The Priory Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great deserves to be better known than it is. Its location ensures that it remains one of London’s hidden jewels. Largely hidden behind more modern buildings in a part of London well away from the popular tourist trails, it is one of the oldest surviving churches in the city.
Founded in 1123 by a courtier-turned-prior called Rahere as the place of worship for an Augustinian monastery, the church has suffered much change, damage and restoration over the years. Rahere also founded nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital (universally known as St Bart’s) and the church gave its name to the riotous St Bartholomew Day fairs held just outside the doors of the church on Smithfield (originally the ‘smooth field’). Smithfield became the site of London’s principal livestock market and, more notoriously, a site for executions. On the wall of St Bart’s Hospital is a monument to Sir William Wallace, of ‘Braveheart’ fame, who was one of Smithfield’s victims.
After the dissolution of the monasteries the nave of the church was destroyed. This is now an open space in front of the church, although the original doorway survives as a gateway to the churchyard, complete with a half timbered Tudor house on top. The various monastic buildings were sold and passed into secular use or were demolished. The existing church is the quire of the original church, built in a mixture of Norman and Early English styles. A new porch and tower were added much later. Fortunately, from the Victorian era onwards, surviving buildings which had been leased out were restored to church use, included the Lady Chapel (which at one time housed Benjamin Franklyn’s printing press) and the remaining part of the cloisters (now a very atmospheric café).
A building like this is worth visiting in its own right; however I was also interested in the church because of its connection with John Wesley and early Methodism. I knew from his Journal that Wesley had preached here on a number of occasions. However I was surprised to discover, on reading a displayed history of the church in the Cloister Café that the Chapter House, now sadly no longer extant, had been used as a Methodist Chapel. This came as news to me, and I was determined to establish the truth of this statement.
My main source is E.A.Webb who published in 1921 a very detailed history of St Bartholomew-the-Great. One of his principal sources for the early 18th Century is Luke Tyerman, Wesley’s biographer and editor of Wesley’s journal.
John Wesley’s connection with St Bartholomew’s dates from the incumbency of Richard Thomas Bateman, rector of the church from 1738-1760. Bateman was just twenty-five years old when he came to the parish, and he would die in post. Tyerman writes:
“The Rev. Richard Thomas Bateman was a man of high birth and great natural endowments; he was not only rector of St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, but also held a living in Wales, where he had been converted under the powerful ministry of the Rev. Howel Davies. Being converted himself, he at once with great fervour began to pray and preach for the conversion of others. As soon as Wesley got back to London Mr. Bateman (an old friend) offered him his pulpit, and the offer was accepted”.
According to his journal, Wesley first preached there on Sunday 24th December 1738. At the time St Bartholomew’s was just one of a number of churches in the area in which Wesley, newly arrived from America, preached. However, Wesley’s uncompromising message ensured that in nearly every case he was not invited to return again. Indeed, the churchwardens of St Bartholomew’s were not particularly happy with Wesley. Tyerman tells the story:
As soon as Wesley got back to London, Mr. Bateman offered him his pulpit, and the offer was accepted. The church was crowded to excess. The churchwardens complained to Bishop Gibson, saying, “My lord, Mr. Bateman, our rector, invites Mr. Wesley very frequently to preach in his church.” The bishop replied, “What would you have me do? I have no right to hinder him. Mr. Wesley is a clergyman, regularly ordained, and under no ecclesiastical censure;” and so the matter ended.
The reason why Wesley was not barred from St Bartholomew’s as he was from so many other city churches was presumably because he was a friend of the rector, who was sympathetic to the Methodist cause. The church does not appear again in Wesley’s Journal until 1747. In the entry for Sunday, 31st May 1747 Wesley recalls:
“Mr. Bateman desired me to preach a charity sermon at his church, St. Bartholomew the Great, in the afternoon, but it was with much difficulty I got in; not only the church itself, but all the entrance to it, being so thronged with people ready to tread upon one another. The great noise made me afraid at first that my labour would be in vain; but that fear was soon over, for all was still as soon as the service began. I hope God gave us this day a token for good. If He will work, who shall stay His hand?’
Two weeks later he wrote:
“I preached at St. Bartholomew’s again. I admire the behaviour of this people; none betrays either lightness or inattention. Surely all the seed sown here will not be lost!”
And again the following Sunday:
“I preached once more at St. Bartholomew’s on the Gospel for the day—the story of Dives and Lazarus. I was constrained to speak very plain and strong words. But God gave the audience ears to hear, so that they appeared as far from anger on the one hand as from sleepiness on the other.”
Perhaps it is not coincidental that the 1747 Conference began the next day. Bateman was one of six clergymen present (including John and Charles Wesley), an indication of his identification with the Methodist movement.
The following year Wesley returned to St Bartholomew’s.
“Sunday, 12th June 1748 – I preached in St. Bartholomew’s church. Deep attention sat on every face, while I explained and by the Grace of God pressed home those words, “Thou art not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And then a final entry, three days later:
“I preached once more at St. Bartholomew’s. How strangely is the scene changed! What laughter and tumult was there among the best of the parish, when we preached in a London church ten years ago! and now all are calm and quietly attentive from the least even to the greatest.”
Although this is the last reference to St Bartholomew’s in the Journal, Wesley clearly remained friends with Bateman and in close contact with the church, for the parish register records him conducting several weddings there in 1751.
Throughout Richard Bateman’s incumbency the pulpit was open to Wesley. As a friend of Wesley and, we may surmise, to an extent Wesley’s protege, Bateman pastored a congregation well familiar with evangelical preaching. However this came to an end with Bateman’s untimely death in 1760. Wesley was forced to look for an alternative pulpit elsewhere in the area. As we shall discover, he found one not very far away. But this will be the subject of part two of this article.
For more photographs of St Bartholomew’s church and Smithfield, see this album.