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Whitefield's Tabernacle

What: Chapel, meeting room and graveyard
Where: Kingswood, Gloucestershire
Built: 1741-1851
Architect: Henry Masters (New Tabernacle)
  Other buildings unknown
Abandoned: 1983
Listed: Old Tabernacle Grade I, Chapel
  House and New Tabernacle Grade II.
Visited: 2010, 2011, 2014
Last Known Condition: Badly damaged by arson.
 Remedial works carried out in late 2013
Page Updated: March 2014

The story of Nonconformism in Kingswood began in 1739 when George Whitefield, an evangelical Anglican minister, invited John Wesley to join him in open air preaching to the coal miners of that district. Wesley and Whitefield established the first Kingswood Band of Methodists, numbering about 142 and soon afterwards Whitefield began raising funds for a school and chapel in the town which was opened the same year with John Cennick as master and licenced preacher. However by 1740-1, Wesley and Whitefield had begun to differ on matters of doctrine, the former establishing a largely Arminian Methodist doctrine while the latter chose a form of Methodism that was largely Calvinist.
As a result of this split, Cennick joined Whitefield in establishing the New Society Room in 1741. The building housed a congregation of 52, all of whom had seceded from the Kingswood Band of Methodists. Whitefield's instructions were "not to build too large or too handsome as we may be required to move our tents" an allusion to the Biblical tabernacle mentioned in Exodus 25-27 and the fact that chapels and meeting houses at this time were often short-lived affairs. In 1745 there was another schism which saw Cennick join the Moravian Church: a battle ensued over ownership of the New Society Room which culminated in Cennick and his followers being forced out in 1748. The Moravians built a new church on the other side of the High Steeet in 1756-7 while the Room remained with the Calvinist Methodists and became known as Whitefield's (sometimes Whitefield, Whitfield or Whitfield's) Tabernacle. It was refurbished and extended in 1802 and 1834 but had proven inadequate by the 1850s and a large gothic tabernacle was built to the west in 1854 by architect Henry Masters under pastor John Glanville; the old Tabernacle meanwhile became a school. Following Glanville's departure, a large part of the congregation joined the Congregationalist Church and the Tabernacle itself became part of the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1906. In 1974 the Tabernacle became part of the United Reformed Church but by this time attendances were falling: the last service was held in the Victorian building on 16th October 1983.

Since this time the buildings and churchyard have fallen into disrepair. I climbed the wall to be confronted by an overgrown graveyard littered with used needles, sharps bins and other hazardous waste. The Old Tabernacle collapsed in on itself after a devastating arson attack and young trees now jostle for space amidst charred and crackled beams and palmette columns in the interior. The listing report in 1951 records a bronze plaque on the wall which read:"This building was erected by - George Whitfield BA and John Cennick AD 1741 - it is - Whitfield's first tabernacle, the oldest existing memorial to his great share in the 18th century revival." - It has since been stolen.
The Chapel House, a former residence stands to the north and has fared little better; it is propped up by scaffolding to stop it from collapsing into the street and the back wall has been demolished entirely. To the west of these buildings is the centrepiece of the site, Masters' 1851 Tabernacle, now fire-damaged and empty. In the rain, water pours through holes in the ceiling and cascades down the walls, hammering on the rotting floor joists below. The site is currently owned by a development trust which is having drawn-out negotiations with South Gloucestershire Council over plans to renovate and convert the buildings to flats and a restaurant.

Sources

Jenkins, T., Religion in English Everyday Life: an Ethnographic Approach, Oxford: Berghahn. pp. 105-107,

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/england/gloucestershire/kingswood,

http://www.kingswoodpeople.co.uk/news/Kingswood-s-MP-joins-fight-save-historic/story-5230112-detail/story.html,

http://www.thepggroup.co.uk/project/9/whitfield-tabernacle/


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