Markfield to the north-west was an early centre of Methodism. From there in 1753 John Wesley responded to an invitation to visit Leicester and preached in the Butt Close on Whit Sunday. Most of over a dozen later visits were brief. A society was formed by John Brandon, a dragoon who later became an itinerant. They met first in the house of William Lewis, a Presbyterian hosier in High Street, who then provided them with a thatched barn, known as the Tabernacle, in Millstone Lane. A chapel built on the same site was opened by Dr. Thomas Coke in 1787. It was in the Derbyshire Circuit until a separate circuit was formed in 1776. In 1816, at a time of economic depression, the opening of Bishop Street (formerly Bishopsgate Street) chapel, designed by William Jenkins (extended and remodelled several times later in the century), heralded a new era, with the population doubling by 1840. The Sunday School continued at Millstone Lane and in new premises in Metcalf Street.
Membership decline after 1881 was due partly to its position as a downtown church and partly to the opening of new causes, including mission halls, elsewhere in the town. A 10-year Circuit Extension Scheme was launched in 1893. Clarendon Park (1900), with J. Ernest Rattenbury as its first minister, marked an important venture into the southern suburbs. The arrival in 1894 of Joseph Posnett (1827-1906; e.m. 1847; uncle of C.W. Posnett), after more than forty years of circuit ministry, saw a reversal of the decline, with Methodism 'lifted out of obscurity to a position of wide and strong activity' and membership 'more than doubled in numbers, influence and saving effectiveness'.
Humberstone Road (1863) and King Richard's Road (1874) became the head of new circuits in 1873 and 1906 respectively. In 1944 Bishop Street and Humberstone Road became part of a new Central Mission and in the 1960s the two congregations amalgamated on the Bishop street site. New work among students led to the establishment of a Student Centre in 1966. The present redesigned and refurbished premises provide accommodation for a wide variety of groups and activities throughout the week as well as an international Sunday morning congregation.
Between 1788 and 1917 the WM Benevolent Society provided a response to local poverty and sickness.The MNC formed a rival cause in 1797, but seems to have disappeared by 1815. Between 1859 and 1890 a new MNC congregation, perhaps the result of unrest at Bishop Street, worshipped in St Paul's chapel at the junction of Station Street and London Road. PM swept through the Leicestershire villages in the second decade of the nineteenth century. William Clowes preached in Belgrave Gate in 1818. The PM chapels opened in George Street (1819) and York Street (1839) were united in 1873 in new premises at St Nicholas Street. During the twentieth century Methodism has continued to adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities.
John Wesley's Journal:
June 1752: 'After dinner a gentleman who came from Leicester, eight miles off, invited me thither. About eight I preached there in a place near the walls, called the Butt Close.The people came running together from all parts, high and low, rich and poor; and their behaviour surprised me; they were so serious and attentive, not one offering any interruption.'
April 1757: 'We rode to Leicester, where John Brandon has gathered a small society. I preached at seven; the house (supposed to contain a thousand people) was thoroughly filled. I believe there were fortry or fifty soldiers; and all heard as for life.'
August 1770: 'In the evening I preached in the Castleyard at Leicester to a multitude of awakened and unawakened. One feeble attempt was made to disturb them; a man was sent to cry "fresh salmon" at a little distance; but he might as well have spared the pains, for none took the least notice of him.'
March 1772: 'Some such [as the 'earnest people' at Markfield] were found at Leicester also in the evening, together with many who had little thought about ['saving their souls']; to whom, therefore, I spoke in a quite different manner, exhorting them "to awake out of sleep". I believe God applied his word; for the house, large as it is, was nearly filled at five in the morning, and all seemed willing to receive thay important truth, "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord." '
March 1774: 'Here, likewise, the people "walk in the fear of the Lord, and in the comforts of the Holy Ghost." '
June 1777: 'I did not reach Leicester till the congregation had waited some time; so I began immediately to enforce "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." I had designed not to call here at all, supposing it would be lost labour. But the behaviour of the whole congregation convinced me that I had judged wrong. They filled the house at five in the morning and seemed determined "to stir up the gift of God which was in them." '
July 1779: '…we had an exceeding solemn time while I described the Son of Man coming in his glory. [Next morning] 'The house was filled at five, and we had another solemn opportunity.'
July `1780: 'I know not how it is that I constantly find such liberty of spirit in this place. [Next day] '… I have not spent a whole day in Leicester for these fifty two years; surely I shall before I die.'
May 1783: 'I preached at Leicester, where I always feel much liberty, and yet see but little fruit.'
July 1786: 'It rained most of the way to Leicester, and some were afraid there would be no congregation. Vain fear! The house was extremely crowded with deeply attentive hearers, while I applied our Lord's words to the centurion, in effect spoke to us also, "As thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." '
Wesley's last visit, July 1790, described by James Thompson: 'The sermon was extemporaneous, plain in its phraseology, and interspersed with frequent ejaculatory prayer for the immediate blessing of God upon the Word.'