Editor’s Note: Wesleyan Wisdom columnist Donald Haynes recently traveled to England, and reports here on a visit to Wesley’s Chapel in East London.
LONDON—No pilgrimage is quite so meaningful to anyone influenced by John Wesley as to walk along the concrete and glass jungle of commercial buildings which line City Road in the Moorfields section of East London and suddenly see green trees on both sides of the arterial urban street.
On one’s left is Bunhill Fields, the burying ground for Dissenters who could not, in the 18th century, be buried in parish churchyards of the Church of England. Susanna Wesley had left the good graces of the Church of England. Among other Dissenters, her grave is there, not beside her husband, Samuel, who was buried in “holy ground.”
On one’s right the trees shade the huge statue of a small man with his hands extended in a global reach, pointing not to the church behind him but to the world beyond Britannia. One hundred and twenty yards from the curb stands the “mother church of Methodism,” which Wesley called the “New Chapel on City Road” and we call “Wesley’s Chapel.”
It was in March 1776 that he recognized the impending closure of the cavernous old Foundery which had been the institutional center of London Methodism since 1739. In his words, “As we cannot depend on having the Foundery long, we met to consult about building a new chapel. Our petition to the City for a piece of ground lies before their Committee. . . .” By October in the year Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, Wesley reported approval to move ahead with a lease and construction. He acquired the services of a brilliant architect and contracted with “an affluent Methodist builder,” Samuel Tooth.
As a demonstration of his influence in the secular politics of London during our American Revolution, Wesley negotiated with the city fathers to waive a city ordinance against a non-Anglican church facing the street! The law required a row of houses on street-side with the house of Dissenting worship to the rear. Wesley agreed that if the multi-ministry church could be set back 120 yards with nothing dividing its view from the street, he would require that only ordained Anglican clergy would occupy its pulpit on Sundays. He agreed that Holy Communion would be celebrated each Sunday by established church clergy. He also agreed to a lease rather than a deed.
The “new chapel” was not a plain meeting house, nor a gothic church. It was a basilica in architecture, with a dominating pulpit, a communion rail from the old Foundery, clear glass windows, a nave that seated several hundred, and a huge balcony supported by ship mast timbers donated by King George III (even as we were burning the monarch in effigy all over the colonies). Wesley’s first “connexional appeal” for the construction project was £ 6,000. The day the foundation was laid, April 21, 1777, was a day of rain—which Wesley welcomed—because it “befriended us much, by keeping away thousands who purposed to be there. But there were still such multitudes that it was with great difficulty I got through them to lay the first stone.”
Methodist scholar Frank Baker noted that “Wesley’s New Chapel was not simply another preaching house. It was separatist even in its architecture, and from the outset a centre for sacramental worship as well as for preaching and fellowship and social service. These premises, in fact, functioned very much like an active Anglican Church, though without recognizing any allegiance to diocesan or parochial authorities.”
Wesley’s Chapel was what Albert Outler called “the symbiosis of a connexion of religious societies within a national church.” This careful language reflects the paradox of building a “Methodist Chapel” that Wesley insisted was not a church! Upon laying the foundation, Wesley insisted in his sermon “that we do not, will not, form any separate sect, but from principle remain, what we always have been, true members of the Church of England.” (It was the American Revolution and Independence that forced him to reconsider this in 1784 by ordaining Thomas Vasey and Richard Whatcoat, “setting aside” the ordained Dr. Thomas Coke, and authorizing them to ordain Francis Asbury once they arrived in America. British Methodists remained in the Church of England until 1832.)
However, Wesley closed his sermon with a long recounting of the essential message of Methodist sermons: “Let our whole soul pant after a general revival of pure religion and undefiled, the restoration of the image of God, pure love, in every child of man! Then let us endeavour to promote, in our several stations, this scriptural, primitive religion; let us, with all diligence, diffuse the religion of love . . . always remembering those deep words, . . . ‘God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’” (I John 4:16)
Wesley’s Chapel today
Today, the Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel holds the single chair in the United Kingdom House of Lords reserved for a Methodist—“Lord Leslie Griffiths.” There is no confirmation as in the United Methodist Church. The membership at Wesley’s Chapel is 460, which is 80 percent African. With more than 200 in worship on a recent Sunday, we found the chapel to be a vibrant, warm, cosmopolitan but local congregation—a place of worship, fellowship and mission, not a museum or a repository of history.
Following British Methodist custom, an usher gives you a hymnal with an inserted bulletin and a warm personal greeting as you enter. The lector on this Sunday was Lord Griffiths. Scripture readers included a young Asian man, a young African man and an older English woman. The preacher was the associate minister, Jennifer Potter. Communion was served at two rails, including one given by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Methodist, who was married there. The other comes from the Old Foundery, dating to 1739. The four stewards served us from four “common cups” as we kneeled; it was explained that the fruit of the vine was non-alcoholic, an important distinction from the Church of England.
The last to take communion were the children from the balcony. They filled the communion rails and stood three deep awaiting their turn. There must have been 40 of them, and they are part of the regular congregation, not tourists! After worship, refreshments and fellowship lasted another hour as everyone was warmly welcomed. Following a tour of the entire complex, Peter Mavunga, a Londoner from Zimbabwe who reads this Reportercolumn regularly, told me that he decided that day to move his family’s membership to Wesley’s Chapel, though it would mean riding three different underground trains to get there! This 18th century church has adapted to a radically changing London and is vitally alive and thriving.
In 1881, the old shipmast timbers were rotting and new marble pillars were installed to hold up the balcony. These were given by Methodist churches around the world. In the style of the Victorian era, the clear windows were replaced with stained glass. The ornate ceiling of white and gold was restored, just as Wesley ordered its design—to glorify the “Church triumphant.” At that time also, pews with backs were added, each with a pull-out extension into the aisle, on which people can sit when the church is packed.
Dorothy Scott is a lay volunteer who gave two hours of her Sunday to lead a tour of the Wesley House, adjacent to the chapel. From Wesley’s study window, one can still be moved by the scene on which Mr. Wesley looked—across the street to his mother’s gravesite. His original books with his notations are still in the glass case. The house also contains “preachers’ bedrooms” (they were required to be in the Chapel at 5:00 a.m. for morning prayers!).
This was my sixth visit, but entering Wesley’s bedroom and knowing that he died in this little space is still very emotional for me. The quill is still there that he used to sign his last letter, to William Wilberforce, encouraging the young member of Parliament to keep up the fight to abolish slavery. In this room, Wesley uttered to the lay preachers who surrounded his bed the words on which my mother reared me as a child: “Best of all, God is with us.”
Adjacent to the bedroom is a 6×6-foot room that served as Wesley’s personal prayer room. On the prae dieu is a Bible. In the two months Wesley stayed here each year, we were told he came to prayer at 4:00 a.m., and “from this room Mr. Wesley kept in touch with the universe.”
Adjacent to the sanctuary is the smaller Foundery Chapel, with Charles Wesley’s organ, one original pew from the Old Foundery and other furnishings brought from that building. The Foundery had been a munitions factory that Wesley leased from the crown for ₤115, and then spent ₤800 remodeling and partitioning in 1739.
From 1739-1777, the Foundery was the heartbeat of London Methodism. It had provided living quarters for itinerating preachers; a halfway house for the homeless; a book room where the writings of Wesley, Adam Clarke, John Fletcher and James Arminius were sold; space for 66 weekly class meetings; a chapel that held 300
people; a day school for young scholars; and London’s first free dispensary for food and milk. The Foundery was the location of Susanna Wesley’s apartment, where she spent her final years as a host and servant. It was really like a Franciscan monastery until the lease expired, forcing Wesley to relocate the diverse ministries.
Behind Wesley’s Chapel is John Wesley’s monument, and underneath are his remains, encased in lead. On one side these words are inscribed: “The Venerable John Wesley, late Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. This great light arose by the singular providence of God to enlighten these nations, and to revive, enforce, and defend the pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive Church, . . . gloriously triumphing over Death March 2nd, An. Dom. 1791 in the eighty-eighth year of his age.”
At Wesley’s Chapel, “we are standing on holy ground.” During our visit, we sang from the 2011 edition of the British Methodist hymnal a hymn written by Peter Relf in the dark days of World War II (1944):
In my life, in my heart, Christ comes with the Spirit’s fire!
This is God’s brand new start, giving me my heart’s desire.
In this place, at this time, in my life, Immanuel.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.