The Pennine Dales, most of them busy with lead mining, became an important centre of Methodist activity from the mid-eighteenth century on. The Scottish preacher William Darney was the pioneer in Teesdale in 1747. John Wesley's visits were few and brief. He first came to Weardale and Barnard Castle in 1752 and to Swaledale in 1761, but does not mention Richmond until 1768. (A house there in which he preached in 1774 is marked with a plaque.) Bishop Auckland does not feature in his Journal; his main interest was in the upper parts of the Dales.
Many Methodist societies, especially in the remoter parts of the Dales, resulted from local initiatives. In 1747 Joseph Cheesewright, a shoemaker who had heard Methodist preachers in Leeds, returned to Barnard Castle and witnessed to his new-found faith. The first local preachers were Catherine Graves, Joseph Garnett and John Loadman. Christopher Hopper came from Newcastle in 1748 and Jacob Rowell in 1749. (Rowell, whose wife opened a shop in Barnard Castle, was a key figure in the development of the circuit, being stationed there several times in the 1760s and 70s.) As a result of twelve years' preaching in Upper Teesdale by Hopper, Rowell and M. Lowes, in 1759 a preaching house was built at Newbiggin-in-Teesdale, believed to be the oldest Methodist chapel in the world in continuous use and extensively renovated in 2003. (When Wesley wrote of coming to Teesdale, he was referring to Newbiggin, as his main centre of operations.) Others which survive (though not all in current use for worship) are High House Chapel at Ireshopeburn (1760), Wolsingham (1776), Westgate (1791) and Stanhope (1800) in Weardale, and Reeth in Swaledale (1796). In Richmond, Centenary Chapel was built in Ryder's Wynd in 1839.
The importance of the dales to Methodism was clearly indicated by the formation of the Dales Circuit in 1757, with Barnard Castle as its head. It was one of the 13 on the first printed list of circuits in 1765 and originally included not only the dales of the northern Pennines, but also much of Westmorland. In 1757 it had about 400 members; by 1772 they had increased to 1,000 in 21 societies (which increased to 40 by 1791). Wesley declared in 1791 that the circuit was too extensive and that 'five or six others might be taken out of it'. The process of division had already begun with the formation of the Yarm Circuit in 1764 and continued with the formation of the Richmond Circuit in 1807 and the Bishop Auckland Circuit in 1838. Reeth Circuit was separated from Richmond in 1846; in 1997 these were reunited as the Swaledale Circuit. Since 1978 Barnard Castle and Teesdale have been united in one circuit.
PM was introduced by preachers from the Hull Circuit. The first society was formed at Wolsingham in Weardale in 1821, after a visit by Samuel Laister. Although he was not the first PM preacher, Thomas Batty has been called the 'Apostle of Weardale' and played a prominent part in the great revival which swept through the dale between 1823 and 1826. Thousands attended a camp meeting at Westgate on 1 June 1823 and in 1824 Westgate was made a separate Branch of the Hull Circuit, with John Oxtoby ('Praying Johnny') at its head. William Clowes visited in 1828 and opened a chapel at Frosterley. In Teesdale chapels were opened at Holwick (1837) and Bowlees (1845). At Countersett, a remote hamlet in upper Wensleydale, a PM society formed in 1872 shared a Quaker meeting house. PM chapels from the 1820s survive at Wearhead, Brotherlee, Frosterley and Barnard Castle, though not all in Methodist use.
John Wesley's Journal:
May 1752: 'I was exceeding faint when we came in; however, the time being come, I went into the street and would have preached, but the mob was so numerous and so loud that it was not possible for many to hear. Nevertheless, I spoke on, and those who were near listened with huge attention. To prevent this, some of the rabble fetched the engine, and threw a good deal of water on the congregation; but not a drop fell on me. After about three-quarters of an hour, I returned into the house. [Next morning] 'At five the preaching-house would not contain one half of the congregation. Many stood at the door and windows - far more than could hear. When I come again, perhaps they will hear while they may.'
June 1761: 'I preached at eight [a.m.] in a ground adjoining the town. Are these the people that a few years ago were like roaring lions? They were now quiet as lambs; nor could several showers drive them away till I concluded.'
June 1763: 'I … preached in the evening , but to such a congregation , not only with respect to number , but to seriousness and composure, as I never saw before. I intended after preaching to meet the society; but the bulk of the people were so eager to hear more that I could not forbear letting in almost as many as the room would hold; and it was a day of God's power.They all seemed to take the kingdom by violence while they besieged Heaven with vehement prayer. [Next day] 'So deep and general was the impression now made upon the people that, even at five in the morning , I was obliged to preach abroad by the numbers who flocked to hear, although the northerly wind made the air exceeding sharp.'
April 1765: 'In the evening I preached in the new preaching-house (not opened before) , and at eight in the morning… [Next evening] 'I spent an hour with those who once believed they were saved from sin. I found here, as at London, about a third part who held fast their confidence. The rest had suffered loss, more or less, and two or three were shorn of all their strength.'
July 1766: 'I … met the stewards of the societies, greatly increased since I was here before. At six I preached in an open space adjoining to the preaching-house. As the militia were in town, the far greater part of them attended, with a large congregation from town and country. It rained most of the time I was speaking; but I believe hardly six persons went away. At the lovefeast which followed several spoke their experience with all simplicity. One poor mourner was set at liberty, and many greatly comforted.'
June 1768: 'Many of the militia were present at Barnard Castle in the evening, and behaved with decency… 'I have not found so deep and lively a work in any other part of the kingdom as runs through the whole circuit, particularly in the vales that wind between these horrid mountains.'
May 1786: 'I rode through a lovely country to Barnard Castle, and found much life in the congregation.'
June 1768: 'I rode to Richmond, intending to preach near the house of one of our friends; but some of the chief of the town sent to desire me to preach in the market-place. The Yorkshire militia were all there, just returned from their exercise; and a more rude rabble-rout I never saw; without sense, decency, or good manners.'
June 1774: 'I preached in a kind of square. All the Yorkshire militia were there; and so were their officers, who kept them in awe, so that they behaved with decency.'
May 1786: '[Archdeacon Blackburne] durst not ask me to preach in his church, "for fear somebody should be offended." So I preached at the head of the street, to a numerous congregation; all of whom stood as still (although it rained all the time) and behaved as well as if we had been in the church.'