'Old Rectory' (1709)   Click to enlarge
Epworth was the birthplace of both John and Charles Wesley and of Methodism's first reformer, Alexander Kilham.

It was the home of the Wesley family from 1697 to 1735. Both John and Charles Wesley were born there. The Old Rectory, rebuilt by their father Samuel Wesley after the fire of 1709, remained the family home until he died in 1735. In 1956 it was purchased by the World Methodist Council and is a major centre of Methodist pilgrimage from March to October. In 2006 a Heritage Lottery Fund grant made further restoration plans possible.

John Wesley returned to his birthplace in 1742 to find a society already established there, and he came almost every other year until 1790. He preached often in the old market place and on one memorable occasion, in 1742, when refused the pulpit in the parish church, on his father's tomb in the churchyard. But Epworth was never a Methodist stronghold. The first chapel (1758) was replaced by a larger one in 1821, opened by Adam Clarke. An Epworth Circuit existed briefly 1765-66 and more permanently from 1776. Wesley Memorial (1889) is the head of the Epworth and Scunthorpe Circuit, extending from Crowle in the north to Wroote (where John Wesley was his father's curate 1727-1729) in the south, and including Owston Ferry where John Downes was arrested and JW nearly drowned, and Haxey.

PM arrived in 1821 under the vibrant Scotter Circuit, with a small chapel replaced by more extensive premises in 1883. Its circuit was coterminous with the WM one. Epworth was also the birthplace of Alexander Kilham and a MNC cause was established in 1797, with a circuit extending into Yorkshire. In 1860 Kilham Memorial replaced an 1803 chapel, and this is now used as a youth centre.


John Wesley's Journal:

June 1742: 'It being many years since I had been in Epworth before, I went to an inn in the middle of the town, not knowing whether there were any left in it now who would not be ashamed of my acquaintance. But an old servant of my father's, with two or three poor women, presently found me out…

[Next day, Sunday] 'A little before the service began I went to Mr. Romley, the curate, and offered to assist him either by preaching or reading prayers; but he did not care to accept of my assistance. The church was exceeding full in the afternoon, a rumour being spread that I was to preach. But the sermon [by Romley] on "Quench not the Spirit" was not suitable to the expectation of many of the hearers… After sermon John Taylor stood in the churchyard, and gave notice, as the people were coming out, "Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o'clock."

'Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before. I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father's tombstone, and cried, "The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drinl; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." '

January 1743 [Sunday]: 'At five I preached on "So is every one that is born of the Spirit". About eight I preached from my father's tomb, on Heb. viii.11. Many from the neighbouring towns asked if it would not be well, as it was sacrament Sunday, for them to receive it. I told them, "By all means; but it would be more respectful first to ask Mr. Romley, the curate's leave." One did so, in the name of the rest; to whom he said, "Pray tell Mr. Wesley I shall not give him the sacrament, for his is not fit." '

February 1743: 'I was to preach at six; but the house not being able to contain half the congregation, I went out and declared, "We love Him because He first loved us." In the morning, I largely explained "the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." And it was high time; for I soon found the spirit of delusion was gone abroad here also; and some began to boast that Christ "had made them free" who were still the "servants of sin." In the evening I preached on that bold assertion of St. John (indeed, of all who have the true Spirit of adoption), "We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness." '

April 1745, [Sunday]: 'I preached in the house at five, on "Quench not the Spirit"; about eight at the Cross; and again in the evening to most of the adults in the town. Prro Mr. R's sermon, from beginning to end, was another "railing accusation." Father, forgive him; for he knoweth not what he doeth!'

October 1745 [Sunday]: 'I had the satisfaction of hearing Mr. Romley preach an earnest, affectionate sermon, exhorting all men to prevent the judgements of God by sincere, inward, universal repentance. It rained both before and after, but not while I preached at the Cross in the afternoon. In the evening I strongly exhorted the society to "fear God and honour the King." '

July 1748: 'Mr. Hay, the rector, reading prayers, I had once more the comfort of receiving the Lord's Supper at Epworth. After the evening service I preached at the Cross again, to almost the whole town. I see plainly we have often judged amiss when we have measured the increase of the work of God, in this and other places, by the increase of the society only. The society here is not large; but God has wrought upon the whole place. Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness are no more seen in these streets; cursing and swearing are rarely heard. Wickedness hides its head already. Who knows but, by-and-by, God may utterly take it away?

'I was peculiarly pleased with the deep seriousness of the congregation at church, both morning and evening; and all the way we walked down Church Lane, after the sermon was ended, I scarce saw one person look either side, or speak one word to another.'

May 1751: 'We returned to Epworth, to a poor, dead, senseless people. At which I did not wonder when I was informed (1) that some of our preachers there had diligently gleaned up and retailed all the evil they could hear of me; (2) that some of them had quite laid aside our hymns, as well as the doctrine they formerly preached; (3) that one of them had frequently spoke against our rules, and the others quite neglected them. Nothing, therefore, but the mighty power of God could have kept the people so well as they were.

[Next day, Sunday] 'I came to Epworth just in time for the afternoon service, and, after church, walked down straight to the Cross. The north-east wind was strong and keen, yet the bulk of the congregation did not regard it.'

March 1758 [Sunday]: 'I was much comforted at church both morning and afternoon, by the serious behaviour of the whole congregation - so different from what it was formerly. After evening service I took my stand in the market-place, with a multitude of people from all parts. Towards the end of the sermon the rain was heavy, but it neither lessened nor disturbed the congregation.

[Next day] 'I preached in the shell of the new house…'

June 1763: 'I preached at the room in the morning; in the afternoon at the market-place; and about one the congregation gathered from all parts in Haxey parish, near Westwood-side. At every place I endeavoured to settle the minds of the poor people, who had been not a little harassed by a new doctrine which honest Jonathan C---- and his converts had industriously propagated among them - that "there is no sin in believers; but the momnt we believe sin is destroyed, root and branch." I trust this plague also is stayed; but how ought these unstable ones to be ashamed who are so easily "tossed about with every wind of doctrine"!'

[Next day] 'Even in Epworth a few faithful servants of Satan were left who would not leave any stone unturned to support his tottering kingdom. A kind of gentleman got a little party together, and took huge pains to disturb the congregation. He hired a company of boys to shout, and made a poor man exceeding drunk, who bawled out much ribaldry and nonsense, while he himself played the French horn. But he had little fruit of his labour. I spoke a few words to their champion, and he disappeared. The congregation was not at all disturbed, but quietly attended to the end.'

July 1779: 'So general an outpouring of God's Spirit we had seldom known as we had at Epworth in the afternoon.

                        Like mighty wind, or torrent fierce,
                        It did opposers all o'errun.

Oh that they may no more harden their hearts, lest God should swear, "They shall not enter into my rest"!'

May 1782: 'I found the accounts I had received of the work of God here were not at all exaggerated. Here is a little country town, containing a little more than eight or nine hundred grown people; and there has been such a work among them as we have not seen in so short a time either at Leeds, Bristol, or London.

[Next day, Sunday] 'The huge congregation was in the market-place at Epworth, and the Lord in the midst of them. The lovefeast which followed exceeded all. I never knew such a one here before. As soon as one had done speaking, another began. Several of them were children; but they spoke with the wisdom of the aged, though with the fire of youth. So out of the mouths of babes and sucklings did God perfect praise…

[Tuesday]: 'Some years ago four factories for spinning and weaving were set up at Epworth. In these a large number of young women, and boys and girls, were employed. The whole conversation of these was profane and loose to the last degree. But some of these, stumbling in at the prayer-meeting, were suddenly cut to the heart. These never rested till they had gained their companions. The whole scene was changed. In three of the factories no lewdness or profaneness were found; for God had put a new song in their mouth, and blasphemies were turned to praise. Those three I visited today, and found religion had taken deep root in them. No trifling word was heard among them, and they watch over each other in love. I found it exceeding good to be there, and we rejoiced together in the God of our salvation.'

June 1784: 'I rode to Epworth, which I still love beyond most places in the world. In the evening I besought all them that had been so highly favoured "not to receive the grace of God in vain."

[Next day, Sunday] 'At four I took my stand in Epworth market-place, and preached on those words in the Gospel for the day, "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance." It seemed as if very few, if any, of the sinners then present were unmoved.

[Next day] 'I inquired into the state of the work of God which was so remarkable two years ago. It is not yet at an end; but there has been a grievous decay, owing to several causes: (1) The preachers that followed Thomas Tattershall were neither so zealous nor so diligent as he had been. (2) The two leaders to whom the young men and lads were committed went up and down to preach, and so left them in a great measure to themselves; or rather, to the world and the devil. (3) The two women who were the most useful of all others forsook them; the one leaving town, and the other leaving God. (4) The factories which employed so many of the children failed, so that all of them were scattered abroad. (5) The meetings of the children by the preachers were discontinued; so their love soon grew cold; and as they rose into men and women, foolish desires entered, and destroyed all the grace they had left. Nevertheless, great part of them stood firm, especially the young maidens, and still adorn their profession. This day I met the children myself, and found some of them still alive to God. And I do not doubt but if the preachers are zealous and active, they will recover most of those that have been scattered.'

June 1786: 'I took a cheerful leave of my affectionate friends at Epworth, leaving them much more alive than I found them.'

June 1788: 'I came once more (perhaps for the last time) to Epworth, where, by the prudence and diligence of T. Tattershall, the people have now forgot their feuds, and are at unity with each other.

[Next day] 'I preached in the morning on Psalm xc.12; in the evening on Acts xiii.40,41…

[Sunday] 'I preached … about four at my old stand in Epworth market-place, to the great congregation. Here there used to be a few mockers; but there were none now: all appeared serious as death while I applied those solemn words, "When the breath of man goet forth," &c. We concluded with a lovefeast, at which many declared, with an excellent spirit, the wonderful works of God.'

July 1788: 'I came to Epworth before the church service began; and was glad to observe the seriousness with which Mr. Gibson read prayers, and preached a plain, useful sermon; but was sorry to see scarce twenty communicants, half of whom came on my account. I was informed likewise that scarce fiftuy persons used to attend the Sunday service. What can be done to remedy this sore evil?

'I fain would prevent the members here from leaving the church; but I cannot do it. As Mr. G[ibson] is not a pious man, but rather an enemy to piety, who frequently preaches against the truth, and those that hold and love it, I cannot with all my influence persuade them either to hear him, or to attend the sacrament administered by him. If I cannot carry this point even while I live, who then can do it when I die? And the case of Epworth is the case of every church where the minister neither loves nor preaches the gospel. The Methodists will not attend his ministrations. What then is to be done?

'At four I preached in the market-place, on Rom. vi.23; and vehemently exhorted the listening multitude to choose the better part.'

July 1790: 'I reached Epworth, and, after preaching in the evening, met the society, and reminded them of what they were some years ago, and what they are now, scarce retaining the shadow of their former zeal and activity in all the ways of God…

[Next day, Sunday] '…[I hastened back [from Misterton] to Epworth; but I could not reach it till the church service was begun. It was observed Mr. Gibson read the prayers with unusual solemnity; and I believe he was not displeased to see five times as many at church and ten times as many at the Lord's table, as usual. As soon as the afternoon service ended, I began in the market-place to press that awful question, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" on such a congregation as was never seen at Epworth before.'

  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number,1907 pp.61-4
  • H.J. Foster, 'The Isle of Axholme', in WHS Proceedings, 5 pp.196-205
  • MNC in: WHS Proceedings, 36 pp.14-15
  • William Leary, 'An Epworth Circuit Society Book', in WHS Proceedings, 36 pp.59-60
  • Polly Marshall, Wesley Memorial Church, Epworth (1988)
  • David Leese, Revival and Reform: Methodism in Epworth (2013)