York was an early centre of Methodism, thanks to John Nelson who preached on Heworth Moor whilst quartered in York as an impressed militiaman in May 1744. He returned in the autumn and as a result a class led by Thomas Slaton began to meet at Acomb. In 1744 Slaton started a class in the city, in the house of Thomas Stodhart in the Bedern close by the minster. An intended visit by John Wesley in 1747 was aborted after Nelson was almost killed by a mob, so his first visit was not until April 1752. Despite this inauspicious start, the cause grew rapidly. On his third visit in July 1757 Wesley preached in the open air and a subscription was started for a chapel, which he opened in Peasholme Green on 15 July 1759. This was the preaching house in which Wesley preached on many occasions. Though accommodating 400, galleries were added in 1775. A large chapel, opened in New Street in 1805, remained the circuit chapel for the next century. Further chapels were opened in Albion Street (1816) and in St George's parish, Walmgate (1826). The latter was replaced by the imposing Centenary Chapel (1840).
The MNC had little impact on York. A small society supported by Robert Oastler met in a former Calvinistic chapel in Grape Lane in 1799, but survived only until 1804. Until 1850 other branches of Methodism made little impact. William Clowes preached in York in 1819 and formed a small Primitive Methodist society, which moved into Grape Lane chapel in 1820. In 1830 a chapel of Protestant Methodists was opened in Lady Peckett's Yard. Following the Fly Sheets controversy a major split occurred in 1850; WM was set back by a decade and PM expanded, moving from Grape Lane to Ebenezer chapel in Little Stonegate in 1851. A mission led by William Booth re-established the MNC at Peckitt Street chapel in 1855. Other reformers joined with former Protestant Methodists to open a UMFC chapel at Monk Bar in 1859.
Wesley Chapel (replacing Albion Street, 1856) became the head of a second WM circuit west of the Ouse in 1867, and Centenary Circuit was created in 1888. The PM Elmfield College opened in 1864. PM formed a Second Circuit in 1883, following the opening of Victoria Bar chapel (1880). They moved from Ebenezer to the John Petty Memorial Chapel in Monkgate in 1903. But numerically WM was never challenged and dominated the suburbs, with large chapels at Melbourne Terrace (1877), the Groves (1883), Southlands Road (1887) and Clifton (1909, replacing New Street). Following Methodist Union in 1932 and numerical decline many chapels closed, especially in the city centre. In 1999 only Centenary remained within the city walls.
John Wesley's Journal:
April1752: ‘Some of our company had dreadful forebodings of what was to be at York [because of the publication of Methodists and Papists Compar’d]… but the vain words of those Rabshakehs returned into their own bosoms. I began preaching at six. The chapel was filled with hearers and with the presence of God. The opposers opened not their mouths. The mourners blessed God for the consolation. [Next morning] At seven God was with us as before, and his word broke the rocks in pieces,’
May 1753: ‘We had a rough salute, as I went to preach, from a company of poor creatures in the way; but they were tolerably quiet during the preaching. The greater inconvenience arose from the number of people by reason of which the room (though unusually high) felt as hot as an oven… I observed a remarkable change in the behaviour of almost all I met. The very rabble were grown civil, scarce any one now speaking a rude or an angry word.’
June 1755: ‘The people here had been waiting for some time, so I began preaching without delay, and felt no want of strength though the room was like an oven through the multitude of people. [Three days later] I took my leave of the richest society, number for number, which we have in Engand. I hope this place will not prove (as Cork has for some time done) the Capua of our preachers’.
July 1757: ‘The difficulty was how to preach therein a room which in winter used to be as hot as an oven. I cut the knot by preaching in Blake’s Square, where ( the mob not being aware of us)I began and ended my discourse to a numerous congregation without the least disturbance.’ [Next day] ‘I set a subscription on foot for building a more commodious room.’ [Two days later] ‘I resolved to preach in the Square once more, knowing God has the hearts of all men in His hands. One egg was thrown, and some bits of dirt; but this did not hinder a large congregation from taking heed to what was spoken, of Christ, “the power of God, and the wisdom of God”.’
April 1759: ‘I visited two prisoners in the Castle, which is, I suppose, the most commodious prison in Europe… At six I preached in the shell of the new house to a numerous and serious audience.’
April 1764: ‘When I came to York at five in the afternoon, I was fresher than at seven in the morning. During the preaching many were not a little comforted… I found that a most remarkable deadness had overspread this people, insomuch that not one had received emission of sins for several months last past. Then it is high time for us to prophesy on these dry bones that they may live. At this I more immediately pointed in all my following discourses; and I have reason to believe God spoke in His word. To Him be all the glory!’
[Sunday] ‘In the evening many even of the rich were present, and seriously attentive. But, oh how hardly shall these enter into the kingdom! How hardly escape from “the desire of other things”.’
April 1766: ‘Before we came to York I was thoroughly tired; but my strength quickly returned, so that, after preaching to a large congregation and meeting the society, I was fresher than when I began.’
July 1766: ‘After preaching at eight, I went to St. Saviourgate church. Towards the close of the prayers the rector sent the sexton to tell me the pulpit was at my service! I preached on the conclusion of the Gospel for the day, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” I did not see one person laugh or smile, though we had an elegant congregation.’
June 1770: ‘I went on to York, where there is now more life among the people than has been for several years. We found much of the presence of God this evening , and much more the next…’ [Sunday] ‘I met the select society at six, and had the pleasure to find that some who had lost the great blessing for months or years, had recovered it with large increase. At eight I preached to a people ready prepared for the Lord. At nine I met the children. At five, by taking out the benches, we made room for the greatest part of the congregation. Afterwards I spent an hour with the society, and so concluded the busy, happy day.’
July 1776: ‘The house was full enough in the evening, while I pointed the true and the false way of expounding those important words, “Ye are saved through faith”.’
June 1780: ‘ I was surprised to find a general faintness here; one proof of which was that the [early] morning preaching was given up. [Next day] At two was the lovefeast, at which several instances of the mighty power of God were repeated; by which it appears that His work is still increasing in several parts of the circuit. An arch newswriter published a paragraph today, probably designed for wit, concerning the large pension which the famous Wesley received for defending the King. This so increased the congregation in the evening, that scores were obliged to go away. And God applied that word to many hearts, “I will not destroy the city for ten’s sake!”’
June 1781: Many of our friends met me here, so that in the evening the house would ill contain the congregation. And I know not when I have found such a spirit among them; they seemed to be all hungering and thirsting after righteousness.’
May 1786: [Sunday] ‘ In the morning I preached at St. Saviour’s Church, thoroughly filled with serious hearers, and in the afternoon at St. Margaret’s, which was over-filled, many being constrained to go away. We had a lovefeast in the evening, at which many testified what God had done for their souls. I have not for many years known this society in so prosperous a condition. This is undoubtedly owing, first, to the exact discipline which has for some time been observed among them; and, next, to the strongly and continually exhorting the believers “to go on unto perfection”.’
[Wesley’s last visit to York was on1 May 1790,, recorded three days later in the York Courant, which commented on his surprising vigour as he approached his 90th year.]