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Eastern Counties (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex)

Rural East Anglia held little attraction for John Wesley. Norwich, which he first visited in 1754, was his main destination on his forays from London into the region. He also made frequent visits to Bury St Edmunds (from 1755), Lakenheath (1757), Colchester (1758), Great Yarmouth (1761) and Lowestoft (1764), because these places were on his routes to Norwich. His role was that of consolidator: societies were mostly established by his preachers or local lay people gathering groups in homes or farm buildings for worship. They faced an uphill task: opposition from the clergy and squirearchy was compounded by opposition from Old Dissent, which was strong in these counties. Despite this, until the secessions of the 1830s and '40s, the number of societies and members grew slowly. Although neighbouring villages were evangelized from the towns and chapels were built, WM was never strong.

PM had greater success, particularly in Norfolk, spreading south from Nottingham and Lincoln in 1821. At a time when WM was becoming increasingly 'respectable', PM was regarded as the 'people's' Church. It gave agricultural workers a sense of community at a time of social upheaval and fostered the skills of future trade union leaders. It also recognized the ministry of women: Elizabeth Bultitude served most of her 29 years as a travelling preacher in the Norwich District. The WMA (in the Ipswich area), the WR (mainly in north Norfolk) and the UMFC flourished only briefly in the eastern counties.The 1851 Religious Census recorded 740 Methodist places of worship in the Eastern Counties Division, divided almost entirely between WM (346) and PM (338). By 1989 there were only 438 Methodist churches, over half of them in Norfolk. Total attendances recorded in 1851 were 136,407 (12.2% of the population) with evening services (usually the best attended) totalling 48,652 (4.4%). In Norfolk, where the Reform movement had greater influence, WM was outnumbered by PM in both chapels and attendances. In 1989 both membership and adult worshippers represented 0.8% of the population, the highest figures (1.1% and 1.2%) being in Norfolk.

Sources

  • N. Scotland, Methodism and the Revolt of the Field (1981)
  • Norma Virgoe & Tom Williamson, Religious Dissent in East Anglia (Norwich, 1993)
  • T.C.B. Timmins, Suffolk Returns from the Census of Religious Worship 1851 (Woodbridge, 1997)
  • Janet Ede & Norma Virgoe, Religious Worship in Norfolk (Norwich, 1998)
  • Cyril Jolly, The Spreading Flame: the Coming of Methodism to Norfolk (n.d)
  • Norma Virgoe, 'The Wesleyan Reformers in Norfolk', in WHS Proceedings, 52 pp.87-101
  • Ben Milner, A History of Methodism in East Norfolk (2009)
  • John Garfoot, Chapel Affairs: a personal view of the East Anglia Methodist District 1950-1984 (Wesley Historical Society, 2011)

Entry written by: WDH
Category: Place

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