Tucked away on City Road in London is a very special religious building – Wesley’s Chapel, founded by John Wesley the father of Methodism.
Built in 1778 by John and his younger brother Charles this is the second place of worship that they established in London. Their burgeoning religious community had previously centred around the Foundry, an old cannon factory a few streets away which had served as church, community centre, medical practice and soup kitchen from 1739 until the move to City Road.
Visitors to Wesley’s Chapel who have some knowledge of the UK’s non-conformist Christian traditions will discover a rather unfamiliar space – unfamiliar because of it’s level of decoration. Albeit not on the scale of a High Anglican or Catholic place of worship, Wesley’s Chapel has fine trappings that you won’t find in more modern Methodist buildings – decorative stained glass windows and a rather ostentatious altar to name but two. That being said, these windows do convey something of the more down-to-earth nature of Methodism. The two early 21st century etched windows out in the lobby area feature coy references to London locations and recently departed Methodist ministers, while one of the stained glass windows conveys a very profound message about conflict:
In the space below the chapel is the Museum of Methodism. Here you can find out about the roots of the Methodist tradition and what modern Methodism is all about. Displays in the museum include some of Wesley’s personal possessions, examples of early hymn books (singing is absolutely at the core of a Sunday service in a Methodist church and Charles Wesley composed many of them) and objects ranging from collection boxes to commemorative trowels via tokens associated with the Temperance movement.
At the centre of this space is an area where you can sit and watch a short video on John Wesley and the history of Methodism, and off to the side there are iPads where visitors can access more information. A door in this area also leads out to a small garden where you’ll find John Wesley’s final resting place…
Wesley’s Chapel complex also includes his very modest house. It’s not open per se but to gain access to this building all you need to do is find a member of staff with a key. A quick look around will leave you in no doubt that this man believed that his treasures were stored up in heaven – the decorative features present in the chapel are entirely absent from this plain and unadorned series of rooms.
In closing, here’s a little tip for fans of Victoriana. If you visit Wesley’s Chapel do take the opportunity to pop downstairs to ‘spend a penny’. In the basement below the lobby are what are probably the most authentic surviving late Victorian toilets in London. They even have original cisterns supplied by a certain Thomas Crapper!