John Wesley's earliest building venture was the New Room in Bristol (1739, enlarged 1748), intended as a meeting place for the religious societies under his leadership there. The Foundery in London and the Newcastle 'Orphan House' were multi-purpose buildings, designed as much for community life and social service as for religious fellowship and nurture. The early Methodists often met in homes or on premises, adopted, like the Foundery, from other uses, before aspiring to purpose built preaching-houses (Wesley's preferred term, to distinguish them from Anglican 'chapels' and dissenting 'meeting-houses'). They were expected to go to their parish church for public worship and the sacraments. As late as 1788 Wesley's advice (in a letter to Hugh Moore) was, 'It is by no means expedient to make too much haste with regard to the building of [preaching] houses; if we do not take care the Methodists will be destroyed by buildings. If we make rich men necessary to us discipline is at an end.' He was also insistant on male and female worshippers being seated separately.
Inspired by Dr John Taylor's new meeting-house in Norwich, from 1757 Wesley strongly advocated octagonal chapels. Fourteen were built, beginning with Rotherham in 1761. But he also approved of the rectangular plan exemplified in Wren's St James' Church, Piccadilly, as effective for preaching. The opening of Wesley's Chapel in City Road, London in 1778 marked a new stage in Methodism's development from movement to denomination. Sacramental services had hitherto been held at West Street Chapel (taken over in 1743 from the Huguenots). The 'City Road arrangement', with its central pulpit in front of the sanctuary, copied the eighteenth century Anglican 'auditory chapels' - a layout swept away in nineteenth century Anglicanism by the Oxford Movement and surviving in Methodism only at Northbrook Street, Newbury (1838). Other Methodist chapels, including several designed by William Jenkins, were modelled on Wesley's Chapel.
In the later years of Wesley's life the growing debts incurred by chapel building were a matter of concern to Wesley himself and to the Conference. In response to the growth of chapel debts to a total of £11,385, he inssted: ' Let no other building be undertaken till two thirds of the money are subscribed. We will allow nothing to any house which shall be begun after this day till the debt is reduced to £3,000.'
The continuing growth of WM prosperity and respectability was expressed in the early nineteenth century in the proliferation of substantial and capacious chapels, classical or Renaissance in style, later to be furnished with impressive rostrums. Local trustees often had a decisive influence on the kind of building they wanted. But the burden of debt, which had become a concern of Conference even in Wesley's time, was intensified by years of economic depression following the Napoleonic wars, a problem addressed by Jonathan Crowther senr. and others and eventually by the setting up of a Chapel Committee in 1854.
Following the latest Anglican fashion, the mid-nineteenth century saw a revival of Gothic under the influence of F.J. Jobson and this continued in much simplified form into the twentieth century, with sanctuary and choir stalls in a chancel flanked by pulpit and lectern. The prolific building programme in the later nineteenth century was partly due to the divisions and rivalries within Methodism and coincided with the period when Victorian eclecticism was the architectural vogue. It left a legacy of buildings of varying architectural quality strewn around the country, mostly the work of architects known only within a narrow area. Exceptions to this included J. Wilson of Bath and Sir Banister Fletcher (St George's, Old Kent Road, London).
The Forward Movement of the 1880s produced a new wave of multi-purpose premises, notably the Central Halls in which the distinction between ecclesiastical and secular architecture was deliberately avoided.Extensive rebuilding of premises damages or destroyed in World War II was facilitated by generous support from the Joseph Rank Benevolent Fund. In these post-war years, the Methodist architect E.D. Mills was widespread. Architectural styles and building materials have diversified and there has been increasing emphasis on buildings which relate to community use. The flexible arrangement of the 'worship area' often reflects the emphasis of the Liturgical Movement on sacramental worship and increasing congregational participation; while the effect of the Ecumenical Movement is seen in the number of shared churches.
'The New Room and the New Chapel in City Road are not the only significant examples of Wesley's chapels. They are the architectural extremes. Between them lie High House and Newbiggin in the north, the hidden gem of Raithby, the little cottage chapel at Winchelsea, the octagons and many others whose walls bear silent but moving witness to the faith which raised them and the spark whence it arose.'
Christopher Stell, 'Wesley's Chapels', in John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives (1988) p. 107