The Methodist Historical Society of Ireland now have a new web site where you can find information about the history of Methodism in Ireland. Go to http://methodisthistoryireland.org/
The Founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, where his father was the Rector of the parish, in 1703. Educated at Charterhouse and at Christ Church College in Oxford he was himself ordained in 1725.
After an unsuccessful ministry of two years at Savannah in the New England colony of Georgia, he returned to England a disappointed man. In London he joined a religious society led by some Moravians. On 24 May 1738 he experienced what has come to be called his evangelical conversion; it gave him a new confidence and sense of mission. In 1739 he, his younger brother Charles and a number of others left the Moravian society and established two Methodist societies, one in London and the other in Bristol. Designed as religious societies within the Church of England, these soon spread throughout these islands and after Wesley’s death became the Methodist Church which now counts more that seventy million adherents throughout the world.
In 1727 Charles Wesley, during his second year as an undergraduate in Christ Church College, had gathered a few like-minded undergraduates to study the Bible and other Christian literature. John, by then a Fellow of Lincoln College in the same University, became the natural leader of this group. Their regular (or methodical) observance of the rules of the Book of Common Prayer in regard to works of piety and charity led the unsympathetic to nickname them ‘Methodists’. As several of the group supported the Wesleys’ new venture in 1739 the transfer of the name seemed natural.
Over the next fifty years John toured all of England, much of Wales and some of Scotland. Initially Charles shared these travels, but his less robust health prevented his doing as much. John paid his first visit to Ireland in 1747, and was soon followed by Charles. Their early meetings were held in rented premises in Marlborough Street and Cork Street. John went on to pay twenty-one visits to this country, lengthening in time and extent until they covered almost all of it.
The first Methodist building in Ireland was a chapel at Whitefriar Street in Dublin, built in 1752, the site of which was later expanded to contain a day school for boys, a school for orphan girls, a widows’ almshouse, a bookroom and houses for two ministers. The Whitefriar Street congregation moved to St Stephen’s Green in 1845, and now worships in Leeson Park.
The Early Irish Methodists
In 1747 one of John Wesley's preachers, a Welshman called Thomas Williams, came to Dublin from England, and formed what was to be the first permanent Methodist Society in Ireland. Wesley came in person in the August of the same year to meet this society. Not long after Wesley's return to England a riot broke out in Dublin, and the premises in which the Methodists were meeting was badly damaged. Wesley sent his younger brother Charles to the city to rally the frightened members.
Samuel Handy, a gentleman with an estate in Co. Westmeath, heard that one of his family had become involved with the Methodists, and hurried to Dublin to remonstrate with her. She persuaded him to meet them, and the meeting convinced him of their value. He offered his residence, Coolalough in the parish of Ardnurcher, as a base from which they might work in the Irish Midlands.
The offer was, of course, accepted, and Handy introduced the preachers to his relations and friends within a radius of about 50 km from his house. Within months a half dozen societies had been formed in the area. Later others would do something similar and Methodism spread along a chain of family connections.
The development in the Midlands encouraged John Wesley to send preachers from England to pioneer in different counties. They tended to visit the cities and market towns, and to attract attention by preaching wherever they could attract a crowd. Wesley began to visit Ireland regularly to encourage the societies they formed, and the growth of the movement can be plotted by his lengthening itineraries, first to south and west, but then to the north. His first visit to Ulster was in 1752.
The most unexpected source of strength in the beginning came from the Army. There was then a large British garrison in this country, and the junior officers (sergeants and corporals) of the English regiments were recruited from the artisan classes among whom Wesley found his greatest response in England. Finding themselves in Ireland, these men wanted to sustain their Methodist worship and fellowship, and in a surprising number of places considerably strengthened, or even started Methodist societies in the garrison towns.
Most of the early members were of settler stock. The majority of the native Irish, though capable of speaking English, tended to speak Irish among themselves and to think in Irish. Most of them, though intrigued by the curious practice of preaching in market-places, fields and barns, probably assumed that the Methodists were preaching to ‘their own people', i.e. Church of Ireland people. It was not until 1799, when Methodism set aside Gideon Ouseley, Charles Graham, and James McQuigg to preach in Irish, that this hurdle was crossed.