Methodism in the town owed its origin to two of John Wesley's converts, a Mr & Mrs Crawford, who moved there from Newcastle upon Tyne. Their home in what is now Tower Street was licensed as a preaching place. Wesley himself visited the town a dozen times from 1771 on, but in 1773 found the society troubled with controversy over Calvinism. The Lynn Circuit was formed in 1776. On his last visit, in October 1790 he stayed with the vicar of St. Margaret's and found all the local clergy - 'all prejudiced in favour of the Methodists' - among his congregation.
Samuel Newham, a man of some substance, became a local preacher and a stalwart supporter of the cause. The first chapel, built in Clough Lane (now Blackfriars Street) in 1786, was replaced by Tower Street, opened in 1813 by Robert Newton. This was on the site of the Crawford's house and a former synagogue and, with enlargements, survived until 1943. One stalwart was Sir Alfred Jermyn, founder of a local department store, whose grand-daughter Enid (born 1914) served as an educational missionary in Hyderabad, India 1941-1964. North End WM (1862), the chapel of the old fishing community, was later taken over by the PMs and eventually closed in 1963 under a compulsory purchase order due to road-building. The proceeds of sale were used to build on the new North Lynn estate. There were also WM chapels in Pilot Street (1883) and in London Road South (1888; closed 1964). The first Sunday School in the town was opened in 1797 by the WMs, who also established a day school in 1812.
John Oscroft and Thomas Charlton and other preachers from the Nottingham PM Circuit missioned the town in 1821, 'carrying all before them'. The first camp meeting was held just outside the South Gates; preaching services were held in a sailmaker's loft in what is now St. Nicholas Street; and on the first plan (April 1822) no fewer than 57 villages appeared. But there was a setback when one of their colleagues, William Wildbur, divided the infant society, taking 70 members with him. Despite this, Lynn became a separate circuit in 1824 and the work was consolidated in 1825-27 by G.W. Bellham (1797-1854; e.m. 1821), a native of the town. The circuit spawned a number of new circuits, such as Swaffham, Downham, Thetford, Docking and Peterborough.
The first meeting place, in St Nicholas Street, soon became too small and was replaced by 'St James' chapel in London Road (1826, with a gallery added in 1833), built 'in the Italian style' on the site of an medieval chapel and later a workhouse. The PM Conference met there in 1836 and 1844. At the former the first Consolidated Minutes were drafted, and at the latter Hugh Bourne, then aged 72, volunteered to go as a missionary to Canada. In the 1850s many Methodists were among those emigrating to the colonies and America, with the result that membership decreased substantially. But a new chapel, also known as St James, was opened by Robert Key in 1859 and has recently been modernized. The PMs also took over North End chapel from WM. One indication of the spate of chapel building is the fact that the long-serving Circuit Steward, William Lift, is named on no fewer than 22 foundation stones.
The MNC, WMA and UMFC were all active in the area, but their local history is sketchy. The MNC chapel in Railway Road closed in 1933. A WMA chapel was built in North Clough Lane. Highgate WR (1850) was sold to the PMs in 1852 and rebuilt in 1883; it still survives, though much altered.
John Wesley's Journal:
November 1771: 'I … rode on, through heavy rain, to Lynn. The people "received the word with joy"; though few, as yet, had any "root in themselves". [Next day] 'I was desired by the prisoners to give them a word of exhortation. They received it with the utmost eagerness. Who knows but one or two may retain it? In the evening those who could not get in were noisy at first; but in a while they went quietly away…
'Lynn seems to be considerably larger than Yarmouth: I believe it stands on double the ground; and the houses in general are better built - some of them are little palaces. The market-place is a spacious and noble square, more beautiful than either at Yarmouth or Norwich; and the people are quite of another turn, affable and humane. They have the openness and frankness common throughout the county; and they add to it good-nature and courtesy.'
November 1773: 'I … came to Lynn while the congregation was waiting for me. Here was once a prospect of doing much good; but it was almost vanished away. Calvinism, breaking in upon them, had torn the infant society in pieces. I did all I could to heal the breach, both in public and private; and having recovered a few, I left them all in peace…'
December 1775: 'In the evening the new house would hardly contain one half of the congregation; and those who could not get in were tolerably patient, considering they could hear but a few words.
[Next day] 'In the day I visited many of those that remained with us and those that had left us since they learned a new doctrine. I did not dispute, but endeavoured to soften their spirits, which had been sharpened to a high degree. In the evening the chapel was quite too small; and yet even those who could not get in were silent - a circumstance which I have seldom observed in any other part of England.'
October 1781: 'I went to Lynn, and preached in the evening to a very genteel congregation. I spoke more strongly than I am accustomed to do, and hope they were not all sermon-proof.'
October 1783: 'I crossed over to Lynn, and found things much better than I expected. The behaviour of Mr. G----, which one would have imagined would have done much harm, had rather done good. People in general cried, "Let that bad man go; they will do better without him." And the house was sufficiently crowded with serious hearers.'
October 1785: 'I crossed over to Lynn, which has ben, of a long season, a cold and comfortless place. But the scene is now entirely changed; two young, zealous, active preachers, strongly urging the people to expect a full and present salvation, have enlivened both the society and the congregation.'
October 1786: 'Having promised to preach in their new house at Lynn, I thought it best to go while the good weather continued…
'I spent Wednesday and Thursday with much satisfaction, with a very loving and lively people, increasing in grace as well as in number, and adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour.'
October 1788: 'I spent all the time [at Lynn] with much satisfaction, as I never found them so much alive before.'
October 1790: 'The wind, with mizzling rain, came full on our faces, and we had nothing to screen us from it; so that I was thoroughly chilled from head to foot before we came to Lynn. But I soon forget this little inconvenience, for which the earnestness of the congregation made me large amends.
[Next day] 'In the evening all the clergymen in the town, except one who was lame, were present at the preaching. They are all prejudiced in favour of the Methodists; as indeed are most of the townsmen; who give a fair proof by contributing so much to our Sunday Schools; so that there is near twenty pounds in hand.'