On his first visit in May 1742, with the encouragement of Lady Huntingdon, John Wesley preached on the Quayside. But it was Charles Wesley who formed a Methodist society during his eventful visit in September that year and for some years he shared with his brother in the oversight of Methodism on Tyneside. Neverthless it was John Wesley who was the dominant influence, with some 50 visits over half a century. Here he wrote and printed the Rules of the United Societies in 1743 in response to the need he found for greater discipline among his followers. The Keelmen's Hospital (1701) which still overlooks the Quayside was the site of early Methodist activity. The 'Orphan House' (a multi-purpose building, named after Dr. Franck's Orphan House in Halle, though never used as such) opened in March 1743 as Wesley's northern base. (It was replaced by Brunswick Chapel in 1821, but was not demolished until 1856.)
Newcastle quickly became the heart of Wesley's northern work and the centre of a circuit which initially stretched from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Osmotherley. Since 1791 it has been the centre of a Methodist District.
Newcastle itself and the coal mining and fishing communities in its hinterland proved fruitful soil for the growth of Methodism. Important factors were effective lay leadership and the patronage of wealthy businessmen, such as William Smith in the early years and later on the Bainbridges, Fenwicks, Stephensons and Lunns. The New Road (1813) and Brunswick (1820; major refurbishments 1981) chapels were early fruits of the solid respectability they represented. The Duke of Northumberland contributed to the building of Brunswick, being reassured as to Wesleyan loyalty to king and country. Phoebe Palmer described it in 1866 as 'the largest dissenting place of worship in Newcastle [and] considered the most commodious in the north of England.' Centenary Chapel on the present St. Lawrence Road (1839; closed 1874, currently an art studio) was succeeded in 1885 by Bainbridge Memorial chapel, Heaton Road, which in turn was demolished and replaced in 1991 by a smaller church on the site of the church hall (closed 2006). Former ministers included Samuel Dunn, Samuel Jackson, Henry J. Pope, W.Morley Punshon and John D. Geden.
The Central Mission was launched in 1893 in the Blenheim Street chapel, moved to a former Baptist chapel in Rye Hill in 1900 and then to a purpose-built hall on Westgate Hill in 1904. Westgate Hall, a fine survival of the central hall movement, is now the base of the former Prudhoe Street Mission, another fruit of patronage by Methodist businessmen, as was the first of the Moody and Sankey campaigns in the north east in 1873.
Except for the Bible Christians, all the major non-WM movements took root in Newcastle, including the early IM evicted from WM for alleged radicalism at the time of Peterloo and later reinforced by several Christian Lay Churches in the 1870s. The MNC opened its first chapel, Bethel, in 1799 and that movement's story was enlivened by the controversy surrounding Joseph Barker and the Barkerite secession c.1840. John Branfoot was the pioneer PM evangelist here in 1821 and within two decades a handsome chapel was erected on Nelson Street at the heart of the new town being built by Dobson and Grainger (the latter a product of the Brunswick Sunday School). Central, Northumberland Road (1899) was built under the ministry of Arthur T. Guttery. The UMFC also flourished there, as evidenced by such chapels as New Bridge Street (1852), Prudhoe Street (1862) and Gosforth (1877, still in use). Both WM and other Methodist Conferences have met a number of times in the city.
Despite its important influence on the religious and social life of Tyneside, Methodism was not dominant in statistical terms. The 1851 Religious Census shows total Methodist attendances as one thirteenth of the population, compared with one sixth for the CofE and one tenth for non-Methodist Nonconformity. Newcastle today has three Methodist circuits, serving the eastern, western and central areas of the city.
John Wesley's Journal:
May 1742: ‘We came to Newcastle about six, and, after a short refreshment, walked into the town. I was surprised: so much drunkenness, cursing, and swearing (even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before, in so small a compass of time. Surely this place is ripe for Him who “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” ...
[Sunday] ‘At seven I walked down to Sandgate, the poorest and most contemptible part of the town, and, standing at the end of the street with John Taylor, began to sing the hundredth Psalm. Three or four people came out to see what was the matter, who soon increased to four or five hundred. I suppose there might be twelve to fifteen hundred before I had done preaching; to whom I applied those solemn words: “He was wounded for our transgressions...’
‘Observing the people, when I had done, to stand gaping and staring upon me with the most profound astonishment, I told them, “If you desire to know who I am, my name is John Wesley. At five in the evening, with God’s help, I design to preach here again.”
‘At five the hill on which I designed to preach was covered from the top to the bottom. I never saw so large a number of people together, either in Moorfields or at Kennington Common... After preaching the poor people were ready to tread me under-foot, out of pure love and kindness. It was some time before I could possibly get out of the press. I then went back another way than I came; but several were got to our inn before me, by whom I was vehemently importuned to stay with them, at least, a few days; or, however, one day more...
‘Some of these told me they were members of a religious society which had subsisted for many years, and had always gone on in a prudent, regular manner, and been well spoken of by all men... And yet how many of the publicans and harlots will go into the kingdom of heaven before these!’
November 1742: ‘My brother had been here for some weeks before, and was just returned to London. At eight I met the wild,, staring, loving society; but not them alone, as I had designed. For we could not persuade the strangers to leave us. So that we only spent about an hour in prayer...
[Next day, Sunday] ‘At four I preached in the Square of the Keelmen’s Hospital, on “By grace are ye saved through faith.” It rained and hailed hard, both before and after, but there were only some scattered drops while I preached, which frighted away a few careless hearers. I met the society at six, and exhorted all who had “Set their hand to the plough” not to “look back”.
[Monday] ‘In the afternoon (and every afternoon this week) I spoke severally with the members of the society...
‘I could not but observe the different manner wherein God is pleased to work in different places. The grace of God flows here with a wider stream than it did at first either at Bristol or Kingswood. But it does not sink so deep as it did there. Few are thoroughly convinced of sin, and scarce any can witness that the Lamb of God has taken away their sins.’
February 1743: ‘In the following week I diligently inquired who they were that did not walk according to the gospel; in consequence of which I was obliged to put away about fifty persons. There remained about eight hundred in the society.’
March 1743: ‘I read over to the society the rules which all our members are to observe; and desired every one seriously to consider whether he was willing to conform thereto or no. That this would shake many of them I knew well; and therefore on Monday the 7th, I began visiting the classes again, lest “that which is lame should be turned out of the way.”...
‘The number of those who were expelled the society was sixty-four: Two for cursing and swearing. Two for habitual Sabbath-breaking. Seventeen for drunkenness. Two for retailing spirituous liquors. Three for quarrelling and brawling. One for beating his wife. Three for habitual, wilful lying. Four for railing and evil-speaking. One for idleness and laziness. And Nine-and-twenty for lightness and carelessness.’
June 1743: ‘I ... inquired into the state of those whom I left here striving for the master; and some of them, I found, were grown faint in their minds: others had turned back “as a dog to the vomit”; but about six hundred still continued striving together for the hope of the gospel.’
November 1743: ‘In the following week I endeavoured to speak severally to each member of the society. The numbers I found neither to rise nor fall; but many had increased in the knowledge and love of God.’
March 1747: ‘The society, which the first year consisted of about eight hundred members, is now reduced to four hundred; but according to the old proverb, the half is more than the whole. We shall not be ashamed of any of these when we speak with our enemies in the gate.’
July 1748: ‘I examined the classes and found not only an increase of number, but likewise more of the life and power of religion among them than ever I had found before.’
October 1749: ‘At the meeting of the select society, such a flame broke out as was never there before. We felt such a love to each other as we could not express; such a spirit of supplication, and such a glad acquiescence in all the providences of God, and confidence that He would withhold from us no good thing.’
April 1751: ‘The rain obliged me to preach in the House both morning and afternoon. The spirit of the people refreshed me much as it almost always does. I wish all our societies were like-minded - as loving, simple, and zealous of good works.’
May 1752: ‘We had the best-dressed congregation that ever I saw in this place. I spoke very plain, yet all were patient, and looked as if they understood what was said.’
May 1755: ‘I did not find things here in the order I expected. Many were on the point of leaving the Church, which some have done already; and, as they supposed, on my authority! Oh how much discord is caused by one jarring string! How much trouble by one man who does not walk by the same rule and agree in the same judgement with his brethren!...
‘In the following week I spake to the members of the society severally, and found far fewer than I expected prejudiced against the Church; I think not above forty in all. And I trust the plague is now stayed.’
June 1757: ‘I took the opportunity of making a collection for the poor, many of whom can very hardly support life in the present scarcity.’
June 1759: ‘Certainly, if I did not believe there was another world, I should spend all my summers here, as I know no place in Great Britain comparable to it for pleasantness. But I seek another country, and therefore am content to be a wanderer upon earth.’
April 1764: ‘No jar, no contention is here; but all are peaceably and lovingly striving together for the hope of the gospel.’
June 1764: ‘The fire had not gone out since I was here. I felt it as soon as I began to speak; and so, it seems, did the whole congregation.’
May 1768: ‘I preached ... in the evening at Newcastle, in the old custom-house, a large, commodious room near the quay-side, the grand resort of publicans and sinners.’
May 1770: ‘I began again the meeting of the children, which had been neglected for some months; and we had a token for good: two or three were cut to the heart, and many seemed much affected.’
June 1772: ‘Upon examination, I found the society at Newcastle also smaller than it was two years since. This I can impute to nothing but the want of visiting from house to house, without which the people will hardly increase, either in number or grace.’
May 1777: ‘I love our brethren in the southern counties; but still I find few among them that have the spirit of our northern societies.’
May 1780: ‘At five I preached at the Garth Heads to a still more numerous congregation [than at Sheephill]; but there were few among them who remembered my first preaching near that place in the Keelmen’s Hospital. For what reason the wise managers of that place forbade my preaching there any more, I am yet still to learn.’
June 1782: ‘Wednesday the 19th, and the following days, I examined the society. I found them increased in grace, though not in number. I think four in five, at least, were alive to God. To quicken them more I divided all the classes anew, according to their places of abode. Another thing I observed: the congregations were larger, morning and evening, than any I have seen these twenty years.’
June 1784: ‘I preached ... in the evening at Newcastle, where I had now great satisfaction, the congregation, both morning and evening, being larger than they had been for many years, and the society being much alive, and in great peace and harmony.’
May 1788: ‘In the evening I preached at Newcastle, to such a congregation as was never there before, unless on a Sunday; and indeed all the congregations, morning and evening, were such as had not been before since the house was built. Surely this is the accepted time for Newcastle. Perhaps I may see it no more!’
June 1788: ‘In the evening I preached near the Keelmen’s Hospital, within sight of the place where I preached the first Sunday I was at Newcastle; and I think to the largest congregation which I have seen in Newcastle since that time... The people appeared to devour the word, and I did not spare them.’
June 1790: ‘We reached Newcastle. In this and Kingswood house, were I to do my own will, I should choose to spend the short remainder of my days. But it cannot be; this is not my rest. This and the next evening we had a numerous congregation, and the people seemed much alive...’
[Five days later] ‘Having dispatched all the business I had to do here, in the evening I took a solemn leave of this lovely people, perhaps never to see them more in this life, and set out early in the morning.’