EARLY HISTORY OF METHODISM IN HERTFORD
John Wesley and The Methodists in Hertford
The story of the Methodist Society in Hertford is more than usually interesting for two reasons. First, because it can claim the distinction of coming into being and developing through the visits of Wesley himself; and second, on account of its connection in its earliest days with an honoured local family.
John Wesley seems not to have visited Hertford till a full twenty years after the commencement of Methodism that "religious revolution," which Lecky, that sober historian of the eighteenth century, values more highly than any of its other outstanding events.
Evidently impressed, however, by the importance of the town, he found time in the next twenty years, amidst increasing cares and journeys, to visit it on no less than eleven occasions.
Wesley's First Visit
Wesley first came to Hertford on March 10th, 1763. In his journal, he writes:- "I set out
for Norwich, taking Hertford on my way, where I began to preach between ten and
eleven. Those who expected a disturbance were disappointed, for the whole
congregation was quiet and attentive. I doubt not but some good may be
done here if our brethren live what we preach." It will be noticed
that there is no reference to any building so presumably, the 'congregation'
gathered in the open: very likely in the market-place, as it was then the
largest open area available. However that may be, it is quite certain that
it was here, within the next two years, a most important occurrence took place
that had a dominating influence on Methodism in the town.
Arrest of Colley
This was the preaching of Benjamin Colley, and his rough handling on the part of the authorities. Colley was a young and enthusiastic preacher, who had united himself with the Methodists in 1761. He came to Hertford and took his stand in the market-place in 1765 or 1766. Disorder took place and the Mayor had Colley arrested. What form this punishment took is not clear. It was very likely stocks for the night. What is most important is that one, Abraham Andrews, was present and saw all that happened. He was so impressed by the teaching of Colley and his subsequent deportment under great provocation that his religious life was radically changed, and he joined the band of Methodists in the town. Before very long he gathered together a number of boys and girls, and taught them. Later he built a room or school in which they could meet.
The First Chapel
This room became the first Methodist meeting place, and when Wesley visited Hertford on November 5th, 1768, he wrote:- "about noon, I preached at Hertford in the new room to a large and serious congregation. The Mayor's usage of Mr. Colley for preaching in the market-place, with Mr. Colley's firm and calm behaviour, was means of convincing Mr. Andrews, who built this room at his own expense." This 'new room' seems to have been opened for Methodist preaching in 1767, or early in the next year. Wesley paid a brief visit to Hertford in February, 1766, and there is no mention of it then, but before the 1768 visit it was in use. The site of this room is probably identical with that of the pond at the rear of 25 Castle Street, the residence of the Misses Andrews.
Abraham Andrews remained a supporter of Wesley throughout his life. He kept on the school for children at Hertford; he presented the mahogany pulpit (Tyerman III., 28, 29. Meth. Mag., 1825, 454) to Wesley for his chapel in City Road, London; and, after Wesley's death he went, in 1793, to America, and itinerated as a Methodist preacher in Virginia, dying at Baltimore in 1800. The link between the house in Castle Street and Wesley is preserved by the name 'Wesley Lane' (recently Wesley Avenue), given to the road leading to the new Grammar School.
Wesley made two passing calls at Hertford on October 28th, 1769 and November 26th, 1770; but a more important visit took place on Friday, January 17th, 1772. The record of this visit, in Wesley's own words, must be quoted in full.
Wesley and the School
"Friday, January 17th, 1772. The usual road being blocked with snow, we were obliged to take a by-road to Hertford. I found the poor children whom Mr. Andrews kept at school, were increased to about thirty boys and thirty girls. I went in immediately to the girls. As soon as I began to speak some of them burst into tears, and their emotion rose higher and higher, but it was kept within bounds till I began to pray. A cry then rose which spread from one to another till almost all cried out for mercy and would not be comforted. But how the scene was changed when I went into the boys. They seemed as dead as stones, and scarcely appeared to mind anything that was said - nay, some of them could hardly refrain from laughter. However, I spoke on, and set before then the terrors of the Lord. Presently, one was cut to the heart: soon after another and another, and in ten minutes the far greater part of them were little less affected than the girls had been. Except at Kingswood I have seen no such work of God upon children for above thirty years. I spoke exceedingly plain in the evening on the narrow way, but the men were evidently different from the children; they were affected not so much as so many horses."
Crisis in the Society
Wesley was at Hertford again before the year was out. It seems, from his reference, that serious trouble in the Society necessitated a visit sooner than would otherwise have been the case. His own account reads:- "Friday, December 18th, 1772. I preached at Hertford. Last year there was a fair prospect there, but the servants of God quarrelled amongst themselves till they destroyed the whole work, so that not only is the society no more, but even the preaching is discontinued. And hence those who had no religion before are more hardened than ever. A more stupid and senseless mob I have never seen than that which flocked together in the evening. Yet they softened by degrees so that at last all were quiet, and, as it were, attentive."
This break-up of the Society was so serious that Wesley's visits to the town were discontinued for more than two years. But the next entry in the Journal apparently shows that someone had been working to overcome the difficulties, for he says, under Friday, February 13th, 1775:- "Even at poor dead Hertford, was such a concourse of people that the room would not near contain them; and most of them were deeply attentive when I explained the awful words: 'I saw the dead small and great stand before God.' Finding many were much dejected by the threatening posture of public affairs, I strongly enforced the Lord's words ' Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith.' And of a truth God spoke in his word. Many were ashamed of their unbelieving fears; and many enabled 'to be careful for nothing.' but simply to 'make' all their 'requests known unto God with thanksgiving.' " The re-birth of the Society and renewal of interest brought Wesley to the town again within a year, namely December 20th 1775. Affairs seemed to have prospered for a time. His next visit, on December 9th, 1776, gave Wesley satisfaction. "I visited," he writes, "the other societies in Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, and returned by Hertford, where for once I saw a serious and quiet congregation."
Wesley's last Visit
Wesley's last visit to the town was on October 30th, 1778. "I preached," he records in his Journal, "at noon to fifty or sixty dull creatures at poor, desolate Hertford, and they heard with something like seriousness." This visit must have been of special interest to Mr. Andrews, for, on the following day, Wesley was to open City Road, Chapel, for which he had made and presented the pulpit.
This last entry about Hertford is certainly not in the brightest strain, but it is an indication of the fact that, allowance being made for transient prosperity, the course of Methodism in the town has been beset with difficulty. Wesley had met, not only with apathy, but, like his helper Colley, with opposition. One tradition, at least, has come down of Wesley preaching in Mr. Andrews' timber yard on boards over a sawpit which were surreptitiously removed, and, as a result, the preacher was let down.
As has been said there is no record of a further visit after that of October 30th, 1778, and it seems that the Society fell on difficult days for a considerable period. The very absence of Wesley after such frequent and regular visits is indicative of decline. It is known that in 1788 there were Methodists at East End, or Cole Green, possibly an offshoot from the parent Society at Hertford. These met in a house bought by Abraham Andrews, who handed it over for their use.
Methodists at Cole Green
"Hertingfordbury. Place of meeting certified by Protestant Dissenters for Divine Worship. We, whose names are underwritten, being Protestant subjects, have set apart the house of A. Andrews, of East End Green, in the parish of Hertingfordbury, for public worship, and desire the same to be registered. May 28th, 1788. Abraham Andrews, Thos Wyment, Wm Cole, Wm Wooding."
Of the existence of local Methodism, however, apart from this notice, we have no record. From the facts (other than documentary) that are available, we can reconstruct chequered history of short periods of prosperity, followed by years when Methodism hardly maintained its existence. The Society did not grow; at times it seems that it ceased almost altogether.
Departure of Mr. Andrews
The departure of Mr. Andrews for America in 1793 must have come as a great loss to the struggling cause. For thirty years he had been a pillar of strength. Nevertheless, by 1808, a resuscitation had taken place, for the Society was strong enough to warrant its separation from the Bedford Circuit, to which it had been attached previously, and to be created the head of a circuit. This Hertford Circuit existed for three years - 1808-1810. This renewed vitality, however, was short-lived, for from 1810 to 1827 there is complete silence.
The Bethel Chapel
As to buildings in which the Society met, we can draw certain conclusions. it does not seem at all likely that after the departure of Mr. Andrews from Hertford, the room in Castle Street would be available, and it is only after the lapse of many years that any definite fact is forthcoming. This is to the effect that the Methodists were established in Back Street (now Railway Street), where they built a chapel in 1827, called the Bethel Chapel, in a lane leading to premises known as the White House (Hertford in the XIXth c. W.F. Andrews). This Chapel is still to be found.
Where did the Society meet from, say, 1793 to 1827? In the absence of definite information it can only be hazarded from traditions that there was a building in the area known as Butcherly Green. Without a doubt there would be a chapel existing in 1808, when Hertford was a circuit town, and the most likely neighbourhood would be proximate to that in which the Bethel Chapel stands.
The Chapel in Back Street
This Chapel in the lane off Back Street was vacated subsequently to 1850, and the Methodists next found a home for a short time at the other end of this street, in a Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, belonging to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. This was afterwards used by the Primitive Methodists, then by the Hertford School of Art, and is now a stores. In 1853, the Hertford Society again became head of a Circuit, after being in the Bishop's Stortford Circuit from 1845-53. Shortly after, steps were taken to secure land for the present Chapel in Ware Road.
The Present Chapel
This was purchased from the British land Co., for £200, and the Chapel was opened in 1865. The land is still in use to this day.
More detail can be found in the Archive at County Hall, Hertford.