In 1729 a small group of students began meeting in Oxford to pray, study, and express their faith through compassionate social outreach. This so-called 'Holy Club', led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, was just the beginning of the movement that would evolve into the Methodist Church, which today has 70 million members around the world.
The first Methodist meeting-house in Oxford was in rented rooms in the building now numbered 32-34, New Inn Hall Street. This still belongs to Brasenose College. A plaque on the wall commemorates the fact that John Wesley preached there on 14th July 1783 and on several later occasions. Wesley described 'the new preaching-house at Oxford' as 'a lightsome, cheerful place.'
In spite of local opposition and fluctuating support, it was eventually decided to build a new chapel further down the street and on the opposite side of the road, just behind where Wesley Memorial stands today. The foundation stone was laid in May 1817 and the chapel opened for worship in February 1818. It became the centre of the Oxford Wesleyan Methodist Circuit, with outposts gradually developing in the surrounding villages and small towns.
Within sixty years after the completion of the first Wesleyan chapel, plans began to emerge for a new building. As well as accommodating a growing congregation, there was a desire to emphasise the presence of Methodism in the city, as Oxford agreed to admit Nonconformist students for the first time. The present Wesley Memorial Church was opened for worship in October 1878.
In 1932 the three main branches of British Methodism united to form the present Methodist Church of Great Britain. By 1941 there was a single Oxford Circuit. In the meantime, a new suite of ancillary premises had been added to Wesley Memorial. The large hall and other meeting rooms, opened in 1932, proved ideal for the great expansion in student work which followed the Second World War. The John Wesley Society, the student Methodist society, reached a membership of 400 in the post-war period.
As a gathered congregation worshipping in the city centre, we try to respond positively and actively to the unique opportunities for mission and service arising from our central location in the heart of Oxford.
Our policy is to make our church open to the community, and to alter and adapt the premises to meet new circumstance and developing challenges. The heritage atrium, opened in 2022, is a recent example of this approach.
For a more in-depth story of Oxford's Methodist heritage click here.