Faith and innovation take root
In 1817, Australia’s first Wesleyan chapel opens in Castlereagh near Windsor. The Princes Street Chapel opens in March 1819 through the generosity of James Scott, a retired soldier. The Rev Samuel Leigh also appoints people to visit the sick and needy and successfully petitions Governor Macquarie to provide a building—to be called the Sydney Asylum for the Poor—to house up to 50 poor and ill people.
The congregation grows
In 1821, The Australian Magazine, the first religious magazine issued in Australasia, is published by Wesleyan Missionaries.
In 1822 Sydney has four Sunday Schools, with one in particular, The Barracks, teaching up to 100 convict boys to read. Congregation numbers are increasing and more helpers arrive from England.
By 1826 there are 12 chapels in and around Sydney including Windsor and Parramatta.
Door to door research by Samuel Leigh finds that there are very few copies of the Scriptures in the colony. Eight years later a public report notes that more than 15,000 copies of religious tracts and books were freely distributed during the year.
Reaching beyond Sydney
Preaching circuits expand to country New South Wales including Bathurst, Orange, Armidale and Tamworth. The numbers of Sunday Schools, teachers and students also increase significantly, reaching more children in the colony.
A devastating epidemic hits the colony, and in tending the sick and dying, Samuel Leigh’s wife catches the disease and dies.
The faithful increase
By 1840, the British Government stops sending convicts to Australia and other immigrants begin to pour in.
In 1844 the Old York Street Methodist Church opens.
By 1846 it has 570 members, 591 Sunday school scholars and 18 local preachers. Galleries have to be added for the rapidly increasing congregation. It hosts the first Australian Wesleyan Methodist Conference and is the birthplace of the Foreign Mission Society, the Home Mission and the Church Extension Society.
The Old York Street church continues for more than a quarter of a century until population changes in that part of the city lead to declining attendance.
Following the Wesleyan tradition of education and training that is still practised today, several day schools are set up in Sydney and country towns including the Wesleyan Grammar School.
Prominent Wesleyans John Hosking Junior (1842) and George Allen (1844) become Mayors of Sydney.
Maintaining the momentum
Methodism in Australia continues to grow and flourish up until the early 1870s and evangelistic work expands throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
In 1855 the church gains independence from its British parent and, at the first Australian Wesleyan Methodist Church conference in 1855, it is reported that there are 442 chapels, 108 ministers, nearly 20,000 members, close to 80,000 ‘hearers’ and 35,570 children in day and Sunday schools.
In 1864, Newington College, a boarding and theological school, opens. By the end of the year there are 50 boarders and two theological students. Expansion comes in 1880 with the purchase of the Stanmore site doubling student numbers.
In 1873 a program begins in Sydney’s poorest areas to revitalise the evangelical spirit in the heart of the city. Congregations, however, continue to decline in this time of increased industrialisation, long working hours with difficult conditions and increased urbanisation.
Dedication to the sick and needy continues with services such as the Sydney Night Refuge which opens in 1866. This service for homeless men transfers from its humble beginnings in a committed Wesleyan’s garden.
A new-style evangelism
A crucial Methodist conference almost votes to close the declining York Street Church but the Rev George Hurst calls for a rugged evangelist to revive it. The appointee, the Rev William George Taylor, realised drastic action was needed and changed the name to the Central Methodist Mission (later to become Wesley Mission). ‘A living Christ for a dying world’ was his slogan and he said, “If the people will not come to church, it is our duty to go to the people”. The Rev Taylor began preaching outdoors, leading his prospective congregation with a brass band back to York Street. Crowds once again packed the church.
York Street closes its doors
It is decided to build a new hall to seat more than 1,700 people and, as a result, the Old York Street Church closes its doors in 1886 with a nostalgic final service. The following year, the Rev Taylor returns to England for a year to study and is replaced by the Rev James Bowring.
The success of Newington College leads to the opening in 1886 of Burwood Ladies College which houses 46 pupils by the end of the year.
A new venue
Centenary Hall opens in York Street to celebrate the centenary of Australia and a 2,000 strong crowd attends.
Stepping up the pace
Rev William G Taylor returns to the Central Methodist Mission and launches an extensive advertising campaign on billboards and in newspapers. His work continues apace, with Sunday afternoon adult Bible class, Saturday evening consecration service and a workers’ conference. By the end of the year 150 students have passed through Bible College and 300–400 regularly attended the morning service and 1,200–1,500 the evening one.
That year there are also more than 13,000 visits to homes, ships, lodging houses, hospitals and gaols.
The Seaman’s Institute begins in the Princes Street Chapel to provide a place where sailors can avoid the temptations of the pubs and brothels and can read, write letters or play games.
That year the Evangelist Training Institute also begins, preparing young men and women for Christian ministry.
The Sisters hit the streets as the economy crashes
The Sisters of the People Home opens and the sisters have a mandate to visit and pray with the poor and sick, rescue ‘fallen women’ and help at services, especially among the women and children. Ten recruits carry out the duties which by the year’s end also include school and gaol visits. Laura Francis is among the first recruits and is central to establishing this work.
Also that year, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon movement begins and more than 700 people listen to Taylor’s lectures on key social issues.
In response to the economic depression The Central Mission Employment Agency for Males opens in Clarence Street. At the same time Taylor leads a deputation to the Premier urging the establishment of a Labour Bureaux throughout the state as a proactive step to help “decent working class people in great distress through the want of work”. During this time the Central Methodist Mission distributes large quantities of food, clothing and money to those in need.
Caring for kids
The Rev Rainsford Bavin takes over in the absence of the Superintendent who is travelling to raise funds. Meanwhile Waverley House, offering accommodation for 20 children, opens in Woolloomooloo. The home was created in response to the growing prevalence of child poverty, neglect and abuse, combined with widespread baby farming practices which were a cause for great concern for church and community groups. The Rev William Rutledge takes over from Bavin in 1896.
New directions in care
A medical institute to treat alcoholics begins in the lower Domain, moving later to Stanmore and then Warren Heights. This early commitment to the treatment of people with all forms of addictions and mental health issues is an ongoing theme of the work of Wesley Mission. Despite financial hardships the Central Methodist Mission is attracting new church goers at an unprecedented rate, making the need for a new home even more pressing.
Debt weighs heavily
The Rev William G Taylor returns to a Central Methodist Mission that is in debt and will remain so for the next 80 years. Evening services are still being held in Centenary Hall until Parliament declares it Sydney’s worst firetrap. A new venue is needed. Taylor, with Ebenezer Vickery, a wealthy MP, begins to look for a new property.
Packed to the rafters
The Central Methodist Mission is overflowing with people sitting in the gallery, aisles, on the rostrum and even on the steps leading to Centenary Hall. At Christmas and New Year Taylor starts a second service which draws almost 1,000 people, mostly non-churchgoers from the poorest levels of society.