Both John and Charles Wesley first visited Sevenoaks in 1746. On September 16th Charles preached there on his way to Shoreham and recorded, “We were much threatened but nothing hurt.” On October 4th John Wesley preached to “a large, wild company” on open ground near the Free School. The first society was formed in 1753, when a local business woman, Mrs Amy George, who had been influenced by Methodist preaching during a visit to London, invited preachers to the town. The first to come was John Bakewell. The new society met in Mrs.George’s home in Hill’s Yard until growing numbers necessitated the renting of a larger meeting place in Coffee House Yard, London Road. The first chapel (opened by John Wesley) was built in 1774. William George, who had taken over his mother’s business, gave the land and defrayed the building costs.
Methodist work here met with varying degrees of success, includinng a controversial exchange with the local Baptists in October 1788; but Wesley, on the last of his twenty-four visits to the society (October 8th, 1790) wrote: “The preaching house was filled in the evening with people, and with the presence of God.” William George's son, John George (1777-1809), proved a valuable local preacher in the area until his early death at 33.
By the middle of the next century the growing numbers in society needed larger premises. A replacement chapel was built in Dorset Street in 1853. Now commercial premises, this building still betrays its origins to the observant passer-by. By 1900 the members began to plan for a new church with better premises and on a less restricted site. They were able to build such a church in The Drive through the generosity of a wealthy London stockbroker, Henry Swaffield, a Cornish Methodist who came to Sevenoaks from Brixton in 1876. It was opened in 1904 and was followed by extensive new halls, eight almshouses and a new manse, largely by his generosity. These premises (apart from the manse) are still the centre for Methodist work in the town.
Until the latter part of the nineteenth century the Wesleyan church in Sevenoaks remained largely unchallenged by any other branch of Methodism. But in 1881 land in the northern part of the town was sold to the Bible Christians and, in 1884, a chapel was opened in St. John’s Hill. In 1907 this became part of the United Methodist Church. However, mainly through lack of leaders, its work never flourished. In 1930 the members appealed to the Wesleyans for help; pastoral oversight was given, but little else. In spite of Methodist union in 1932, the two Sevenoaks circuits only united in 1939. After a period of further decline at St. John's Hill, in 1961 the two societies amalgamated at The Drive. The UM building was sold in 1962.
John Wesley's Journal:
October 1746: 'After refreshing ourselves a little, we went to an open place near the Free School, where I declared to a large, wild company, "There is no difference; all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." They grew calmer and calmer till I had done, and then went quietly away.'
December 1778: 'Many at Sevenoaks seemed deeply affected … especially while I was reminding them of the deep work which God wrought among them twelve or fourteen years ago.'
October 1788: 'I took chaise, and by that means came early to Sevenoaks, where, in the evening,I found uncommon liberty of spirit in exhorting the audience to worship God in spirit and in truth.'
December 1789: 'I went to Sevenoaks, where the word of God has been at a stand for many years. It was a rainy night; notwithstanding which, the chapel was crowded from end to end. God seemed to rest in an uncommon degree upon the whole congregation. I was still more surprised to see the house filled in a very dark, rainy morning; a sight which has not been for many years. Surely God is about to give this poor, dead people yet another gracious visitation.'
October 1790: The preaching-house was filled in the evening with people, and with the presence of God.'
Episcopal Visitation Return, 1758:
'One congregation of Anabaptists … and another of People who call themselves Independents, but are called by others Methodists… The Methodists have no regular Teacher, but there are several Itinerant Teachers who attend them frequently. One of them is Charles Perronet and his name is in the Licence for their Room in which they hold their meetings. Their number does not seem to increase.'
Methodist Magazine, July 1818
(typescript of a lecture, 23rd March 1979)