John Wesley was the fifteenth child of a Church of England priest and was himself ordained as a priest in 1728.
While studying at Oxford University, Wesley acquired the quality of being able to present clear and rational arguments, which was to characterise his preaching ministry in later years.
As a member of an Oxford Christian group organised by his brother Charles, he developed a concern for the poor and needy. The group visited prisons and the poorest areas giving out food, clothes and medicines. Because of their emphasis on methodical study and prayer, they became known as “Methodists” – a name that was eventually to transfer to the followers of John Wesley.
John Wesley 1703 – 1791
After a failed mission to Georgia in North America, John and Charles Wesley returned to London. In 1738, the brothers had a profound experience of the love of God, which convinced them that salvation was through faith alone. John Wesley wrote:
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
In 1739 George Whitfield, a former member of the group that John and Charles had belonged to, started to preach in the open air around Bristol. This was considered controversial at the time but many poor and uneducated people who never attended church turned up to listen. Planning to go back to America, Whitfield contacted John Wesley and urged him to come and continue the work. Wesley arrived, but with misgivings. However, when he saw the impact of Whitfield’s work, he remembered that Jesus too, had preached his Sermon on the Mount.
Wesley soon began his own career as a “field preacher” which he continued for nearly 50 years, travelling to towns and villages on horseback. Thomas Maxwell became the first of the Methodist lay preachers whom Wesley employed and sent to different parts of the country. Eventually John Wesley began to ordain his own priests after the Bishop of London refused to do so. After his death the movement continued to be popular among the labouring masses and quickly expanded in the 19th century. Methodism has traditionally stressed the need for a personal relationship with God, uncomplicated worship, and compassion for the disadvantaged.
John Wesley to the Somerset miners
John Wesley visited the Somerset coalfield on many occasions, encouraged by the Kingswood and Bristol Methodist Societies. Sometimes he faced a hostile reception, as in the case of Shepton Mallet where an angry mob forced him to take refuge. At Coleford, however, he was met by “honest colliers” who prayed with him both in the evening and the morning before he left. Wesley visited Coleford some twenty-two times, calling the Coleford Methodists his “second Kingswood”.
Mining reconstruction at Radstock Museum
Methodist chapels still lie dotted throughout the North Somerset villages. Methodist preachers travelled many miles by horse and some chapels had a room where they could rest or stay the night, as shown in the reconstruction by Radstock Museum below.
A room for a travelling preacher
A guidebook to the museum speaks of the significance of the Methodist movement to the miners:
Methodism held a strong appeal for the people of mining communities who, in the mid eighteenth century, were largely ignored by the Established Church. It valued humble piety and carried a message of hope, love and eternal life which contrasted sharply with the hardship and poverty of earthly toil which the miners and their families knew only too well (Dexter, A Guide to Radstock Museum, p.19).
The guidebook goes on to say that the chapel became a mainstay of local communities. Sunday schools and Bible classes helped to provide local people with an education, while choirs, guilds and chapel clubs offered a fulfilling use of any spare time. In addition, the chapel background prepared many early trade unionists for their speaking and management duties. Below are some of the artefacts relating to Methodism on display at the Radstock Museum.
The top left photo shows various Methodist memorabila donated to Radstock Museum from around Somerset. In the centre there is a figurine of John Wesley. The top right photo is of a large mug from Vobster, originally used for a Love Feast (this ritual involving a shared drink and bread had died out by the 19th century).
Methodism has a long association with Twerton, where it is known that Methodists were meeting by at least the 1790s. A history of Methodism in Twerton can be read here.