John Wesley visited Doncaster on several occasions. In 1743 he passed through Doncaster on his way back home to nearby Epworth. That is the occasion when he famously preached standing on his father's tomb in the churchyard. He preached in Doncaster in 1763.
Methodism first took root in the Doncaster area at Sykehouse. Wesley wrote in 1743 that 'William Holmes met us at Doncaster and piloted us through the mire and water and snow lately fallen to Sykehouse. I began preaching as soon as I came in and exhorted them to follow after the great gift of God.' In 1757 John Hampson of Sykehouse preached in Doncaster and by 1762 a Doncaster Methodist Society was formed. John Wesley visited in the following year when 'standing in an open place I exhorted a wild, yet civil, multitude to seek the Lord while he might be found.'
The first chapel was built in Skinner's Yard in St Sepulchre Gate in the year 1770. John Wesley, in that same year, records, 'I rode to Doncaster and preached at noon at the new house, one of the neatest in England. It was sufficiently crowded, and what is more strange, with serious and attentive hearers; what was more unlikely, some years since, that such a house, or such a congregation should be seen here!'
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Methodists grew in number, as did also the preaching places. Chapels appeared in many villages and the Doncaster Circuit was established in 1797. There were important developments in Methodism nationally. In 1797 the Methodist New Connexion was established and in 1807 the first Primitive Methodist camp meeting was held. Those remaining in the main body were known as Wesleyan Methodists. These national trends were reflected in Doncaster.
The Doncaster Wesleyan Circuit Plan of 1822 shows that there were 27 preaching places with just 19 preachers. By 1828 there was over 1,100 members with 35 preachers and by 1840 there were 10 new chapels. In 1832 Priory Place was built; it seated some 1,300 people. In 1851 the average Priory congregation was 800 in the morning, 400 in the afternoon and 1.200 at night. Furthermore, there were 400 Sunday School children in the morning and another 400 in the afternoon.
By the 1860's there was a need for a further chapel for the town centre. In 1871 the impressive Oxford Place Chapel was opened. In 1884 the Doncaster Circuit was divided into two – Priory Place Circuit with 25 societies and Oxford Place Circuit with 16 societies. Within 10 years the Priory Place Wesleyans had established a mission in the Nether Hall Road area and consequently in 1903 the Nether Hall Road chapel was opened with a membership of 100 and 250 Sunday School scholars.
The South Yorkshire Coalfield was opened up in the beginning of the 20th century and small villages grew in importance and size. In 1912 the Wesleyan Methodist, led by Samuel Chadwick of Cliff College, formed the South Yorkshire Coalfields Mission. This was the time when the societies at Bircotes (Harworth), Stainforth and Dunscroft were established.
By 1818 the Methodist New Connexion had 2 societies established in Thorne and one in Fishlake in 1814. In Doncaster a chapel was built in Duke Street in 1821, but the society there disbanded in 1840. It was not reformed until the late 19th century when it met in Morley Road. In 1907 the New Connexion joined other groups to form the United Methodist Church. In 1916 the Morley Road society built a new chapel on Becket Road (now St Andrews).
On 22nd July 1820 Jeremiah Gilbert, a Primitive Methodist preacher held an open-air meeting (camp meeting) in Doncaster. 'We had not many people, nor many preachers, but the Lord was there.' Cottage meetings were held; in 1823 a Doncaster Primitive Methodist Circuit was formed and in 1826 a meeting room was bought in Scholes Yard, Hallgate. The circuit struggled and for a time belonged to the Sheffield and then the Scotter Circuits. However, due in a large part to the work of John Garner, a travelling preacher (minister), the Primitives prospered and in 1843 the Duke Street chapel was bought from the Methodist New Connexion. In 1852 the Doncaster Primitive Methodist Circuit became autonomous again. There were 56 local preachers and 29 preaching places, with 551 members. Surrounding villages had been 'missioned' and churches formed in many of them.
By 1854 there was a need for a larger chapel and so Spring Gardens Primitive Methodist Chapel was opened in 1854. Doncaster became an important place in Primitive Methodism and in 1858 the 30th Conference was held here. In 1870 two circuits were formed – the First Circuit, Spring Gardens being the lead church and the Second Circuit, Duke Street being the lead church. The First Circuit consisted of – Spring Gardens, Balby, Hexthorpe, Levitt Hagg and Warmsworth, Hampole, Norton, Campsall, Bessacarr, Wadworth, Adwick. The Second Circuit consisted of Duke Street, Armthorpe, Barnby Dun, Balne, Fishlake, Sykehouse, Hatfield, Woodhouse, Bentley, Stainforth.
In 1878, a site was purchased on the Highfield Road Estate and eventually in 1906 a large Primitive Methodist Chapel was built – the Highfield Road Chapel. In 1920 the Doncaster Second Primitive Methodist Circuit was replace by the South Yorkshire Mission. Some societies were transferred to the Spring Gardens Circuit; Highfield Road became the head of the Mission Circuit.
In 1932 nationally the three main Methodist Churches, the Wesleyan, the Primitive and the United came together to form the Methodist Church. The combined membership of the three Wesleyan Circuits was 2,423 with 45 chapels; the Primitive Circuits numbered 2002 members and 37 chapels; the United Methodist Circuit numbered 430 members and 12 chapels.
1944 The ex-United Methodist South Yorkshire Mission disbanded.
1950 The Oxford Place, Spring Gardens and Highfield Road Circuits became two circuits known as Doncaster South and Doncaster North East.
1951 The South Yorkshire Coalfields Mission became the Doncaster Coalfields Mission.
1968 The Coalfields Mission merged with Doncaster South Circuit to form the Doncaster West Circuit
1974 A new combined Doncaster Circuit was formed. There were 40 chapels and 2,693 members.
Most of the above has been concerned with facts, figures and dates. The minute books of the circuits and churches give a glimpse of day-to-day life of the Methodist people.The church was interested in and concerned about every member. Living a disciplined life was important. Many had been converted from backgrounds alien to church life. Consequently past behaviour reared its head again. ' Bro ..... is not allowed to lead the singing or to pray in public in any of our places of worship as his character is unbecoming'; 'Bro...... be suspended for three months and not allowed to exercise in public (in public prayer) in consequence of his being drunk'; ' Bro......has failed to prove the statement he made on Christmas day that ......got drunk three times a week.' Today, such applied discipline may seem somewhat severe, but there is no doubt that the beliefs and standards expected raised the quality of life of many. There were many who became 'new creations in Christ'. A high standard was expected of Local Preachers. There was forgiveness, even helpfulness, for those who had erred, 'We accept the statement of Bro...... in relation to the report of his attending public houses and being the worse for drink, and that the minute of the preachers' meeting on his case be rescinded.' Very often a slip in behaviour brought suspension from preaching and removal from the plan, 'The meeting has reason to fear from the evidence brought before it, that Bro.... was intoxicated a few weeks ago. He is suspended from his office of local preacher and his case will be further examined and brought before quarter day.' 'Bro...... be left without appointments on the next plan owing to him not attending to this meeting to answer to two complaints made against him that he collected money for his club on the Sabbath, and that he shaved on the Sunday.'!The story of Methodism in Doncaster is full of people who were utterly devoted to the Kingdom.
Thomas Naylor, 1855: 'He was the father of Methodism in Doncaster. Mr Naylor had been a member of the society upwards of seventy years, sixty of which were earnestly devoted to the duties of a local preacher. He knew Methodism in its most unpopular form. He stood side by side with a minister from Sheffield when the voice of the multitude assailed them with scorn and derision....He was everywhere welcomed as a faithful and sincere exponent of the Gospel. Through good and evil report, he toiled on, neither cowed by opposition nor disheartened by the apparent unfruitfulness of his labours. Consistent and scrupulous to the utmost, he would not countenance anything which did not strictly accord with scriptures....The breath of slander never sullied his useful career.' ( Doncaster Gazette)
Isaac Marsden, 1882: 'The Priory Place chapel is open and so he entered it. There is a special service and the preacher is the Rev R Atkin. The fire of the preacher suits him. The earnest of the preacher arrests him. The appeal of the preacher impresses him, let us rather say the Holy Spirit strikes him and, like Saul of Tarsus, he is staggered and knows not what to do.....He made up his mind to abandon his course of life, and acted accordingly and immediately. He went to his rooms at the Wellington Inn and told the landlady he was going to turn over a new leaf. She said she would believe it when she saw it. She saw it and then said that Isaac Marsden had lost his senses. Soon after, he stood up in a love feast and said simply, 'It will be a sad day for the devil when Isaac Marsden is converted' and sat down.....The genuineness of his repentance was evidenced by his at once renouncing not only his evil courses but also his old companions whom he earnestly warned before he left them. He also destroyed his infidel books and within a very short time of his conviction of sin he obtained pardon and peace with God. At once he began to work for God. His name was soon placed on the plan and for nearly 50 years he held the office of local preacher. His preaching was accompanied by the demonstration of the Spirit and with power. Above all else it was soul saving and for that he strained every nerve, and to many hundreds was he made the Messenger of Salvation.' (Doncaster Gazette)
'I preached the other Sunday morning for our Superintendent in our Priory Place Chapel. I prayed, I exercised faith for salvation in the morning; a tide of influence came down in the first prayer, which rested upon the whole congregation the whole time and at the end a breaking down. We held a prayer meeting in the body of the chapel and the Lord let us all see that He is the 'God of the hills' as well as of the evening. I want to live for a purpose; yea, at the rate of a thousand souls a year. The Lord is mighty for more.' (Isaac's Marsden's Diary)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles us and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.' (Hebrews 12:1)
The material used has relied heavily on the following:
Primitive Methodism in Doncaster, J.C.Reasbeck. South Yorkshire Historian 1973
Methodism in Doncaster 1743-1988, G.M. Morris Askew and Son 1988
Not Ashamed, Local preachers in Doncaster, D.G.Reasbeck Hexpress1996
Isaac Marsden, a 19th century Wesleyan Evangelist, D.G.Reasbeck Hexpress 2007