Nicolson Square Chapel   Click to enlarge
John Wesley made the first of 21 visits in 1753, dismissing it in his Journal as 'one of the dirtiest cities I had ever seen'. (But in 1761 he offered a more balanced verdict.) The growth of the society was slow, with a major setback recorded by Wesley in 1770. (The Rev. Joseph Towmsend, rector of Pewsey, had been sent by Lady Huntingdon to espouse the Calvinist side in the dispute that arose out of the posthumous publication of James Hervey's works.)

From 1761 to 1765 the society, led by Robert Miller, ironmonger and local preacher, met in Baillie Ffyfe's Close and then in their own Octagon Chapel until 1814, when it was sold to make way for Waterloo Bridge to be built and Nicolson Square was built as its successor (opened 1816). To the anger of connexional leaders like Adam Clarke, who thought they were letting in Calvinism, the trust, deep in debt, let the chapel from 1829 to 1833 to a Kirk congregation while repairs to St Giles were taking place, leaving it to the Methodists on Sunday evenings. In mid-century the Reform movement gravely weakened the Edinburgh Circuit, which fell from 570 members in 1850 to 375 in 1860; but after that it strengthened each decade, reaching 724 in 1910. In 1916, to celebrate the centenary, the adjoining Epworth Halls were built to house the Sunday School and in 2013-14 there was a major refurbishment of the premises.

As Edinburgh expanded, new chapels were required and from 1888 George Jackson led a powerful Central Mission, at first in temporary premises (Albert Hall and then the Synod Hall of the United Presbyterian Church), resulting in the erection of the Central Hall at Tollcross in 1901 (sold to the Baptists in 2011). Abbeyhill WM was built in 1896. John Wesley preached in Leith in 1765 and in a 'new room' there in 1772. A chapel was built in 1818. The society moved to Great Junction Street in 1868, where the present building dates from 1932.

From 1826 a PM mission from the Sunderland Circuit to Edinburgh met successively in James Court, Melbourne Place and the Magdalene Chapel of 1541, before building Ebenezer chapel in Victoria Terrace in 1861. At the turn of the century, led by Samuel Horton, it moved to Livingstone Hall (now demolished) in South Clerk Street. Pioneering work was carried out through the Home for Friendless Girls (1903) and there were satellite missions in Leith and Niddrie. PM churches at Tranent (1870) and Cockenzie (1878) are still in use.

The four city churches came together in 2008 and are now housed in the refurbished Nicolson Square premises as the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church.


John Wesley's Journal:

May 1761: 'I was tired; however, I would not disappoint the congregation, and God gave me strength according to my day.

[Two days later, Sunday] 'I had designed to preach near the Infirmary; but some of the managers would not suffer it. So I preached in our room morning and evening, even to the rich and honourable. And I bear them witness they will endure plain dealing, whether they profit by it or not.'

May 1764: 'In the evening I preached at Musselburgh, and the next on the Calton Hill at Edinburgh. It being the time of the General Assembly, many of the ministers were there. The wind was high and sharp, and blew away a few delicate ones. But most of the congregation did not stir till I had concluded.

[Next day, Sunday] 'At seven I preached in the High School yard, on the other side of the city. The morning was extremely cold. In the evening it blew a storm. However, having appointed to be on the Calton Hill, I began there to a huge congregation. At first the wind was a little troublesome; but I soon forgot it. And so did the people for an hour and a half, in which I fully delivered my own soul.

[Next day] 'I spent some hours at the General Assembly… On Monday and Tuesday I spoke to the members of the society severally.'

June 1766: 'In the evening I preached in the new room at Edinburgh, a large and commodious building.

[Next day] 'I spent some hours at the meeting of the National Assembly…

[Next day} 'I preached at Leith, and spoke exceeding plain. A few received the truth in the love thereof.'

June 1, Sunday: 'Many of the ministers were present at seven, with a large and serious congregation… [Following the sudden death of one of the Scottish ministers] I preached in the evening on "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come!" A few, I trust, closed with the invitation.'

June 1766, Sunday: 'Our room was very warm in the afternoon, through the multitude of people, a great number of whom were people of fashion, with many ministers. I spoke to them with the utmost plainness, and, I believe, not in vain; for we had such a congregation at five in the morning as I never saw in Edinburgh before. It is scarce possible to speak too plain in England; but it is scarce possible to speak plain enough in Scotland...

[Next day] 'In the evening we had another Sunday's congregation, who seemed more affected than the day before.

[Next day] 'It rained much, yet abundance of people came; and again God made bare His arm. I can now leave Edinburgh with comfort, for I have fully delivered my own soul.'

August 1767: [Sunday] 'I was sorry to find both the society and the congregations smaller than when I was here last. I impute this chiefly to the manner of preaching which has been generally used. The people have been told, frequently and strongly, of their coldness, deadness, heaviness, and littleness of faith, but very rarely of anything that would move thankfulness. Hereby many were driven away, and those that remained were kept cold and dead.

'I encouraged them strongly at eight in the morning; and about noon preached upon the Castle Hill, on "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth." … In the evening I preached on Luke xx.34, &c., and many were comforted; especially while I was enlarging on those deep words, "Neither can they die any more, but are equal to the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection."

[Next day] 'I visited as many as I could, sick and well, and endeavoured to confirm them. In the evening I preached at seven, and again at nine. We concluded about twelve.'

May 1768: [Sunday] 'At eight I preached in the High School yard; and I believe not a few of the hearers were cu t to the heart. Betyween twelve and one a far larger congregation assembled on the Castle Hill; and I believe my voiuce commanded them all, while I opened and enforced those awful words, "I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God." In the evening our house was sufficiently crowded, even with the rich and honourable. "Who hath warned" these "to flee from the wrath to come?" Oh, may they at length awake and "arise from the dead"! '

May 1770: 'I received but a melancholy account of the state of things here. The congregations were nearly as usual; but the society, which, when I was here before, consisted of above a hundred and sixty members, was now shrunk to about fifty. Such is the fruit of a single preachers's staying a whole year in one place! Together with the labours of good Mr. Townsend.

[Next day, Sunday] 'At eleven I preached in the chapel taken by Lady Glenorchy, which stands at a great distance from ours, in the most honourable part of the city. Between twelve and one I preached in the High School yard, it being too stormy to preach on the Castle Hill. A little before six I preached in our chapel, crowded above and below; but I doubt with little effect: exceeding few seemed to feel what they heard.'

May 1772: 'I preached at Leith, in the most horrid, dreary room I have seen in the kingdom. But the next day I found another kind of room - airy, cheerful and lightsome; which Mr. Parker undertook to fit up for the purpose, without any delay.

[Next day, Sunday] 'I had appointed to preach at noon in the Lary's Walk at Leith; but being offered the use of the Episcopal chapel, I willingly accepted it, and both read prayers and preached. Here also the behaviour of the congregation did honour to our Church.

[Next day] 'In the evening (the weather being still severe) I preached in the new house at Leith to a lovely audience on "Narrow is the way that leadeth unto life." Many were present again at five in trhe morning. How long have we toiled here almost in vain! Yet I cannot but hope God will at length have a people even in this place. '

June 1774: 'I went on to Edinburgh, and the next day examined the society one by one. I was agreeably surprised. They have fairly profited since I was here last. Such a number of persons having sound Christian experience I never found in this society before. I preached in the evening to a very elegant congregation, and yet with great enlargement of heart.

[Next day] I found uncommon liberty at Edinburgh in applying Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones.'

May 1779: 'I was agreeably surprised at the singing in the evening. I have not heard such female voices, so strong and clear, anywhere in England.'

May 1780: 'In the evening I endeavoured to preach to the hearts of a large congregation at Edinburgh. We have cast much "bread upon the waters" here. Shall we not "find it again," at least "after many days"?

[Next day] 'I preached at Joppa, a settlement of colliers, three miles from Edinburgh. Some months ago, as some of them were cursing and swearing, one of our local preachers, going by, reproved them. One of them followed after him and begged he would give them a sermon. He did so several times. Afterwards the travelling preachers went, and a few quickly agreed to meet together. Some of these now know in whom they have believed, and walk worthy of their profession…

[Sunday] 'The rain hindered me from preaching at noon upon the Castle Hill. In the evening the house was well filled…., and I was enabled to speak strong words. But I am not a preacher for the people of Edinburgh. Hugh Saunderson and Michael Fenwick are more to their taste.'

May 1782: 'About seven I preached in our house at Edinburgh, and fully delivered my own soul...

2 June {Sunday]: At six the house was well filled; and I did not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. I wonder at myself. I seldom speak anywhere so roughly as in Scotland. And yet most of the people hear and hear, and are just what they were before.'

May 1788: 'I went to Edinburgh, and preached to a much larger congregation than I used to see here on a weekday. I still find a frankness and openness in the people of Edinburgh which I find in few other parts of the kingdom. I spent two days among them with much satisfaction; and I was not at all disappointed, in finding no such increase, either in the congregation or in the society, as many expected from their leaving the Kirk.'

  • Phoebe Palmer, Four Years in the Old World (1866), Ch.X
  • Wesley F. Swift, 'Early Methodism in Edinburgh', in WHS Proceedings, 17 pp.78-86
  • H.B. Kendall The Origin and History of the Primitive Methodist Church (1906), 2 pp.516-18
  • George Jackson, The Early Years of the Edinburgh Mission (1938)
  • A.J. Hayes, Edinburgh Methodism 1761-1975 (Edinburgh, 1976)
  • George Sails, At the Centre: the story of Methodism's Central Missions (1970), pp.63-4