.
The Methodist Class meeting was clearly the genius behind the healthy growth and expansion of Methodism throughout the world. The Class meeting was a large gathering of a local group of Methodist faithful, usually limited to twenty-five people of the same gender. Unlike the smaller and more focused, Band meetings which usually limited to five or six people of the same gender, in this larger setting, the men and the women would focus on Bible teaching. Like the smaller and more private Band meetings, they would also consider with serious thought the condition of their faith walk, but naturally less intrusive and in a more public setting. There would also be instruction and teaching by the Class Leader from the life of Jesus and other giants in the faith.
In colonial America, the Class meeting was vital on account of the time between visits by the circuit-riding preachers. A Methodist Society was fortunate if they were blessed with a visit by a circuit-riding preacher once each week. On most occasions, it would be two or three weeks, sometimes longer before an itinerant preacher would return to preach. The gap between visits was made up by local lay leaders, the Class and Band leaders, who would lead a local society of Methodist believers. These leaders’ roles took on the appearance of one who taught the principles of the Bible, checked on the faith-walk of a believer, confronted a believer if their walk did not match the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. This position of leadership was of extreme importance.
The Methodist Society at St. George grew so fast that in less than two years, Mary Thorn was leading three groups of women committed to growing in their Christian faith.
Mary Thorn and the Baptist Believers
Mary Thorn’s work with the Methodist of Philadelphia did not only influence the Methodist faithful at St. George. In time, many of her Baptist friends she continued to associate with wanted to experience growth in their personal Christian faith. In time, several Baptist friends of Mary made their way into the Methodist Class Meetings she was leading:
“The work now began to break out very rapidly, and I being a member of the Baptist Church, many of them joined and met in class with me. This aroused the elders and deacons of the Baptist Church. A committee was appointed to wait on me, visiting me monthly for three months, to renounce the Methodists. The Association met, and I was summoned to appear with the rest. When we appeared we were all sent out into the meeting-yard, and called in one at a time and examined till they were done. Then we all stood in a row before the communion table in the presence of the ministers, elders, and deacons. A short exhortation was given by Dr. Rogers. Then the word was given, whoever stood firm to the Methodists were to stand- the others were to sit down. Ten of us stood firm. The books were opened and our names erased. My heart being full I spake aloud, and said, ‘Blessed be God! Ye cannot erase my name out of the Lamb’s book of life! We know whom we worship.'”
The above meeting ended with the Baptist leaders giving communion to those who did not stand and remain loyal to the Baptist gathering. The others, Mary Thorn included, were shunned from taking communion: “The sacrament was administered but we were turned to the left hand and not suffered to partake. I returned home with my soul full of joy and sorrow, and met Mr. Asbury waiting for me, who said: ‘Now sister, I will give you the right hand of fellowship.’ “
Despite the Baptist leaders not administering communion to Mary Thorn and her friends who wanted to grow in their faith by attending her Class meetings, Mary experienced a true communion with God: “… I can truly say I never felt the Lord so present and precious at a sacrament as at that time. Of a truth he broke to my soul the bread of life, and I could then and I can still say, ‘Whom man forsakes thou wilt not leave, ready the outcasts to receive.'”
Other persecutions would plague Mary Thorn for her commitment to the Methodist society in Philadelphia. At one Methodist Class meeting Mary was leading, a man came into the meeting of women, grabbed Mary, and tossed her through a glass door. On another occasion, she was pelted with rocks as she walked the streets of Philadelphia. There was even a stoning of an effigy of Mary Thorn hung in the center of town. One man even attempted to wait outside a Class meeting in an attempt to kill her. This attempt failed, “till the Lord smote him with a better weapon…”
Mary Thorn and the American Revolutionary War
The month of February in the year 1777 was a very difficult time for the residents of Philadelphia. The British Army was in the process of occupying the founding city. Mary Thorn describes the times as follows: “The war being declared and the plague breaking out, (Smallpox), besieged by sea and land, our streets were like a butcher’s slaughterhouse.” Francis Asbury in his journal entry for February 6, 1777, reads as follows: “… saw an affecting letter from Mrs. Mary Thorne (Sometimes spelled this way) of Philadelphia, in which, after she had given some account of the abounding wickedness of that city, she informed us of the declension of a few religious persons, of the fidelity of others, of the camp fever that was then prevailing there, and that many died thereof- sometimes twenty, thirty, and even forty in a day. An awful account indeed!” With her life at risk, Mary Thorn ignored the horrid conditions and ministered to the sick in the hospitals, “night and day.”
At one point during the atrocities in the city of Philadelphia, the St. George Church in Philadelphia was taken from the members and turned into a riding school for the British Cavalry. St. George was not unique in this shocking experience. All but a few churches and other public buildings in Philadelphia were confiscated by the invading British Army. Just as in New York City, the buildings taken unlawfully were put to use by the British Army as hospitals, stables, and riding academies for officers. At this point, the church services were moved to the home of Mary Thorn on the corner of Bread and Mulberry Streets, (Mulberry Street was originally named, Arch Street). It was from the home of Mary Thorn that Richard Boardman, Joseph Pilmoor, Francis Asbury, and others would look for food, sleep, safety, preaching opportunities, and prayer with God.
Mary Thorn Marries Captain Samuel Parker
On February 12, 1778, Mary Thorn married a ship captain by the name of Samuel Parker. As an employee of the British Government charged with delivering back to England soldiers injured to the point of being crippled, Samuel Parker was the captain of a large transport ship. A friend of Methodist preacher, Thomas Rankin, the introduction to Mary Thorn happened naturally.
In time, fearing the bloodshed and a rampant pandemic which developed at the same time, Captain Samuel Parker convinced Thomas Rankin and several other English-born Methodist preachers to join him on his return to England. Rankin and company accepted and despite an emotional struggle, so did Mary Thorn.
According to Mary, she came to regret this decision. Although she gained a loving, sincere, good and pious husband, she deeply sorrowed over leaving the flock she led at St. George. In her words: “… I left my charge in the time of their greatest trouble. Had I done as my dear friend Mr. Asbury did- to stand my ground, come life or death- it would not have been with me as it is now- destitute and afflicted, without a friend to have compassion upon me in extreme poverty and old age.”
Mary Thorn Parker’s return with her husband to England did not fare well. Captain Parker lost several ships. He eventually became bankrupt: “We lost ship after ship till we lost our all and were reduced to poverty.”
Mary Thorn Receives Letter from Francis Asbury
In December of 1796, when Mary Thorn was fifty-six years old and living in poverty in England, Francis Asbury was in New Bern, North Carolina, having reached there with Dr. Thomas Coke, the long-time missionary of John Wesley. Remembering the Thorn family and remembering how Mary Thorn took care of him when he was deathly sick in Philadelphia in December of 1774 Francis was prompted to write Mary back in England.
Francis opens with: “My dear Sister:” The next four paragraphs are classic Francis Asbury:
“It is possible that you have so far forgotten your own country and your Father’s House. Long have I wished, oft have I asked about Sister Thorne but no account, so have you changed your name and former friends and country? Surely you sometimes think how often we have sat and talked together at your own house and the houses of others, about the precious things of God. In our conversation last evening, the Doctor (Coke) gave me the most perfect information of your state. Your friends have thought strange indeed you never wrote. I do most earnestly desire you will send me a letter every year as long as you and myself live. You know I have faithfully and frequently lent you my feeble hand in tenderness and love to pluck you out of the low dungeon when your soul has been covered with an awful gloom.
You are become a joyful mother of children. Oh, let not these dear little creatures draw your heart from God. Remember pious Watts ‘The fondness of a creature’s love, how strong it strikes the sense’ and so on.
Oh my dear sister what poison lies rapt up in every sweet connection of life; once you thought so, but now you painfully feel it. I desire you would write me all your heart that when I know your case, though at this distance, I may give you some advice and resume my pastoral charge. The prospect of religion, the glory of Zion, and the increase of her sons and daughters, the opening we have in your native soil, the building a church in Charleston and the joining some thousands, in that state, Doctor Coke, who is the missionary of the churches, will inform you. I have been rather sharp in my present letter but unless you write me with great freedom and acknowledger your fault in neglecting me and your American friends, maybe I shall be more severe.
I shall be pleased to represent you to your old friends, as being as ever and more than ever given up to God. I charge you before God be much in prayer. Spend when able, not less than an hour, in the morning and the same in the evening, in solemn private meditation and prayer with God every day and step aside at noon to speak with God if you can. Seek perfect love, seek it now. Brother and Sister Baker and (Sister Mary) Wilmer yet live. (Old friends of Mary Thorn. Earliest members of St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia). Sister Patterson went from hence a few weeks past into the unseen world; There I expect to see you. It appears Providence has given me your country and strangely united my heart to the country and people. So it is with you in respect to my country. I am with affectionate regards as ever yours.”
Interestingly, the Mary Wilmer mentioned above became the successor to Mary Thorn as Class leader for the groups of women which Mary Thorn had left behind.