A history of Methodism and Penzance Wesleyan Society

An account by Keith Austin

I set out to try and write an account of Chapel St. Methodist Church, however, I found to my surprise, that it is the third or fourth Wesleyan site in Penzance and that there would have been no church, but for the inspiration of those who created it. I was more surprised that they were in fact amongst the  first followers of John Wesley.

"In modern England indifference to religion has grown enormously in the past few years, and there is much violent hostility to religion, while among those who wish to remain Christians deplorable disunion prevails, and religious bickering occupies too much of our strength.

It is men who inspired by movements not movements by men, but the wonderful growth of the Methodist Movement was mainly due to the personality and energy of John Wesley. We must not forget the influence of the other members of the little band with whom the Movement started, especially his brother Charles, whose hymns helped so greatly to kindle enthusiasm all over the country. John Wesley speaks of "we," not "I." Still it was he who was the leading spirit, and it was from him the "Wesleyan" became at a later period an alternative name for "Methodist"."

Today there is much talk of ecumenism, however it is not as new, as we might be led to believe.

1703 17th June   John Wesley born. in a country parsonage, his father was Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire. At  the age of seventeen he went to Oxford. In 1726 he was elected Fellow of Lincoln College. He had been ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford on 19th Sept. 1725, after earnestly preparing himself for receiving holy orders. He received priest's orders three years later 22nd Sept. 1728.

1729 John & Charles Wesley met for regular Bible Study whilst at Oxford and were given the name of the "Holy Club", but from their orderly life of prayer, worship and service to the poor, became known as Methodists.

1739 John Wesley started preaching in the open air in Bristol, and soon after built the first preaching house for the Methodists. The New Room in Bristol.  To this day the names of two Cornish itinerants can be seen carved into the windows Richard Treffry and  Francis Woolf

1743-1789 John Wesley visited Cornwall on thirty two occasions  Those who followed his preaching became known as Wesleyans

1743 Methodism first came to Cornwall after a Bristol Methodist Sea-captain visited in early 1743, and found a religious society in being there. Later in the year first Charles and then John Wesley came to visit St Ives.  And in his journal, there was a touch of irony:- 'They took me into their fellowship and not I  to them.'

John Wesley found St Ives, Morvah and St Just more fruitful than Penzance. This might well have been due to great opposition from  Dr Walter Borlase, Vicar of Madron and magistrate. Penzance was then still part of Madron Parish.

1744 24th July. Charles Wesley's diary "I spake with some who have tasted the good word of grace, though they live in Penzance, where Satan keeps his seat."

1746 England was divided into six circuits, Cornwall being one of them.

It is interesting to note the gradual change in attitude that John Wesley had to the people of Penzance, from extracts from his journal.

1747 12 July.  'I rode to Newlyn... to a rising ground near the seashore where a smooth white sand to stand on. An immense multitude of people was gathered together...... Before I had ended my prayer some poor wretches of Penzance began cursing and swearing and thrusting people off the bank.... I was thrown into the midst of them, when one of Newlyn, a bitter opposer till then, turned about and swore, "none shall meddle with the man: I will lose my life first." Many others were of his mind, so I ... finished my sermon without interruption.'

1748 25th September. 'I reached Newlyn... Here a rude, gaping, staring rabble-route, some or other of them were throwing dirt or stones continually. But before I had done, all were quiet and still, and some looked as if they felt what was spoken.'

1756  John Wesley said:-' I closed the Conference by a solemn declaration of our purpose, never to separate from the Church. Are we not, by little and little sliding into a separation from the Church ?. O remove every tendency thereto with all diligence. 1. Let all our preachers go to Church. 2. Let all the people go constantly and 3, Receive the sacrament at every opportunity. 4,  Warn them against despising the prayers of the Church.......against calling our preachers ministers, our houses meeting houses, (call them plainly preaching houses).'

1757 John Wesley was shocked to find that a Methodist Preaching house had been built exactly like a Presbyterian meeting house, and remarked gloomily that it was 'perhaps an omen of what will happen when I am gone.'

1760  17th September. 'I preached on the cliff near Penzance, where no one now gives an uncivil word.'

1765 Cornwall divided into two circuits 'East Cornwall' and 'West Cornwall'.

1766 6th September ' I preached in a meadow adjoining to Penzance. The whole congregation behaved well. The old bitterness is gone, and perhaps, had it not been market day, I might have had a quiet hearing in the market place.

1768 5th September. I preached at Penzance. Surely God will have a people even in this place, where we have so long seemed only to beat the air.

1771 Richard Treffry was born at Newtown Tregony. He traveled mainly in Cornish circuits between 1796 and 1821, including two periods at Penzance,  and he was for five years  Chairman of the  Cornwall District;

1774  1st September. 'At Penzance ... I took my stand at the end of the town, and preached the whole gospel to a listening multitude'

1776 21st August. I preached at Penzance in a gentleman's balcony which commanded the market place, to a huge congregation... The word fell heavy, upon high and low, rich and poor. Such an opportunity I never had in Penzance before.'

'The Gentleman's balcony' which commanded the market place' was probably at the Star Inn. The balcony was removed in 1860.

1778 1st November     John Wesley opened the second Chapel to his design, a new chapel in city road in London, quickly known as 'Wesley's Chapel' now regarded as the cathedral of World Methodism. Chapel Street Penzance, is very closely modelled on these two buildings built to the order of John Wesley.

1779 2000 Cornish members

          " a house in Marrope lane  registered in Penzance as a place for Protestant Dissenters" . This may have been the "forgotten place of worship" in St Mary's Terrace used by a wagon maker in 1883.

1780 23rd August. " I went to Penzance, it is now a pleasure to be here, the little flock being united in love. I preached at a little distance from the preaching house.

Methodist preaching house in Penzance seated 1000. The services were at 10.a.m. ,so as not to be in conflict with service at St. Mary's chapel, service at 6.00 p.m. St Mary's chapel was part of Madron parish, and was on the site of St Mary's Church, which was not built until 1835.

1781 29th August. I preached in the market place at Penzance... This is another of the towns wherein the whole stream of the people is turned, as it were, from east to west.

1782 Richard Treffry junior, subsequently wrote of the greatest revival at St Just, but that 'of permanent good, it was probably the least productive'.

1783 West Cornwall divided into two St Ives & Redruth. First quarterly meeting held in St Ives .

1787 8th September.  He arrived unexpectedly by sea from Guernsey.  'we appeared to our friends here as men raised from the dead'   John Wesley baptised the son of Theophilus Lessey's the then superintendent in Penzance. Dr Coke was with him and preached at 6.a.m "to as many as the preaching house would contain. At 10. I  was obliged to take the field by the multitude of people flocked together. I found a very uncommon liberty of speech among them, and cannot doubt but that the work of God will flourish in this place.

Under English law 'Dissenting' preachers and chapels had to registered to avoid prosecution and after many years of stubborn resistance, Wesley had to admit that Methodists came into the same legal category as Baptists and Congregationists. He advised that all Methodist preachers and preaching places should be licensed by law and that they should be known as "Methodist Chapels" and preachers of the gospel.

1788 Charles Wesley died in London

1789 4000 Cornish Members

4th August. four days before leaving Cornwall for the last time, when on a rainy afternoon he preached in the new preaching house, "considerably the largest  and, in many respects, far the best, in Cornwall.   Wesley stayed with William Carne.

1790 a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was erected, in which divine service was performed until 1814 ( It must have been finished earlier because of previous entry).Click here to continue

© Keith Austin


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iriss of Penzance,

66 Chapel Street, Penzance,

Cornwall TR18 4AD   UK

Telephone/fax: +44 (0) 1736 366568
email: iriss@chapelstreet.co.uk