Known for its association with John Bunyan, the town was visited in 1739 by Benjamin Ingham and William Delamotte and a small society was formed soon afterwards. But the 'nursing father' of Methodism in the town was William Parker (1708-85), a leading citizen who, after parting company with the Moravians, invited John Wesley to pay the first of his many visits in October 1753 and became the first class leader in the town. Wesley preached a number of times on St Peter's Green and in 1758 was invited to preach the Assize Sermon in St Paul's Church. Parker was succeeded as leader, after an interval, by William Cumberland (1760-1833), a local preacher and class leader. The first preaching room was over a hog-stye in the vicinity of the George Inn, which seems to have been replaced by 1763, when Wesley refers to preaching in the 'new room'. This was the first Angel Street chapel. But on later visits Wesley speaks of his hearers as 'these drowsy people'. The frst chael was replaced on the same site in 1804 and then in 1832 by St Paul's Chapel, Harpur Street. Altered in 1896, this was the first place of worship in the town to be lit by electricity.
In 1834 the Nottingham Primitive Methodist circuit sent Thomas Clements to establish a mission in Bedford. Under his leadership this made a promising start, but when stationed elsewhere by the General Missionary Committee, he refused to go and continued in Bedford, setting up an ‘Independent Primitive Methodist’ cause, with rented premises in Russell Street in 1835, replaced by a chapel in Hassett Street in 1838. His society was accepted back into the PM fold in 1839 as a Mission under the Hull Circuit. But further dissension followed, leading to the building by the Independent PMs of a ‘Tabernacle’ in 1842. Clements eventually transferred to the Baptist ministry and by the time of the 1851 Religious Census there was no trace of his society, while the Primitive Methodist chapel in Hassett Street (built in 1838 and replaced on the same site in 1849) reported an evening congregation of 460.
John Wesley's Journal:
October 1753: 'I rode to Bedford … In the evening I met the little society, just escaped with the skin of their teeth [from the hands of the Moravians]…
[Next day] I preached on St. Peter's Green at seven in the morning and at five in the everning. It is amazing that any congregation should be found here, considering what stumbling-blocks have been thrown in their way. Above fourteen years ago Mr. Rogers, then curate of St. Paul's, preached the pure gospel with general acceptance. A great awakening began, and continually increased, till the poor weathercock turned Baptist. He then preached the absolute decrees with all his might; but in a while the wind changed again, and he turned and sunk into the German whirlpool. How many souls has this unhappy man to answer for!'
August 1754: 'I preached near St. Peter's Green, having never preached abroad since I was there before.'
April 1757: 'Mr. [William] Parker, now mayor, received us gladly. He hath not borne the sword in vain. There is no cursing or swearing heard in these streets; no work done on the Lord's Day. Indeed, there is no open wickedness of any kinbd now to be seen in Bedford. Oh what may not one magistrate do who has a single eye and a confidence in God!
'Both in the evening and the following morning I preached the law as well as the gospel. The next evening I preached on "All things are ready; come ye to the marriage." And God eminently confirmed His world. It seemed as if not one would be left behind.'
March 1758: 'On Thursday the 9th I rode to Bedford, and found the [Assize Sermon] was not to be preached till Friday. Had I known this in time, I should never have thought of preaching it, having engaged to be at Epworth on Saturday…
Friday 10: 'The congregation at St. Paul's was very large and very attentive. The Judge, immediately after sermon, sent me an invitation to dine with him; but, having no time, I was obliged to send my excuse, and set out between one and two.'
August 1759: 'I rode to Bedford, and about six preached on St. Peter's Green. None of the numrous congregation stood with their heads covered except the Germans. If they know no better I cannot help it.'
November 1759: 'We had a pretty large congregation, but the stench from the swine under the room was scarce supportable. Was ever a preaching-place over a hog-sty before? Surely they love the gospel who come to hear it in such a place!'
October 1763: 'In the evening I preached in the new room at Bedford, where we at last see some fruit of our labour.'
December 1766: 'I rode to Bedford, and in the evening spoke with more plainness, I may indeed say roughness, than I ever did before, if haply God might rouse some of these drowsy people.'
October 1767: 'I … preaxched in the evening to a civil, heavy congregation.'
November 1768: 'I preached atseven on "Awake, thou that sleepest." And never was more need; for a more sleepy audience I have not often seen.'
January 1775: 'I crept on through a miserable road to Bedford, but was well rewarded by the behaviour of the congregation.'
December 1776: 'I found great freedom of speech in the evening, and perceived God was reviving His work in this people.'
November 1784: 'I visited my old friends at Bedford, but found Mr. Hill was gone to rest, and Mr. Parker was just quivering on the verge of life. However, I rejoiced to find him clearly possessed of that perfect love which he had so long opposed.'
November 1788: 'Our room was much crowded in the evening, and pretty well filled in the morning; and, as all disputes are at an end, there is great reason to hope that the work of God will increase here also.'