The town is a good example of an industrial and trading community whose socio-economic character proved favourable to all branches of Methodism. Charles and then John Wesley first came and preached at mid-summer 1743. Christopher Hopper and John Nelson were among the early pioneers. Within a few years there were societies and chapels on both banks of the Wear. St Peter's, Monkwearmouth had evangelical ministers who invited John Wesley to preach there. He visited Sunderland about 30 times between 1743 and 1790 and (despite his strictures against smuggling!) was a dominant influence on Wearside.
Sans Street chapel, on the corner of High Street, replacing the preaching place in Numbers Garth, was opened by Thomas Coke in 1793, preaching on Ephesians 2:8-9. Replaced by St. John's, Ashbrooke in 1888, it became a mission chapel and closed in 1963. Fawcett Street chapel was opened in 1836.
The WM Circuit was formed in 1782 and until 1812 covered a wide area of north-east Durham, including many colliery communities. James Everett offers lively descriptions of lay folk and preachers in the circuit in books based on memories of his years as a youthful local preacher.
Sunderland proved fertile ground for most non-WM connexions, notably PM, UMFC and WR. The 1851 Religious Census recorded 12,881 Methodist attendances out of a total of 32,920: WM 3,960, PM 4,012 and others (MNC, UMFC and WR) 4,909, indicating PM's strength on Wearside after only 30 years.
Sunderland was the heart of a huge PM District, stretching south to Whitby, north to Berwick and west to Carlisle. The promotion of progressive causes, including ministerial education, resulted in the establishment of a PM Theological Institution in 1868. Resistance to the modernizing party in local PM in the mid-1870s resulted in the Christian Lay Church secession in 1877. The seceders soon joined the Independent Methodists and are still active as such. The PM Conference met there five times between 1825 and 1889 and the UMFC Conference four times between 1869 and 1903.
Sunderland's older surviving chapels reflect the strength of Methodism's appeal to both artisans and the middle class in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A quarter of the members of the first Borough Council (in 1835) were Methodists, as were seven of the first seventeen mayors. St John's (WM, 1888) in the suburb of Ashbrooke, the finest of the city's Gothic chapels, replaced the central Georgian chapel on Sans Street (1793, now demolished), which was adapted as a mission hall serving the declining east end of the town.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1743: 'I had almost such another [noisy] congregation in the High Street at Sunderland; but the tumult subsided in a short time; so that I explained, without any interruption, the one true religion, 'righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.'
March 1746: '… I endeavoured to bring the little society into some kind of order.'
March 1747: 'I admire the spirit of this people. From the first day I preached here to this hour I have not seen a man behave indecently. Those who did not approve quietly went away.'
May 1751: 'I found many here much alive to God, and was greatly comforted among them.'
May 1752: '… I found one of the liveliest societies in the north of England. This is the effect of their being so much 'under the law' as to scruple, one and all, the buying even milk on a Sunday. The house hardly contained the people at five the next morning.'
June 1757: 'In the evening I preached at Sundrland. I then met the society, and told them plain none could stay with us unless he would part with all sin - particularly robbing the King, or buying run goods, which I could no more suffer thanrobbing on the highway. This I enforced on every member the next day. A few would not promise to refrain, so these I was forced to cut off. About two hundred and fifty were of a better mind.'
June 1759: 'I … preached in the shell of the new house. The people of this town likewise are hungry for the word, and receive it with all gladness.
[Sunday] 'The house contained us at eight, but at one I was obliged to stand in the great street and declare to an attentive audience, "Ye must be born again." '
[After a preaching tour in Northumberland] 'I spoke to each of the society in Sunderland. Most of the robbers, commonly called smugglers, have left us; but more than twice the number of honest people are already come in their place. And if none had come, yet should I not dare to keep those who steal either from King or subject.'
May 1761: '… in the evening [I] preached in the new house. [Two days later] After preaching, I met the believers and exhorted them to "go on unto perfection." It pleased God to apply the plain words which were spoken, so that all were athirst for Him; objections vanished away, and a flame was kindled almost in every heart.'
July 1766: 'I rode to Sunderland; and at eight the next morning preached at the east end of the town to a huge multitude, the greater part of whom had little thought of God or devil.'
May 1770: 'At eight I preached near the Cross in Sunderland to such an assembly as was never seen there before.'
May 1772: 'I … was surprised to find the society smaller than I left it. It is true many are removed to other places, and many are removed to Abraham's bosom; but still there must be want of zeal in those that remain, or this loss would have been more than supplied out of the multitude of serious people who constantly attend the preaching.'
June 1772: 'In the evening we mightily wrestled with God for an enlargement of his work.'
June 1774: 'I preached at the east end of the town, I think, to the largest congregation I ever saw in Sunderland.'
May 1780: 'Many of our friends prosper in the world. I wish their souls may prosper also.'
June 1784: 'I went over to Sunderland, and found the work of God here also in a prosperous state. [Next day] 'I saw as many of the people, sick or well, as I could, and was much comforted among them.'