Whitehaven in the eighteenth century was the second busiest port, after Bristol, on the west coast of England. Despite its isolated location it became the most important centre of early Methodism in north-west England. Christopher Hopper and Joseph Cownley laboured here from 1747 to 1749; the latter with Jacob Rowell exercised an influential ministry.
John Wesley paid 25 visits between 1749 and 1788, using the port for visits to Ireland and the Isle of Man, and also on journeys to and from the north-east of England and south-western Scotland. A plaque in the market place records these visits. During his second visit, in September 1749, he was confronted by Charles Wesley over his relationship with Grace Murray.
Early worship was in a stable and then in the rented Assembly Rooms. The butler/gardener of Lord Lowther persuaded his master to give land for a chapel in Michael Street, which opened in 1761. In 1791 serious mining subsidence caused extensive damage to the chapel, manse and cottages, necessitating a move to Mount Pleasant for four years. (Mount Pleasant chapel was built by a local businessman for Anglican worship, but because of a local dispute was never consecrated and so was used by various bodies.) Re-occupied in 1795, the rebuilt premises in Michael Street also housed the first Sunday School in the town. As work prospered over the years, the need for larger premises was met by rebuilding on the same site in 1818. These lasted until a new chapel was opened in Lowther Street in 1877.
Originally in the Newcastle Round and then in the Haworth Round, Whitehaven became the head of a circuit in 1769. The Whitehaven District existed from 1791 to 1805, being replaced by the growing influence of Carlisle.
Primitive Methodism also had early success in the town. William Summersides and John Johnson sowed the seed for a four-month mission by William Clowes in 1823. This work was consolidated by James Garner and John Oxtoby. Hugh Bourne spent the month of August 1831 seeing how the work had developed. Meeting first in Fox Lane, the Primitive Methodists then moved to Mount Pleasant, staying there for thirty years until the Howgill Street chapel was opened in 1859. This had a large schoolroom added in 1878 and a further extension in 1903. The sea-going and mining communities were particularly responsive to the Primitive Methodists.
Benefiting from underlying discontent in Wesleyanism, the WMA became a significant presence for many years in the area. After using a warehouse in Duke Street, they opened their Catherine Street chapel in 1836. The Wesleyan Reform movement was not very active locally, and added only a small number to the combined membership.
In the 1870s migrant miners and quarry workers from Cornwall moved into the Furness area and up the west coast, bringing with them their Bible Christian beliefs. In all, they built twelve chapels and had two other preaching places, three of them near the town. Distance from their Cornish homeland, being rather inward-looking, and with some of them moving out at a later date meant that none of their societies lasted very long. Those of their worshippers who remained in the area tended to move into Primitive Methodism.
After Methodist Union in 1932 Catherine Street (ex UM) in 1934 and Howgill Street (ex PM) in 1940 both merged into Lowther Street. With its closure in 1996 the base for Methodism moved to the outskirts of the town at Hensingham.
John Wesley's Journal:
September 1749: '… I preached in the market-place to a multitude of people, on "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ." I saw they were moved, and resolved to improve the opportunity. So, after preaching, I desired those who were determined to serve God to meet me apart from the great congregation. To these I explained the design, nature and use of Christian societies. Abundance were present again at five in the morning, though we had no room but the market-place… At six [p.m.] I preached again in Whitehaven, on "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden"; and at eight endeavoured to mould as many as desired into a regular society.' 'Reflecting on the manner of God's working here, I could not but make the following remark: the work in Whitehaven resembles that at Athlone more than does any other which I have seen in England. It runs with a swift and a wide stream; but it does not go deep. A considerable part of the town seems moved, but extremely few are awake; and scarce three have found a sense of the pardoning love of God, from the time of the first preaching to this day.'
October 1749: 'The darkness and rain were little hindrance, either to me or the congregation, at five in the morning (though we were, as usual, in the open air), while I was explaining and applying those words, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself." I preached in the evening on "Let us come boldly to the throne of grace;" and then gave my parting exhortation to the society, now consisting of more than two hundred members.'
April 1751: 'I heard two useful sermons at church on "Fear not them that can kill the body." I preached at eight on "Is there no balm in Gilead?" and between one and two, at the market-place, on "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God." A few stones were thrown at first, but the bulk of the congregation was deeply serious, as well as in the evening. 'In meeting the classes the next two days, I observed one remarkable circumstance: without an absolute necessity, none of this society ever miss their class. Among two hundred and forty persons, I met one single exception, and no more.'
July 1752: 'I took my old stand in the market-place, about seven in the morning, and proclaimed "The Lord God, gracious and merciful, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin." In the afternoon we had an awakening sermon at the new church on "One thing is needful!" '
April 1753: 'Upon examining the society, I found that "the love of many" was "waxed cold'. Nevertheless … a considerable number … appeared to be growing in grace. But surely, here, above any other place in England, "God hath chosen the poor of this world". In comparison of these, the society at Newcastle are a rich and elegant people. It is enough that they are "rich in faith" and in the "labour of love".'
April 1761: 'As the people of Whitehaven are usually full of zeal, right or wrong, I this evening showed them the nature of Christian zeal. Perhaps some of them may now distinguish the flame of love from a fire kindled in hell.'
April 1768: 'I found the society here more alive to God than it had been for several years; and God has chosen the weak to make them strong… Many of the children likewise are serious and well behaved, and some of them seem to be awakened.'
April 1770: 'I found a faintness had spread through all. No wonder, since there had been no morning preaching for some months. Yet, every morning I was here, the congregations were as large as they had been for many years.'
April 1772: 'At eight we had our usual congregation of plain, earnest people. But at five (who would imagine it?) we had wellnigh all the gentry of the town; … few, I believe were unaffected.'
May 1780: 'I preached at eight, at two, and at five, but could not preach abroad because of the rain. [Through a delay in sailing to the Isle of Man] I had an opportunity given me of meeting the select society. I was pleased to find that none of them have lost the pure love of God since they received it first.'
April 1784: 'We went to Whitehaven, where there is a fairer prospect than has been for many years. The society is united in love, not conformed to the world, but labouring to experience the full image of God, wherein they were created. The house was filled in the evening, and much more the next, when we had all the church ministers, and most of the gentry in the town; but they behaved with as much decency as if they had been colliers.'
May 1788: 'The congregation in the evening rejoiced much, as they had not seen me for four years. But scarce any of the old standers are left: two and forty years have swept them away. Let us who are left live today. "Now is the day of salvation".'