When John Wesley visited it in 1756, Belfast was a small town, mostly of thatched houses. This was the first of 11 visits between then and 1789. Its rapid growth as an industrial city in the nineteenth century was accompanied by a similar increase in the number of Methodist members and churches. Another major period of growth followed World War II. Methodist College was founded in 1868 and Edgehill College in 1928. The first city mission in Ireland, the Belfast Central Mission, began work in 1888 and continues to redevelop as needs change. The North Belfast Mission, established a few years later, has relocated its work to Newtownabbey. In 1960 Aldersgate House was opened to provide a spiritual and social centre for students at the nearby Queen's University. It also housed the collection of the Irish Wesley Historical Society. Student work later moved elsewhere. The increase in membership in Northern Ireland and its decline in the Irish Republic led to the Church's administration being moved to Belfast in 1970 and it now occupies offices in Aldersgate House and neighbouring buildings.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1756: 'I rode in the afternoon to Belfast, the largest town in Ulster. Some think it contains near as many people as Limerick. It is far cleaner and pleasanter. At seven I preached in the market-house to as large a congregation as at Lisburn, and to near the same number in the morning. But some of them did not stay till I concluded. They went away in haste when I showed them how "Christ crucified" is "to the Greeks foolishness." '
May, 1758: 'I preached in the market-house at Belfast about one…'
May 1760: 'After preaching in the market-house at Belfast, to a people who care for none of these things, we rode on…'
April 1762: 'Where to preach in Belfast I did not know. It was too wet to preach abroad, and a dancing-master was busily employed in the upper part of the market-house, till at twelve the sovereign put him out by holding his court there. While he was above, I began below to a very serious and attentive audience. But they were all poor; the rich of Belfast "cared for none of these things." '
April 1769: 'I designed to preach at noon in the market-house at Belfast, but it was pre-engaged by a dancing-master; so I stood in the street, which doubled the congregation, to whom I strongly declared, "All have sinned, and are come short of the glory of God." But this many of them have no ears to hear, being faithful followers of Dr. [John] Taylor.'
July 1771: 'At ten I preached to a small congregation, a mile from Belfast, and in the market-place there at twelve. I never saw so large a congregation there before, nor one so remarkably stupid and ill-mannered: yet a few should be excepted, even gentlemen, who seemed to know sense from nonsense. I have found as sensible men at Dublin as at Belfast; but men so self-sufficient I have not found.'
June 1773: 'In the evening I preached to a numerous congregation in the new market-house, but trifling enough. Yet by degrees they sunk into seriousness. The greater part of them came again in the morning; and their behaviour was then remarkably decent.'
June 1778: '[From Carrickfergus] we went to Belfast, the largest town in Ulster, said to contain thirty thousand souls. The streets are well laid out; are broad, straight, and well-built. The poor-house stands on an eminence, fronting the main street, and having a beautiful prospect on every side over the whole country. The old men, the old women, the male and the female children, are all employed according to their strength; and all the apartments are airy, sweet and clean, equal to anything of the kind I have seen in England.
'I preached in the evening on one side of the new church, to far the largest congregation I have seen in Ireland; but I doubt the bulk of them were nearly concerned in my text, "And Gallio cared for none of these things." '
June 1785: 'At six I preached in the linen-hall to a large congregation, admirably well-behaved. I often wonder that, among so civil a people,we can do but little good.'
June 1787: 'At six I preached in the linen-hall to a numerous and seriously attentive congregation. A gentleman invited me to lodge at his house, and showed me the new Presbyterian meeeting-house…
[Next day, Sunday] 'I preached at ten in the linen-hall to double the congregation that attended in the evening; and the power of God came wonderfully upon them, melting their hearts and breaking the rocks in pieces.'
June 1789: 'I had at first thought of preaching in the linen-hall, but the weather being very uncertain, I went to the heads of the large [Presbyterian] meeting-house to desire the use of it, which they granted in the most obliging manner… The house was so crowded, both within and without (and, indeed, with some of the most respectable persons in the town), that it was with the utmost difficulty I got in; but I then found I went not up without the Lord. Great was my liberty of speech among them; great was our glorying in the Lord. So that I gave notice, contrary to my first design, of my intending to preach there again in the morning; but soon after the sexton sent me word it must not be, for the crowds had damaged the house, and some of them had broke off and carried away the silver which was on the Bible in the pulpit; so I desired one of our preachers to preach in our little house, and left Belfast early in the morning.'