A History of Wesley’s Chapel

Background

Wesley’s Chapel, which it is now called, was referred to in historical documents as New Foundry, the New Chapel, Mr. Wesley’s Chapel and City Road Chapel.

The first mention of the project to build a Chapel was in a letter written by John Wesley to his brother Charles on 17th March 1775 ‘On Friday I hope to be in London, and to talk with the committee about building a new Foundry’.  Five months later writes ‘that as we cannot depend of having the Foundry long, we met to consult about building a new chapel’. (until that time Wesley had used the site of the Old Foundery as a base for his preaching)

The undertaking was of such importance that that it was necessary to lay the project before the entire Connexion, which luckily was holding the Conference in London that year (1776).  The Conference sanctioned a general subscription throughout the Connexion in order to obtain the necessary funds for the building of the chapel.  JW mentions in his Journal ‘We made our 1st subscription towards building the New Chapel and at this and two following meetings £1000 were made.

The plan of Chapel was initially based on a Methodist Meeting house with Anglican additions such as the Apse. The contracts for the work were taken up by Mr. Samuel Tooth, a builder, known to Wesley, who lived in the neighbourhood.  Mr. Tooth was therefore responsible for the building of the chapel, the morning chapel and JW’s house.

John Wesley asked for more subscriptions to be made in order to carry out the work.  The authorities thought that the chapel would not be of great architectural interest and therefore stipulated that the frontage should be covered by dwelling houses leaving only an archway for access to the premises.

However, the main road leading out of the city northwards from Moorfields were very narrow.  The authorities soon proposed to widen the streets and had to ask Wesley if they could take some of the land to the East of the proposed Chapel in order to widen Tabernacle Walk into a road and also at the front of the property to widen Dog bar Road into what eventually became City Road.  Wesley agreed as long as they would reconsider their plans for houses to the front of the property.  So he was allowed his original plan to build the Chapel together with his house.   An almost identical house was built on the other side of the large forecourt some years later.

On Monday April 21st 1777 the foundation stone of the New Chapel was laid, many thousands gathering to witness the event, despite rain.  The brass plate fitted to the stone read ‘This was laid by Mr. John Wesley, on April 21,1777; probably this will be seen no more by any human eye; but will remain there till the earth, and works thereof, are burned up’.  It was an important moment in the history of Methodism.  John Wesley took the opportunity to describe the foundation of Methodism, from the early days in Oxford when he and Charles belonged to the Holy Club and were dubbed ‘Methodists’ for being so methodical.  He then went on to describe his career and that of his brother Charles in Georgia and the religious energy which led to their exclusion from the Anglican churches, which made them having to preach in the open air.  ‘Methodism, so-called is not a new religion; it is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Church of England’.

On Sunday November 1st 1778 was the day appointed for the opening of the New Chapel in City Road.  JW notes in his Journal ‘It is perfectly neat, but not fine; and contains more people than the Foundry’.  The authorities were worried that the great number of people attending the first service would cause a disturbance, but ‘all was quietness, decency and order’.

Three times the Chapel escaped destruction by fire.  The first time was two years after it was built.  Wesley was the first to notice it and raised the alarm.  Luckily the wind changed direction so as to prevent the fire from spreading to the main buildings.

The second time was 100 years later on Sunday 6th December 1879.  A passing policeman noticed flames issuing from under the Morning Chapel and roused the Minister.  The problem was dense fog and frost had frozen the stop- cock, which prevented the firemen from obtaining water.   By the time they managed to thaw the tap the fire had taken hold of the Chapel. The ceiling collapsed due to the fire and water poured through trap doors in the roof, damaging much of the interior.

The third time was during World War II.  Fire watchers prevented the fire from neighbouring buildings which had been bombed.  Once again the wind changed to prevent further disaster.

 

Interior

In1807 it was suggested that the roof of the Chapel should be raised, but the idea was abandoned.   At that time, the chapel contained the widest of unsupported ceiling in England.  It was destroyed in the second fire on this site, but was completely remoulded from the original casts of 1778. It was based on a designed by Robert Adam (1728-92). The whole of the ceiling is white except for circular patterns highlighted in gold.  On each of the four corners is an elongated gold leafed triangle into which is placed three golden winged cherubs, within a white semicircle.

Ceiling

Today the gallery surrounds the chapel on three sides.  Initially there were only two rows of seats and all the space behind was a level platform used as standing room.  All the pews were open and although some of the seats were paid for no-one was allowed to claim any particular pew as his own.  Further down from the gallery, around its round the entire length is a relief of a dove with an olive branch in its beak, it is encircled by a serpent swallowing its own tail and between each one is a triglyph.  This pattern is also highlighted in gold leaf. Later this motif was repeated round the pediment of the portico entrance to the chapel.

 

Organ

In Wesley’s day there was no musical instrument in the chapel.  Until 1882 the singing was led by the precentor, who occupied the lowest seat of the pulpit and had a tuning fork.  In 1882 organ pipes from the nearby Jewin Street Chapel were installed when this chapel closed .  The keyboard was located below in front of the pulpit. The total cost of this was £150 including £30 for the installation.

In 1938 the organ was moved to its present position at the back of the gallery. A new wooden case was created and more pipes were added. The keyboard remained in the same place, in front of the pews, below in the main body of the chapel.

Organ

 

Stained Glass

All the windows in the Chapel were originally made of plain glass which made for a much brighter interior.   Methodism had relied on the Word rather than imagery, which had been used by Catholics and had been condemned as idolatry during the Reformation.  During the 19th century, due to the Anglo Catholic and Gothic Revival, stained glass windows came back into fashion and were adopted enthusiastically by most churches.

Only in the Apse was there stained glass before 1891 when it was decided to embellish the Chapel to mark the centenary of John Wesley’s death. A comprehensive plan, involving 34 windows with relevant iconographic subjects, was proposed .  Donors were asked to choose from a pre-arranged scheme but this did not go to plan, through lack of funds. Eventually donors were allowed to choose their own subject and artist.  The Chapel’s stained glass windows were, therefore, put in without a cohesive plan.

In the top gallery to the left of the chapel is a stained glass window of John Wesley preaching to the world (1870).  It is framed with golden scrolls interspersed with red double ended crowns.  The glazing depicts John Wesley standing on a knoll under a tree preaching to 11 people from various parts of the world – there is only one European figure in the lower right hand side, kneeling on one knee with his head in his right hand, holding a scythe in his left.  It was originally placed in the centre of the Apse.

Window 5

Further along on the same side can be seen The Wesleys Conversion (1924) The window does not depict the actual moment of Conversion in Adlersgate Street, but some time later. The whole of the window is in two parts, (the top part was originally placed on the landing in Wesley’s house) and is framed by white pilasters with gold detailing and crowned by 2 angels holding a banner saying ’Where shall my wandering soul begin’. Two thirds of the window depicts the evening when John went to visit Charles in the house of John Bray, to tell him of the conversion he experienced at the meeting house in Aldersgate when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’. Charles is shown wearing a red dressing gown with gold lapels and a purple belt. John is still is his preaching gown.  (This part of the window used to be set in a landing in Wesley’s House) The lower part of the window, depicts Charles seated at his desk, pen in hand, searching for inspiration for the Hymns he is composing.  Just above his head is the image of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, emitting golden rays of light to inspire Charles.  On either side of this scene are roundels with the initials CW and JW. (see small detail- lower right)  

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There is some stained-glass in all 40 windows of the Chapel and windows in every door.  The doors have simple geometric patterns consisting of circles and crosses in red, yellow and green light.  The 21 non-figurative windows in the walls of the Chapel are made of Cathedral glass and have 2 basic designs.

The three windows in the Apse were intended to mark the 100th anniversary, in 1891, of the death of John Wesley but they arrived two years late.  They represent the three branches of Methodism, which existed at that time and which eventually merged to become the Methodist church as we know today.

The window on the left, entitled the Adoration of the Magi was presented by the Wesleyan Reform Union.  It depicts the three wise men offering gifts to the infant Jesus who is sitting on Mary’s lap. In the background is part of a stable and at the very top of the window is a shining star.

The window on the right was presented by the Primitive Methodist Church.  It is entitled Solomon’s Porch and shows Peter proclaiming the Gospel in Solomon’s Porch at the Temple immediately after Pentecost.  In the background, on the left is the image of Mow Cop in Staffordshire, which was the location of the first Primitive Methodist Camp Meeting in 1807.

The central window endowed by the United Methodist Free Churches (a union of Bible Christians, the Methodist New Connexion and a number of smaller churches), this is entitled The Apostolic Commission – ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations’.  Christ is seen wearing a white tunic and red mantle, with his right arm raised, pointing to heaven.  He is standing under a tree, encouraging his eleven apostles to spread the Word. John Wesley asked his followers to do likewise. This reinforces the message of Hope rather than Judgement, which was very much based on the message of the early Methodist church.

Apse windows

A stained glass window designed by Frank O. Salisbury (1874-1962) was inserted on the right hand side of the Chapel in 1922. It commemorates the Fallen in the Great War 1914-1918 and depicts Christ holding a dead soldier in his arms.  At the top of the window are angels, with trumpets, holding a banner inscribed with the words “Greater love hath no man than this”.  This is one of the four windows that Salisbury designed for the Chapel.

Window 1

 

Around the Pulpit

Below the windows is a threefold reredos in mahogany.  The panels are divided by two carved pillars in wood with golden capitals.  Near the top are the words, HOLY,HOLY,HOLY,( which are uttered at the consecration during the service.)

At the apex of the whole design is a representation of golden rays of light, streaming downwards.  In the centre panel the Creed is set out and on either side are the ten Commandments.  Below the Creed and immediately above the Communion Table are the words: This do in remembrance of me. The Apse is enclosed by the original communion rail.

Apse 2

The word of God was central to Methodist thinking, so the pulpit featured most predominantly in most chapels.  Here in Wesley’s Chapel, the pulpit is in front of the Apse and commands the view of the entire congregation. It is made of carved mahogany on an arcaded base with fluted columns at the corners.  It was originally  15 feet high and made up of three sections.  The top of the pulpit was, reached by a set of stairs on the left hand side, was for the preacher, the middle section for the precentor and the lower part for the reader.  One would have been able to see through the central section into the Apse behind. In 1864, while other alterations were being made the lower section was removed, and the stairs leading to the top were cut down. The pulpit is now only 10 feet high.

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In 1993 a new Communion Rail was placed round the marble dais in front of the pulpit.  It was donated by the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was also married here.

On the right hand side of the Chapel are three chairs.  The central one was donated by the Holloway Brothers in 1891 on the restoration of the chapel.  It was made specifically for the Chapel and has Wesley’s profile carved on the back.

Chairs

 

The Font

Under the gallery on the right hand side of the chapel is the Font.  This was given to the Wesley’s Chapel in 1891 to commemorate the 100 years of Wesley’s death by the Church of Madeley, in Shropshire, which had been the parish of the Reverend John Fletcher.  The actual bowl of the font is made of stone and much older than the marble plinth and base on which it sits. A similar marble is used for the rim of the bowl, which bears the inscription ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’. The bowl of the font came from a dissolved Nunnery and was donated by the church in Madeley, which legend has it was used by Cromwell to water his horse. The plinth, base and rim was added thanks to the headmaster of the Leys School, William Fiddian Moulton (1835-1898) in the same Jasper as the columns which were being installed in the Chapel in 1891. A Memorial to William Fiddian Moulton (wearing spectacles) can be seen on the other side of the Chapel.

Moulton

Placed inside the bowl of the font is a large flat stone, which is one of the paving stones from Nathaniel Gilbert’s house in Antigua.  It has been scooped out to hold the water for baptism.  Cut into the stone is a design of broken fetters symbolizing slavery.  The centre of the stone has been scooped out to contain the water used in Baptism. At the base of the plinth is the inscription This ancient font, which belonged to John Fletcher’s Church at Madeley, was erected here by John Fletcher Moulton at the Wesley Centenary 1891.  William Fiddian Moulton, President of Conference.

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Nathaniel Gilbert (c.1721-74) was the son of a prosperous planter and became a lawyer and politician in Antigua.  While Nathaniel was recovering from an illness, his daughter brought him some of Wesley’s sermons and treatises on the Abolition of Slavery, which had been brought to Antigua by his brother, Dr. Francis Gilbert. Nathaniel then decided to take his family and household slaves to England to be baptised by Wesley.

 

Pillars and Architectural Features

The pillars holding up the front of the gallery were originally a gift from George III. They were made from the wooden masts of the de-commissioned ships that were in the Naval Dockyard in Deptford and were later covered in plaster to resemble marble.  In 1891 pillars of French jasper, replaced the original ones, which had been damaged during the fire in the Chapel.  At the foot of each one is a small brass plate indicating the various areas of World Methodism which donated funds towards the refurbishment of the pillars such as Ireland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and the American Episcopal Church North and South.

Five of the original pillars can be seen against the wall in the vestibule.  They are now encased in plaster and painted white.  The furthest pillar to the left, as you exit the chapel, has a square of plaster removed in order to see the original wood.

Also in the vestibule are two modern windows etched by the artist Mark Cazalet. The one on the right, as you leave the chapel, is entitled ‘God as Fire’. Moses in the Burning Bush; Shadrak, Mishak and Abegnego stand in a furnace; the sacrificial lamb goes up in flames.  All the images represent the all consuming fire of faith in God.  In the window on the other side of the door, Mark Cazalet uses the imagery of ‘God as Water’ with Christ being Baptised and scenes from the Old  Testament (2003). This window celebrates the lives of Leslie Weatherhead and William Sangster.

All the pews in the main body of the Chapel were replaced in 1891.  Each pew end is carved with a variety of patterns, some of which include the date. Below the design is the number of the pew and lower still there is a seat slotted into the frame of the pew which can be pulled out and unfolded, used only when the chapel was full.

Pew end 2

In 1891 the marble flooring in the chapel was laid apparently by convicts.  The Greek key pattern incorporated in the design is also repeated in the Vestibule. Parallel to the floor at the end of the side pews can be seen the grills which provide the under-floor heating, which was installed at the same time.

Mosaic floor

 

Monuments

The Monuments in the chapel were added over many years and, similarly to the stained glass windows there was no master plan for their insertion.

On the walls of the Apse can be seen the memorial tablets to Thomas Coke, John Fletcher and Adam Clarke, together with John Wesley, Charles Wesley and Joseph Benson.

Dr. Thomas Coke (1747-1814) MDCCCXIV was a Welsh Clergyman who joined the Methodists in 1777 and became Wesley’s right hand man in his closing years.  After the American War of Independence, Wesley sent him out to establish a separate Methodist Church in America, where he ordained Francis Asbury as his fellow ‘bishop’.  He travelled to America 9 times.  He was a great advocate of Methodist Overseas Missions, especially in the West Indies.  He was largely self-financed (Small portrait in Museum in World Parish Display 1992/12

coke

 

John Fletcher (1729-1785), though born in Switzerland he settled in England and became a vicar of Madeley in Shropshire.  He was one of Wesley’s most valued clerical supporters, so much so that Wesley hoped that he would succeed him as leader of the Methodist Movement, but Fletcher sadly died six years before Wesley.

fletcher

 

 Adam Clarke (1760-1832) was one of the most learned men Methodism has ever produced, with an unrivalled knowledge of both oriental and European languages.  On his memorial a figure of an eagle bears a scroll in Hebrew and Greek.  (picture of Adam Clarke in Preachers’ Bedroom – Wesley’s House)

clarke

 

 Jabez Bunting (1779-1858) was a dominant figure in Wesleyan Methodism in the first half of the 19th century.  He was seen as a champion of  Wesleyan principles against a rising tide of  liberalism.

bunting

 

Recent History

During the late sixties and early seventies the congregation dwindled.  In 1972 the Chapel was closed as it was in a serious state of disrepair. After much funding from America and elsewhere a new roof was installed and the interior refurbished. It was reopened on 1st November 1978 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Since then, the whole of the Chapel has been redecorated repeatedly and the Crypt turned into the Museum of Methodism.  Today its congregation numbers over 500 members from over 50 countries.

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