The Methodist Revival
The Methodist Revival and John Wesley
The Methodist Revival, otherwise known as the "British Great Awakening" or the "Evangelical Revival" was probably the greatest revival to affect Britain in terms of the impact that it made on the nation with an estimate of some 25% of the population affected by it and Merseyside and Chester were no exceptions to this. To give a background to this revival and the astonishing effect that it had on the nation I have quoted, as follows, (with permission) from Mathew Backholer's book "Revival Fires and Awakenings."
‘Many historians believe that it was because of this move of God that Britain did not have a revolution, a bloodbath, as had happened during the French Revolution of 1789.
Prior to the time of the Great Awakening in Great Britain, the nation was in a desperate state, and the Church was just as bad. As Edward Miller in his book, John Wesley The Hero of the Second Reformation (1906) wrote: ‘When the Church fails in her mission, the whole of society becomes corrupt.’
Across Britain, before the Great Awakening, there was a rise in deism, a decline of Christian observances, a massive rise in gin consumption and other alcoholic beverages, which led to poverty and abuses within families. Every sixth house in London was a grogshop (where spirits were sold, gin, rum, etc.) and you could get drunk for a penny and dead drunk for two pence and even straw would be provided in the cellar to aid recovery from your carouse. In 1714, two million gallons of spirits was distilled; by 1742, it was seven million gallons and by 1750, it was more than eleven million. Vast sways of the Church were corrupt and the historian Montesquieu, stated that only four or five members of Parliament were regular attendants at church. The population had doubled (just under five million) since the settlement of the Church under Queen Elizabeth I, towns and cities had expanded greatly, but no endeavour had been made for any adequate religious instruction for these great masses.
This was the land and age of highway-men in the countryside, burglars in the cities, profanity, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, prize-fighting, cock-fighting – the amusements of all classes were calculated to create a cruel disposition. It was the age of mobs and riots and the state of the criminal law was cruel in the extremes.
In 1736, Archbishop Secker, the Bishop of Oxford said that "an open and professed disregard to religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present age; that this evil is grown to a great height of the nation and is daily spreading through every part of it."
There was a great and growing neglect of Sunday observance among the ruling elite. Cabinet dinners and even concerts and card-parties were common. Drunkenness was almost universal, and the drunkards walked unashamed.
The Methodist movement was born in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wesley in his Journal for the 1 January 1739 wrote: ‘Mr Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hutchins, and my brother Charles, were present at our love-feast in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His Majesty, we broke out with one voice, "We praise thee, O God we acknowledge thee to be the Lord." Of this love feast George Whitefield said, "It was a Pentecostal season indeed, sometimes whole nights were spent in prayer. Often we have been filled as with new wine, and often I have seen them overwhelmed with the Divine Presence, and cry out, 'Will God, indeed, dwell with men on earth? How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven!' "
The British Great Awakening began on the 17 February 1739 when George Whitefield preached to the colliers at Kingswood near Bristol in the open-air as there was no church or school in this area. One author wrote: "Here lived a godless, ferocious race, men living beyond the pale of religion or even the law… they were a people apart, a byword for vice and crime." Two hundred people attended. Whitefield wrote: "I thought I might be doing the service of my Master." The second time he preached there were two thousand! Thousands of people heard him, and were deeply moved by his preaching. Soon ten or twenty thousand flocked to hear him. A gentleman lent him a large bowling green in the centre of Bristol and for six weeks he preached to vast congregations. Whitefield encouraged John Wesley to take charge of the work in Bristol and Kingswood whilst he visited other places. Wesley was preaching in London and finally relented and came to Bristol, even though he was preaching to hundreds in crowded churches and in the fields after the service at St. Katherine’s, Islington and other places.
In London, John Wesley preached at Blackheath in mid-June 1739 (George Whitefield was present) where twelve to fourteen thousand people had assembled. At 7am on a Sunday John Wesley preached in Upper Moorefield to six or seven thousand people (Charles Wesley says, "Above ten thousand as were supposed") and at 5pm to fifteen thousand at Kennington Common. The next Sunday Charles began field preaching, having been driven from his curacy at Islington by the action of his churchwardens.
George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic thirteen times, was a major player in the American Great Awakening and preached a total of 18,000 sermons in his lifetime. He travelled extensively around the British Isles and was involved in the Cambuslang Revival (1742) in Scotland where 30,000 people turned up for a communion weekend in Rev William McCulloch's parish of nine hundred! Wherever he went, thousands gathered to hear the word of the Lord. He lived constantly with a clear realisation of the reality of the eternity of heaven and hell, and that the eternity of souls was in the balance. George Whitefield once said, "It is not for me to tell how often I use secret prayer, if I did not use it, nay, if in one sense, I did not pray without ceasing, it would be difficult for me to keep that frame of soul, which by Divine blessing, I daily enjoy."
John Wesley began preaching Methodism at Bristol in April 1739 and the first Methodists conference was held in 1744. Wesley was banned from many Church of England pulpits (after he had preached at least once in the parish) for his fiery sermons, preaching "justification by faith" and rode around the country preaching; revivals broke out everywhere. He rode annually between four and five thousand miles and would preach at 5am to crowds in excess of twenty thousand! He established in England more than one hundred preaching circuits and enlisted three hundred ministers, and thousands of local lay preachers were making Jesus known.
By 1791 there were seventy-nine thousand Methodists in England; in America, fifty thousand. In the various English preaching circuits there were three hundred preachers.’
The transformation of a Nation
‘During and after the British Great Awakening, much has been recorded of how a collection of nations, England, Wales and Scotland were transformed to the glory of God; Ireland did not join Britain until 1801. John Wesley preached in Scotland, but the Scots were not quite as affected as the rest of the Brits.
Isaac Taylor said, "No such harvest of souls is recorded to have been gathered by anybody of contemporary man since the first century;" and on the grounds of "expensive and adventurous Christian philanthropy," he held that the founders of Methodism had no rivals.
C. Grant Robertson, in his book, England under the Hanoverians (1911) wrote: ‘Methodism and the French Revolution are the two most tremendous phenomena of the century (eighteenth century). Wesley swept the dead air with an irresistible cleansing ozone. To thousands of men and women his preaching and gospel revealed a new heaven and a new earth; it brought religion into soulless lives and reconstituted it as a comforter, an inspiration and a judge. No one was too poor, too humble, too degraded, to be born again and share in and to attain the blessed fruition of God’s peace. Aloof alike from politics and the speculations of the schools, Wesley wrestled with the evil of his day and proclaimed the infinite power of a Christian faith based on personal conviction, eternally renewed from within, to battle sin, misery and vice in all its forms. The social service that he accomplished was not the least of his triumphs.
It is certain that into the moral fibre of the English people, even in the classes most anxious to repudiate the debt, were woven new strands by the abiding influence of Methodism…"
The first Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle, from the nineteenth century said, "These times were the darkest age that England has passed through in the past three hundred years. Anything more deplorable than the condition of the country, as to religion, morality and high principles, it is very difficult to conceive."
British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George on the 20 June 1922 said, "I come from a country (Wales) that owes more to the Methodism Movement, of which Wesley was the inspirer and prophet and leader, than to any other movement in the whole of its history. He was undoubtedly the greatest religious leader the Anglo-Saxon race ever produced, and the movement on which he was the leader, probably the greatest religious movement in the past 250 years at least. Its influence was probably greater than even its direct influence."’
The extraordinary life of John Wesley
The ministry travels of John Wesley would, even by modern standards, be very impressive, covering some two hundred and ninety thousand miles, a distance equal to circumnavigating the globe about twelve times, during a period of fifty-four years. In his day, however, it was truly remarkable, since most of his travel was done on horseback. If we could imagine travelling around the globe twelve times on horseback, and this until shortly before his death, at the age of 88 years in 1791, then we have to admit that this is a remarkable story. Also, during this period he preached no less than fifteen sermons a week, making a total during those fifty-four years of over 42,000 sermons and this is besides numberless exhortations and addresses on a great variety of occasions!
So how did he manage to accomplish such an incredible output? An explanation is given in the Liverpool Mercury April 1883, as follows:
‘It is delightful to see Wesley when entering his 86th year, setting down the principal reasons why it came about - that under the Divine Providence, he was able to accomplish the work to which he had set his hand. He gives the first place to his practice of constant exercise and frequent change of air. He next adverts to the fact that he had never lost a night’s sleep - sick or well, on land or at sea - since the day he was born. He could always sleep when he wanted; "I call it and it comes, day or night," says he. Then there was the following strange rule; - For more than 60 years he rose at four in the morning! What is still more strange is that he could find people to countenance his next consideration in the way of accounting for a ripe, cheerful old age for more than 60 years he had preached at five in the morning. "In vain is a harp played to an ass," writes St Jerome - the words "fifty years" connected with morning worship mean something widely different from empty talk or a formality in daily routine, when thus used by John Wesley; they mean believableness. Neither he nor his hearers were troubled by such questions as "is Christianity played out? Then, again, there is a sixth point Mr Wesley notes as a co-efficient in the product - this contented, wise, healthy old age which he enjoyed. "Even now, though I find pain daily in my eye or temple or arm" write he, "yet it is never violent, and seldom lasts many moments at a time." Believeableness summed everything.’
His lifetime literary achievements were also very impressive as shown in Appendix 7.
Wesley's visits to Merseyside and Chester
Wesley's first visit to the area was in 1752 when he visited Chester for the first time and this was to be the first of thirty visits over a period of some 38 years. Wesley's first visit to Liverpool was three years later in 1755 and as with Chester he was to visit thirty times over a period of 35 years. The cumulative effect of his visits to our area, as indeed the rest of the country, was considerable. Wesley was also a regular visitor to Parkgate, on his way to Dublin and a plaque to commemorate this can be seen on the front at Parkgate.
When Wesley first came to Chester in 1752 he came with his wife, whom he had married the year before and who travelled extensively with him during the first four years of their marriage. His first visit there fills some space in his Journal, as we will see later.
The introduction of Methodism into the city of Chester actually took place several years before Wesley first visited the city. In the following letter written by a John Bennett he mentions his visit to Chester in 1746, having been invited there by George Shaw, a tailor, living in Boughton, on the outskirts of the city.
‘Last week (March 1746) I spent three days in and about Chester and the Word was gladly received. I am assured that the time has come that the Gospel must be preached in that City. The inhabitants received me gladly and said "we have heard of Wesley and read his books; why could you not have come hither sooner?" The manner I proceeded at Chester was as followeth: I heard a religious society was kept in the City, and so I made an enquiry and found them out, upon which I desired to preach and afterwards pressed upon to stay longer, or visit them again. It appears that John Bennett visited Chester again the following August, on the occasion of his journey through the district with William Grimshaw of Haworth.’
Following on from that it is recorded that a Methodist Society was formed at the home of Richard Jones in Love Lane in 1751. The open air preaching, so characteristic of early Methodism was carried out very enthusiastically at several locations in Chester, including the open place near St John's Church (now Grosvenor Park), the square near St Martin's of the Ash and the present site of Queen Street Christian Centre (then known as the Tilting Croft). Early in 1752 when the house of Richard Jones was proving too small for the increasing congregation, a barn in the notable locality of Chester known as St Martin's Ash (Nicholas Street) was offered to them for a reasonable rent. The barn was a large and lofty structure and was made to provide for nearly 200 persons by the erection of a gallery.
It was shortly after their establishment in St Martin's Ash that the Chester Methodists received their first visit from the founder of Methodism. The visit by Wesley was looked forward to with great eagerness by the Society as will be seen in the following record written by a George Walker, the first Steward of St. John Street, Chester.
‘In June 1752 that bright luminary of the Christian world (Oh! how shall the writer of these memoirs, express in words his veneration of the character and conduct of the man he so highly respected, and so dearly loved), that refulgent star of righteousness, in whose life and actions the doctrines and practice of the Gospel truths show with peculiar lustre, that living evidence of the solid power of inspiration, that zealous patron of the Apostolic creed, that unalienable disciple of the cross of CHRIST, that unwearied promoter of the interests of the kingdom of the Redeemer, that assiduous gatherer of the spiritual Israel of the LORD, that Father of Methodism, and patriarch of the immensely crowded family who have embraced the doctrines, Mr. Wesley paid his first Ministerial visit to the Chester Society. Here he was hailed as an angel of GOD, respected as the servant of the Most High, and beloved as the patriotic friend, and Father of the Church. From this period, his visits and superintendence of the Chester Society, became a regular part of his engagements, and it may be said on the part of his adherents, they sincerely loved him and ever held his approach among them as an high, a festive and a Jubilee day!!! Oh! what simplicity and Christian love! Well does the writer recollect, and with indescribable pleasure trace back the happy hours spent in his enlivening conversation, and his instructive discourses. Yea, and while memory holds her place, his name, his virtues, will never be forgot!!!!’
And so in June 1752 Wesley arrived for the first visit to Chester, which was to be the first of some 30 visits over a period of 38 years, and the following gives his interesting account of this first visit:
‘On Monday 22nd we walked round the walls of the city, which are something more than a mile and three quarters in circumference. But there are many vacant spaces within the walls, many gardens, and a good deal of pasture ground. The greatest convenience here is what they call The Rows; that it, covered galleries, which run through the main streets on each side, from East to West, and from North to South: by which means one may walk both clean and dry in any weather, from one end of the city to the other. I preached at six in the evening in the Square, to a vast multitude, rich and poor. The far greater part, the gentry in particular, were seriously and deeply attentive: though a few of the rabble, most of them drunk, laboured much to make a disturbance. One might already perceive a great increase of earnestness in the generality of the hearers. So is GOD able to cut short his work, to wound or heal, in whatever time it pleaseth Him.’
Burning down of barn at St Martins Ash
After this it was necessary for Wesley to go to Bristol for a few days to conduct some business, but he returned on the first day of July. On the 3rd July he discovered that a mob had visited the place where he had preached with the intention of pulling it down. They went to the Mayor requesting him to bring the rioters to justice, but he refused to do so or to take any action, so accordingly the mob returned the next evening to finish their work! On Sunday he preached near the ruins of the barn at seven in the morning and later in the morning went to St Martins Church which stood close to the place (it was his custom to go the local church at normal church times) when the speaker spoke on Luke 9:55 "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them, etc.," the speaker intimating that he was sorry that any such outrage should be committed in that parish where he had been teaching for many years and to little purpose. He prayed that the perpetrators would realise what spirit they were of and that they would repent in time. Wesley preached twice more that day at the ruins of the barn.
Restoration of the barn
The room in Love Lane being spared them as a rallying centre, the re-erection of the barn was undertaken with such vigour that they were able to occupy it again by the Christmas of that year. In March 1753 Wesley paid another visit to Chester and he found the scene quite different to his previous visit. He remarked that "there is now no talk of pulling down homes and the present Mayor, being a man of courage as well as honesty, will suffer no riot of any kind, so that there is peace through all the city." The following day, he preached at five in the morning and again at night a large mob gathered about the door, but in a short time dispersed. The Mayor, however, was informed, who in turn ordered the Town Crier to go down the following evening and proclaim that all riots would be severely punished and promised that if need be to come down himself and read the Act of Parliament.
The Octagon Chapel
Twelve years after Wesley's first visit to Chester in 1764 saw the erection of the first Methodist Chapel, strictly so called, in Chester. The chapel, which was built in the form of an Octagon, was located in the Boughton side of the city. The barn-sanctuary had rendered good service for those 12 years, and still sufficed to hold the ordinary congregation, but this did not provide the hope that a larger and more commodious building would attract more hearers. Wesley did visit Chester whilst the building was being constructed but in the following year, 1765, he came to rejoice at the completion of the new building.
The Methodists of Chester were familiar with the octagonal form of architecture, for a large water tower of that shape stood on the old Bridge Gate. Wesley must have seen it when he took his walk round the Walls. It was taken down in 1781. The diameter of the Chester Octagon Chapel was forty-six feet within; a gallery was erected, and the entire building was estimated to seat 600 with comfort, and perhaps another 200 with pressure. A curious story is told to the effect that the leading men of the society wanted to have a bell in a little cupola, which was erected on the top of the octagonal roof of the new Chapel. Now the use of a bell was not lawful except by Episcopal sanction; that was sought, and promised, on condition that the Bishop should preach the first sermon in the building. The Methodists, however, shrewdly suspected that this would mean "consecration," and decided to forego their bell. The pulpit was extended in the form of a long elevated pew to the breadth of one of the walls of the Chapel. It is said that in the earliest days the leaders sat in this pew, the preacher standing behind the desk in the centre of it.
Multitudes turn up at the new building
In his journal of Friday 16th August 1765 Wesley wrote, "I rode over to Chester, and preached to as many as the new house would contain. We had likewise a numerous congregation on Saturday morning as well as evening. How the grace of God concurs with His providence! A new house not only brings a new congregation but likewise (what we have observed over and over again) a new blessing from God. And no wonder, if every labour of love finds even a present reward." On the Sunday he wrote, "the house contained the morning congregation, but in the evening, multitudes were constrained to go away. So does truth win its way against all opposition, if it be steadily declared with meekness of wisdom."
Wesley's visits to Chester continued, usually on an annual basis in the Spring and appear to have seen an increasing blessing as time went on. In his journal of 5th April 1781 he wrote, "the house was filled with deeply attentive hearers. I perceived God had exceedingly blessed the labour of the preachers. The congregations were much larger than they used to be. The Society was increased and they were more agreed among themselves, but in peace with all around them."
Discontinuance of the early morning meetings
Thirty two years after his first visit to Chester in April 1784, when Wesley discovered that the early morning meetings (5am) had been temporarily discontinued in the winter, because of the unwillingness of the people to come so early in the winter mornings, he greeted this news with some dismay. This is how he responded:
"If so, the Methodists are a fallen people. Here is the proof. They have lost their first love, and they never will or can recover it till they do the first works. As soon as I set foot in Georgia, I began preaching at five in the morning. And every communicant, that is, every serious person in the town, constantly attended throughout the year; I mean, came every morning, winter and summer, unless in case of sickness. They did so till I left the province. In the year 1738, when God began his great work in England, I began preaching at the same hour, winter and summer, and never wanted a congregation. If they will not attend now, they have lost their zeal, and then it cannot be denied, 'they are a fallen people.' And in the meantime we are labouring to secure the preaching-houses to the next generation. In the name of God, let us, if possible, secure the present generation from drawing back to perdition! Let all the preachers that are still alive to God, join together as one man, fast and pray, lift up their voice as a trumpet, be instant, in season, out of season, to convince them that they are fallen, and exhort them, instantly to repent, and do the first works. This in particular, rising in the morning, without which neither their souls nor bodies can long remain in health."
It has to be said in fairness, though, that the attempt to maintain the five o’clock meetings was also breaking down in other parts of the country, so Chester wasn’t unique in this respect.
Wesley was pleased to observe, however, that the Society in Liverpool had not done so, when he remarked, "here I found a people much alive to God. One cause of which was, they have preaching several mornings in a week, and prayer meetings on the rest, all of which they are careful to attend."
I do think that we need to be challenged by the level of commitment of God's people in those days, particularly at Liverpool, who met every day of the week at 5am, either for preaching or prayer. I wonder how many of us, even in the summer would be prepared to leave the comfort of our bed to even come to one meeting a week at such an hour! We also find a similar commitment amongst the early Salvationists who met a little later in the morning, but still at 6am!
Wesley's last visit to Chester
Wesley's last visit to Chester was in 1790, some 38 years after his first visit in 1752 and during that time had witnessed a remarkable extension of the work of God in the district. This final visit was greeted by a large number of people. This day was one of activity almost incredible when his age is taken into account. He preached on Easter Monday evening and the following evening to crowds greater than he had ever witnessed before, declaring the power of Christ's resurrection and exhorting all that were risen with Him to set their affection on things above. At the news of Wesley's death the following year, thousands of people went into mourning for him. His societies uniformly were mourning for several months afterwards and the pulpits of many of the chapels, not only Methodists were hung with black cloth.
As can be seen on the plaque on the front at Parkgate, Wesley was a frequent visitor to Parkgate, in the days when ships used to sail from there to Dublin, which Wesley visited on many occasions. Wesley sometimes refers to his stay in Parkgate, as shown in the following entries in his journal:
"Friday 1st April1762: I rode to Parkgate and found several ships, but the wind was contrary. I preached at five in the small house they have just built, and the hearers were remarkably serious. I gave notice of preaching at five in the morning, but at 4.30am one brought us word that the wind was come fair, and that Captain Jordan would sail in less than an hour."
"Wednesday 20th March 1771: Having agreed with a captain who promised to sail immediately, we went down to Parkgate, but the wind turning I preached in the evening to most of the gentry in the town. I preached likewise, morning and evening. I preached likewise, morning and evening on Thursday."
Just to give an idea of how treacherous the trips to Ireland could be sometimes here is an extract from one of his journals, which has some similarity to Paul's voyage as detailed in Acts 27.
"Monday, April 9. Desiring to be in Ireland as soon as possible, I hastened to Liverpool and found a ship ready to sail; but the wind was contrary, till on Thursday morning the captain came in haste and told us the wind was come quite fair. So Mr. Floyd, Snowden, Joseph Bradford, and I, with two of our sisters, went on board. But scarcely were we out at sea when the wind turned quite foul and rose higher and higher. In an hour I was so affected as I had not been for forty years before. For two days I could not swallow the quantity of a pea or anything solid and very little of any liquid. I was bruised and sore from head to foot and ill able to turn me on the bed.
All Friday, the storm increasing, the sea of consequence was rougher and rougher. Early on Saturday morning, the hatches were closed which, together with the violent motion, made our horses so turbulent, that I was afraid we would have to kill them lest they should damage the ship. Mrs. S. now crept to me, threw her arms over me, and said, "O sir, we will die together!" We had by this time three feet of water in the hold, though it was an exceedingly light vessel. Meantime we were furiously driving on a lee shore, and when the captain cried, "Helm-a-lec," she would not obey the helm. I called our brethren to prayers, and we found free access to the throne of grace. Soon after we got, I know not how, into Holyhead harbour, after being sufficiently buffeted by the winds and waves for two days and two nights. The more I considered, the more I was convinced it was not the will of God I should go to Ireland at this time. So we went into the stagecoach without delay, and the next evening came to Chester."
Wesley doesn't appear to have visited anywhere else in the Wirral, apart from perhaps Tranmere (see Appendix 5) but it has to be borne in mind that Wirral was at that time only a collection of small villages, with the population of Birkenhead in 1801 being stated as only being 110 people! There is a record of a missionary by the name of Miles Martindale being sent over to Storeton in 1786 and the following gives a sense of how things were in those days:
" In the year 1786 I preached at a place called Storeton, and repeated my visits until a Society was formed. Wirral contains upwards of 60 villages, with one small market town. There are neither Dissenters, Baptists, nor Quakers; and I think few Catholics, through the whole county. The inhabitants pass for church folk, and they know some trifle more of the Bible than of the Alcoran (Qur'an); but I must confess they are the most ignorant people I ever laboured among. They chiefly consist of farmers and labourers; with as many mechanics, as these two descriptions of people stand in need of. Avarice and drunkenness are the two demons that undisturbed maintain their sway over this people. I found a great desire to spread the Gospel among them, but this seemed impracticable while I remained in Liverpool. And as I had no money I did not see any probability of maintaining myself and family there. However at length I ventured over, being firmly persuaded my call was from God, and consequently he would provide."
There were, nevertheless, at the time of Wesley’s death a few small groups of Methodists in the Wirral, including Bebington, Neston, Heswall, Tranmere, Caldy, Woodside, Greasby, Storeton, Meols, and Leighton (see Appendix 4).
Wesley's first visit to Liverpool was in April 1755, and was, like Chester a favourable one as will be seen from his journal on 15th April. Like Chester he would visit there on some 30 occasions:
"At six in the morning I preached to a large and serious congregation (in Warrington) and then went on to Liverpool, one of the neatest, best built towns I have seen in England. I think it is fully twice as large as Chester; most of the streets are quite straight. Two thirds of the town we were informed have been added within these forty years. If it continues to increase in the same proportion, in forty years more it will nearly equal to Bristol. The people in general are the most mild and courteous I ever saw in a seaport town; as indeed appears by their friendly behaviour, not only to the Jews and Papists who live among them, but even to Methodists (so called). The preaching-house is a little larger than that at Newcastle. It was thoroughly filled at seven in the evening and the hearts of the whole congregation seemed to be moved before the Lord and before the presence of His power."
The meetinghouse that he referred to would have been Pitt Street Chapel, which was built in 1750 and enlarged in 1765 (see Appendix 1). Actually there had already been a Methodist Society in Liverpool for some years, its first home being in a preaching room in Cable Street which had served them since the 1740’s and in the year 1750 they had selected a spot in Pitt Street and erected a chapel there.
Wesley preached here for a week on his fourth visit in 1758. On his second visit in 1757, however, he arrived on Thursday 21st April to find that half of the members had been "swept away" by somebody he called James S………, (an expelled itinerant preacher by the name of James Scholefield) by what he referred to as "lies innumerable." But, he said, "none who make lies their refuge, will prosper; a little while and his building will moulder away." During this extended stay of 10/11 days he went, on Sunday, as was his custom to the local Church of England, i.e. St Thomas's Church, which used to be in Park Lane in the city centre, both morning and evening. The sermons, he said, were on "counting the cost before we begin to build" and "be angry, and sin not?" both of which, he said, were exactly suitable to the present case of many in the congregation.
On his third visit in March 1758 the disappointment suffered during his second visit was somewhat reversed. On this occasion, he said that he never saw the house so crowded as it was on Easter Day, especially with the rich and genteel people, but which, he said "I did not at all spare. They are now warned to flee from the wrath to come. God grant that they may remember the warning!"
On this fourth visit in May 1759 the situation was somewhat different again. The congregation, he said, "was exceedingly large; but many of them seemed to be like wild asses colts; yet God is able to make them wise unto salvation. Once again he was most blessed by his visit to St Thomas Church in Park Lane. It was, he said, as if both the sermons had been made for me. I pity, he said, those who can find no good at church. He was very blessed also on subsequent visits to this church.
In August 1762 Wesley visited again and remarked that there was here "such a work of God as had never been known before. We had a surprising congregation in the evening and as it seemed, all athirst for God." The work he observed had begun during the previous visit in the March and had continually increased. Speaking to an 11 year old girl he asked her what she wanted now. She replied with amazing energy with tears running down her cheeks, "nothing in this world, nothing but more of my Jesus." How often Wesley observed, "out of the mouth of babes and sucklings dost thou perfect praise!"
In March 1765 he remarked that at one evening meeting that even with the addition of three new galleries the house would not near contain the congregation and that he had never before observed the Word to take such effect upon them.
About this time he spent some time in examining the new trust deed of the chapel; found it had been written largely, and with much waste of words, upon sheets of parchment, for which six guineas had been paid, when it might have been otherwise well made out for six shillings. "It is verbose beyond all sense and reason," he writes, "and withal is so ambiguously worded that one passage only may find matter for a suit of ten or twelve years in Chancery." Here was the man of business showing how Methodists should work with one another and adopt the "new deed transcribed by a friend," and free from such blemishes as he proceeded to point out.
In his journal of April 1777 he noticed that many large ships were laid up in the docks, which had been employed for many years, to use his words, "in buying or stealing poor Africans and selling them in America for slaves. The men-butchers have now nothing to do at this laudable occupation; since the American war broke out, there is no demand for human cattle; so the men of Africa, as well as Europe, may enjoy their native liberty."
By 1784 the work at Liverpool gave Wesley much cause for rejoicing. The people, he said, "were much alive to God with early morning meetings every day of the week, either with the ministry of the Word or a time of prayer, which the people were careful to attend."
Four years later in 1788 he wrote in his journal, "the house was extremely crowded and I found great liberty of spirit; but still more the next evening, while I was opening and applying the Parable of the Sower. How much seed has been sown in this town? And blessed be God, all is not lost. Some have brought forth thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred fold."
By the time of Wesley's final visit to Liverpool in April 1790 it is clear that the work there was well established and thriving. So he writes in his Journal, "the chapel was filled with serious hearers (in Warrington) but the great congregation was at Liverpool. If those without were added to those within, I believe it would have exceeded even that of Manchester; and surely the power of God was present with them also." Although Wesley doesn't often quote numbers he did state that he thought that the number there on Easter Day in 1790 was about 1,600 communicants. He had preached there, he said, both morning and evening, without weariness and that was an 87-year-old man! At the last service he took in Liverpool on Thursday 8th April 1790 he states, "such another congregation we had among whom were many that had never been there before. They seemed utterly amazed when I explained "now faith is the evidence of things unseen." I believe many were then convinced; but alas! how soon will that conviction die away!"
Wesley's work in Liverpool and Chester was completed. Though Wesley had always declared that the movement should remain within the Anglican Church, the Church of England unfortunately was keen to distance itself from him and his followers. In 1784 he set up a structure, the yearly conference of the people called Methodists, to ensure the continuation of the Methodist movement after his death. However, the strength and impact of Methodism made a separate Methodist Church inevitable, which happened shortly after his death. It is now the fourth largest church in Britain with some 6,000 churches and an estimated 70 million members world-wide.
Appendix 1 - Pitt Street Chapel, Liverpool
Some additional information about the chapel was provided in an article in the Liverpool Mercury dated April 1893 as follows:
‘The locality was not far south of the Old Dock, but it was quite suburban enough, and if it could not rejoice in as many ill odours as Cologne, still it seemed to have been anything but lovely. Pitt, Earl of Chatham - a man who has left his name in English history - had been drawn upon for a designation when the street was made in 1740, and now came Wesley to help to make the chapel too small for the congregation. It had to be enlarged ten years after this first visit and in the year 1803 was rebuilt and again extended.
Wesley appears to have been pleased with the new first chapel, and was certainly charmed with the seaport he had hitherto known only by reputation. In his Journals there is nothing said about the unlovely aspect of the Pitt Street neighbourhood; yet much later on in the century there was a large pool of water in front of the chapel, and people sometimes made their way across it by means of stepping stones; a brickfield also lay near. At this later period Adam Clarke was for a while the resident preacher, and he describes his house as being "neither in hell nor purgatory, yet in a place of torment." Defining the position still more closely, he said, speaking of the approach after passing along East Street, "when you are up to the middle in clay and mud, call out lustily for Adam Clarke" Dirty as the chapel precincts were the Wesleyans took care they should never become a "Slough of Despond," and at this first visit of the founder of Methodism we discern in his record the courage which refuses to see difficulties where the battle ought to be fought.
It is related of a certain Timothy, a diminutive tailor, and one of these early Liverpool Methodists, that he had a wife as unusually large as he was small, and that he was wont to assist his spouse at her washing-tub in order to eke out a livelihood. Now, she had a deep dislike of these Wesleyans, and did her utmost to make her little Timothy’s life truly miserable for going to that chapel. She failed to wean him away by nagging, so she resolved upon public persuasiveness; engaged some boys to assist her in driving a herd of pigs into the Pitt Street Chapel. But the locality was not the country of the Gadarenes, nor was the chapel door an inlet to the sea; the boys tried and tried to make the pigs enter, but they would not. The lady was wild with anger, and tired out of patience she went into the chapel herself, took a seat, and - "gathering her brows like gathering storm; nursing her wrath to keep it warm" gave attention to what was going on. The preacher’s words disturbed her in her waywardness; she listened with ever-increasing eagerness; was brought at last to see the error of her ways, and, until her death 16 years later, worked earnestly for the cause she had so long despised.’
The following additional information has been provided by the Liverpool History Society:
‘Pitt Street was the oldest Wesleyan chapel in Liverpool, erected in 1750, registered in 1754, enlarged in 1765 and had a Sunday School attached from 1785. A complete rebuilding took place in 1803. From the turn of the centruy Pitt Street was completely overshadowed by the more aristocratic Mount Pleasant (see Appendix 3) and from 1863 when it was detached from the South Circuit and given a separate status was run as a Home Mission. The neighbourhood deteriorated rapidly and by 1875 the chapel despite the sentiment attaching to it was grievously in debt and early extinct. Gradually other mission stations took the evangelistic edge from this ancient sanctuary and it was finally closed and pulled down in 1905. Tenements were built on the site.’
Appendix 2 - Wesley’s altercation with the Mayor of Liverpool
The following incident was related in the Liverpool Mercury April 1893.
‘In 1786 some of his preachers had been interrupted while discoursing to a large gathering, and our evangelistic leader at once took up the cause of his helpers and wrote to the Mayor, stating that "some preachers, in connection with me, have thought it their duty to call sinners to repentance, even in the open air. If they have faulted in law thereby, let them suffer the penalty of that law; but if not, whoever molests them on that account will be called to answer it in his Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench. I have had a suit already in that court with a magistrate (Heap) and if I am forced to it am ready to commence another. I am sir, your obedient servant, John Wesley. The letter was audacious but effective and the Methodist preachers thenceforward found the Liverpool constables anxious to keep the peace with the free-gospellers. It was wisdom to take heed of the "Grand Old Man" of the eighteenth century, for his work made for freedom and within a hundred years of the date of that letter should have its preachers all round the world, and could count its many millions of noble men and women standing fast in the liberty which had made John Wesley himself free.’
Appendix 3 - Wesley and the new chapel in Mount Pleasant, Liverpool
When in 1789 Wesley learnt that his followers were going to spend £1100 building a new chapel in Mount Pleasant his joy was not as great as his surprise. He wrote the following letter to Mr Lawrence Frost
"My dear brother" you are a bold people! £200 purchase money besides £900! I do not use to damp any good design. Go on in the name of God. It is true your deed is clumsy enough. I am surprised that any Methodist will not take my advice. I have more experience in these things than any attorney in the land. And have I not the Methodist cause as much at heart? O, why will you alter the beautiful deed we have already? Why will you employ any attorney at all? Only to seek a knot in the bulrush; only to puzzle the cause. Well, comfort yourself; you will not long be troubled with your affectionate brother John Wesley. His experience had indeed been great in this and other matters of law. He was for directness and simplicity."
Appendix 4 - Mary Bennett and the fellowship in Leighton, Wirral.
The following account of this amazing woman is given in "Early Methodism in and around Chester" (pages 62-64), which took place during the early years of Wesley’s visits to Chester. Leighton was a group of houses with a railway line running through the hamlet, which was positioned roughly mid way between Thornton Hough and Parkgate.
‘Attending the fellowship in Love Lane and St.Martin’s Ash in Chester were a certain Mrs Bennett and her daughter Mary, who was born in 1743. They attended there for two or three years without seeking enrolment upon the Methodist class paper, because they knew how strongly the head of the family would disapprove. He was a sea captain whose vessel traded with Cheshire cheese from Parkgate to London. In those days when there were no railroads and the highways were imperfect, this product of the county often reached consumers by sea. At length, in 1755, they took the decisive step. When Captain Edward Bennett, who had not forbidden his household to attend Methodist services, and was perhaps unaware of the extent to which they had done so, learnt that his wife and daughter had actually joined the Methodists, he was exceedingly angry, and determined to put a stop to their association with persons who he regarded as deceivers or dupes. Mary was thus placed in the supremely difficult position of having to decide the right course to pursue when the duty of obedience to her father came into conflict with her religious convictions. Her father endeavoured to convince her by arguments, and when that failed tried to coerce her by personal chastisement. Keenly as she felt the humiliation of her father’s correction, and strong as was her desire to honour him she deemed it her duty to refuse to separate herself from Methodist fellowship. In the following year (1756) Captain Bennett removed his family to Neston, a little town about a mile inland from Parkgate. This residence would prove equally convenient for himself, and he hoped the change would bring the vagaries of his wife and daughter to an end. "There," said he, "these runagate false prophets will not come." Eleven miles each way should surely prove enough to prevent any connection between them and the Chester Methodists, and there was none of that body in Neston. The extraordinary powers of walking which Methodism developed in its first adherents did not enter into his reckoning, and Mary was actually able to put in an appearance sometimes at the five o’clock morning service at St. Martin’s Ash. On the Sunday the frequent absences of the Captain left his family without much restraint. Twenty two miles, however, was a long distance even for early Methodists, and Mrs Bennett tried to get a room for services in Neston so that her own religious privileges might be restored and Gospel preaching extended to her new neighbours. But no one in Neston dare harbour the abhorred schismatics. At length she succeeded in securing a small cottage at Leighton about a mile away. The work there developed, and eventually Leighton was put upon the plan. The unfriendly intentions of Captain Bennett resulted, therefore, in the extension of Methodist influence. The testimony that the Methodists bore at Leighton against drunkenness, profanity, and impurity, goaded the forces of evil into violent opposition. The persons most hated for their zeal were Mary Bennett, who did a great deal to induce people to attend the services, and Robert Roberts, then a local preacher, and afterwards a minister. It became known one night that this earnest brother was to accompany Mary Bennett to her mother’s house before proceeding to his own home. Their way lay through a lonely lane by which a brook flowed. Some miscreants determined to waylay them and throw them into the water. The plot failed so far as the local preacher was concerned, for he returned home alone. The cruel men had therefore an even better opportunity of molesting Mary as she walked homeward in solitude. One man, a sailor, even less scrupulous than the others, pushed her into the brook, where she struggled in the darkness for some time and was unable to find a footing on the slippery sides. Happily her cries were heard by a Methodist friend, who hurried up in time to save her from drowning. The details of the assault gradually became known when it appeared that the delinquents would not be prosecuted. The neighbourhood was greatly startled when the intelligence came that the reckless sailor had himself been drowned while on a voyage from London to Chester. In 1760 Mary Bennett returned to Chester to become, when only seventeen years of age, the wife of George Lowe, one of the trustees of the Octagon Chapel. Throughout a long and happy life of more than usual duration their home was open to the preachers, and their energies were employed in active Methodist work. So well know was their hospitality that their house was familiarly called the "Pilgrim’s Inn."’
Appendix 5 - Did John Wesley come to Birkenhead?
In John Drysdale’s book "Prophet of Holiness" he states that the second building that Emmanuel Church in Birkenhead had used was in an old dilapidated Mission Hall made famous by the fact that John Wesley had preached in it. (page 66). I have been informed by Rev. Bragg of Emmanuel Church that this was located in Walker Street, Tranmere. That building would have been the Higher Tranmere Wesley Chapel, but after consulting The National Archives I found the following record of the chapel,
"A chapel was opened at the corner of Walker Street and Walker Place in Higher Tranmere by the Wesleyan Methodists in 1844. A new chapel was built in Church Road in 1862 and a Lecture Hall was built in Wesley Terrace in 1899. The chapel was demolished and a new one erected on the site, opening in 1966."
The year 1844 when the chapel was opened was 53 years after Wesley’s death. Wesley doesn’t mention a visit to Tranmere but it is possible or even likely that he did so during one of his extended stays in Liverpool. In the National Archives record it states that the chapel was opened in 1844, not built, so perhaps the building itself was already there, used for some other purpose. It would seem to be odd that a new building was built in Church Road in 1862 when the previous one in Walker Street was only 18 years old, unless it was the case that they had quickly outgrown it.
There is a record of a Methodist Society in existence in Wesley’s day, so it is quite likely that he did at some point pay a visit to Tranmere. I’m sure that Mr Drysdale wouldn’t have so positively stated that Wesley had preached there if it had not been so.
What may be the case is that the same Wesleyan group which had occupied the building in Walker Street had received a visit from Wesley but at a different location, or even perhaps in a previous building occupying the same piece of land. Wirral Archives do not have any maps earlier than 1830 to show if that was the case.
Appendix 6 - John Newton & George Whitfield
John Newton was 29 years of age when he came to work as the Tides Surveyor in Liverpool, in 1755, the same year as Wesley’s first visit to Liverpool. He was here for 9 years and much of this time was seen as a time of preparation for his eventual work as a minister of religion, which happened in 1764 in Olney. His position as Tides Surveyor was a very well paid job and he had sixty people under his direction, "with a handsome six-oared boat and coxswain to row him about." During his time in Liverpool he met and came to admire both Wesley and George Whitfield, and they had a great influence on the future course of his life and ministry. Despite his evangelical sympathies both Newton and his wife were popular in Liverpool and many were very sorry to see him leave when he left to take up his ministry in Olney. An "Amazing Grace plaque" was unveiled in 2009 in the New Mersey Travel Pier Head Terminal in Liverpool, virtually at the site where Newton "ferried across the Mersey" as Surveyor of Tides.
George Whitfield visited both Liverpool and Chester on a number of occasions. In October 1753 it is recorded that he preached four times to a great crowd, which included the most noted rebel in Chester, who through his preaching was brought under deep conviction and could not sleep night or day.
Appendix 7 - Wesley’s extraordinary literary output
While travelling five thousand miles a year on horseback, and preaching at least two sermons a day, sometimes as many as five a day, he also read extensively. He read no less than one thousand two hundred volumes, on all subjects, many of the volumes, folios after the old English style. His journals show that he read not only to understand, but to severely critic his authors as well.
He wrote grammars of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and English languages.
He was for many years editor of a monthly periodical of fifty-six pages, known as the Arminian Magazine.
He rewrote, abridged, revised and published a library of fifty volumes; and afterwards reread, revised and republished the whole work in thirty volumes.
He wrote and published a commentary on the whole Bible, in four large volumes; but the portion on the Old Testament was rendered almost worthless by the abridgement of the notes by the printer, in order to get them within a given compass.
He compiled a complete dictionary of the English language, much used in its day.
He wrote and published a work on Natural Philosophy in five volumes, which for many years was a textbook among ministers.
He compiled a work on Ecclesiastical History in four volumes.
He wrote and published comprehensive histories of England and Rome.
He wrote a good-sized work on electricity (Desideratum, or Electricity made plain and useful)
He prepared and published three medical works for the common people.
He compiled and published six volumes of church music.
His poetical works, in connection with those of his brother Charles, are said to have amounted to not less than forty volumes. Charles composed the larger part, but they passed under the revision of John, without which we doubt if Charles Wesley’s hymns would have been what they are, the most beautiful and soul-inspiring in the English language.
In addition to all this, there are seven large octavo volumes of sermons, letters, controversial papers, journals, etc. It is said that Wesley’s works including abridgements and translations.
My thanks go to the following that have helped me in my research.
The National Archives
Liverpool History Society
The Journals of John Wesley MA
Revival Fires & Awakenings - Mathew Backholer.
Early Methodism in and around Chester - F F Bretherton.
J D Drysdale - Prophet of Holiness
The National Archives - Higher Tranmere, Wesley Chapel.
John Wesley in Liverpool - Liverpool Mercury - 17/4/1893.
Liverpool Daily Post - 10/7/2009.
John Wesley Biographical Sketch - www.goforthall.org.
Liverpool History Society Questions - Rob Ainsworth 24/5/2011.
The Life and Works of John Newton - Rev. F H Durnford
City Slave master who saw the light - Liverpool Echo 16/8/2007.
Introduction to the Methodist Church - www.bbc.co.uk.