Methodism was introduced into Birstal(l), an ancient parish which became a centre of the domestic wool trade, by Benjamin Ingham in 1739. His 'round' grew too extensive for him and by 1742 he had handed over the work to the Moravians. John Nelson, returning to his native village about December 1740, began preaching in the area and formed a society in 1741. John Wesley's first visit in 1742 probably coincided with Nelson's round coming under his control. Other visiting preachers included John Bennet, George Whitefield and Charles Wesley. From Birstall Methodism spread to other parts of the West Riding, notably Leeds, and it became the head of a circuit in 1765.
A chapel was built in 1750. Its extension in 1782 led to the Birstall Chapel Case. The new chapel built in 1846 originally contained a marble memorial to Nelson. The chapel was sold c.1980 and during conversion to offices the bust was removed. The rest of the memorial has since disappeared. The adjacent Sunday School premises of 1885 have been modified to create a worship area.. Nelson's study is in the adjacent graveyard and his grave is in the parish churchyard.
An MNC cause, established probably by 1825, opened Zion Chapel in High Street in the 1830s, but collapsed with the Barkerite secession in the 1840s. Their Barkerite Hall was opened in 1849. Zion was bought by the Independents in 1846 and later passed to the PMs. They replaced it about 1885 by their premises in Low Lane, which closed in 1909 to become a cinema.The WR movement devastated this part of the West Riding and in 18 months from December 1848 membership was almost halved. The secession probably came to a head in 1850, when the Superintendent prohibited James Everett from preaching in the chapel. Mount Tabor UMFC opened in 1855 and closed in 1967 (being subsequently demolished). There had been an earlier, short-lived WMA society, possibly of Protestant Methodist origins. A 'Birstal Primitive Methodist Revivalist' preaching plan exists for 1833 as evidence of another Methodist group centred on the village. It is possible that this later came into Independent Methodism.
John Wesley's Journal:
26 May 1742: ‘I preached at noon on the top of Birstall Hill, to several hundreds of plain people; and spent the afternoon in talking severally with those who had tasted of the grace of God. All of these, I found, had been vehemently pressed not to run about to church and sacrament, and to keep their religion to themselves: to be still; not to talk about what they had experienced.’ 1 June: '… Birstall, where (a multitude of people being gathered from all parts) I explained to them the spirit of bondage and adoption. I began about seven, but could not cnclude till half an hour past nine.' 3 June: 'In the evening I preached at Adwalton, a mile from Birstall, in a broad part of the highway, the people being too numerous to be contained in any house in the town. After preaching, and the next day, I spoke with more, who had, or sought for, redemption through Christ; all of whom I perceived had been advised also to put their light under a bushel, or to forsake the ordinances of God, in order to find Christ.' 4 June: 'At noon I preached at Birstall once more. All the hearers were deeply attentive; whom I now confidently and cheerfully committed to "the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls".'
5 October 1749: 'About five in the evening [Mr. Whitefield] preached at Birstall; and God gave him both strong and persuasive words, such as, I trust, sank deep into many hearts.'
5 April 1752: 'Observing that several sat on the side of the opposite hill, I afterward desired one to measure the ground; and we found it was seven score yards from the place where I stood. Yet the people there heard perfectly well. I did not think any human voice could have reached so far.'
15 May 1757: 'The congreegation here was treble to that at Bradford, but, as they stood one above another on the circular slope of the hill, my voice commanded them all. Though I spoke longer than I usually do, I found no weariness or weakness.'
29 July 1759: 'The congregation covered a great part of the field, and my voice was exceedingly strengthened, so that I believe all could hear.'
17 July 1761: 'I rode to Birstall, and was much comforted to find many of our first children in this county who are not yet weary of the good old way. May they continue therein unto the day of the Lord Jesus.'
26 July 1761: 'What a work is God working here also! Six in one class have, within this week found peace with God; two this morning in meeting the class… So that the oldest of our believers now cry out, "We never saw it before on this fashion!" '
1 July 1764: 'About one I preached at Birstall on "Now is the day of salvation". The people stood by thousands, covering both the plain and the sides of the asjacent hill. It was a glorious opportunity.'
21 April 1776: '[In Birstall church] we had a sound, practical sermon. At one I preached to many thousands at the foot of the hill.'
8 June 1777: 'About one I took my stand at Birstall. Thousands upon thousands filled the vale and the side of the hill; and all, I found, could hear.'
2 August 1778: 'At one I preached at the foot of Birstall hill to the largest congregation that ever was seen there. It was supposed that there were twelve or fourteen thousand.'
29 July 1781: 'I expected to preach at one, as usual, under the hill at Birstall; but, after the church service was ended, the clerk exclaimed with a loud voice, "The Rev. Mr. Wesley is to preach here in the afternoon." So I desired Mr. Pawson to preach at one. The church began at half past two, and I spoke exceeding plain to such a congregation as I never met there before.'
30 April 1786: 'I could not preach abroad at Birstall at noon, because of the boisterous wind.'
4 May 1788: 'The concourse of people at Birstall, about four, was greater than ever was seen there before; and, the wind being very high, it was feared not half of them would be able to hear; but God was better to them than their fears. Afterwards we found that all could hear distinctly; so if they hear no more, I am clear of their blood. I have declared to them the whole counsel of God.'
26 July 1789: 'I preached at noon in Birstall house, to as lively a congregation as ever was seen there; and at five preached on the education of children.'
Charles Wesley's Journal:
May 1743:By four we came to a land of rest. For the brethren of Birstall have stopped the mouths of gainsayers and fairly overcome evil with good. At present peace is in all their borders.. The little foxes that spoil the vineyard,, or rather the wild boars out of the wood that root it up, hath no more place among them. Only the Germans still prowl about the fences to pick up stragglers.
[Next day] 'Preached in the morning and at noon with great enlargement to the childlike people…'
February 1744: 'The little flock increases both in grace and number. The Lord fights for Israel this day against the deceitful workers.'
October 1744: '[I] rejoiced among my brethren in Birstall. Here they have been sifted like wheat by Mr. Viney. They received him upon my brother's recommendation (whose unhappiness it is still to set the wolf to keep the sheep), and he has served them a Gerrman trick - bringing them off their animal love for their pastors, their prayers, fastings, works, holiness. He had well-nigh destroyed the work of God, when John Nelson returned from his captivity.'
January 1747: 'The same comfort at Birstall [as at Leeds], and [we] were constrained to own, at our Love-feast, that He had kept the bet wine to the last.'
July 1751: 'I preached at one to a differentr kind of people [from the unresponsive hearers Nelson had encountered at Musselburgh]. Such a sight have I not seen for many months. They filled the valley and side of the hill, "as grasshoppers for multitude". Yet my voice reached the most distant, as I pereceived by their bowing at the holy Name… God gave me the voice of a trumpet, and sent the word home to many hearts.
'After evening service I met them again, but much increased, and lifted up my voice to comfort them by the precious promises; which were then fulfilled in many… The Soiety, collected from all parts, filled their new room; whom I earnestly exhorted to walk as becometh the gospel.'
'My mouth was opened to declare God who spared not his own Son etc. The great multitude were bowed down by the victotious power of his love. It was a time much to be remembered, for the gracious rain wherewith our God refreshed us.