Religious non conformism has deep roots in the Pennines. E.P. Thompson refers to its development in his seminal The Making of the English Working Class:
“When, in the 1760’s, Dan Taylor, a Yorkshire collier who had worked in the pit from the age of five and who had been converted by the Methodists, looked around for a Baptist sect with an evangelical temper, he could find nothing that suited. He built his own meeting-house, digging the stone out of the moors above Hebden Bridge and carrying it on his own back; then he walked down from the weaving township of Heptonstall (a Puritan stronghold in the Civil War) to Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire … “
John Wesley notes in his journal for July 31st 1766: “…renegade Methodists first turning Calvinist, then Anabaptist have made confusion at Heptonstall.” And as Thompson says non conformism in the West Riding was decisive in which side people fought for during the Civil War in Yorkshire.
It is thought that the first evangelist to bring Methodism to the area was Scots lay preacher William Darney who came to the area in 1742. Local groups were formed in his wake – Darney societies. First Charles Wesley, then later his brother John came to preach to the groups and organise them. John Wesley made twenty visits to Heptonstall betweeen 1747 and 1786 and his preaching attracted significant numbers. Initially they were held in the central cottage of a row of three at the end of Northgate, in all probability from the top window to the street below. In 1764 the octagonal chapel that stands today was completed. Wesley recommended the octagonal design and laid the foundation stone himself.
The Methodist Sunday School is an early Victorian building that would have taught scores of children and adults in it’s main hall and in the rooms downstairs. There is also a stage that hosted drama and other events into the late twentieth century. There is currently a fundraising campaign to restore the Sunday School which is currently not in use. In 2019 a minute book was found in the school which is currently being digitally transcribed by the Historical Society.
This book tells the story of the extraordinary rise of the non-conformists in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Author Amy Binns explains how this “wild and unchristian place” became a heartland for the movement, and how these matter-of-fact rebels changed our world. Refusing to pray the way the Government told them to was only the start of the non-conformist revolution. Available here.