John Wesley first preached at Morpeth on Monday, July 18, 1748. He preached “at the Cross”, in other words, in the Market Place.
It was his friend George Whitefield who first introduced him to ‘field’ or open-air preaching, at Kingswood, a mining village near Bristol.
Field preaching sometimes meant literally preaching in a field, but it could equally be in the street or any open space.
To Wesley at that time, preaching in the open air seemed highly irregular.
He was a high church Anglican. To him, the only proper place for preaching was in church. But, having tried the experiment, he realised that that way he could reach people who never normally darkened the church door.
It wasn’t that no working people ever went to church in those days, it was common practice in traditional rural communities, but the world was changing.
Although the Wesleys didn’t neglect existing towns and villages, they consciously targeted the new centres of industry, such as ports, mill towns and colliery villages.
On Friday, May 28, 1742, John Wesley arrived in the North East for the first time.
He said: "We came into Newcastle about six, and after a short refreshment, walked into the town. I was surprised: so much drunkenness, cursing, and swearing (even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before, in so small a compass of time."
On the Sunday, he twice preached in Sandgate, which he described as "the poorest and most contemptible part of the town".
Each time, hundreds of people came to hear him. They begged him to stay, but he had appointed to preach at Birstall in Yorkshire and left the next day.
Six months later, however, about the beginning of September, his brother Charles arrived in Newcastle. He stayed until October 3, and it was this visit that marked the real beginning of Methodism in the North East.
Charles preached fervently and often, and was soon able to set up the first society of Methodists in the town. It grew quickly in the space of a week, from less than 70 to 250.
They needed a room to meet in. On Thursday, September 23, after a busy day preaching at Newcastle, then at Swalwell, and followed by a brief visit to the prisoners in Newgate prison, he wrote:
“Drank tea with our B. (Brother) Robinson’s mother. Saw a Dancing-room wch we have thoughts of taking for our Society; and met ym for to night at B. Jackson's.”
The ‘dancing room’ was in Lisle Street, off Northumberland Street, opposite the bottom end of Fenwick’s. It was the first Methodist premises anywhere in the North East.
The Wesleys were used to meeting opposition and even physical danger when they first went to a place, and Newcastle was no exception.
Charles’ journal entries are not so compressed as his brother John’s, but he did use a lot of abbreviations. Thus ‘Xt’ stands for ‘Christ’, as in Xmas. ‘Ye’, ‘yt’ and ‘ym’ mean ‘the’, ‘that’ and ‘them’, and are so pronounced.
He also uses allegorical language — though to him entirely real — to describe what happened. In this instance, the ‘enemy’ was the devil, his ‘children’ were the mob. His ‘school and synagogue’ was the ballroom that Charles had just taken over for Christian worship.
On September 28, five days after he first saw the premises, Charles had another busy day. In the evening, thoroughly tired out, he walked with some friends: “to our Dancing-room where the Society was met, now increas’d to 200. It was excessive hot, all ye Windows being shut, but I recd Extraordinary strength to exhort & pray for 2 hours.
“The enemy raged without (& not without Provocation) yt Xt shd be preached in his School & Synagogue. His Children broke the Windows, & attempted to break open the Door....”
Three days later, on Friday, October 1, the mob violence was even worse. It was only by good luck, and Charles’s good management, that nobody was killed.
“The Society when I came was excessively crowded. No Door, nor Window cd be opened for ye howling wolves without. Such Heat I never felt, neither in Georgia, nor under the Tropick. The Candles went out for want of air.
“I know none, except myself, cd bear yt Intense Heat for many minutes, & therefore spoke a few words...& used a short Prayer & was pronouncing the Blessing, when some without blew in Fire & Smoak among ye People & others within cried out Fire.
“In the same momt ye windows were all smashed to pieces, ye stones poured in on all sides, the People stream’d out, & ye Room was like a Sacked City. Many caught hold of me to save ymselves or me, so yt out of pure Love I was almost torn to pieces....
“I labour’d to quiet ym for some time in vain, but with much ado I beat down their Fear & Clamours & made my way to ye Door, where I stood. & put ym all out before me.
“The Enemy quitted the Field; We sang a Verse, & I gave thanks to God who giveth us ye Victory.”
A better-known incident, said also to have taken place in 1742, is about Charles’ brother John being in danger from a mob as he preached on the Sandhill.
According to this story, a fishwife saw his predicament, put one arm round his waist, and shaking her fist at the crowd, shouted: “Noo touch the little man if ye daur.”
It’s certainly credible. The Sandgate fishwives were absolute democrats and no respecters of persons.
Unfortunately, however, the story is not well attested. Geoffrey Milburn suggests that it originated in a real event that actually happened to Charles. He recorded it in his journal for Wednesday, September 29, 1742, though even he wasn't aware of what happened at the time, and only learnt about it afterwards.
As above, ‘yn’ means ‘than’, but the ‘y’ by itself meant ‘young’.
“Breakfd with a Constant Hearer of ye Word, & several of ye poor Keelmen (Keel-women, I shd say) flocked to us.
"They related some instances of their Zeal wch pleased Them more yn me, as that a Gentleman, happening to say while I was preaching, yt I ought to be sent to Bedlam, a strong y woman collard & kick’d him down the Hill.
“More of her Fellows join’d in the Pursuit so yt he was forced to fly for his Life. Another poor Scoffer they put into the Pound. I do indeed believe yt were any to offer me violence, ye People wd stone ym.”
But, he went on: “By & by I trust they will learn to suffer Wrong and turn the other cheek. Already there is, I am told, a visible alteration at Sangate. Swearing and Drinking is no more.”
And, he concludes, in the last paragraph of the journal: “Neither London nor Bristol will yield such a Harvest of Souls as the Rude Populous North.”
So that’s us. We are the Rude Populous North.
Acknowledgement: This article is based on one by G.E. Milburn in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, May 1990, available at Newcastle City Library.