The following article is a partial summary of a more comprehensive book
“Methodism in Bandon” by Rev. Ian Henderson, first published in 1990, revised in 2005.
When a fire destroyed his home in Cork in 1748, William Murray brought his family to live in Bandon . The Murrays were interested in Methodism and may have asked the fledgling Cork society to send travelling preachers to Bandon too. We don’t know who came originally, but Thomas Williams and Robert Swindells were the first preachers in Cork city, so it’s likely it was they who journeyed on to here too. The Wesley brothers followed soon after and thus began a lifelong connection with the town!
Charles was the first Wesley brother to come, composing a hymn, “Shepherd of souls, the great the good….” as he rode along the road! He preached from a scaffold in front of the market house “to about a thousand wild gaping people,” on Monday, September 5th. By Thursday of that week his congregation had swelled to over four thousand. On Wednesday 7th Sept. 1748 a Methodist society was officially started in Bandon. A Mrs. Needham was first to enroll and this is considered the official start of Methodism in Bandon.
John Wesley’s first visit to the town was in May, 1749 and he stayed with the Hawes family who, we think, lived where Brookes’ pharmacy is today. He preached outside the Market house opposite. Usually, he came to a place first at the invitation of someone who had heard his teaching and could supply a platform for preaching.
If there was a building large enough, he might preach there, especially in bad weather. If he could, he liked to preach in the open air, as this would accommodate more people. His audiences in Bandon could be 4,000 people, especially for evening services, although even the 5am ones drew a crowd!!
John Wesley came to Ireland twenty-one times and on seventeen of those occasions he visited Bandon. On three occasions he stayed in the capital, Dublin. And the first time he toured in Ireland, Methodism had not reached Cork.
Sometimes other clergy came to hear him, whether to criticize or learn varied! On his first visit to Bandon rumours were spread that he had been discharged from Oxford and that Methodists were being expelled from Ireland by government order with only a few remaining in the Cork region! They were also accused of being simply Jesuits (a Roman Catholic order of monks) by another name. This kind of thing happened often enough, and John Wesley would have to explain himself. While slow to speak ill of anyone on principle he was heard to remark that many clergy were ironed and starched before ever being washed! We presume he was speaking of religious attitudes! He would often attend the local Anglican church on a Sunday, for himself. He was himself an ordained Anglican clergyman
Usually he would get up at 4am for prayer and Bible study to be ready then to preach two or three times a day. When he came to Bandon he often preached there in the early morning, went to Kinsale or Innishannon for a mid day service and returned to preach again in the evening. Bandon was a linen spinning and weaving town and so workers could get to listen to Wesley early in the morning or late at night. Good daylight was valuable for weaving! He might spend up to a week in a place before moving on.
When John Wesley came to the town he would affirm the work of the society/connection in Bandon. His journals give us an insight into everyday activities there, where he stayed, from what text he preached, the weather conditions he had to contend with, the size of the congregation and how he was received…..
Unfortunately, John Wesley’s visit to Cork in 1750 instigated disturbances and riots . Indeed an effigy of John Wesley was burned near Daunt’s Bridge in the city. John wrote to the Mayor from Bandon saying that he earnestly desired to be at peace with all men and that he had not willingly given offence to magistrates, clergy or people of Cork and that he “desired to be treated with the justice and humility due to a Jew, Turk or pagan, not to mention to a clergyman, gentleman and Christian.”
Some clergy in Bandon were not well disposed towards the Wesleys coming either and used their pulpits to preach against attendance at these open air services……but generally Wesley’s preaching was received and listened to in Bandon with “the utmost decency”. Sometimes he found the crowds in Bandon large but attentive, zealous to repent. At times he felt “the power of God was eminently present and all seemed to be sensible of it.” On one visit, although the crowd was large, some paid little attention, laughing and talking while he was speaking. He felt they were “better clothed than taught,” that evening! Of course, preaching in the open always meant that ordinary life continued around the crowd that listened to him. Of his sixteenth visit he writes that his task was “to “strengthen the weak and recall the wanderers!”
The first Methodist chapel was built in 1758 off Kilbrogan Hill. Wesley described it as “a very neat and lightsome building” but even with the benches removed, the doors and windows had to be left open to allow all who wanted to listen, to hear him preach. Clearly, a bigger premises was needed!
In 1789 John Wesley preached at the opening of the North main street Methodist church. This was two or three times the size of its predecessor and was built on a vacant lot opposite the gates to Christchurch. It had two doors facing the road, for men and women to enter separately and could also be accessed from “Preaching House Lane” also known as “Water Lane” because it led to the river. A manse was built, adjoining the rear, This faced the river and even had a large garden. This occasion was to be John Wesley’s last visit to Ireland, but over the previous forty years, the Methodist way of living had flourished in Bandon and continued to thrive.
A few weeks before his death, John Wesley received a letter from a Miss. Alice Cambridge. Born in 1762 into a devout Christian family, she had heard and embraced the Wesleyan way of life. Out of her experience rose the desire to lead others to a personal relationship with Christ too. She invited friends to church and set up cottage meetings, where she prayed, lead and even preached when asked. However, she met with strong opposition from some of her male counterparts, who thought her public exhortations quite irregular! She decided to write to Wesley and find out if he thought she should decline invitations to preach in local towns and meetings.
John Wesley wrote back, “My dear sister – I received your letter an hour ago. I thank you for writing so largely and so freely: do so always to me as your friend, as one that loves you well. Mr. B___ has the glory of God at heart, so have his fellow labourers. Give them all honour and obey them in all things as far as conscience permits. But it will not permit you to be silent when God commands you to speak: yet I would have you give as little offence as possible, and therefore I would advise you not to speak at any place where a preacher is speaking near you at the same time, lest you draw away his hearers. Also avoid the first appearance of pride or magnifying yourself. If you want books or anything, let me know: I have your happiness much at heart.”
Opposition to female preaching did continue for some time, despite Wesley’s instructions, but Alice continued to spread the gospel as called by God! In Bennet’s history of Bandon she was described as a preacher in petticoats who “did a great deal of good and no harm.”
Still, Wesley’s legacy and the legacy of his many followers continues on……….!