Heptonstall Methodist Chapel – 250th anniversary

Picture courtesy of grievemere at http://www.flickr.com/photos/grievemere/

This unusual octagonal chapel is open every day. It’s tucked away at the bottom of a flight of steps off Northgate.

Historic pictures and audio memories are available on the chapel’s own website.

The building featured in the BBC Four series “Churches: How to read them”. Dr Richard Taylor named it as one of his ten favourite churches, saying: “If buildings have an aura, this one radiated friendship.”

The chapel is one of the oldest surviving in continuous use. Services and Sunday school at 10:45am each Sunday, though services are sometimes shared with the Anglican church. Contact senior steward Miss Margaret Coupe 01422 842550 to check.

The story begins before John Wesley ever visited the Upper Calder. In 1742 a freelance Scottish evangelist called William Darney travelled and preached throughout the area. He was rough and ready, and would preach wherever anyone would give him a bed. He built up a large number of societies on both sides of the Pennines. Many didn’t last long, but the society in Heptonstall grew and survived.

The first Methodist visitor was Charles Wesley, who came in 1747 to visit what he called the Darney Societies, on a preaching trip that took him over to Manchester. Three months later, at Darney’s request, John Wesley visited and ‘examined’ the Darney Societies. Darney was an evangelist rather than an organiser, and was happy to place his societies in John’s hands. Wesley placed Darney’s groups into the supervision of Rev.William Grimshaw of Haworth, a friend of Darney and both Wesleys.

The Heptonstall Society did well, and was strongly represented at the first ever Methodist Circuit Meeting at Todmorden Edge on October 18th 1748. (Of interest, the meeting minutes record the following: Mr.Wesley’s expenses 2/-, mending Mr.Wesley’s breeches 4d, knitting his stockings 3d, horse shoeing 2d.)

Both Wesleys were frequent visitors to the area, perhaps because of their friendship with Grimshaw. John came 21 times, and Charles fairly frequently. John’s first visit to Heptonstall was on May 21st 1747, when leadership passed from Darney to the Wesleys. (Subsequent visits included 1753 when it was extremely hot, 1755 when it was extremely wet and 1757 when there was an earthquake…) He was always received by large crowds, and eventually it was decided to build a chapel.

The octagonal shape was fashionable at the time; the first was Norwich (1757), then Rotherham (1761), followed by Whitby (1762) then Yarm, Aberdeen and Heptonstall in 1764. There were lots of them for various reasons –

  • In London Blackfriars (1783) they believed that there were no corners for the devil to hide in.
  • The octagon reflects the figure 8, regarded as the ecclesiastical figure of regeneration.
  • The real reason was that Wesley wasn’t building a church, but a preaching house.
  • The shape avoided conflict with the established church.

John Wesley laid the foundation stone and  first preached in the unfinished shell of the church and lined out his then unpublished verse:

Ye mountains and vales, in praises abound,

Ye hills and ye dales, continue the sound.

Break forth into singing, ye trees of the wood,

For Jesus is bringing lost sinners to God.

The roof was added and Wesley preached there again two years later in 1766. The society had its ups and downs – Darney’s preaching had been Calvinist and many of his converts moved between the Methodist societies and local Baptist groups. In the long term, however, the society grew and became strong. In 1795 the Sunday School was started – possibly the first of its kind in the country.

John Wesley died in 1791. Following his death there were a number of tensions and schisms. Heptonstall escaped the 1797 New Connection breakaway and continued to grow. By 1802 the chapel was too small for its 337 members and was extended to its present ‘stretched octagon’. By 1821 it was too small again, but by now industry was developing in the valley and the population was beginning to move away from the hilltops. It was felt wiser to build in Hebden Bridge, and so Salem Chapel was built (on the site of the present 1974 building). Heptonstall also planted new congregations at Highgate and Blackshawhead, where chapels were built.

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