Methodism was originally a revival movement within the Church of England but eventually many participants formed a separate denomination because they couldn‘t fit within the Anglican structure and traditions. The revival was pioneered in the 1730s by two young Welshmen, Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, and three Englishmen, George Whitfield, and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. All five were Anglican clergymen.
The first Methodist preacher to arrive in Norwich was James Wheatly, a Welsh cobbler whom John Wesley had refused to recognise as one of his followers in 1751. He had been exercising a very effective ministry of evangelism in the West Country until an accusation was made against him, resulting in his dismissal. Undeterred, he arrived in Norwich later that year and commenced open-air preaching in Tombland and near to the Castle, with dramatic results. It is said that crowds of many thousands would flock to hear him and very quickly some 2,200 people had responded to his invitations. Bearing in mind that Norwich had a population of 36,000 living in 7,000 households, this was an amazing response. Wheatley‘s open-air preaching is commemorated by a plaque on the wall at the bottom of Prince‘s Street, facing across to the Cathedral, and usually obscured by a large pot plant
Wheatley‘s ministry quickly stirred up opposition from various quarters. Local clergy considered him to be an illiterate babbler, and the local tavern owners claimed that trade was adversely affected by the apparent reformation in morals that initially appeared. The young dandies of the local Hell Fire Club, which met in the nearby Bell Hotel, took great delight in gathering bands of roughs, filling them up with strong drink and setting them onto the preacher and his hearers. For many weeks during 1751 there was daily rioting on the city streets and again in the spring and summer of 1752, Wheatley being beaten insensible on more than one occasion. Shops were looted, passers-by were robbed and women were sexually assaulted in broad daylight. Very rarely did the magistrates take any action to prevent this violence, and then only in response to the persistent protests of various prominent citizens such as Henry Gurney. Eventually, a company of Dragoons had to be called in to restore order. This period of extreme social unrest lasted for about nine months. In spite of this Wheatley persisted and many people still showed a willingness to meet together, resulting in the erection of a wooden tabernacle in Orford Place.
This tabernacle was, however, soon wrecked by the mob, and in 1752 Wheatley‘s congregation obtained a site in Bishopsgate adjacent to the present day Magistrate‘s Court for a new chapel. This 1,000 seat building was designed by Thomas Ivory, formerly the carpenter to the Great Hospital who was later to build the Octagon Chapel and the Assembly Rooms. Work on building this new Methodist chapel, known as the Tabernacle, began in 1753 and it was officially opened in 1755. George Whitfield came to Norwich at the invitation of the Countess of Huntingdon to open the Tabernacle and it continued as an important place of worship in the city for many years, eventually being demolished in its two hundredth year, 1953.
During the next few years a stream of preachers visited the Tabernacle for varying periods of ministry, some of whom we remember today for their hymns, - Augustus Toplady, Rock of Ages; Thomas Olivers, The God of Abraham Praise; and Robert Robinson, Come Thou Fount of every blessing, and Mighty God while angels bless Thee. Robinson was originally a hairdresser from Swaffham. He had trained at the Trevecca College and came to the Tabernacle on Lady Huntingdon‘s recommendation. In 1759 he was baptised at Great Ellingham and went on to minister as a Baptist in Cambridge.
John Wesley also preached in the Tabernacle on many occasions. The Wesley brothers first visited Norwich in 1754. For John this was the first of some 17 visits over the next four decades, the last being in 1790 when he was 87 years old.
Another young man who came to preach there many years later (1817) was John Alexander. His visit resulted in the founding of the large Independent Chapel in Prince‘s Street, now the URC church.
In 1757 Wheatley was accused of improper conduct towards another member‘s wife and left Norwich forever. He always protested his innocence and there was some suggestion that the accuser was malevolent and unreliable. Whatever the truth, one has to acknowledge Wheatley‘s total commitment in the face of horrendous opposition and the effectiveness of his preaching. Anyone wishing to visit the site of this historic building should walk from Whitefriar‘s Road down Bishopsgate as far as the entrance to the Adam and Eve Public House on the first sharp bend. On the left is an entrance into a small park area and immediately inside this gateway, set into the wall on the left and often obscured by bushes, is a large memorial stone recording the existence of this once vibrant chapel.
With permission from Ted Doe, for more see; www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/churches-and-creeds/noncomformity-in-norwich.htm.