Wesleyan Theological Institution: Hoxton (1834-1842) and Abney House (1839-1843)


The Wesleyan Methodists were latecomers among the major nineteenth-century denominations in providing formal training for their ministerial candidates. However, the question of such training had concerned the Anglican clergyman and Methodist leader John Wesley from the early days of the Methodist societies. In the first Conference Minutes for 1744 and 1745, the question of a 'Seminary for labourers' (i.e. preachers) was raised but postponed 'till God gives us a proper tutor'; in the Minutes for 1745 and 1746 the preachers were given explicit instructions about what, when and how to read: they were to consider themselves 'as young students at the university, for whom therefore a method of study is expedient in the highest degree' (The Methodist Societies, 144, 159, 179). In 1746 Wesley consulted the Congregational minister Philip Doddridge, tutor at Northampton, about a collection of books for his preachers; he did not adopt Doddridge's recommendations, contrary to what is sometimes supposed, but he published them years later, in the Arminian Magazine for 1778. He published his own fifty-volume collection for the preachers' use, A Christian Library (1749-55). In 1747 and 1749 he had supervisory sessions with some of the preachers at the Orphan House in Newcastle and Kingswood School in Bristol, and he devised a four-year academic course which he appended to the second edition (1768) of his account of Kingswood, his school for the preachers' sons. In 1775 Wesley's colleague John William Fletcher, who had acted as superintendent of the Countess of Huntingdon's College at Trevecka from 1768 to 1771, suggested that Kingswood could be used to bring inadequately trained preachers up to ordination standard--but crucially Methodist preachers were lay assistants, not Church of England clergy, and definitely not dissenting ministers.
Following Wesley's death in 1791 the Methodist Connexion became in effect a dissenting denomination, and the preachers, who from 1795 were allowed to administer the sacraments, became in effect ministers. The question of appropriate training for them became more pressing. The Connexion was centrally organised: local preachers who had passed tests of their suitability were placed on what was termed the list of reserve, and the annual Conference then allocated them to circuits as itinerant preachers for a four-year trial period. They were regularly examined on their reading and their religious experience, and if they were deemed suitable they were recognised as ministers in full connexion. The question of what supervision they should have in the trial period, which always fitted in with their working lives as preachers, was for Conference to decide. In 1807 Conference ordered the publication of an anonymous letter, usually attributed to the philanthropist Joseph Butterworth, entitled Observations on the Importance of Adopting a Plan of Instruction for those Preachers who are Admitted upon Trial in the Methodist Connexion: the arguments put forward included the great increase in wealth, education, and the circulation of books among Methodist members, and the sheer embarrassment caused by inadequately educated preachers. The letter contained an exhortation by the biblical scholar Adam Clarke, much quoted in later arguments for Methodist education: 'the time is coming, and now is, when illiterate piety can do no more for the interest and permanency of the work of God, than lettered irreligion did formerly' (Observations, 6). The plan put forward was unambitious in the light of later developments, with a period of study of no more than a year, but it made no progress. The author of the letter, though supporting the plan, opposed the idea of an academy or college as unsuited to 'the Genius of Methodism': it would have a bad effect on the young men, encouraging them to be critical and self-important and resulting in loss of piety (Observations, 7).
The question of the preachers' training was considered again several times in the 1820s, but it was not until 1833-4 that an appropriate system was agreed and established. The Conference of 1833 appointed a committee to arrange a plan for the better education of ministerial candidates; this was published the following year as Proposals for the Formation of a Literary and Theological Institution: with a Design to Promote the Improvement of the Junior Preachers in the Methodist Connexion. The committee included several figures who were to be closely involved in the future of the institution: Jabez Bunting, Joseph Entwisle, John Hannah, Thomas Jackson, and Richard Treffry. Their recommendations included admitting all accepted candidates for the Methodist ministry to a residential establishment for a course of instruction for one, two, or three years, to be followed by continuous supervision and examination for the remainder of their period of probation. In answer to the arguments that had often been put forward against such a plan, essentially that human training was being elevated above divine calling, the committee stressed that only those who had previously given evidence of their conversion and call to the ministry and who were placed on the list of reserve would be admitted to the institution. The possibility of attaching the institution to one of the Methodist schools, Kingswood or Woodhouse Grove, Yorkshire (founded in 1812), was rejected. The committee reluctantly resisted the idea of combining tuition for the junior preachers with general education of a collegiate kind, on the model of the Upper Canada Academy (later Victoria College) which was then being established in Cobourg, Ontario. They recommended that premises should be rented near London for the tutors and students for the following reasons: the possibility of the students attending lectures at King's College (which opened in 1831); the need for students for foreign work to be within reach of the mission secretaries; and the opportunity for students to preach around the metropolis. They assumed that accommodation would be needed for between eighty and sixty students, and that there would be three tutors. They calculated the annual costs of the institution as not less than £4,500.
The Conference of 1834 adopted the committee's recommendations, but with significant revisions. Despite some opposition (largely because of the way the appointments were made), it was agreed to establish the Wesleyan Theological Institution for the Improvement of the Junior Preachers. The plan would be tried on a small scale at first, with only some of the preachers on the list of reserve entering for a period of two or three years. A third year spent in the institution would count as the first of the four years of probation. Premises would be rented to hold thirty students, sixteen intended for work in Great Britain, four for Ireland, and ten on the missionary list. The plan of tuition comprised 1) English grammar, composition, and elocution; geography and history; elementary mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry; logic and philosophy of mind; 2) theology, including the evidences, doctrines, duties, and institutions of Christianity; 3) elements of biblical criticism; Hebrew, Greek, and Roman antiquities; outlines of ecclesiastical history; 4) composition and delivery of sermons; 5) Latin, Greek, and Hebrew for the purpose of studying Scripture in the original, though some students might confine their attention to English and theology.
The main members of the committee of management were Bunting, president; Entwisle, house governor; Hannah, theological tutor; and Samuel Jones, classical and mathematical tutor. For the institution's premises the committee rented the buildings at Hoxton occupied until 1830 by Hoxton Missionary College, and before that by Hoxton Independent Academy. The lessees, the London Missionary Society, deliberately charged a much lower rent than they could have received from a secular organisation, £85 p.a. for a fixed term. Repairs and alterations were made at a cost of £538. In November 1834 Entwisle moved in, and in December the students took up residence and Hannah began teaching. On 26 January 1835 a special prayer meeting was held for the full start of the institution's business, attended by the committee, the preachers in London and the vicinity, and all the inmates. Entwistle was house governor until 1838, when he was succeeded by Treffry; in 1841 Treffry was succeeded by Philip C. Turner, who transferred to the Northern Branch in Didsbury in 1842. Hannah was theological tutor until he too transferred to Didsbury; Jones was appointed classical and mathematical tutor shortly after the institution opened in 1835, and in 1840 was succeeded by William L. Thornton, who also transferred to Didsbury in 1842. Bunting as president had no tutorial role.
Entwisle was the students' class leader in the Methodist sense, i.e. he was responsible for their pastoral care and kept close watch over them as a group and individually. The range of Hannah's theological course can be gauged from his Letter to a Junior Methodist Preacher (1836), which provides a very detailed reading list under the headings of evidences, doctrines, duties, and institutions of Christianity. He also gave lectures on the English scriptures, biblical interpretation, sacred antiquities, ecclesiastical history, popery, pulpit preparations, and the Greek testament. Jones gave classes on Hebrew, Greek, Latin, mental philosophy, logic, geometry and algebra, and physical sciences. His successor Thornton taught the Pauline epistles, Demosthenes, Horace, and Virgil, English and classical composition, rhetoric, including Longinus and Quintilian, moral philosophy, including an outline of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and modern writers such as Butler, Chalmers, Brown, and Wardlaw. In addition, some students attended lectures at King's College, at a cost of £22 in 1836. The aim was that of Charles Wesley's hymn at the opening of Kingswood school: 'Knowledge and Vital Piety:/ Learning and Holiness combined' (Report for 1837 (1838), 15).
It became evident that some students with poor educational backgrounds could not cope with the course, and that the classical and theological tutors should not be wasting their time providing elementary instruction. In 1839 the decision was made to rent additional premises, Abney House at Stoke Newington, partly to solve the problem of housing students who could not be accommodated at Hoxton, and partly to provide a preparatory or auxiliary branch. Abney House, where Isaac Watts had lived as a guest for many years until his death in 1748, had recently been bought by a cemetery company, which leased the house to the institution for two years for £125 p.a., prior to demolishing it and laying out the cemetery (which still survives). John Farrar was appointed classical tutor and governor, and remained until he transferred to the new premises of the Southern Branch at Richmond in 1843; he taught the elementary branches of learning, together with history, mathematics, logic, and general literature. He also taught some students Greek and Latin, and doctrinal, experimental, and practical theology. John James was temporary additional tutor in English and the elementary department. Hannah gave some theology lectures at Abney House, and on his departure to Didsbury was replaced by Jackson, who then transferred to Richmond.
The annual examiners' reports regularly commented favourably on the academic performance of both the Hoxton and Abney House students, despite their early disadvantages, on their behaviour and religious experience, and on the quality of the teaching and supervision. The students' activities included preaching every Sunday in London and the adjacent circuits, house to house visiting, tract distribution, and outdoor preaching, for example at Shoreditch, Tabernacle Square, Kennington Common, Elephant and Castle, and Lambeth Marsh. The report for 1840 noted that they had preached in 177 different places that year, including twenty in the open air in summer: 'though opposed by Socialists, Chartists, Infidels, and Romanists, they have manfully and successfully maintained their ground' (Report for 1840 (1841), x-xi). Though the numbers never encompassed all those on the list of reserve they rose steadily: in 1835 there were 27 students; in 1836 32; in 1837 51 in total, with 34 in residence at Hoxton, while the rest boarded out with the tutors; in 1838 60, of whom 28 boarded out; in 1839 79, 40 of them at Hoxton and 29 at Abney House, which still left 10 to board out. In 1840 the number was limited to 60, though still more than both centres could accommodate; in 1841 there were 55, 30 at Hoxton and 25 at Abney House; in 1842 36 of the 60 students were now at Didsbury, with the remaining 24 at Abney House. Only a few spent three years in the institution, with several going into the ministry after one or two years. Between 5 and 14 each year were missionary students. The report for 1842 listed all students from 1834 to 1840 who had spent at least a year in the institution and had been appointed to stations at home and overseas, totalling 152. (The list does not include those who spent time in the institution and were not so appointed, for whatever reason.) Notable students included William Arthur, missionary to Mysore, India, and later secretary to the Missionary Society; John Hunt and James Calvert, missionaries to Fiji; and William Burt Pope, theologian and successor to Hannah at Didsbury.
From the outset the library was considered an important feature of the institution. In the first report donations especially of 'Old Divinity' and of all works connected with Methodism were solicited, so that a collection of Wesleyan literature might be formed (Report for 1834-5 (1836), 13), and titles with the names of donors were listed annually. This was the origin of what was to become an important collection at Richmond. In 1835 the Book Room (the Methodist publishing organisation) donated the collected works of the principal Methodist theological writers, Wesley, Fletcher, Joseph Benson, and Richard Watson. In addition substantial sums were spent on books and philosophical (i.e. scientific) instruments. In 1835 multiple copies of John Wesley's Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, Pearson on the Creed, Whately's Logic, and a wide range of other texts were purchased from the Book Room, clearly for the students' use. In 1836 £324 was spent on library books and philosophical instruments, and £206 on books for students and stationery; in 1837 the respective figures were £146 and £341, and in 1838 £39 and £475.
The published annual reports give clear information about the sources of funding and the costs of running the institution. Though the income increased steadily, the committee was much exercised by the need to raise more money to achieve the original aim of admitting all candidates on the list of reserve. The institution was supported in part by subscriptions from local Methodist societies, not only in Britain and Ireland but in the West Indies, Canada, France, Switzerland, Ceylon, India, Australia, Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania), New Zealand, the Friendly Isles and Feejee (Fiji), and South Africa, and by occasional legacies and donations. Despite this large constituency, there were regular complaints about the number of societies who contributed little or nothing. Annual grants were made by the Book Room and the Wesleyan Missionary Society (which paid the costs of the missionary students). Costs included rent, taxes, the tutors' and governor's salaries and travelling expenses, household expenses, wages, provisions, quarterage (i.e. maintenance) to students, books, and stationery. In 1836, with 32 students, the subscriptions provided £1382, the grant from the Book Room was £500 and from the Missionary Society £629, and the fund available for current expenses totalled £2999; the expenses included £372 for tutors' salaries and expenses, and £441 for quarterage to students, with a credit balance at the year's end of £1060. In 1840, however, with 60 students in two locations, the report warned that income was not keeping pace with the increase in numbers, and this situation would only get worse when the projected new buildings had their full complement: 'Nothing but a greatly increased amount of Annual Subscriptions can preserve the Institution from distressing, if not even irretrievable, embarrassment' (Report for 1840 (1841), xiii). Indeed in the following year a large part of the income, £1500, was interest from the Centenary Fund, as against £2070 from subscriptions.
The Centenary Fund in 1839, commemorating the centenary of John Wesley's establishment of the first Methodist society and supported by Methodists worldwide, had as the first of several aims the erection of suitable premises for the institution to replace the temporary rented ones in Hoxton and Stoke Newington. The report for 1839 recorded the grant of £55,000: £24,000 for a new house in the vicinity of London, £16,000 for a second house in the neighbourhood of Manchester, and £15,000 for general purposes, and there were to be later disbursements from the massive total raised of over £220,000. When Didsbury opened in 1842 the components were formally described as the Northern Branch of the Institution at Didsbury and the Southern Branch of the Institution at Abney House; from 1843 the latter became the Southern Branch of the Institution at Richmond. The two branches had their own local management committees, but they were regarded as forming one institution with a general management committee which was responsible to Conference. By 1842-3 the timidity of the early nineteenth-century Methodists about formal education for the preachers had been replaced by ambition on a grand scale, which was to create its own problems.
Isabel Rivers


The Methodist Archives and Research Centre at The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester, holds the records of the Wesleyan Theological Institution at Hoxton and Abney House, including the printed annual reports from 1834-5.

Published sources

Brash, W. Bardsley, The Story of Our Colleges: A Centenary Record of Ministerial Training in the Methodist Church (London, 1935), chapters 1-4.
Crowther, Jonathan, A Defence of The Wesleyan Theological Institution, and of the Proceedings of the Institution-Committee and the Conference relative thereto, in Reply to the "Remarks" of Dr. Warren, 2nd edn (London, 1834).
Edmondson, Jonathan, An Essay on the Christian Ministry: including a General Outline of Ministerial Studies and Pastoral Duties; for the Use of Young Preachers (London, 1828).
Entwisle, Joseph, Jr, Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Entwisle (Bristol, 1848), 476-82, chapter 20.
Garlick, Kenneth B. 'The Wesleyan Theological Institution: Hoxton and Abney House, 1834-42', Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 39 (1974), 104-12.
'General View of the Principles and Objects of the Wesleyan Theological Institution', Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 13 (November 1834), 861-6.
Hannah, John, A Letter to a Junior Methodist Preacher, Concerning the General Course and Prosecution of his Studies in Christian Theology (London, 1836).
Johnson, Dale A., The Changing Shape of English Nonconformity, 1825-1925 (New York and Oxford, 1999), chapter 3.
-----, 'The Methodist Quest for an Educated Ministry', Church History, 51: 3 (1982), 304-320.
Lenton, John, John Wesley's Preachers: A Social and Statistical Analysis of the British and Irish Preachers who entered the Methodist Itinerancy before 1791 (Milton Keynes, 2009), chapter 4.
Macquiban, Tim, 'Practical Piety or Lettered Learning', Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 50 (1995), 83-107.
The Methodist Societies: The Minutes of Conference, ed. Henry Rack, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 10 (Nashville, TN, 2011), 81, 144, 159, 161-68, 179.
Observations on the Importance of Adopting a Plan of Instruction, for those Preachers who are Admitted upon Trial in the Methodist Connexion (London, 1807).
Proposals for the Formation of a Literary and Theological Institution: with a Design to Promote the Improvement of the Junior Preachers in the Methodist Connexion (London, 1834).
Rack, Henry, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd edn (London, 2002), 357, 359-60.
Reports of the Wesleyan Theological Institution (1834-1860).
'A Scheme of Study for a Clergyman', Arminian Magazine, 1 (1778), 419-25.
Smith, George, History of Wesleyan Methodism, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1859-62), II, 151-4; III, 136-7, 231-47, Appendix H, 531-33.
Wesley, John, Journal and Diaries III (1743-54), ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 20 (Nashville, TN, 1991), 162, 263; Journal and Diaries V (1765-75), ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 22 (Nashville, TN, 1993), 459-60n.
-----, 'A Short Account of the School in Kingswood, near Bristol', The Works of John Wesley, 3rd edn, ed. Thomas Jackson (London, 1829-31), XIII, 287-89.

Isabel Rivers, 'Wesleyan Theological Institution: Hoxton (1834-1842) and Abney House (1839-1843)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2012, revised September 2012.