THE celebrations associated with the conversion of John Wesley on 24th May, 1738, 250 years ago, are a reminder of his numerous visits to Lisburn, and his success in beginning a Methodist Society in the area.
John Benjamin Wesley was born on 17th June, 1703, the son of Samuel Wesley, a Church of England clergyman, and Susanna, a truly remarkable mother.
She was the twenty-fifth child of her father, and she had nineteen children of her own, of whom only nine survived, six girls and three boys.
Born at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, educated at Charterhouse School, John Wesley entered Oxford University at 17 years of age.
His birth and upbringing were Anglican, and he took Holy orders in 1726; and a few months later was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford.
For 15 years he took his place in the academic life of Oxford. Wesley had become a learned, religious academic don, on the road perhaps to ecclesiastical elevation to a Bishopric in the Church of England.
I am indebted to Mr. George E. Orr, for permission to quote from his book, "Lisburn Methodism", published in 1975 to mark the Centenary of Seymour Street Methodist Church. Mr. Orr gives details of Wesley's Lisburn connections.
Three places in and around Lisburn have notable Wesleyan associations, namely the site, and surrounding area, where the Christian Workers' Union Hall and the main Post Office now stand; the Yew Tree at Derriaghy under which Wesley preached in 1778; and Lambeg House, now Chrome Hill, where Wesley is reputed to have intertwined two beech saplings, there in 1787, 200 years ago.
John Wesley first came to Ulster in 1756. After preaching in Newry, he came to Lisburn. In his Journal Wesley says of Thursday, 22nd July, "We drove through heavy rain to Lisburn. I preached in the Market House at seven. "One man only gainsayed, but the bystanders used him so roughly that he was soon glad to hold his peace."
The following day Wesley had a visit from the local rector and his curate. Their friendly gesture was much appreciated. Wesley commented, "How much evil might be prevented or removed would other clergymen follow their example".
After visits to Belfast and Carrickfergus Wesley returned to Lisburn, where he, spoke very plain both to the great, vulgar and the small".
However, he felt that little had been accomplished. `Between Seceders, old self-conceited Presbyterians,
New light men, Moravians, Cameronians, and formal Churchmen, it is a miracle of miracles if any here bring forth fruit to perfection", he wrote.
In May 1758 Wesley returned to Lisburn, and recorded that "an abundance of people attended the preaching". A third visit in 1760 gives an indication of Wesley's energy and physical fitness, when he records that he preached to a large congregation at seven in Lisburn before hastening to Comber, "in order to be at Church on time."
Wesley was establishing a practice of biennial visits, and in 1765 he records that he rode to Lisburn where he preached in the market-house.
The next evening he preached in, "the Linen Hall so called, a large square, with piazzas on three sides of it".
The present Post Office is built on the site of this Linen Hail.
It is probable that the first Methodist Sacramental Service in the North of Ireland was held in the area of the Linen Hall. Wesley administered the Sacraments to 40 or 50 persons, in March 1767,
It was in the Linen Hall that Methodism began to take root, and the Presbyterians showed friendship to the visiting evangelist despite his description of them as "old self-conceited Presbyterians". Writing of Saturday, 11th June, 1785, Wesley says, "At six I preached in the Presbyterian meeting, a large and commodious building, and I was now with the most lively society that I had seen for many days."
The following day he preached in the open air to a congregation of between seven and eight thousand people.
Two years later, on Saturday, 11th June, 1787, Wesley preached again in the Presbyterian meeting-house, which he described once more as, "a large and handsome building".
It was appropriate that the first Methodist Chapel in Lisburn, designated on a wall plaque as "Wesleyan Methodist Preaching House, 1772", should be' erected adjacent to the Presbyterian meeting-house and the Linen Hall.
The erection was largely due to Mrs. Henrietta Gayer, who lived at Derriaghy. Wesley preached in the renovated Chapel in his final visit to Lisburn in June, 1789, and recorded in his Journal