Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Anti-Methodist Hell Fire Club

On the front of the former Bell Hotel (now Santander) is a blue plaque, declaring it to be the meeting place of the ‘Anti-Methodist Hell Fire Club, which victimised John and Charles Wesley in 1754’!

I stumbled across it while walking through Norwich with Julian Pursehouse, and others from the East Anglia District, who had never noticed it before.

Wow – if only Methodists today created such a strong reaction!  Maybe our preaching is not controversial enough?!

I was intrigued to know more.  Fortunately, during my visit I was given a copy of The Spreading Flame: the coming of Methodism to Norfolk, by Cyril Jolly.  The first Methodist to preach in Norwich was James Wheatley. 

There is a wonderful contemporary account in a letter dated 28 September 1751:
‘For a few weeks past, there has been a Methodist preacher in this city: he preached four or five times every day; but constantly morning and evening on the hill upon which the Castle stands, when he is greatly crowded, especially on the Lord’s days; it was computed that the last Lord’s day he was attended by 8 or 10,000. The mob is thoroughly in his interest, as appeared when some young gentlemen very imprudently fired some crackers among them; when in the bustle the preacher was thrown from his table and received a slight wound in the leg. Some of the gentlemen lost their hats and wigs, and had their coats tore to pieces, being likewise much bruised; and probably a few lives were saved by rolling down the hill, the descent of which is nearly perpendicular… No worse consequences have attended this affair than the breaking of a few windows in the house where the preacher lodges. Upon this disturbance the preacher changed his discourse to the stoning of Stephen.’

The ‘Hell Fire Club’, consisting of ‘indolent, rich young men with principles inimical to government, and a determination to crush Methodism’, began to organise opposition from their headquarters at the Bell, bribing ‘toughs’ with money and strong beer to break up Wheatley’s meetings.
On one occasion a gang of seven butchers and five weavers, with blackened faces, carrying cleavers and marrow bones, banging a drum and blowing cow horns, and fuelled by alcohol, attacked the Methodists. Mob violence continued for months, resulting in damage to property and bruised and broken limbs.  Some Methodists were very badly wounded, and two preachers nearly murdered.  It is not surprising that action against the rioters was ineffective, as member of the Hell Fire Club included four aldermen and magistrates.

John and Charles Wesley arrived in Norwich on 10 July 1754, and Charles preached at 7.00am on Orford Hill to a crowd of 2,000 people. In the afternoon, he preached again to a crowd of 10,000 (John was too ill to take part).  Charles then rented a large brewhouse, on the site of an old bell foundry, and fitted it up as a chapel called the ‘Foundery’.

This must have been red rag to a bull, as it was almost under the noses of the Hell Fire Club.  Charles reported, ‘My strength increased with the opposition. A gentleman on horseback with others, was ready to gnash on me with his teeth; but my voice prevailed, and they retreated to their stronghold, the alehouse.’

What an incredible story – and how brave our ancestors in faith were in facing opposition.  If I was one of the women thrown into the river, and sexually assaulted in the streets, or the man thrown into a cess pit, just for being a Methodist, would I have the courage?

I am not suggesting we should create a riot (or am I?) – but perhaps we need to be less afraid to speak out – for justice and for Jesus.

1 comment:

linwinn said...

Thanks Jill for providing this context for the tribulations experienced in the past. In this time of world conflict it is often said to be unwise to speak out and defend what we believe in. Yet Christians still give up their lives through holding steadfast to Christ. may they and their loved ones know and feel the love of God upholding them.