Non-conformist chapels and meeting houses have greatly enriched our townscapes, though we have been slow to recognise their merits. Indeed, the late Princess Margaret, when opening the Keele office of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of England in 1984, asked why a Royal Commission – answerable to the monarch, head of the established church – should be studying non-conformist architecture at all.
Our appreciation of non-conformist heritage has been greatly advanced by Historic England’s work, summarised by Christopher Wakeling in his book Chapels of England: Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity (CA 337). Sadly, all-too-many non-conformist congregations reject the notion that their buildings are a form of heritage and keep them firmly locked, except for the occasional funeral and Sunday service. The Methodists are different in this respect: recognising their rich heritage, the Wesley Historical Society (WHS) was founded as long ago as 1893, just 102 years after John Wesley’s death in 1791.
The WHS supports and encourages anyone with an interest in British Methodist history (including local and family history) in all of its main branches. A typical 19th-century English town might well have had at least two Methodist chapels (representing mainstream Wesleyan and Primitive Methodism), while Wales also had Calvinistic Methodism, and some towns had exotic variants – the galleried chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion in Worcester, for example, now the Huntingdon Hall theatre and concert venue.
The WHS acts as an umbrella for a number of regional societies; some of these have their own archives and libraries, and organise their own lectures. The WHS publishes the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society three times a year, organises an annual public lecture and a residential conference, and has its own library at the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History. The WHS website provides access to the richly detailed Dictionary of Methodism, which can be used to search for the names of people, places, or topics. It presents a fascinating warts-and-all account of Methodist history – the accounts of ‘backsliding’ and misdemeanours among Methodist congregations of the past reveals the kinds of social issues that Wesley set out to tackle.
Further information: wesleyhistoricalsociety.org.uk Text: C Catling
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