A form of Methodism first arrived with James Wheatley, a preacher expelled from the Connexion by John Wesley. He attracted huge crowds and a meeting place named The Tabernacle was provided in Timberhill, but public hostility led to its destruction. Months of disorder followed in the city streets and attacks on Wheatley and his followers were fomented by the local 'hell Fire Club', often with the tacit support of the magistrates. A more permanent building, designed by the Norwich architect Thomas Ivory and also named the Tabernacle, was erected in Bishopgate, together with an elegant house for the preacher.
With accusations of Wheatley's adulterous behaviour flying around, Wesley was finally stung into action. He sent Samuel Larwood to Norwich early in 1753, but it is not clear how long he stayed or exactly what his role was. John and Charles Wesley came together in 1754. As John was still recovering from a grave illness, Charles preached to large crowds and then hired an old foundry in Orford Place in response to the support his preaching attracted. In 1759, after Wheatley's disgrace, John Wesley yielded to his persuasions and took on the lease of his Tabernacle for seven years. He had endless difficulties with Wheatley's Calvinistic congregation, and it was eventually taken over by Lady Huntingdon.Paul Greenwood, James Glazebrook and the supernumerary Isaac Brown agreed to administer Communion to the society. Charles Wesley was particularly fearful of this and threatened to abandon Methodism. But the 1760 Conference accepted John Wesley's assertion that being called to preach did not imply the right to administer the sacraments.Troubles and dissentions caused wild fluctuations in Methodist numbers in the Norwich society; but by 1769 a larger permanent preaching place was needed. A chapel, financed largely by Wesley's gift of £270, was built in Cherry Lane. The congregation split in 1806 and the breakaway group joined the MNC, meeting in a chapel in Ber Street. But the Cherry Lane congregations continued to grow and in 1811 a new and larger chapel in Calvert Street was opened by Dr. Thomas Coke. An additional chapel was opened in Lady Lane in 1824. It was noted at that time by a contemporary observer, William Lorkin, that more than 2,000 people were regularly worshipping in Methodist churches in Norwich each Sunday. The WM New City Chapel was opened in 1839, taking over a former Baptist chapel as the core of its building.
William Clowes declared that Norwich, 'notwithstanding its thirty-six parish churches and numerous clergy is fearfully wicked'. It was missioned in 1820 from the Nottingham PM Circuit. Meetings were held on Mousehold Heath, then in the yard of the Rose public house in St. Augustine's parish. Later they rented a room there. In 1842 the Rose Yard congregation moved to a converted brewery in Cowgate. A hired room in Lakenham was replaced by a chapel in 1823, which attracted large numbers.
As elsewhere in the PM Connexion, the speedy expansion in Norwich met with a sharp setback in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Only twelve societies remained in the Norwich Circuit, in the care of only one travelling preacher, compared with five working in and around the city four years earlier. There was a quick recovery and by 1835 the Norwich Circuit had 74 societies. A small chapel was built in St. Benedict's in 1850 to provide for the growing population on the west side of the city; and this was replaced in 1864 by one in Dereham Road, just outside the walls. The 1823 chapel in Lakenham was replaced by a much larger one on Queen's Road in 1872, with a vast Sunday School building next door in 1887. The PM Conference met there in 1892 and 1912. Cowgate chapel, converted from a brewery, opened in 1842. Continuing PM expansion was provided for by Shipfield chapel, opened in 1875 (rebuilt on Wroxham Road, 1958), Nelson Street chapel in 1879, Scott Memorial chapel in Thorpe Road (1902), designed by the architect A.F. Scott in memory of his father, Jonathan Scott, and Plumstead Road chapel (1910). During World War II Plumstead Road and Dereham Road were destroyed by bombs and were replaced by Heartsease Lane, with a temporary building in 1946 and permanent one in 1954 and by Bowthorpe Road, with a permanent building in 1974. Among other PM buildings that were badly damaged was Ethel Road Sunday School, which was replaced by a new building behind Scott Memorial church. The number of PM chapels in Norwich mirrors its great success in Norfolk as a whole.local preachers left in the Norwich WM Circuit, membership had dropped from 1,248 to 260 and not a single WM Sunday School was left in the city. It was boasted that 'Norwich stands alone in her glory, no other circuit in the Connexion having left its ministers altogether without supplies.' Calvert Street, New City and Philadelphia WM chapels, as well as the large Sun Lane Sunday School, all defected to the Reformers, leaving WM with only a weakened St. Peter's. The UMFC Annual Assembly was held in the city in 1895. New City Chapel was rebuilt on Chapelfield Road in 1881, leaving the old building as a Sunday School. When the latter was destroyed by a bomb in 1942, the School was transferred to a new building behind Chapelfield Road church. Rosebery Road chapel was opened in 1908 and was joined with the existing Sun Lane Sunday School.It took decades for WM to recover. In 1902 Norwich Wesleyans became a section of the Norwich, North Walsham and Cromer Mission, and not until 1922 did they again have their own circuit.
Mile Cross church, a splendid example of art deco by Cecil W. Yelf, opened in 1934, the result of co-operation between the three strands of Norwich Methodism.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1754: '[At Lakenham] We had a full account of that wretched man, James Wheatley, for whom I fear, it had been good if he had not been born. All Norwich was in an uproar concerning him, so that it did not appear we could have any place there. However, on Sunday the 14th, at seven in the morning, my brother took his stand in the street. A multitude of people quickly gathered together and were tolerably quiet, all things considered… On Thursday the 18th, being a little recovered from the illness which had attended me for several days, after my brother had done, I spoke to the congregation for a few minutes, and promised to see them again, if God should restore my strength, at the first opportunity.'
July 1755: 'The two following days I spoke to each member of the society…'
February 1757: 'I had long been desired to see the little flock at Norwich, but this I could not decently do till I was able to rebuild part of the Foundery there, to which I was engaged by my lease. A sum sufficient for that end was now unexpectedly given me by one of whom I had no personal knowledge. So I set out on Monday the 28th, and preached in Norwich on Tuesday evening, March 1. Mr. Walsh had been there twelve or fourteen days, and not without a blessing. After preaching I entered into contract with a builder, and gave him part of the money in hand.'
November 1757: 'We rode … to Norwich, where I found a prospect of doing good. The congregation daily increased, and grew more and more serious. I spoke to many who were deeply convinced of sin, and some who were rejoicing in God and walking in the light of His countenance.
[Next day] 'I was shown Dr. Taylor's new meeting-house, perhaps the most elegant one in Europe…'
October 1758: 'Though I was not quite recovered from the lameness occasioned by the fall of my horse, I made shift to ride to Norwich, where, on the following dayd, I had the satisfaction to observe that the society had not lessened (as I had feared), but rather increased since I left them. And there is a probability they will increase still, as they are far more established in grace.
[November 3] 'James Wheatley called upon me, and offered me the Tabernacle. But whether to accept the offer or not I cannot tell; this must be maturely considered. I found all this week great liberty of spirit; and the congregations were large and attentive. It seems the time is come when our labour even at Norwich will not be in vain.
[Sunday 5th] 'We went to St. Peter's church, the Lord's Supper being administered there…
[Next say] 'A large congregation attended between four and five in the morning. I set out at six with much comfort, leaving a settled and well-united society.'
December 1758: 'James Wheatley now repeated his offer of the Tabernacle. But I was in no haste. I wanted to consult my friends, and consider the thing thoroughly. One glaring objection to it was, "The congregation there will not hear me." He replied, "Sir, you cannot tell that, unless you will make the trial." I consented so to do, on Thursday the 21st. But many declared, "No, he shall never come into that pulpit"; and planted themselves in the way to prevent it. Hitherto only could they go. I went up and preached to a large congregation without any let or hindrance. I preached there again on Saturday evening, and again God stopped the mouth of the lions.
[Sunday, 24] 'I preached at the Tabernacle at eight, to a very serious congregation, and at the Foundery between four and five. About six the Tabernacle was thoroughly filled, and mostly with quiet hearers…
[Monday, 25] 'Our service began in the Foundery at four; in the Tabernacle at eight. God was now especially pleased to make bare His arm. There was a great cry among the people. Stony hearts were broke; many mourners comforted; many believers strengthened. Prejudice vanished away; a few only kept their fierceness till the afternoon…
'Having now weighed the matter thoroughly, I yielded to the importunity of our brethren. So in the evening the copy of the lease was perfected, which was executed the next morning. A whole train of providences so plainly concurred thereto, that all might clearly see the hand of God.'
March 1759: 'I inquired into the state of affairs at the Tabernacle, and found the society, once consisting of many hundred members, was mouldered into nothing. Of the fifteen or sixteen hundred subscribers, not twenty, not one was left; but every one that pleased went into the galleries without any questions asked. So that everything was to be wrought out of the ore, or rather out of the cinders. Surely whatever help is done here, God must do it Himself.
In the evening I desired that those who were willing to join in a society would speak with me the next evening. About twenty did so; but the greater part of these appeared like frightened sheep; and no marvel, when they had been so long accustomed to hear all manner of evil of me.
[Friday] 'I preached morning and evening at the Foundery. How pleasing it would be to flesh and blood to remain in this little quiet place, where we have at length weathered the storm! Nay, I am not to consult my own ease, but the advancing the kingdom of God.
'On Saturday and Sunday about forty more gave in their names. On Sunday, in the afternoon, I met the society, after ordering the doors to be shut, which they had not been for two years before. Thirty or forty more spoke to me on Monday. I think two thirds of those I have yet seen have had a clear sense of God's pardoning love. Doth He not "send by whom He will send"?
[Sunday 18] 'I administered the Lord's Supper to near two hundred connunicants. So solemn a season I never remember to have known in the city of Norwich.'
September 1759: 'I preached at the Tabernacle in Norwich to a large, rude, noisy congregation. I took knowledge what manner of teachers they had been accustomed to, and determined to mend them or end them. Accordingly the next evening, after sermon, I reminded them of two things: the one, that it was not decent to begin talking aloud as soon as service was ended, and hurrying to and fro as in a bear garden; the other, that it was a bad custom to gather in knots just after sermon and turn a place of worship into a coffee-house. I therefore desired that none would talk under that roof, but go quietly and silently away. And on Sunday I had the pleasure to observe that all went as quietly away as if they had been accustomed to it for many years.
[Next day] 'I met the society at five, and explained the nature and use of meeting in a class. Upon inquiry, I found we have now about five hundred members; but a hundred and fifty of these do not pretend to meet at all. Of those, therefore, I make no account. They hang on but by a single thread.'
December 1759: 'I began visiting the society, and found the greater part much changed from what they were a year ago. They are indeed fewer in number, but are now of a teachable spirit, willing to be advised, or even reproved; and, if three hundred of this spirit remain, they are worth all our labour.
[January 1, 1760] 'We began the service at four in the morning. A great number attended, and God was in the midst, strengthening and refreshing their souls.'
January 1761: 'I met the society in the morning, and many of them went with me to the cathedral. At two we had the largest congregation I ever saw at that hour. At five the house was well filled, and just as long as I was speaking, all were silent; but when I ceased the floods lifted up their voice … The next evening the same hubbub began again, not among the mob, but the ordinary hearers. I desired them to stop, and reasoned the case with them. The effect was far greater than one could expect. The whole congregation went as quietly and silently away as they used to do at the Foundery in London.
[Next day] ' … In the afternoon I rode back [from Yarmouth] to Norwich, and took an account of the society there. I found the persons who professed to meet in class were about three hundred and thirty; but many of them were as bullocks unaccustomed to the yoke. Where or what will they be a year hence?
[Next day] 'We had our first watch-night at the Tabernacle; at which I could not but observe, though I preached the law from the beginning of my sermon to the end, yet many were exceedingly comforted…
'Sunday was a day of solemn rejoicing. Both at eight, at eleven, at two and at five God was eminently present in the congregation, filling their hearts with love and their mouths with praise…
February 1, Sunday: 'Many were comforted and strengthened both at the Lord's Supper and at the evening service. I think all jealousies and misunderstandings are now vanished, and the whole society is well knit together. How long will they continue so, considering the unparalleled fickleness of the people in these parts? That God knows. However, He does work now, and we rejoice therein.
[Next day] 'I left them with a cheerful heart, and rode on to Lakenheath.'
January 1762: 'I transcribed the society at Norwich; but two hundred of them I made no account of, as they met no class. About four hundred remained, half of whom appeared to be in earnest.'
October 1763: 'I reached Norwich, and found much of the presence of God in the congregation, both in the evening and the next day. On Friday evening I read to them all the Rules of the Society, adding, "Those who are resolved to keep these rules may continue with us, and those only." I then related what I had done since I came to Norwich first, and what I would do for the time to come, particularly that I would immediately put a stop to preaching in the time of Church service. I added, "For many years I have had more trouble with this society than with half the societies in England put together. With God's help I will try you one year longer, and I hope you will bring forth better fruit."
[Next day, Sunday] 'Notwithstanding the notice I had given over and over abundance of people came to the Tabernacle at two in the afternoon, the usual time of preaching, and many of these lambs roared like lions; but it was no more than I expected.
[Three days later] 'I returned to Norwich, and found the ferment a little abated. I was much pleased with the leaders in the evening, a company of steady, lively, zealous persons; and indeed with most of the society with whom I have conversed, none of whom seem to have lost ground since I was here last.
[Sunday] 'I met the society, for the first time, immediately after the morning preaching. Afterwards I went to church with a considrerable number of the people, several of whom, I suppose, had not been within those walls for many years… In the evening God made bare His arm, and His word was sharp as a two-edged sword. Before I had concluded my sermon the mob made a little disturbance; but let us only get the lambs in order, and I will quickly tame the bears.'
October 1764: 'I have seen no people in all England or Ireland so changeable as this. This society, in 1755, consisted of eighty-three members; two years after, of a hundred and thirty-four; in 1758 it was shrunk to a hundred and ten. In March 1759 we took the Tabernacle and within a month the society was increased to about seven hundred and sixty; but nearly five hundred of these had formerly been with James Wheatley, and, having been scattered abroad, now ran together they hardly knew why. Few of them were thoroughly awakened; most deeply ignorant; all bullocks unaccustomed to the yoke, having never had any rule or order among them, but every man doing what was right in his own eyes. It was not, therefore, strange that the next year only five hundred and seven of these were left. In 1761 they were further reduced, navely to four hundred and twelve. I cannot tell how it was that in 1762 they were increased again to six hundred and thirty; but the moon soon changed, so that in 1763 they were shrunk to three hundred and ten. This large reduction was owing to the withdrawing the sacrament, to which they had been accustomed from the time the Tabernacle was built. They are now sunk to a hundred and seventy -four; and now probably the tide will turn again.
[Sunday] 'At seven I clearly and strongly described the height and depth of Christian holinss; and (what is strange) I could not afterward find that any one person was offended… About five our great congregation met, and (what has seldom been known) very quietly. We were equally quiet at the meeting of the society, which met now for the first time on a Sunday evening. So has God stilled the madness of the people. Are not the hearts of all men in His hand?
[Next day] 'At the request of many, I had given notice of a watch-night. We had but an indifferent prelude; between six and seven the mob gathered in great numbers, made a huge noise, and began to throw large stones against the outward doors. But they had put themselves out of breath before eight, so that when the service began they were all gone.
[Next day] '… If I could stay here a month, I think there would be a society little inferior to that at Bristol. But it must not be; they who will hear sound doctrine only from me, must still believe a lie.'
February 1765: 'I set out for Norwich , and spent a few days there with more comfort than I had ever done before. The congregations were not only more numerous than ever, but abundantly more serious; and the society appeared to be more settled, and more loving to each other.'
June 1766: 'I rode to Norwich, and preached at seven in a large place, called the Priory… After spending three days here more agreeably than I had done for many years, … I left a society of a hundred and seventy members, regular, and well united together.'
March 1767: 'I spent a few days much to my satisfaction, finding the people far more settled than ever….
'I took a list of the present society in Norwich, consisting of one hundred and sixty members. But I have far more comfort in it now than when it consisted of six hundred. They know whatr they are about; and the greater part are not ignorant of Satan's devices.'
December 1767: 'Every evening this week I preached at Norwich, to a quiet, well-behaved congregation. Our friends the mob seem to have taken their leave; and so have triflers: all that remain seem to be deeply serious. But how easily are even these turned out of the way!'
February 1769: [Sunday] 'At seven I administered the Lord's Supper to about a hundred and seventy serious communicants. One person then found peace with God, and many were comforted. In the evening, finding the house would not contain one-third of the congregation, I was obliged to stand in the open air - a sight which has not been seen at Norwich for many years. Yet all the people were still, and deeply attentive, two or three wild Antinomians excepted…'
October 1769: 'At six I preached in the shell of the new house, crowded enough both within and without.'
November 1769: 'We returned to Norwich… I visited as many of the people, sick and well, as I possibly could; and on Friday the 10th, leaving them more united than they had been for many years, I took the coach again…'
October 1770: 'Surely, in spite of the marvellous ignorance which prevails among the generality of people in this city, and the uncommon stumbling-blocks which have been thrown in their way, the work of God will not only continue, but increase.'
November 1771: 'Our house was far too small in the evening. I suppose many hundreds went away. To as many as could hear, I described the "strait gate". I believe God applied it to their hearts.
'Every day I found more and more reason to hope that we shall at length reap the fruit of that labour which we have bestowed on this people for so many years, as it seemed, almost in vain.'
October 1772: 'For many years I have not seen so large a congregation here, in the mornings as well as evenings. One reason of which may be this: thousands of people who, when they had fulness of bread, never considered whether they had souls or not, now they are in want begin to thinkof God.
[Next day] 'I took an exacy account of the society, considerably increased within the year. And there is reason to believe that many of the members are now a little established, and will no longer be driven to and fro, as reeds shaken with the wind.'
[November 1, Sunday] 'I admnistered the Lord's Supper, as usual, to the society; and had at least fifty more communicants than this time last year. In the evening many hundreds went away, not being able to squeeze into the room. For those that were within, it was a blessed season…'
November 1774: 'Never was a poor society so neglected as this has been for the year past. The morning preaching was at an end; the bands suffered all to fall in pieces; and no care at all taken of the classes, so that whether they met or not, it was all one; going to church and sacrament were forgotten, and the people rambled hither and thither as they listed.
'On Friday evening I met the society, and told them plain I was resolved to have a regular society or none. I then read the rules, and desired every one to consider whether he was willing to walk by these rules or no. Those in particular of meeting their class every week, unless hindered by distance or sickness (the only reasons for not meeting which I could allow), and being constant at church and sacrament. I desired those who were so minded to meet me the next night, and the rest to stay away. The next night we had far the greater part on whom I strongly enforced the same thing.
[Next day, Sunday]: 'I spoke to every leader concerning every one under his care, and put out every person whom they could not recommend to me. After this was done, out of two hundred and four members, one hundred and seventy-four remained. And these points should be carried, if only fifty remain in the society.
[Two days later] 'I took a solemn and affectionate leave of the society at Norwich.'
December 1775: 'In the evening a large mob gathered at the door of the preaching-house, the captain of which struck many (chiefly women) with a large stick… But he was soon secured and carried before the mayor, who, knowing him to be a notorious offender, against whom one or two warrants were then lying, sent him to jail without delay.'
Novemner 1776: 'When we came to Norwich, finding many of our friends had been shaken by the assertors of the Horrible Decree, I employed the three following mornings in sifting the question to the bottom. Many were confirmed thereby, and, I trust, will not again be removed from the genuine gospel.
[Next day:] 'I showed in the evening what the gospel is, and what it is to preach the gospel. The next evening I explained, at large, the wrong and the right sense of "Ye are saved by faith." And many saw how miserably they had been abused by those vulgarly called gospel preachers.
[Next day:] 'In the morning we had about a hundred and fifty communicants and a remarkable blessing.. In the afternoon and in the evening we were crowded enough.'
November 1777: 'The house was far too small, the congregation being lately increased very considerably. But I place no dependene in this people; they wave to and fro, like the waves of the sea.
[Next day] 'In the evening I preached at Norwich, and afterwards administered the Lord's Supper to the society; and I was almost persuaded that they will no longer be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.'
February 1781: 'The house was extremely crowded in the evening, and the whole congregation appeared to be wounded; consequently, many attended in the morning.
[Next day]: 'I was desired to preach in the evening on "Work ou your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." Even the Calvinists were satisfied for the present, and readily acknowledged that we did not ascribe our salvation to our own works, but to the grace of God.
'… On Saturday I returned to Norwich. Here I found about fifty missing out of the two hundred and sixteen whom I left in the society a year ago. Such fickleness I have not found anywhere else in the kingdom; no, not even in Ireland.'
October 1781: 'Finding the people loving and peaceable, I spent a day or two with much satisfaction…
[The next Sunday] 'I preached at Ber Street to a large congregation, most of whom had never seen my face before. At half an hour after two and at five I preached to our usual congregation, and the next morning commended them to the grace of God.'
November 1782: 'At five in the morning the congregation was exceeding large. That in the evening seemed so deeply affected that I hope Norwich will again lift up its head.'
October 1783: 'I gave the sacrament at seven; at nine I preached at Ber Street, where I am in hopes considerable good will be done. The most serious congregation in our house we had at two, but the most numerous at six; though not above half of those that came could get in. Those that could hear did not lose their labour; for God "satisfied the hungry with good things." '
October 1785: 'In the evening [I] spoke home to an uncommonly large congregation, telling them, "Of all the people I have seen in the kingdom, for bwetween forty and fifty years, you have been the most fickle, and yet the most stubborn." However, our labour has not been lost, for many have died in peace; and God is able to say to the residue of these dry bones, "Live!"
[Next day, Sunday] 'I administered the Lord's Supper to about a hundred and sixty communicants.'
November 1786: 'I found all things in peace, through the zeal and prudence of Jasper Robinson and his fellow labourers. The congregation in the evening was nearly as large as it usually is on Sunday, and more than twice as large at six in the morning as it is accustomed to be…'
December 1786: 'I returned to Norwich, and was much pleased in the evening with the largeness and seriousness of the congregation.
[Sunday] 'I administered the Lord's Supper at eight, and afterwards attended our parish church. Besides the little company that went with me, and the clerk and minister, I think we had five men and six women; and this is a Christian country!
'Our house could in no wise contain the congregation, either in the afternoon or in the evening; and at both times great was the power of God in the midst of them. I have not seen, for many years, such a prospect of doing good in this city.'
October 1788: [I preached] in the evening to a huge congregation at Norwich on the parable of the Sower.'
October 1790:'In the evening I preached at Norwich; but the house would in no wise contain the congregation. How wonderfully is the tide turned! I am become an honourable man at Norwich. God has at length made our enemies to be at peace with us; and scarce any but Antinomians open their mouths against us…
[Sunday] 'At seven I administered the Lord's Supper to about one hundred and fifty persons, near twice as many as we had last year. I take knowledge that the last year's preachers were in earnest. Afterwards we went down to our own parish church; although there was no sermon there, nor at any of the thirty-six churches in the town, save the cathedral and St Peter's. I preached at two. When I had done, Mr. [George] Horne [Bishop of Norwich] called upon me, who preached at the catherdal in the morning; an agreeable man, both in temper and person; and, I believe, much alive to God. At half an hour after five I preached again, to as many as the house would contain; and even those that could not get in stayed more quiet and silent than ever I saw them before. Indeed, they all seemed to know that God was there; and I have no doubt but He will revive His work here also.'