Nelson, John

Methodist preacher, born at Birstall, Yorks and baptized on 17 August 1707. A travelling stonemason, he was 'like a wandering bird, cast out of the nest' until he heard John Wesley preach at Moorfields, London, in 1739. Having found spiritual peace, he returned to Birstall and founded the first Methodist society there in 1741. Wesley travelled to West Yorkshire in 1742 to encourage him in the work and found that 'the whole town wore a new face ... and [God's] word sounded forth to ... all the West Riding of Yorkshire'. Episcopal visitation returns for 1743 confirm the profusion of Methodist activity around Birstall unparalleled elsewhere in the diocese. Nelson preached initially from the doorway of his cottage, often still wearing his leather apron. His opponents had him impressed for military service in 1744, but his discharge was secured by the Countess of Huntingdon and he became a frequent companion of Wesley in his travels, as far afield as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. In 1751 Wesley found 'the societies of Yorkshire, chiefly under the care of John Nelson, ... all alive, strong and vigorous of soul ... and increased in number from 1,800 to upwards of 3,000'. He died suddenly at Leeds on 18 July 1774. His study is in the churchyard, where he and his wife are buried. There is a memorial plaque to him inside the church.


21 July 1751: 'John Nelson comforted our hearts with his account of the success of the gospel in every place where he has been preaching, except Scotland. There he has been beating the air for three weeks, and spending his strength in vain. Twice a day he preached at Musselburgh, to some thousands of mere hearers, without converting one soul.'

Charles Wesley, MS Journal

  • Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers 1 pp. 2-178
  • 'John Nelson's Cornish Journey' [1743], in The Wesleys in Cornwall, ed. John Pearce (1964), pp. 65-8
  • Charles Atmore, Methodist Memorial (1801) pp.295-8
  • A.E. Keeling, John Nelson: mason and missionary (1892)
  • O.S. Watkins, Soldiers and Preachers Too (1906), pp.18-22
  • H.C. Cradock, History of the Ancient Parish of Birstall, Yorkshire(1933) pp.309-11
  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number, 1898 pp.77-81
  • J.C. Hartley, John Nelson and the Evangelical Revival in West Yorkshire (London, 1988)
  • James Hogg, 'John Nelson, Stonemason and Itinerant Preacher', in WHS Proceedings, 56 (October 2007) pp.146-62
  • James G. Terry, John Nelson of Birstall, 1707-1774, revised edition 2010