A largely forgotten anticipation of the later 'Gospel Cars' was the 'truly original and elegant moveable wooden chapel upon wheels made by Mr. Clifford Bingham, builder,… capable of seating nearly 130 persons … for the accomodation of a group of small villages or hamlets in the [Bingham] circuit, where no site can be obtained, the land being the property of of noblemen or other large landed proprietors.'
How successful this venture proved to be is unknown. But the Wesleyan Methodist Gospel Car had its beginnings in 1883, when the Rev. Thomas Champness launched Joyful News and became aware of the needs of village Methodism. It became apparent to him that if young men could be trained and sent into rural areas, then many overworked ministers could continue without further effect on their health.
By the end of 1885, he had ten men in training at his Bolton manse and four already at work. Working with him was the Rev. Josiah Mee. On 14 May 1886, they both attended the dedication and opening service of the first Gospel caravan at Selby, Yorkshire. It had been built for £100 by a Mr. Carr of the York Wesley Circuit. Champness was most impressed by this horse-drawn caravan and felt that the Joyful News Mission should also have one. The opportunities afforded by caravans, enabling evangelists to tour the countryside to preach and distribute literature, greatly enthused him.
An artist’s impression soon appeared on the front page of Joyful News showing an evangelist preaching from the platform of a mission car. An appeal for a sum in the region of £100 was made to build and furnish it. A number of people responded and soon a Gospel Car was made available and became the hallmark of the Joyful News Mission, with evangelists travelling around the country.
In 1903, the Joyful News base (now in Rochdale) was approaching the end of its lease. Until then, the control of the Gospel Cars had been exercised from there. Initially the horse-drawn vehicles had ‘Joyful News Mission’ painted on their sides. Later they were emblazoned with texts etc. Some of the earlier ones are recorded as having ‘The “Out & Out” Band Gospel Car’ painted on their sides. They were most in demand during the period 1890 to 1907. In 1896 their control was transferred to the Home Missions Committee and it was decided that they would be known as ‘Gospel Cars’. No records of the Gospel Cars prior to 1904 are available.
A new location was found for the Mission at Cliff College. The Gospel Car work came under the Rev. Thomas Cook, the College Principal. The Evangelists came to be known as Lay Agents, working mainly in in the rural districts of Wesleyan Methodism after training at the College. The 36 ‘most highly competent’ travelling evangelists were in charge of the 30 Gospel Cars throughout England. Each of the Gospel Cars had a number and name. Occasional use in Northern Ireland has been recorded.
In 1907, requests for the Cars from the Connexion began to wane, with the increase in motorised transport and the cost of maintaining the Cars becoming an unnecessary expense. By 1909, the number was reduced to 12 – 15 Cars. But in 1913, aged 70, Josiah Mee was called to undertake a new Mission to the South Yorkshire Coalfield, supported by a Gospel Car. But for all practical purposes, WWI brought to an end the Wesleyan Gospel Car Missions of Methodism. By 1921 only one Gospel Car remained, working in the Yorkshire coalfields.
The Primitive Methodist Church also made use of this form of mission. They were known as ‘Vans’ rather than ‘Cars’. There do not appear to be any records relating to these vehicles, but it is known that there were six of them. They were used in areas where Primitive Methodism was strong. Evidence of their use has been found in the West Midlands, Leeds, York, Hull, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. Postcards of Vans sited in Berkshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Bournemouth are also on record. Unlike many of the Wesleyan Cars, they seem to have been of varied design.
A replica of a Gospel Car made by John Harris, currently housed at the Black Country Living Museum, has attracted considerable interest, especlially among visiting school parties.