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Birmingham

Birmingham began to develop rapidly from a market town into a manufacturing centre in the second half of the eighteenth century. Methodism began with the preaching of both Charles and John Wesley in 1743. John Wesley regularly faced hostile mobs and Steelhouse Lane chapel was badly damaged by the mob soon after opening in 1751. In the 1760s the society moved to a disused theatre in Moor Street, then to a chapel in Cherry Street, opened by Wesley in 1782 (enlarged 1822; demolished 1887), preaching to a congregation described by the local press as 'genteel and very numerous'. Within a few years, two more chapels were opened: Bradford Street, Deritend in 1786 (enlarged in the 1820s) and Belmont Row (originally known as 'Coleshill Street), at the 'east end of the town' (1789). For many years the local society had a chequered existence, attacked by the mob and weakened by doctrinal disputes. But with encouragement from the Rev. John Riland, evangelical vicar of St. Mary's Church, Methodism was well established by the end of Wesley's life and during the Priestley riots of 1791 the mob refused to burn down the three chapels, because the Methodists were 'Church People'. Incidental glimpses of Methodism in the town in the 1780 and 90s are furnished by the diary of Julius Hardy, a local button-maker, who recorded the gradual separation of the Methodists from the parish church.

Central Hall   Click to enlarge
Birmingham became the head of a circuit in 1782 and was a regular venue for the WM Conference from 1836 on. Handsworth Theological College opened in 1880. In addition to moving into the expanding suburbs and rural hinterland, WM endeavoured to meet the needs of the poorest parts of the town centre, with Tract Societies, Town Missionaries in the 1840s and regular open-air preaching. This culminated in the formation of the Central Mission in 1887, incorporating the Cherry Street congregation, whose chapel had recently been compulsorily purchased. The impressive Central Hall in Corporation Street was opened in 1903, seating 2,500. The New Town Row and Bradford Street chapels were incorporated in the Mission Circuit. Its first Superintendent was F.L. Wiseman (1887-1913). He was followed by F.H. Benson (1913-1925), E. Benson Perkins (1925-1935), Noel F. Hutchcroft (1935-1948) and Maldwyn L. Edwards (1948-1956). With declining city centre population and attendance, the Central Hall, a Grade II listed building, was substantially redesigned in 1970 and sold in 1989. It became a nightclub before being bought in 2003 for redevelopment for residential use.

The MNC established a society in 1797, took over an Independent chapel in Oxford Street in 1811 and built another in Unett Street in 1838. The WMA opened a chapel at Bath Street in 1839. Both MNC and WMA membership was small until 1850 when, following the Fly Sheets controversy, WM numbers in Birmingham fell dramatically, resulting in some gains for the MNC, but particularly for the WR and WMA. After some rivalry, the former WR chapel in Rocky Lane, Nechells (1854) became the head of the largest UMFC circuit in Birmingham in the later nineteenth century. PM never made an impact in Birmingham comparable with its success in the Black Country. The Balloon Street chapel (1826) broke away from the PM Connexion. Not until 1849 was there a permanent chapel, at New John Street West. The circuit was extensive, but most societies were in rural areas to the south and west, some of which were subsequently incorporated within the city boundaries.Bourne College opened in 1876 and moved to Quinton in 1882.

The 1851 *Religious Census and a local census in 1892 (covering a larger area than the 1891 city) show the relative strength of the different Methodist bodies:

Chapels Sittings
1851 1892 1851 1892
WM 13 517 814 2,454
MNC 3 61 388 2,480
UMFC(WMA +WR) 3 4 870 1,900
PM 3 18 656 4,410

Both in 1851 and in 1892, total Methodist attendances were greater than those of any other single nonconformist denomination, but the CofE remained by far the strongest both in church accommodation and attendances.

In 2011 the four surviving Methodist circuits came together to form a single 'super circuit' embracing the whole of the city and other neighbouring communities such as Solihull, with a membership of aboput 3,000, 42 churches and a threefold superintendency team.

Quotations

Charles Wesley's MS Journal:

Sunday, 5 Feb. 1744: 'Preached in the bull-ring, close to the church, when they rang the bells, threw dirt and stones all the time. None struck me till I had finished my discourse. Then I got several blows from the mob that followed me till we took shelter at a sister's. Received much strength and comfort with the Sacrament.'

John Wesley's Journal:

June 1748: 'About one I began preaching in the open air at Birmingham. At the same time it began to rain violently, which continued about a quarter of an hour; but did not disturb either me or the congregation.'

October 1749: 'This had long been a dry, uncomfortable place; so I expected little good here; but I was happily disappointed. Such a congregation I never saw there before; not a scoffer, not a trifler, not an inattentive person (so far as I could discern) among them. And seldom have I known so deep, solemn a sense of the power, and presence, and love of God… Will, then, God at length cause even this barren wilderness to blossom and bud as the rose?'

March 1751: 'I earnestly warned the society against idle disputes and vain janglings; and afterwards preached on "If ye be led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law." The hearts of many were melted within them; so that neither they nor I could refrain from tears. But they were chiefly tears of joy, from a lively sense of the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. 'At one I was obliged to preach abroad, the room not being able to contain half the congregation. Oh, how is the scene changed here! The last time I preached at Birmingham the stones flew on every side. If any disturbance were made now the disturber would be in more danger than the preacher.'

April 1755: '… a barren, dry, uncomfortable place. Most of the seed which has been sown for so many years the "wild boars" have "rooted up"; the fierce, unclean, brutish, blasphemous Antinomians have utterly destroyed it. And the mystic foxes have taken pains to spoil what remained, with their new gospel. Yet it seems God has a blessing for this place still; so many still attend the preaching, and He is so eminently present with the small number that is left in the society.'

April 1757: 'What havoc have the two opposite extremes, Mysticism and Antinomianism, made among this once earnest and simple people!'

March 1764: 'We had an exceeding large congregation at Birmingham, in what was formerly the playhouse. Happy would it be if all the playhouses in the kingdom were converted to so good a use. After service the mob gathered and threw some dirt and stones at those who were going out. But it is probable they will soon be calmed, as some of them are in jail already. A few endeavoured to make a disturbance the next evening during the preaching; but it was lost labour; the congregation would not be diverted from taking ernest heed to the things that were spoken.'

March 1768: 'The tumults which subsisted here so many years are now wholly suppressed by a resolute magiustrate.'

March 1772: 'Here our brethren 'walk in the fear of God' and 'the comfort of the Holy Ghost', and God has at length made even the beasts of the people to be at peace with them.'

July 1782: 'I preaced once more in the old dreary preaching-house. [Next day, Sunday] I opened the new house at eight, and it contained the people well: but not in the evening; many were then constrained to go away. In the middle of the sermon a huge noise was heard, caused by the breaking of a bench on which some people stood. None of them was hurt, yet it occasioned a general panic at first. But in a few minutes all was quiet.'

[Easter Day, 1785]: 'I preached at seven, on "The Lord is risen indeed", with an uncommon degree of freedom; and then met the local preachers, several of whom seemed to have caught the fashionable disease - desire of independency. They were at first very warm; but at length agreed to act by the Rules laid down in the Minutes of the Conference.'

July 1786: 'I … found the usual spirit in the congregation. They are much alive to God, and consequently increasing in number as well as in grace. [Next day] At noon I preached in the new chapel at Deritend. To build one here was an act of mercy indeed, as the church would not contain a fifth, perhaps not a tenth, of the inhabitants.'

March 1788: 'Here there is a glorious increase of the work of God. The society is risen to above eight hundred; so that it is at present inferior to none in England, except those in London and Bristol.'

March 1790: 'I … went on to Birmingham, which I think is thrice as large as when I saw it fifty years ago. The congregation in the evening were well squeezed together, and most of them got in. The behaviour of the rich and poor is such as does honour to their profession: so decent, so serious, so devout, from the beginning to the end! It was the same the next evening. [Sunday] 'The prayers began at the new house about half an hour after ten. It is a little larger than the new house at Brompton, and admirably well constructed. But several hundreds, I suppose, could not get in. I think all who did found that God was there.'

Sources

  • W.C. Sheldon, Early Methodism in Birmingham (1903; reprinted 2003)
  • Richard Green, in WHS Proceedings, 3 pp.96-98
  • Conference Handbooks 1931 (WM) and 1953
  • Ann Firth, 'The Birmingham Mission' in Brian Hall (ed.), Aspects of Birmingham: discovering local history (Barnsley, 2001) pp.105-19
  • George Sails, At the Centre: the story of Methodism's Central Missions (1970), pp.54-5
  • 'Diary of a Birmingham Methodist' [Julius Hardy], in WHS Proceedings, 39 (1973-4), pp.97-103, 145-8
  • Colin C. Short, 'The Bible Christians in Birmingham', in WHS Proceedings, 50 pp.33-46
  • G. Robson, Dark Satanic Mills:Religion and Irreligion in Birmingham and the Black Country (Carlisle, 2002)

Entry written by: GR
Category: Place

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