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Plymouth

The modern city combines the former 'Three Towns' of Devonport (known until 1824 as Plymouth Dock), Stonehouse and Plymouth. Andrew Kinsman, born in Tavistock, heard George Whitefield preach in 1744, moved to Plymouth in 1745 and joined the Calvinistic Methodist society there. Its Tabernacle chapel was built on his wife's land, which gave him a controlling position in Plymouth Methodism. In 1753 he opened a chapel called the 'Upper Room' in Devonport, where the naval dockyard had been established in 1691. He was ordained at Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol in 1763 and for 30 years was the leading figure in Plymouth Methodism. After his death both his congregations became Independent. The Moravians also had congregations in both Plymouth and Devonport, the latter's James Street church surviving until 1916.

John Wesley preached in Plymouth in 1746, but because of the prevailing Calvinistic influence he concentrated on Devonport until 1766 and it was there that WM spread most rapidly, though not without problems, as his Journal indicates. The first WM preaching house was built in Lower Street, Plymouth in 1779 and John Wesley preached there in August 1780. In February 1785 he went down to Devonport to deal with a secession led by the junior preacher William Moore, and preached in the shell of Ker Street chapel. Plymouth Central Hall, converted in 1940 from the Ebenezer WM chapel of 1815 in Eastlake Street, was the last such to be opened, its interior completely redisigned. After the destruction of the Guildhall during the blitz, it served as a temporary Civic Centre.

There have been close links with the armed services. In Devonport the WM built the 'Welcome' sailors' hostel in 1908, enlarged into the Central Hallin 1926, rebuilt after the War, but closed in 1986. Other chapels such as the Stonehouse Mission in Union Street (1813, rebuilt 1857, now closed) were parade chapels.

Being the largest conurbation in the South West, Plymouth became the Bible Christians' connexional stronghold, centred on its Greenbank Chapel (1886, closed 1976). Just over half a mile away was the Embankment Road chapel (1903), now in the hands of the Elim Church and the only surviving ex-Bible Christian chapel in Plymouth.

Administratively, Methodist history has been complex: by 1900 there were nine overlapping circuits - four WM, two UMFC, two BC and one PM. The city has hosted 15 BC, 3 WM and 2 UM Conferences and two since Methodist Union. World War II brought devastation to buildings (seven in Devonport alone), resulting in a short-lived city-wide circuit. The great WM King Street Conference chapel was destroyed. Post-war rebuilding with war damage compensation in the outlying estates was only partially successful. In 1999 there were two circuits.

Quotations

John Wesley's Journal:

September 1746: 'Abundance of people from Plymouth were at the room by half-hour after four. I was much refreshed in applying those words to them, "The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing"; and many of us found our hearts knit together in that love which never faileth.'

June 1747: 'Within two miles of Plymouth one overtook and informed us that the night before, all the Dock was in an uproar; and a constable , endeavouring to keep the peace, was beaten and much hurt. As we were entering the Dock, one met us and desired we would go the back way; "for," said he, "there are thousands of people waiting about Mr. Hide's door." We rode up straight into the midst of them. They saluted us with three huzzas; after which I alighted, took several of them by the hand, and began to talk with them. I would gladly have passed an hour among them; and believe, if I had, there had been an end of the riot. But the day being far spent (for it was past nine o'clock) I was persuaded to go in…

[Next day] 'I preached at four, and then spoke severally to part of the society. As yet I have found only one person among them who knew the love of God before my brother came. No wonder the devil was so still, for his goods were in peace.

'About six in the evening I went to the place where I preached last year. [More mob violence threatened.] After waiting about a quarter of an hour, perceiving the violence of the rabble still increasing, I walked down into the thickest of them, and took the captain of the mob by the hand. He immediately said, "Sir, I will see you safe home. Sir, no man shall touch you. Gentlemen, stand off; give back. I will knock the first man down that touches him." We walked on in great peace, my conductor every now and then stretching out his neck (he was a very tall man) and looking round to see if any behaved rudely, till we came to Mr. Hide's door. We then parted in much love. I stayed in the street near half an hour after he was gone, talking with the people, who had now forgot their anger, and went away in high good humour.

[Sunday] 'I preached at five, on the Common, to a well-behaved, earnest congregation; and at eight near the room, on, "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found." The congregation was much larger than before, and equally serious and attentive. At ten I went to church…

'At one I preached again near the room, from those words in the Gospel for the day, "Come, for all things are ready." And the hearts of all that were round about seemed to bow down before the Lord… Before six I went to the head of the town, where we had a large and venerable assembly. The fear of God seemed to spread itself over all, and they received what was spoken as the word of God. Yet once more He hath opened the door, that the gospel may have a free course here also.'

August 1750: [Sunday] 'I preached at eight [at Plymouth Dock], but though the warning was so short the room could not contain the congregation. At five in the evening I preached in a much larger room, the tabernacle in Plymouth; but neither could this contain the numbers who flocked from all parts. And I was surprised at the decency of their behaviour. They were as still as one of our London congregations.'

[Two weeks later] 'I preached in the evening at Plymouth. Multitudes were present; but no scoffer, no inattentive person. The time for this is past, till God shall see good to let Satan loose again.'

July 1753: 'I found much hurt had been done here by the bitter zeal of two or three bigots for their opinion.Two years ago they promised, in the most solemn manner, to let all controversy alone; but quickly after the fire broke out anew, and has been devouring ever since.

[Next day] I endeavoured to convince them that they were destroying, not promoting, the work of God; and on Sunday, when I spoke to the society one by one, they seemed once more aware of Satan's devices.'

August 1753: 'I willingly accepted the offer of preaching in the house lately built for Mr. Whitefield at Plymouth Dock. Thus it behoveth us to trample on bigotry and party zeal. Ought not all who love God to love one another?'

October 1757: 'We rode on [from Liskeard] to the Dock, which gave us a very different prospect. Of those whom I joined several years ago, hardly one half remained. Such is the fruit of disputing! And yet the congregations are more numerous than ever; and as deeply attentive as any in the kingdom. So there is hope that God will yet revive His work.'

September 1760: 'I had but a melancholy prospect [at Plymouth Dock], finding most of the people dead as stones; and when I took account of the society, only thirty-four out of seventy were left. At seven in the evening, and at five in the morning, I strongly exhorted them to return to God. At eight I did the same, and at five in the afternoon; and God made His word as a hammer. At the meeting of the society, likewise, strong and effectual words were given me. Many were convinced afresh; many backsliders cut to the heart; and I left once more between sixty and seventy members.'

September 1765: 'The society at the Dock had been for some time in a miserable condition. Disputes had run so high, concerning a worthless man, that every man's word was set, as it were, against his brother. I showed them how Satan had desired to have them, that he might sift them as wheat; and afterwards told them there was but one way to take - to pass an absolute act of oblivion; not to mention, on any pretext whatever, anything that had been said or done on either side. They fully determined so to do. If they keep that resolution, God will return to them.'

September 1766: 'I came to Plymouth Dock, where, after heavy storms, there is now a calm. The house, nothwithstanding the new galleries, was extremely crowded in the evening. I strongly exhorted the backsliders to return to God, and I believe many received 'the word of exhortation'.

[Next day] 'Being invited to preach in the Tabernacle at Plymouth, I began about two in the afternoon. In the evening I was offered the use of Mr. Whitefield's room at the Dock; but, large as it is, it would not contain the congregation.'

September 1768: [Sunday] 'Our room at the Dock contained the morning congregation tolerably well. Between one and two I began preaching on the quay in Plymouth. Notwithstanding the rain, abundance of people stood to hear. But one silly man talked without ceasing, till I desired the people to open to the right and left, and let me look him in the face. They did so. He pulled off his hat and quietly went away.

'At five I preached in the Square at the Dock to an exceeding large congregation; and the rain, though it prevented some from coming, did not cause any to go away.

[Next day' ] 'In the evening I preached in what is vulgarly called Mr. Whitefield's room. Afterwards I met the society in our own, and exhorted them to "stand fast in one mind and one judgement." '

September 1774: 'It seems, after a long interval of deadness, God is again visiting this poor people. The society is nearly doubled within this year, and is still continually increasing. And many are athirst for full salvation; particularly the young men.'

September 1775: 'I preached at noon on the quay in Plymouth; in the evening in the new square at the Dock. Many here seemed to feel the application of those words, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" '

September 1776: [Sunday] 'I got to Plymouth church a little after the service began. I admired the seriousness and decency of the congregation; none bowed, or curtseyed, or looked about them. And at the Lord's Supper, although both the ministers spoke so low in delivering the elements that none who were not very near could hear a word they said, yet was the congregation as still as if no one had been in the church. I was likewise agreeably surprised at their number. When I was in the church in Hull, I think we had six communicants, beside those that came with me; here I suppose were full three hundred.

'Immediately after the service I went to the quay, and preached on those words in the Epistle for the day, "The Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." I wondered at the exquisite stupidity of the hearers, particularly the soldiers who seemed to understand no more of the matter than so many oxen. So I told them in very plain terms; and some of them were ashamed.'

August 1778: [Sunday] 'At seven I preached in our room, and at one on the Quay at Plymouth. The common people behaved well; but I was shocked at the stupidity and ill-breeding of several officers, who kept walking and talking together all the time with the most perfect unconcern. We had no such Gallios in the evening at the Dock, though the congregation was four times as large. Surely this is an understanding people: may their love be equal to their knowledge!'

August 1780: '[At Plymouth] I expected little comfort. A large preaching-house was built; but who was to pay for it? I preached in it at six, at five in the morning, and on Friday evening; and, from the number and spirit of the hearers, could not but hope that good would be done here also.

[Next day] 'I snatched the opportunity of a fair evening to preach in the Square at Plymouth Dock.

[Sunday] 'At seven in the morning and at five in the evening I preached at the Dock; in the afternoon in Plymouth house. It was crowded sufficiently. After preaching I made a collection for the house, which amounted to above five-and-twenty pounds. When I had done Mr Jane said, "This is not all. We must have a weekly collection both here and at the Dock. Let as many as can subscribe sixpence a week for one year. I will subscribe five shillings a week. And let this be reserved for the payment of the debt." It was done; and by this simple method the most pressing debts were soon paid.'

August 1782: 'A little before I concluded the commanding officer came into the square [at the Dock] with his regiment, but he immediately stopped the drums and drew up all his men in order on the high side of the square. They were as still as night; nor did any of them stir till I had pronounced the blessing.'

February 1785: 'I received letters from the preachers, stewards, and leaders at Plymouth Dock, informing me that William Moore had renounced the Methodists, hired a place to preach in, and drawn away about forty of our members to form a society for himself. They therefore begged I would come down as soon as possible to quench the kindling fire…

March 1785: 'We went on to Plymouth Dock, and found all that we had heard confirmed. But I verily believe we are better without William Moore than with him, as his heart is not right with God.

'To quiet the minds of many well-meaning persons, I preached on those comfortable words, "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered"; and in the morning on "Despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou are rebuked of Him."

[Thursday] 'In the evening I read to the whole congregation a plain statement of the case with regard to the Deed of Declaration, which William Moore had so wonderfully misrepresented., and believe they were all fully satisfied…

[Friday] 'In the evening I preached to a large congregation at Plymouth; and it pleased God to give me uncommon liberty in describing the power of faith. What a blessed proof of this has there been here since I was in the town before!

[Saturday] 'Preaching at the Dock in the evening, I besought all serious people not to "grieve the Holy Spirit of God," but to "put away all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil-speaking." I exhorted them, in particular, not to talk about Mr. Moore at all, but to give him up to God.

[Sunday] I preached at the Dock at seven. Between one and two I began at Plymouth; and as many as could get in seemed to be deeply affected with the application of those words, "Go thy way, and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." … At five I preached in the shell of the new house, on the form and power of godliness. In the evening I met the society once more, confirmed in the truth more than ever, and more determined to walk in the good old way wherein they had continued from the beginning.'

August 1785: 'The late separation here [at the Dock] seems to have done little hurt. A few turbulenty men have left us, but men of a more quiet spirit are continually added in their stead; so that on the whole, we are gainers by our loss. Such is the wisdom of God!

[Saturday] 'In the evening I preached in the new house at Plymouth. This also was well filled.

[Sunday] 'I preached at the Dock at seven, and the house contained us pretty well; but in the evening it was thought as many went away as got in. After preaching, I gave them a plain account of the beginning and progress of that great work of God vulgarly called Methodism.

[Monday] 'I took a cheerful leave of our brethren at the Dock, leaving them well united together.'

February 1787: 'We went on to Plymouth Dock. The large new house, far the best in the west of England, was well filled, though on so short a warning; and they seemed cordially to receive the exhortation, "Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous."

'I had the satisfaction to find the society here in a more flourishing state than ever. Notwithstanding all the pains that have been taken, and all the art that has been used to tear them asunder, they cleave close together; and consequently increase in number as well as in strength.

[Next day] 'We went over to Plymouth, and found the society doubled since I was here before; and they are both more loving than they were then, and more earnest to save their souls. It rained most of the afternoon. However, we had a crowded congregation in the evening; and all of them seemed to feel that God was in the midst of them; for His word was sharper than a two-edged sword … Surely this is a time of love for poor Plymouth also. Oh that they may know the day of their visitation!

'In the evening I preached again at the Dock; and again the power of God was present to heal. The people seemed to be all struck while I opened and strongly applied the parable of the Sower; especially while I was warning them to beware of "the cares of the world, and the desires of other things."

[Next day]: 'In the afternoon I went over to Plymouth … It rained all the evening, but that did not hinder the house from being thoroughly filled with people that heard as for life. This congregation likewise seemed to be "all but their attention, dead." The like has hardly been seen here before. What! Is God about to work in Plymouth also?'

[Sunday] 'I began the service at half an hour past nine, and concluded it before one. I suppose such a number of communicants were never seen before at Plymouth Dock; but there was no disorder or hurry at all. There was more difficult y in the evening; the throng was so great that it was impossible for me to get through them to the pulpit, so at length they made shift to lift me over the seats….

[Next day] 'The house was well filled again, both above and below; and, after a solemn parting, we took coach at six, leaving such a flame behind us as was never kindled here before. God grant it may never be put out!'

September 1787: '…We crossed over [from Torpoint] … to an earnest, affectionate people. The house would ill contain the congregation in the evening; and a joyful meeting it was…

[Next day] 'At noon I preached at Plymouth. The house was crowded enough, and a solemn awe sat on all the people; as likewise in the evening at Plymouth Dock. There is an excellent spirit in this people, and such general peace and unanimity as never was before.'

August 1789: 'I preached to a large audience [in Plymouth] in the evening…

[Next day] 'In the afternoon I went on to the Dock, having previously determined not to say or hear anything of their late senseless quarrel, wherein I could not but blame both sides, and knew not which to blame most.

[Sunday] 'In the morning I believe we had not less than six hundred communicants, but they were all admirably well-behaved, as if they indeed discerned the Lord's body. But when I preached in the afternoon the house would not hold half the congregation. I chose the space adjoining the south side of the house, capable of containing some thousands of people. Besides, some hundreds sat on the ridge of the rock which ran along at my left hand.'

August 1789: {Sunday] 'Our service [at the Dock] began at ten. The rain prevented the chapel being too much crowded. In the evening I preached at Plymouth, on the words in the First Lesson, "How long halt ye between two opinions?" It was an awful season. Afterwards I spent a comfortable evening with a few of our serious brethren. The jars both here and at the Dock seem now to be over, and the contending parties are wiling to live in peace.'

Sources

  • Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, 1904 p.723
  • Methodist Recorder, 22 December 1904
  • WM Conference Handbook, 1913 and 1929
  • George Sails, At the Centre: the story of Methodism's Central Missions (1970), pp.85-6

Entry written by: RFST
Category: Place

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