Embury’s parents are members of the colony of Germans that emigrate from the Palatinate to Ireland early in the eighteenth century, and in which Methodism co-founder John Wesley labors with great success. The colony forms from refugees from the War of the Spanish Succession. Embury is educated at a school near Ballingrane and learns the carpentry trade. He is converted on Christmas day 1752, becomes a local preacher at Court-Matrix in 1758 and marries Margaret Switzer that fall.
In 1760, due to rising rents and scarce land, he goes to New York City and works as a school teacher. In common with his fellow emigrants, he begins to lose interest in religious matters and does not preach in New York until 1766 when, moved by the reproaches of his cousin Barbara Heck, sometimes called the “mother of American Methodism,” he begins to hold services first in his own house on Barrack Street, now Park Place, and then in a rigging loft on what is now William Street. The congregation thus forms what is probably the first Methodist congregation in the United States, though it is a disputed question whether precedence should not be given to Robert Strawbridge, who begins laboring in Maryland about this time. Before this, he and Barbara Heck worship along with other Irish Palatines at Trinity Church in Manhattan, where three of his children are baptized.
The first Methodist church is built under Embury’s charge in 1768, in association with Thomas Webb and others, on the site of the present John Street United Methodist Church. He himself works on the building as a carpenter and afterward preaches there gratuitously. In 1769, preachers sent out by John Wesley arrive in New York City, and Embury goes to work in the vicinity of Albany at Camden Valley, New York, where he continues to work at his trade during the week and preaches every Sunday. He and several others receive a grant of 8,000 acres to develop for the manufacture of linen. He organizes among Irish emigrants at Ashgrove, near Camden Valley, the first Methodist society within the bounds of what becomes the flourishing and influential Troy Conference.
Philip Embury dies suddenly in Camden, New York in August 1775, in consequence of an accident in mowing. He is buried on a neighboring farm but in 1832 his remains are removed to Ashgrove churchyard and in 1866 to Woodland cemetery, Cambridge, New York, where a monument to him is unveiled in 1873, with an address by Bishop Matthew Simpson.
(Pictured: Portrait of Philip Embury by John Barnes, Salem, 1773)