Charles Wesley’s Journal in June 1746 refers to a society under the leadership of Andrew Kinsman, which is the earliest reference to a Methodist society in Tavistock. Preaching in the open air, he met with opposition that he describes as ‘a large herd of wild beasts ... very noisy and tumultuous’. That September his brother John preached in a nearby meadow on his first visit to the town. Meetings were at first in members’ homes until a ‘preaching room’, on the south side of West Street and just yards from the present chapel, was taken - probably the one referred to by John Wesley on the last of his five visits, in August 1789.
Tavistock was at first in the Cornwall Circuit, until the formation of the Plymouth Circuit in 1783. It then became part of the new Launceston Circuit in 1794 and in 1809 a separate Tavistock Circuit was formed. Barley Market Street chapel (1811) was the first purpose-built place of worship. By the 1850s it was described as ‘in a dilapidated condition’ and ‘inconveniently positioned’ and was replaced by the present Chapel Street (formerly ‘New Street’) in 1857. The old chapel was for many years a builder's store until it was demolished in the 1990s and became the site of new housing.
In the 1850s the prosperity of the mining industry and the arrival of the railway led to population growth and the redevelopment of the town centre. Two other branches of Methodism were established locally in time to respond to these changes. All three branches of Methodism responded to the mining industry's peak in the 1860s by installing galleries in their chapels.
A WMA chapel was built in Russell Street in 1838, following the expulsion of members and local preachers by the Wesleyans. In due course the Tavistock and Devonport Circuit joined the UMFC. Improvements were made to Russell Street chapel in 1864 and major refurbishments in 1910, and it continued in use after Methodist Union in 1932. In 1957 it won the Methodist Recorder’s ‘Best Sunday School in Britain’ award. The former Wesleyan and UMFC congregations eventually came together in the Chapel Street premises in 1961. Russell Street chapel now houses of the local United Reformed Church congregation.
The Bible Christian preachers arrived in the town from the Brentor Circuit to the north in 1830. By 1834 they were using a preaching room in King Street, and also rented the old Guildhall and the Temperance Hall before opening their Bannawell Street chapel in 1847. A schoolroom was added in 1859 and galleries in 1865. Tavistock became the head of the Brentor Circuit in 1852. Following the Union of 1907 with the UMFC, the two local societies came together in March 1911 in the Russell Street chapel. Bannawell Street was sold to the Christian Brethren.
In 1851 the Religious Census showed the relative strength of the three Methodist societies in the town. Wesleyan attendances were recorded as 250 adults in the morning and 401 in the evening; WMA as 80 in the morning and 129 in the evening; and the Bible Christians as 106 in the morning and 178 in the evening (plus 110 in the afternoon).
Following the decline in the mining industry after the 1860s, membership continued to grow until the early 20th century, but then began to decline.
With improvements and refurbishments in 1865, 1873, 1887 and 1929, Chapel Street has survived as the present Methodist Church. A period of extension and improvements in the 1990s enabled the Chapel Street congregation to expand its work with young people. Today, with a style of worship blending traditional and modern and the introduction of a second morning service, the numbers of young people, including those who belong in an ecumenical or community capacity, may well exceed those who attended the Church a century ago.
John Wesley's Journal:
September 1746: 'A little after ten I began preaching in a meadow near Tavistock.'
June 1747: 'We came to Tavistock before noon, but, it being market-day, I did not preach till five in the evening. The rain began almost as soon as we began singing and drove many out of the field.'
September 1774: 'After preaching at Camelford and Launceston, I did not think of preaching at Tavistock; but, finding a congregation waiting, I began without delay.'
August 1789: 'Going through Tavistock, a poor man asked me to preach. I began in about a quarter of an hour, the preaching-house being filled directly; but with so poor a congregation as I had not see before for twice seven years.'
Charles Wesley's Journal:
14 June 1746: 'Went forth at Tavistock to call sinners to repentance. A large herd of wild beasts were got together and very noisy and tumultuous they were. At first I stood on a wall, but their violence forced me thence. I walked to the middle of the field, and began calling, "Wash ye, make you clean." etc.. The waves of the sea raged so horribly that few could hear. But all might see the restraining hand of God. I continued in prayer mostly for half an hour and walked quietly to my lodgings through the thickest of the King's enemies.' Sunday, June 15: 'Offered Christ once more to a larger audience, who did not seem like the same people. The power of the Lord was present to convince…
'Mr. Kinsman's Society complained of a brother who had made a division and carried away fifteen of their members. Went to him and his company. They told me they were convinced by reading my brother's books of universal redemption, and therefore met by themselves to avoid dispute and confirm one another in the truth. I persuaded and carried them back to their brethren.'
13 August 1746: 'Offered to preach in Tavistock, but to such sticks and stones as I have not seen, no not at Conham.The words rebounded as from a wall of brass. So great a bar I have seldom felt, and was therefore forced in a quarter of an hour to dismiss them.'
'Spent all Wednesday, August 20th, at Tavistock, to encourage rheir poor scattered Society, under the reproach which one had brought upon them all.'