A Brief History of Methodism in Egremont
The text below is a shortened version of a newsletter article written by Rev. Donald H. Ryan in September 1963, on the occasion of the re-opening of the Main Street church building following fire damage.
One of the greatest distinctions a Methodist Church can boast is to have been founded by John Wesley. Unfortunately, even though John Wesley was a frequent visitor to Whitehaven, preaching at Whitehaven, Ginns and Hensingham, there is no direct evidence that he preached at Egremont. It was during one of Wesley's visits to Whitehaven that he gathered a group of people together and from this began the first Society of what was to become a very large and important Circuit, covering Maryport, Cockermouth, Workington and Whitehaven, and south as far as Eskdale. It was from the evangelistic preaching of those who were converted by Wesley's preaching, that Egremont would first hear the distinctive Methodist Message.
Even though Wesley did not preach in Egremont he did at least pass through our Township in 1759. In his journal dated Saturday 12th May we find him taking the road to Whitehaven from the south, which passed through Egremont. One can imagine the excitement when this famous preacher passed through the town on horseback. He was a little man with white hair, dressed in preacher's black, and would likely have been reading a book or even writing as he rode.
We do have the distinction of having one the founders of Primitive Methodism establish a Society here. On his first evangelistic Mission, William Clowes started a Society at Low Mill, which also spread to the founding of other Primitive Methodist Societies in the area.
The first record we have of Methodism in Egremont is in a book entitled "The Life of the Rev. J. Braithwaite." It was written by Robert Dickinson who tells of visiting and preaching at the Methodist Society in 1794. We have little knowledge of the Society except that it met in a large upper room and grew in numbers. The strength of the Society is shown by the fact that it was able to build a church in a central position on the Main Street. In 1821 this church was opened where the former Conservative Club (now British Legion) stands.
It was in 1829 that the Primitive Methodist Society began in Egremont when William Clowes came to Egremont to renew class tickets, however this Society disappears from recorded history until 1852. In the meantime, another Methodist Society is founded. In 1827 the Protestant Methodists were founded as a result of a disagreement about the building of an organ in the Leeds Brunswick Chapel. These would-be reformers of Methodism wanted a more democratic form of Church Central Government. In 1835 they were joined by another protesting group of Methodists who were to be known as the Wesleyan Methodist Association. These were again protesting about the bureaucratic government vested in the Conference of Ministers.
It was at about this time that a group of men left Egremont Methodism and founded a separate and distinct Society. This Society met in a cottage at Green Dykes where they increased in numbers. They then left and went to a building which was later to be known as the Soup Kitchen. Again the numbers increased so that the Society moved to larger premises. They took a large room attached to the Wheat Sheaf Inn. They later decided that this was unsuitable because of "its situation and proximity to the Kingdom of Satan". They then moved to a schoolroom situated near to the Bridge End. This was at one time known as the Rechabite room. It was whilst they were there that a committee was formed to build a chapel. The resulting building in Church Street was Opened in 1839. In the same year, Sunday Schools were founded in both the Wesleyan Methodist Church and in the Wesleyan Methodist Association Church, although it is likely that they had had some sort of class for children before this date.
In 1852, the Primitive Methodists refounded their Society in Egremont. A national union between two of the dissenting Churches in 1857 led the Church Street chapel to be renamed the United Methodist Free Church. In 1874 the Wesleyan Church at Egremont applied for permission to build a larger church and this was approved by the Connexional Committee. This chapel, our current church building, was built and opened in April 1876. In 1877 the Wesleyan Sunday School, our current church hall, was built in Chapel Street and opened on 12th August.
During all this time the United Methodist Free Church had prospered and it was decide to build a larger church in Bookwell opposite the Castle. In 1892 the Memorial stone was laid. The chapel was opened on April 4th 1893 and became known as the Castle United Methodist Free Church. It was also in this year that the Primitive Methodist Church and School was opened. In 1907 the Castle church changed its name, because the Connexion had united with the Methodist New Connexion and they became known as the United Methodists. In 1932 all the Methodist Churches were reunited and this new Church took the title The Methodist Church. In 1935 the Primitive Chapel closed, and the Castle and Main St. Churches shared the Ministry of the Rev. Wilbert Walton. The two Churches continued to flourish until the war, during which they were asked to hold united services every alternate week. This continued until the war ended when the two Churches resumed their original identity.
In 1962 two disasters happened. Firstly, the Manse was very severely damaged by a tornado, and secondly, a fire was discovered a few months later in the Main Street church. Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of all the Methodists in Egremont, it was decided that it would be in the best interests of the Kingdom of God to have one Methodist Church in Egremont. An independent planning committee was invited to come from the District to advise which set of premises be kept. It was at this time that the two Societies united and became the Egremont Methodist Church. On September 7th 1963, the renovated Egremont Methodist church building on Main Street, containing the traditions of the various brands of early Egremont Methodism, was opened.
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