18th century Manchester was a widespread parish including many outlying townships. In the town itself the collegiate church of St Mary (now the cathedral) had been supplemented by St. Ann's in 1712. Nonconformist groups in the town were small, apart from the Presbyterians.
John Wesley visited his Oxford friend, the Rev. John Clayton, in Manchester three times before his 'conversion', preaching for him in Trinity, Salford in March 1738. George Whitefield paid the first of seven visits in December 1738 and was followed by Benjamin Ingham in 1742. John Nelson preached at Manchester Cross in either 1742 or 1743, but no society was formed until Charles Wesley's visit in January 1747. John Bennet added it to his Round in March 1747 and John Wesley came in May, preaching at Salford Cross. A chapel in Birchin Lane was completed in 1751 and in 1752 Manchester became head of a circuit covering much of Lancashire and Cheshire. In 1753 the town society had 250 members; but Charles Wesley's Journal in 1756 reveals the turmoil and setbacks through which it had passed. John Wesley visited the town 49 times, recording large numbrs of communicants on his later visits (as many as 1,600 in 1790). In 1765 the Conference met in Manchester for the first time.
Membership grew rapidly with the increasing population and the shortcomings of Anglican provision. Birchin Lane was replaced in 1781 by Oldham Street chapel, which rivalled Wesley's Chapel in size. By 1799 there were 2,225 members in Manchester and Salford. Expansion continued until 1834, despite a secession to the MNC in 1797. A second circuit was created in 1824, with Grosvenor Street at its head: for many years it was the wealthiest in the British connexion.
A Manchester and Salford Lay Mission was established in 1872. Meetings in the Free Trade Hall began in 1885 and in 1886 the first WM Central Hall in the country was opened on the site of Oldham Street chapel. Under the leadership of Samuel Collier it developed into the Manchester and Salford Mission Circuit, which included the Victoria Hall, Ancoats and Bridgewater Hall, Hulme. The largest and most successful of all the WM provincial Missions, with an impressive array of social agencies, for 20 years it claimed the 'largest Methodist congregation in the world' at the Free Trade Hall, which was replaced by the Albert Hall in 1910. A mission hall in the Salford docks area opened in 1815. After bombing in World War II the Oldham Street premises were rebuilt. The mission staff included industrial, prisonand university chaplains. Work among students based at Oxford Street led to the establishment of a University Chaplaincy Centre. There was also a house for the rehabilitation of drug dependents.
PM activity began in 1819. Jersey Street chapel, Ancoats was opened in 1823, but progress was slow. The PMs compensated for their failure to establish a successful central chapel by building a 'cathedral' at High Ardwick in 1878. Seven PM Conferences met there between 1827 and 1926. The Warrenite secession in 1834 cost the four WM circuits 1,000 members and many more Sunday School scholars. The resulting WMA had 11 chapels in the city by 1851.
The WM Department for Chapel Affairs was established in Manchester in 1855 and its present equivalent remained there until recently, when the major property functions were devolved to the Districts in 2009, leaving only a small number of specialist staff working connexionally from Manchester (e.g. on listed building approvals). The Methodist Insurance Company was established in Manchester and remains there.
Under the superintendency of John Banks MBE, (1919-2004) a Housing Association managing over 3,000 properties was established as part of the Mission's outreach. Manchester was an important centre for ministerial training, with Didsbury College (WM, opened 1842), the UMFC Victoria Park College (1876) and the PM Hartley College (1881), the latter two amalgamating to form Hartley Victoria College after Methodist Union. The Methodist Archives and Research Centre was transferred from London to the John Rylands University Library in 1977.
Charles Wesley's Journal:
October 1756: 'Our Society in Manchester was upward of two hundred, but their itching ears have reduced them to half the number… I make more allowance for this poor shattered Society because they have been so sadly neglected, if not abused, by our preachers. The leaders desired me not to let Joseph Tucker come among them again, for he did them more harm than good by talking in his witty way against the Church and clergy. As for poor John Hampson, he could not advise them to go to Church, for he never went himself. But some informed me he advised them not to go. When we set the wolf to keep the sheep, no wonder that the sheep are scattered…
'The enemy has had a particular grudge to this Society. His first messenger to them was a still sister, who abounded in visions and revelations, She came to them in the name of the Lord, and forbade them to pray, sing, or go to Church. Her extravagance at last opened their eyes and delivered them from the snare of mysticism. Then the Quakers, the predestinarians, the dippers, desired to have them to sift them like wheat. They were afterwards thrust sore at by Mr. [John] Bennet, [Thomas] Williams, [James] Wheatley, [William] Cudworth, [John] Whitford, [Roger] Ball. It is a miracle that two of them are left together. Yet, I am persuaded, the third part will be brought through the fire.'
John Wesley's Journal:
March 1738: 'Fri. 17, we spent entirely with Mr. Clayton, by whom, and the rest of our friends here, we were much refreshed and strengthened. Mr. Hoole, the rector of St. Ann's Church, being taken ill he next day, on Sunday the 19th, Mr. Kinchin and I officiated at Salford Chapel in the morning, … and in the afternoon I preached [at St. Ann's] on those words of St. Paul, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." '
May 1747: 'We came to Manchester between one and two. I had no thought of preaching here till I was informed John Nelson had given public notice that I would preach at one o'clock. I was now in a great strait. Their house would not contain a tenth part of the people; and how the unbroken spirits of so large a town would endure the preaching in the street I knew not… But after considering that I was not going a warfare at my own cost, I walked straight to Salford Cross. A numberless crowd of people partly ran before, partly followed after me. I thought it best not to sing, but, looking round, asked abruptly, "Why do you look as if you had never seen me before? Many of you have seen me in the neighbouring church, both preaching and administering the sacrament." I then began, "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near." None interrupted at all, or made any disturbance, till, as I was drawing to a conclusion, a big man thrust in, with three or four more, and bade them bring out the [fire] engine. Our friends desired me to remove into a yard just by, which I did, and concluded in peace.'
April 1751: [Easter Day} 'After preaching, I went to the new church, and found an uncommon blessing, at a time when I least expected it, namely, while the organist was playing a voluntary! We had a happy hour in the evening, many hearts being melted down in one flame of holy love.'
March 1752: [Good Friday] 'I went to the old church, where Mr. Clayton read prayers; I think the most distinctly, solemnly and gracefully of any man I have ever heard; and the behaviour of the whole congregation was serious and solemn in every part of the service. But I was surprised to see such a change in the greater part of them as soon as ever the sacrament was over. They were then bowing, courtesying, and talking to each other, just as if they were going from a play.
'On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I spoke severally to each member of the society; and found reason, after the strictest search, to believe that there was not one disorderly walker therein.'
April 1755: 'The mob was tolerably quiet as long as I was speaking, but immediately after raged horribly, This, I find, has been their manner for some time. No wonder, since the good Justices encourage them.'
[After a vist to Hayfield] 'I returned to Manchester… and had a quiet congregation both that evening and the following.'
[Sunday]: ' I met the society at five, and showed them wherein I feared they had grieved the Spirit of God, and provoked Him to deliver them to be thus outraged by "the beasts of the people." '
April 1759: 'I preached at Manchester in the evening, where we had at length a quiet audience. Wretched magistrates, who, by refusing to suppress, encouraged the rioters, had long encouraged continual tumults here. But some are now of a better spirit; and whenever magistrates desire to preserve the peace they have sufficient power to do it.'
March 1760: 'On Friday the 14th, being the National Fast day, we had services at five, at seven, and at five in the evening; but I did not observe here anything of that solemnity with which the Public Fasts are observed in London.'
March 1761: 'In the evening I met the believers, and strongly exhorted them to "go on unto perfection." To many of them it seemed a new doctrine. However, they all received it in love, and a flame was kindled which I trust neither men nor devils shall ever be able to quench.
[Next day] '… In the evening we had abundance of genteel people at Manchester while I described faith as "the evidence of things not seen." I left Manchester in the morning, April 1, in a better condition than ever I knew it before; such is the shaking, not only among the dry bones, but likewise among the living souls.'
August 1762: 'In the evening I spoke with those at Manchester who believed God had cleansed their hearts. They were sixty-three in number; to about sixty of whoim I could not find there was any reasonable objection.'
July 1764: 'At five I preached at Manchester on "One thing is needful," and scarce knew how to leave off. At the meeting of the society, likewise, it pleased God to comfort us greatly.
[Next day] '… In the evening curiosity brought to the house many unbelievers in the proper sense - men who do not receive the Christian Revelation. I preached on "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; and proved them sinners on their own principles. Some of the stout-hearted trembled - I hope to more purpose than poor Felix did.'
April 1772: 'I preached at Manchester in the evening, but the house was far too small. Crowds were obliged to go away. The speculative knowledge of the truth has ascended here from the least to the greatest. But how far short is this of experimental knowledge! Yet it is a step toward it not to be despised.
[Two days later] 'I returned to Manchester, and in the evening fully delivered my own soul.'
April 1776: 'On Easter Day the preaching-house at Manchester contained the congregation pretty well at seven in the morning, but in the afternoon I was obliged to be abroad, thousands upon thousands flocking together. I stood in a convenient place, almost over against the infirmary, and exhorted a listening multitude to "live unto Him who died for them and rose again." '
March 1781: 'I opened the new [Oldham Street] chapel at Manchester, about the size of that in London. The whole congregation behaved with the utmost seriousness. I trust much good will be done in this place.
'April 1, Sun. I began reading prayers at ten o'clock. Our country friends flocked in from all sides. At the communion was such a sight as I am persuaded was never seen at Manchester before: eleven or twelve hundred communicants at once, and all of them fearing God.'
May 1783: 'Mr. [Cornelius] Bayley came very opportunely to assist me in the morning service. Such a sight, I believe, was never seen at Manchester before. It was supposed there were thirteen or fourteen hundred communicants, among whom there was such a spirit as I have seldom found; and their whole behaviour was such as adorned the gospel.
[Two days later] 'I met the select society, consisting of between forty and fifty members. Several of these were lately made partakers of the great salvation [i.e. perfection]… I believe there is no place but London where we have so many souls so deeply devoted to God; and His hand is not shortened yet, but His work rapidly increases on every side.'
April 1785: 'Our brethren flocking in from all parts, the house, large as it is, could not contain them. It was supposed we had twelve hundred communicants.'
August 1787: [Sunday, following the Conference, held for the second time in Manchester] 'In the morning I met the select society, a lovely company of humble, simple Christians. Several of them appeared to have sound and deep experience of the things of God, and stand steadfast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free… We had five clergymen (although three only could officiate), and twelve or thirteen hundred communicants; and the Master of the feast was in the midst of us, as many found to their unspeakable comfort. After preaching in the evening, I took a solemn leave of the affectionate society. Here, at least, it undeniably appears that we have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.'
April 1788: 'The house was well filled in the evening. I explained and enforced the words of St. James, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" I did not hear that any were offended; for the bulk of these are an understanding people'
[Sunday] Mr. [David] Simpson assisting, we dealt very well with a crowded congregation. I suppose we had about a thousand communicants; and surely God was among them: and so He was in the evening, while I applied "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." '
April 1790: 'Easter Day, I think we had about one thousand six hundred communicants. I preached both morning and evening without weariness and, in the evening, lay down in peace.'
Manchester in 1805:
'Our Circuit s in spiritual health. We have now many gracious revivals, both in town and country. The congreations are large and increasing. The labour demands more than mortal strength.'
John Gaulter to Jabez Bunting, 1805