George Whitefield preached in 1739 in what he described as 'a poor struggling hamlet, with a few thatched cottages'. The town did not grow in style and prominence till the end of the century, and in population between 1801 and 1831. After a disappointing reception in 1744, Wesley did not return until 1766 and his further visits were encouraged by the presence of a convert, Penelope Newman. Her marriage to the preacher Jonathan Coussins was one cause of the local society's decline in his later years.
The Methodists began in 1764 by taking over a former Presbyterian chapel in Albion Street, followed by another in Meaking's Passage.off High Street. Ebenezer, their first purpose-built chapel, in King Street, dates from 1813. It was replaced by Wesley Chapel (1839), one of a hundred built to mark the centenary of Methodism and altered c. 1960. Bethesda WM chapel, Great Norwood Street, built 1845-6, replaced a smaller chapel to the south. In 2009 it became the third church in England to be recognised as an 'eco church' when it installed Solar energy.
Cheltenham became head of a WM circuit in 1813 and united with Tewkesbury Circuit in 1991.
The PM presence, from about 1840, was slight. They took over Ebenezer chapel in 1859 and used it until 1934.
There is some evidence of WMA activity in the town from about 1840, with an imposing UMFC/UM Bethany Chapel in the town centre from 1865 to 1936.
John Wesley's Journal:
May 1744: '… I preached on "By grace are ye saved through faith" to a company who seemed to understand just as much of the matter as if I had been talking Greek.'
October 1766: 'It being too cold to preach abroad, at six I preached in the chapel, and fully declared the whole counsel of God. Afterwards I examined the little society, and found the greater part of them lively believers, and quite free from the bigotry which is common among Churchmen and still more among Dissenters.'
March 1768: 'About nine I preached at Cheltenham - a quiet, comfortable place; though it would not have been so, if either the rector or the Anabaptist minister could have prevented it. Both these have blown the trumpet with all their might, but the people have no ears to hear.'
August 1774: 'As it was the high season for drinking the waters, the town was full of gentry; so I preached near the market-place in the evening to the largest congregation that was ever seen there. Some of the footmen at first made a little disturbance; but I turned to them, and they stood reproved.'
March 1784: 'We went to Cheltenham which I had not seen for many years. I preached at noon to half a houseful of hearers, most of them cold and dead enough.'
Entry written by: DFM
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