The birthplace of passenger railways (1825) and of the friction match (1826) was visited by John Wesley on at least five occasions between 1748 and 1788. On one occasion he was almost seized at the market cross by a press gang. His Journal refers to 'a very large and rude congregation' in 1748 and in 1751 to the fact that 'the society has doubled since my last visit'. The Yarm Circuit was created from the Dales Circuit in 1764, with a membership of 1,077. After the formation of a separate Thirsk Circuit in 1775 and the Whitby Circuit in 1784, Stockton became the Circuit town in 1793, with a membership of 591.
Brunswick WM chapel, seating over 1,500 out of a population in 1821 of 5,006, and with extensive Sunday School premises, opened in 1823. Population movements and the opening of new churches left it with a gathered congregation; it closed in 1971 and became a carpet shop. Another WM chapel, North Terrace, opened in 1877.
William Clowes is said to have visited Stockton and been gaoled there for preaching. The first camp meeting in the town was held on 15 July 1821. In 1825 PMs were meeting in a house in Maritime Street near the river. A chapel was eventually built in the Green Dragon Yard in the oldest part of the town. Paradise Row chapel, seating 700, opened in 1865. With population movements away from the town centre, this closed in 1949, and is now in commercial use.
By 1836 there was a WMA chapel in Regent Street, but by 1856 this had 'a drooping congregation' and by 1868 a MNC circuit was based there. Around this time a new chapel, Zion, opened (closing in 1937). Both buildings were demolished.
At Methodist Union in 1932 there were three circuits, based on Brunswick WM, North Terrace WM and Paradise Row PM, and extending from Billingham in the north to beyond Yarm and Thornaby in the south. In 1951 they were united as the Stockton Circuit, with 2,398 members, 32 places of worship and 12 ministers, deaconesses and lay pastors. North Terrace closed in 1955, proceeds from the sale funding St. Andrews on an extensive housing estate. Other rationalizations included the closing of Billingham Central Hall, the congregation moving to new premises, formerly a bank. In 2005 the circuit staff was 6 ministers and a lay worker; membership was 1,067, meeting in 12 churches (6 built since 1951, including 4 on new sites) and a recently formed LEP. Only one major church remained near the town centre. A new venture with the Ashram Community Trust was an attempt to fulfil John Wesley's injunction to 'go to those who need you most'.
John Wesley's Journal:
August 1748: 'Soon after twelve I preached near the market-place in Stockton to a very large and very rude congregation; but they grew calmer and calmer, so that long before I had done they were quiet and serious.'
May 1751: 'Some angry people set up a dismal scream as we entered the town, but they could go no farther. By means of a plain, rough exhorter, who lived in the town, the society was more than doubled since I was here before, and most of them were rejoicing greatly… I preached in the main street, near the market-place.'
May 1752: 'I stood in the main street, and explained to a listening multitude the joy that is in heaven "over one sinner that repenteth." '
July 1757: 'I preached in the main street at Stockton. None but two or three gentlemen seemed unconcerned. I went thence to meet the society; but many others begged to stay with them, and so earnestly that I could not refuse. And indeed it was a day of God's power; I scarce know when we have found the like.'
July 1759: 'In the evening I began near Stockton market-place as usual. I had hardly finished the hymn when I observed the people in great confusion, which was occasioned by a lieutenant of a man-of-war, who had chosen that time to bring his press-gang, and ordered them to take Joseph Jones and William Alwood. Joseph Jones telling him, "Sir, I belong to Mr. Wesley," after a few words he let him go, as he did likewise William Alwood after a few hours, understanding he was a licensed preacher.'
July 1766: 'While I was preaching at Stockton a drunken man made some disturbance. I turned and spoke strongly to him. He stood reproved and listened with much attention.'
June 1770: '[I preached] in the evening, before Mr. Watson's door, to a numerous congregation at Stockton.'
June 1774: 'About six I preached at Stockton-upon-Tees, on a text suited to the congregation: "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." '
June 1784: 'Here I found an uncommon work of God among the children. Many of them from six to fourteen were under serious impressions, and earnestly desirous to save their souls. There were upwards of sixtry who constantly came to be examined, and appeared to be greatly awakened. I preached at noon on "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," and the people seemed to feel every word. As soon as I came down from the desk I was enclosed by a body of children, one of whom, and another, sank down upon their knees until they were all kneeling. So I kneeled down myself and began to pray for them. Abundance of people ran back into the house. The fire kindled and ran from heart to heart, till few, if any, were unaffected. Is not this a new thing in the earth? God begins His work in children… Thus the flame spreads to those of riper years, till at length they all know Him and praise Him from the least unto the greatest.'
June 1786: 'We found still, at Stockton, much fruit of Sister [Thomas] Brisco's labours among the children.'
June 1790: 'The congregation was at least double to that at Hartlepool, all of whom seemed to feel that God was there.'