John Wesley, an Anglican clergyman and travelling preacher, first visited Canterbury in 1749/1750. On 29 January 1750 he wrote in his Journal: 'I rode to Canterbury. The congregation in the evening was deeply serious, and most of them present again at five in the morning'. Wesley was no hit and run evangelist. Wherever he went, he organised people, who were moved by his preaching, into societies. These were designed to promote spiritual growth through regular meetings and mutual support. 'Mr Wesley's Societies' were dubbed 'Methodist' because of his methodical approach to religion.
Wesley came to Canterbury nearly every year, often in November or December, to encourage and 'inspect' members of his society, expelling those who failed to meet his exacting standards. In the early days the Canterbury society seems to have met in people's homes, probably in one of the private houses available for rent in the precincts of the Archbishop's Palace. As numbers increased, however, and congregations were swollen by soldiers garrisoned in the city, Methodists decided they needed a building of their own. In 1764 they opened a newly erected chapel in King Street. This was a twelve-sided building which became known as the 'Pepper Box' or 'Round House' Chapel. The present church hall reflects its design.
Like other early Methodist chapels, the Pepper Box was a preaching house. There was no altar or communion table since Wesley insisted that his societies were part of the Church of England. He expected his followers to attend services and go to communion in their local parish churches. Initially Methodist 'preachings' took place at different times from church services. Not all Methodists, however, shared Wesley's loyalty to the Church of England, and after his death in 1791 his societies gradually became a separate denomination. A majority of Methodists in Canterbury wanted communion to be celebrated by their own preachers and from 1796 they began to hold their own sacramental services.
By the start of the 19th century the congregation had outgrown the Pepperbox and in 1808 resolved that 'a new large and commodious Chapel be built'. Land was eventually acquired in St Peter's Street and the foundation stone was laid on 7 May 1811. The first service was held barely seven months later, on 1 January 1812, and the chapel has been in use ever since. It cost almost twice as much as planned, £8,287, over a quarter of a million pounds in today's money. The building stands on the marshy Isle of Binnewith, between two branches of the River Stour, and had to be supported by thousands of costly piles. During the Napoleonic wars the price of building materials escalated, and the society was left with a debt which was not paid off until 1880. An early pew ticket shows an avenue of trees, linking the building to the street, but these were cut down in 1828, so that the forecourt could be used as a graveyard. Soon after the chapel was built, two houses were erected on either side of the entrance. 52 St Peter's Street was used as a manse and no. 51 may have been the caretaker's house. Subsequently they were let as shops, whose rental continues to provide valuable income.
Early Methodists were renowned for their lusty singing, and St Peter's had a particular claim to fame: its first choirmaster, Thomas Clark (1775-1859), was a musician of some eminence who composed and published many popular hymn tunes and anthems, notably 'Cranbrook' or 'On Ilkley Moor baht 'at'. Clark eventually severed his connection with St Peter's and joined a congregation of Unitarian Baptists. Choirs were often quite disruptive in the early nineteenth century, causing problems in both Anglican and dissenting services. In 1816 the Leaders' Meeting at St Peter's censured the 'indevout and improper behaviour of some persons in our Singing Gallery' and ruled that 'No person shall be permitted to retain his seat in the Orchestra whose behaviour is irreverent during divine service.' Anyone who lived 'in habitual open sin' was also excluded.
People were attracted to Methodist services not only by the singing but also by the preaching. The dominant feature of the building was a towering central pulpit, a visual symbol of the importance of sermons. The pulpit stood in front of the communion table, an arrangement common in both parish churches and Wesleyan chapels at the time. It had to be high so that the preacher could be seen and heard from the gallery which ran all the way round the building. This enabled far more people to be accommodated than is possible today. When a national religious census was held in 1851, the minister reported that the building could seat 1,100. He was required to give the numbers attending each service on census Sunday, and recorded that there were 418 people plus 92 Sunday School children at the morning service. 82 people came to worship in the afternoon. The best attended service in most dissenting chapels was the evening one. On 30 March 1851 the evening congregation at St Peter's numbered 828.
Work among young people has always been an important part of life at St Peter's. In 1822 a Sunday School room was built alongside the chapel, and this was enlarged in 1853. In 1871 a Wesleyan Day School was opened, using the Sunday School facilities. There were many such schools in the nineteenth century but, unusually, the one at St Peter's still exists. It is a voluntary controlled school and its premises, which have been much enlarged over the years, adjoin the church.
The St Peter's Wesleyans were not the only Methodist congregation in the city. In the early nineteenth century some Staffordshire Methodists broke away from the original Wesleyan connexion, calling themselves Primitive Methodists. A Primitive Methodist missionary arrived in Canterbury in 1839 and set up a society. The members rented an old Baptist chapel in St John's Place and used this for worship until 1876, when they built a new chapel in the Borough. Nationally, Wesleyan, Primitive and United Methodists joined together in 1932 to form the Methodist Church we know today. The Primitive and Wesleyan congregations in Canterbury amalgamated four years later. They worshipped at St Peter's and used the old Primitive chapel as a youth centre, before selling it to a Pentecostal congregation in the 1960s. As a result of the 1932 Methodist Union the Wesleyan Day School had to change its name. Its hat badges were turned upside down so that W for 'Wesleyan' became M for 'Methodist'.
The outside of St Peter's has remained largely unchanged over the centuries, apart from the recent addition of a corridor linking the church to a new hall. Internally, however, there has been much change. As part of the centenary celebrations in 1911, the communion table and rail were brought forward in front of the pulpit, and tip-up chairs were introduced into the gallery. During major renovations in 1956-57, half of the gallery was taken down, since it was putting pressure on the walls, and the pulpit was moved to one side. This gave the congregation a much clearer view of the communion table, and reflected a growing liturgical emphasis on the importance of both Word and Sacrament. More recent refurbishments, in the late 1970s and late 1990s, created a more spacious, versatile sanctuary area, and a larger, more welcoming vestibule, flanked by ancillary rooms. Two major features of the 1990s renovation were the replacement of fixed pews with comfortable chairs and the relocation of the organ to the gallery. The church now looks much more symmetrical, and its appearance - and excellent acoustic - is appreciated not only by the regular congregation but also by people who attend chamber concerts organised by Music at St Peter's. This is just one of a number of ways in which the 21st century congregation seeks to use its personnel and facilities to cater for the wider community. Details of other activities can be found elsewhere on this website.