14 May 2023
Church in Heptonstall
closing after 260 years
The octagonal Methodist Church in Heptonstall is one of the oldest Methodist churches in continuous use today and one of the oldest Methodist churches in the world, having been founded in 1764.
Later this month, the church is celebrating more than 260 years of Methodism in the Yorkshire village. Sadly though, the church is ceasing regular Sunday worship with a service in a fortnight’s time (Sunday 28 May 2023), as we learned last week when we visited Heptonstall, on the hilltop above Hebden Bridge.
The final service of thanksgiving and celebration will be led by the Revd Kathie Heathcoat and the Superintendent Minister, the Revd Vicky Atkins, with a selection of favourite hymns, and followed by afternoon tea.
This unusual octagonal chapel is tucked away at the bottom of a flight of steps off Northgate in Heptonstall. This is one of the first octagonal chapels in England. It was built in 1764, and the design and construction of the Grade II listed chapel were overseen by John Wesley, who frequently preached there.
Methodism in Heptonstall began with the evangelical activities of William Darney, who has been described as a firebrand Scot ‘of prodigious size.’ A pedlar, cobbler and itinerant poet, he founded many Methodist societies on both sides of the Pennines as he travelled, preaching as he went.
Darney’s preaching had been Calvinist and many of his converts moved between the Methodist societies and local Baptist groups. At first, the Methodist society in Heptonstall met in a cottage at Northgate End. John Wesley placed Darney’s groups under the supervision of the Revd William Grimshaw of Haworth, a friend of Darney and of John and Charles Wesley.
The Wesley brothers were frequent visitors to the area, perhaps because of their friendship with Grimshaw. John Wesley first visited Heptonstall on 21 May 1747 and visited 21 times in all between 1747 and 1786. He drew immense crowds and also preached in the now-ruined Church of England parish church of Saint Thomas Becket, which he labelled ‘the ugliest church I know.’
In these early days, Heptonstall had a preacher every sixth Sunday, with the travelling preachers receiving no stipend or allowance and eating where they could. But the society became so successful that it decided to build a chapel.
The octagon shape was then fashionable for Methodist chapels. The first octagon chapel was built in Norwich in 1757, followed by Rotherham (1761), Whitby (1762), then Yarm, Aberdeen and Heptonstall (1764).
It is sometimes said Wesley favoured the octagonal shape for his chapels because this left ‘no corners for the devil to hide in.’ Others said the octagon reflects the figure 8, regarded as the ecclesiastical figure of regeneration. The real reason is that Wesley was not building churches, but preaching houses, and wanted to avoid conflict with the local Church of England parish churches. Wesley said: ‘All our houses should be of this shape if the ground allow.’
The symmetrical octagonal chapel in Heptonstall was built on land called Dockey’s Croft, bought and given to the trustees by Thomas Colbeck of Keighley.
John Wesley preached in the unfinished shell, lining out his then unpublished verse, perhaps inspired by the sight of Hardcastle Crags from the hilltop:
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.
Local historians Chapman and Turner later wrote: ‘Wesley had obviously been impressed by the roof at the Rotherham Octagon, he had the same man construct the roof in Heptonstall. The sections were brought by the most direct, though hazardous, road over Mount Skip, the people meeting the procession of pack horses and singing hymns of joy. Men and women laboured with their hands to build the chapel with the most primitive of tools.’
The building was finished in 1764. The society grew and became strong. In 1795 the Sunday School was started – possibly the first of its kind in England.
Following the death of John Wesley in 1791, there were tensions and schisms within Methodism, including the formation of the New Connection in 1797. Heptonstall escaped these divisions, however, and by 1802 the chapel was too small for the 337 members and over 1,000 ‘scholars’ or children enrolled in the Sunday school. The solution was to knock down the far end of the chapel, lengthen the walls and rebuild it, preserving its octagonal shape. Internally, the pulpit was raised up, and new singing pews built.
By 1821, the chapel once again was too small, but by then industry was developing in the valley and the population was beginning to move down from the hilltops. It was felt wiser to build in Hebden Bridge, and so Salem Chapel was built. Heptonstall also planted new congregations and built chapels in Highgate and Blackshawhead.
The chapel in Heptonstall is a hidden jewel and nestles peacefully in a natural amphitheatre. Tended terraced graveyards rise above it to the village and fall away below, leading the eye to the views over the valley. Although we did not get inside the chapel last week, we were told that inside there is ‘a perfect stillness,’ with ‘a simple grace and humility.’
The building featured in the BBC 4 series ‘Churches: How to read them’. The historian Dr Richard Taylor named the chapel as one of his ten favourite churches, saying: ‘If buildings have an aura, this one radiated friendship.’
During repairs in 2017, including the installation of a new toilet, kitchenette, heating system and renovations, services were held in the neighbouring Church of England parish church, Saint Thomas’s.
The two churches in Heptonstall have worked closely together, sometimes holding joint services in either Saint Thomas’s or in the Methodist Church. Now, it seems, the oldest continuous, surviving Methodist Church is about to close its doors in two weeks’ time.
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