The scene of John Wesley's first field preaching, of his earliest building venture, the New Room, of the first class meeting and Watchnight service, and of Wesley's first ordinations, Bristol was a busy port, a centre of the slave trade and second only to London in population. In April 1739 he responded with some hesitation to a summons from George Whitefield to support his work there, but Bristol quickly became the second strategic base in his itinerant ministry, especially for the west and south west. Here he had his famous interview with Bishop Butler in August 1739 and many years later, in 1788, preached by invitation in the mayoral chapel on College Green. It was the location of 18 Conferences in John Wesley's lifetime.
After his marriage, Charles Wesley made his home there between 1749 and 1771. In 1779 John Wesley opened a second chapel, in Guinea Street, which became the centre of Methodist work south of the river. It was replaced in 1828 by Langton Street, a much more pretentious chapel, with one of the earliest Methodist organs (1839) and a Day School (1866) which boasted Dame Clara Butt among its past scholars. It later became part of the Bristol Mission, but was destroyed in World War II. In 1788 John Wesley preached twice in a chapel in Little George Street, in 'the poorest part of the city' near the Old Market. Before it closed late in the nineteenth century, this became the local springboard for the Methodist Sunday School movement and for the work of the Stranger's Friend Society in Bristol.Thomas Webb. It maintained the tradition of Morning Prayer and was the spiritual home of the enterprising George Pocock, leader of the Tent Methodists. When the WR movement of the 1850s decimated Bristol WM, leading to the loss of many members, local preachers and class leaders, Portland Chapel was the exception; it became the head of a second Bristol circuit in 1880 and reached its highest membership towards the end of the century, under the ministry of Mark Guy Pearse. In the twentieth century, decline set in and the 'Chapel on the Hill' closed in 1970 and flats for the elderly were built on the site. The Lutton Memorial Hall was spared demolition and became a common room for the residents.
As a result of the dispute between the Conference and the New Room trustees in 1794, a new city centre chapel, Ebenezer, was built in Old King Street (1795; closed during redevelopment in 1954). It was modelled, not on the New Room, but on the Oldham Street chapel in Manchester. Its day school in North Street ran from 1858 to 1928. Money from its demolition went towards he building of St. Andrew's on the Gloucester Road.
Market Street chapel (1817) included W. Morley Punshon and Mark Guy Pearse among its later ministers. In 1909 it became the head of a newly-formed Market Street Mission Circuit. The old chapel was demolished in 1922 and replaced by the Central Hall, opened in 1924 by T. Ferrier Hulme, with John A. Broadbelt as its first Superintendent. It ran a particularly successful Women's Bright Hour and a Home of Rest at Nailsea for 'tired mothers'. The area was partially redeveloped in the post-war years.
Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of Bristol in the second half of the 19th century saw the opening of such churches as Victoria at the bottom of Whiteladies Road, Clifton in 1863 and Westbury Park on Etloe Road in 1897, replacing a 'tin tabernacle'.
PM came to Bristol in 1823, but its first chapel, Ebenezer in Midland Road, was not built till 1849 (closed 1938). St George's, Rose Green was opened in 1855.
In 1854 the WR (later UMFC) built Hebron, Bedminster (closed 1967) and also Milk Street, which anticipated Methodist Union by uniting in 1929 with Old King Street.
At the end of the twentieth century there were six Methodist circuits covering the city. Victoria, Clifton (1863), was the base for the Methodist chaplaincy to the University. And Wesley College, successor to Didsbury and Headingley Colleges, was at Westbury-on-Trym.
After many years in which the work was administered in six and then five Circuits, reflecting both local geography and Methodism’s diverse historical roots, in 2008 one large Circuit was formed, uniting nearly fifty causes in a single Bristol and South Gloucestershire Circuit. The closure of Wesley College in 2011 removed an important centre of ministerial training from the city, but the chaplaincy to Bristol University at Victoria, Clifton maintains links with the ecumenical student Chaplaincy. Active support was given to the successor to the Bristol Central Hall in a Shop-front Methodist Centre in Midland Road (now in larger premises in Lincoln Street), a multi-purpose cultural and mission-based remodelled church in Southville (‘faithSpace’), and the witness at the New Room, open daily to visitors from all over the world.
John Wesley's Journal:
March 1740: 'It was easy to observe here in how different a manner God works now from what He did last spring. He then poured along like a rapid flood, ovrwhelming all before Him. Whereas now
He deigns his jnfluence to infuse Secret, refreshing as the silent dews.
Convictions sink deeper and deeper. Love and joy are more calm, even, and steady. And God in many is laying the axe to the root of the tree, who can have no rest in their spirits till thy are fully renewed in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.'
April 1740: 'While I was expounding the former part of the twenty-third chapter of the Acts (how wonderfully suited to the occasion, though not by my choice!) the floods began to lift up their voice. Some or other of the children of Belial had laboured to disturb us several nights before. But now it seemed as if all the hosts of the aliens were come together with one consent. Not only the court and the alleys, but all the street, upwards and downwards, was filled with people, shouting, cursing, and swearing, and ready to swallow the ground with fierceness and rage. The mayor sent orders that they should disperse. But they set him at nought. The chief constable came next in person, who was till then sufficiently prejudiced against us. But they insulted him also in so gross a manner as, I believe, fully opened his eyes. At length the mayor sent several of his officers, who took the ringleaders into custody and did not go until all the rest were dispersed…
[Next day] 'The rioters were brought up to the court, the Quarter Sessions being held that day. They began to excuse themselves by saying many things of me. But the mayor cut them all short, saying, "What Mr. Wesley is is nothing to you. I will keep the peace. I will have no rioting in this city." '
June 1742: 'I soon found disputing had done much mishief here also. I preached on those words, "From that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him…" Many were cut to the heart. A cry went forth; and great was the company of the mourners. But God did not leave them comfortless; some knew, in the same hour, thay He had the words of eternal life… From Thursday, July 1, till Monday, I endeavoured to compose the little differences which had arisen.'
March 1767: 'Thursday … and the two following days I examined the society in Bristol. Still I find the greatest part to be in peace and love, and none blameable as to their outward conversation; but life, power, and "struggling into God" are wanting. Few are agonizing to be altogether Christians..'
October 1769: 'I permitted all of Mr. Whitefield's society that desired it to be present at our love-feast. I suppose there were a thousand of us in all. And we were not sent empty away.'