Did you know Charles and John Wesley built the very first Methodist chapel here in Bristol?
A lot of people visit Broadmead, the shopping district in the middle of Bristol without realising that the chapel exists. But you can discover it opposite the Galleries shopping centre by Marks and Spencers .
The chapel is now a grade 1 listed building. It is very simply furnished and was built with no windows on the ground floor to protect it from mobs. The upstairs where Charles and John Wesley often stayed has been turned into an interesting museum with the help of a lottery grant. According to trip advisor is the 6th favourite visitor attraction in Bristol. Some of the rooms are furnished in the style of the period and others contain displays about the life of the Wesleys and the early history of Methodism. Activities for children including a wardrobe of 17th century dressing up clothes. Children are even invited to take selfies in the rooms.
I recommend the quiet tearoom if you want a peaceful place to chat or relax in the centre of Bristol. They sell home made cakes and light lunches. When I visited recently with our German group we enjoyed a slice of Earl Grey tea loaf with our excellent coffee.
John Wesley was the son of an Anglican clergyman. He was born in 1703 near Lincoln. As a five year old boy he was lucky to escape a house fire by being rescued from an upstairs window. He went to Oxford gained an M.A. and was ordained as an Anglican. After working as a curate he travelled to Savannah in Georgia where he worked for a couple of years before returning to England. In America he experienced slavery at first hand and became a lifelong opponent of the system. Later he rescued two escaped slave boys and brought them to Bristol where he sent them to a school he had founded and helped finance some of the early antislavery literature.
On his return to England another clergyman George Whitefield invited him to come to Bristol. Bristol at that was growing rich on the profits from the slave trade. However there was a large divide between rich and poor. Wesley was working in Broadmead the heart of the sprawling overcrowded old city while the rich people were moving west to suburbs like Clifton and Hotwells.
Wesley was concerned about the poverty he saw around him and worked to establish schools and dispensaries for medicines. He distributed food and clothing to the poor. He also preached in the local prison. His views were unpopular with many of the established clergy who often refused him permission to use their churches. He was able to raise enough funds to build the New Room as a place for ordinary people to worship.
Preaching to the coalminers.
Kingswood to the east of Bristol near where I grew up was in the 18th century a poor coal mining district. None of the local vicars would let him preach in their churches so he preached out in the open attracting a large crowd. When I was a girl I could see a green beacon from my bedroom window which marked the spot of one of his early sermons. Although I am not a Methodist he became one of my local heroes.
He was later joined by his younger brother Charles also an ordained minister and together they rode thousands of miles on horseback preaching in small villages. They preached in cottages, chapels and even fields.
John Wesley was described as “below medium height, well proportioned, strong with a bright eye , a clear complexion and a saintly intellectual face.
The Wesley family were gifted musicians. Both brothers wrote hundreds of hymns.
John Wesley was also a skilled organiser and administrator and was able to lay the foundations of Methodism. He died aged 87 in 1791.
Visiting the New Room
The chapel and café are free to visit but there is a small charge to see the museum. Entry to the museum includes a free audio guide. It is open from Monday to Friday from 10.30 to 4.00 p.m. with last entry to the museum at 3.30 p.m. The museum has a lift and there are toilets including a disabled toilet and baby changing facilities on the first floor. The nearest carpark is in the Galleries shopping centre and it is a short walk from the main bus station. The newroom has a very informative website. Click here to visit. If you are unable to visit in person the website even has a 360 degree tour. A service is held in the chapel every Friday afternoon.