Sometimes called 'the mother Church of World Methodism', but perhaps more plausibly, the 'cathedral of British Methodism'. After nearly 50 years at the Foundery, in 1778 John Wesley moved a short distance north-west and built his 'New Chapel' on what was then 'the Royal Row'. The site was allocated to him by the City authorities in 1776 and he launched a nationwide appeal to his followers in aid of a building fund. His architect was George Dance the Younger, surveyor to the City of London, who was at that time busy developing the Finsbury estate on part of Moorfields to the south. The builder was Samuel Tooth, a member of the Foundery society. John Wesley laid the foundation stone on 21 April 1777 and the chapel was opened on 1 November 1778. The following year he moved into the house he built on the south side of the forecourt. Wesley described the chapel as 'perfectly neat, but not fine'; but the move from a multi-purpose building to a 'chapel' was symptomatic of Methodism's 'coming of age' and of the accelerating drift from the Church of England towards denominational independence.
In the Religious Census of 1851 the chapel was reported as accommodating a total of 2,000 people, including 500 free seats and standing room for 500.stained glass. The major refurbishment of 1891 was carried out by Holloway Brothers in conjunction with the architect W.W. Pocock. It involved reinforcing the foundations, enlarging the apse windows to accommodate the stained glass and replacing the pews. The ships' masts that originally supported the gallery (said to have been the gift of King George III) were replaced by pillars of French jasper, the gift of Methodist Churches overseas. Only the top section of the original three-decker pulpit survives.
The location of the sanctuary in an apse behind the pulpit was common in the 'auditory' churches of the time, though most were swept away by the nineteenth century Oxford Movement. (This 'City Road arrangement' was copied in a number of early nineteenth-century WM churches, but survives only in Northbrook Street, Newbury.)
John Wesley is buried in the graveyard behind the Chapel, along with many of his followers. His house was converted to a museum and opened in 1898. The Museum of Methodism opened in the crypt in 1984, replaced by a new museum in 2013. Among the many notable events in the Chapel's history are the inaugural meeting of the WMMS in 1818, the first Oecumenical (now World) Methodist Conference in 1881 and the opening service of the Uniting Conference at the time of Methodist Union in 1932. On the first Sunday in September, at the beginning of the Methodist year, the President of the Conference by tradition preaches in the Chapel and many ordination services have been held there.
Since 1989 its union with the Leysian Mission has enhanced the Chapel's continuing role as a centre of worship and service to the community. In November 2012 this relationship was reinforced by the signing of a Covenant between the Chapel and The Leys School
John Wesley's Journal:
1 March 1776: 'As we cannot depend on having the Foundery long, we met to consult about building a new chapel. Our petition to the City for a piece of ground lies before their committee; but when we shall get any farther I know not, so I determined to begin my circuit as usual; but promised to return whenever I should receive notice that our petition was granted.'
2 August 1776: 'We made our first subscription toward building a new chapel, and at this and the two following meetings above a thousand pounds were cheerfully subscribed.'
29 November 1776: 'We considered the several plans which were offered for the new chapel. Having agreed upon one, we desired a surveyor to draw out the particulars with an estimate of the expense. We then ordered proposals to be drawn up for those who were willing to undertake any part of the building.'
21 April 1777: 'Monday the 21st was the day appointed for laying the foundation of the new chapel. The rain befriended us much by keeping away thousands who purposed to be there. But there were still such multitudes that it was with great difficulty I got through them to lay the first stone. Upon this was a plate of brass (covered with another stone), on which was engraved, "This was laid by Mr. John Wesley, in April 1, 1777." Probably this will be seen no more by any human eye; but will remain there till the earth and the works thereof are burned up.'
'Sunday, November 1 , was the day appointed for opening the new chapel in the City Road. It is perfectly neat, but not fine; and contains far more people than the Foundery; I believe, together with the morning chapel, as many as the Tabernacle. Many were afraid that the multitudes, crowding from all parts, would have occasioned much disturbance. But they were happily disappointed; there was none at all. All was quietness, decency, and order. I preached on part of Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple; and both in the morning and afternoon (when I preached on the hundred forty and four thousand standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion), God was eminently present in the midst of the congregation.'
Letter to 'Members and Friends of the Methodist Societies'
London, October 18, 1776
My dear Brother, The Society at London have given assistance to their brethren in various parts of England. They have done this for upward of thirty years; they have done it cheerfully and liberally…
They now stand in need of assistance themselves. They are under a necessity of building, as the Foundery with all the adjoining houses is shortly to be pulled down; and the City of London has granted ground to build on, but on condition of covering it, and with large houses in front; which, together with the new chapel, will, at a very moderate computation, cost upward of six thousand pounds. I must therefore beg the assistane of all our brethren. Now help the parent society, which has helped others for so many years so willingly and so largely. Now help me, who account this as a kindness done to myself - perhaps the last of this sort which I shall ask of you. Subscribe what you conveniently can, to be paid either now, or at Christmas, or at Lady Day next. I am
Your affectionate brother, John Wesley
'Sunday at City Road was a peculiarly busy day, perhaps less tranquil than was altogether desirable. For instead of that quiet interval before the morning service which seems a necessity, tee arrived at the Chapel House for breakfast a party of ten or a dozen "local" preachers. This was an old custom, dating from Wesley's days, which no one had liked to abrogate. ..
'The Sunday morning servie at City Road was long, for the Common Prayer-book, or a revised edition of it, was used, and the sermoms were longer than those in the churches. Sometimes expositions varied the course of the lesson; and often a long extempore prayer would follow - all this was at the minister's option.'
R.Denny Urlin, Father Reece, the Old Methodist Minister (1899), p.69