Temple has a long history and in 2012 we were able to celebrate our bicentenary of being on the existing site in Taunton.
John Wesley, on his way to Cornwall, came to Taunton in August 1743. Near the old Market House was an ancient Cross and it was here that John Wesley preached on that first occasion in Taunton. On his return from Cornwall a crowd gathered to hear him preach and they used a large room in an inn which later became the County Hotel and is now Waterstone’s bookshop. In subsequent years Wesley’s Journal records a further 22 visits to the town in addition to other regions of Somerset.
The numbers of Methodists in the town grew to the point where they felt the need of a settled place of worship and in 1775 Wesley gave permission to build a preaching house. The Octagon Chapel was erected in Middle Street and this was opened by Wesley on 6th March 1776. He recorded in his Journal at this event the “the people showed great eagerness to hear”. On another visit he recorded, “A solemn awe sat upon the whole congregation and God spoke to their hearts. The house was nearly filled at 5 in the morning – a sight never seen here before”.
By the turn of the century, the need for a larger chapel coincided with the return of James Lackington to the town. He was born in nearby Wellington. As a boy he heard a sermon by a Wesleyan preacher and was converted to Methodism. With a loan of £5 from a fund established by John Wesley, Lackington set up a small shop in Finsbury in London. Amongst other things he sold second hand books and this became so successful that he moved to much larger premises and bought a wide range of books to sell at modest prices meeting an increasing demand for accessible literature. The business flourished, he bought a site which he developed with a huge bookshop called “Temple of the Muses” and with the success of the business he became very wealthy. He retired in 1798 and moved to live in Taunton in 1808 and he became a local preacher.
The Methodist Society was outgrowing the Octagon Chapel in Middle Street and James bought a large area of land known as Pool Mill and at his own expense built a much larger place of worship named ‘The Temple’. In 1812 the Methodists from the Octagon, Middle Street moved to the ‘The Temple’.
James Lackington moved to Budleigh Salterton and established there a further church also named ‘Temple’.
Throughout the 19th century the congregation and its needs grew. In 1846 the façade was extended by 12ft towards the road, and the first schoolroom was built. Later, in 1866, the chapel was rebuilt along an east-west axis and the existing schoolroom was made larger.
In 1870 the first national Education Act was passed. Prior to this, most children in the country had little or no schooling. The Temple Chapel had always maintained large Sunday Schools where children were able to acquire a little reading and Biblical learning. At Temple the Wesleyan School was opened in the School Room in 1874 with 54 scholars. The school continued to expand and in 1888 an Inspector’s report showed that there were, “unusually good results in the Elementary and Extra Subjects. Music and drawing are noticeably good features of this school”. The school celebrated 30 years but reports were increasingly critical of the accommodation, particularly the absence of space for a playground and it closed as a school in 1907.
The original organ was a well loved instrument but there was a need to improve this with the current organ installed in 1879 at a cost of £1000. In 1947 Sandy Macpherson, a popular entertainer played in the Temple.
In 1898 General William Booth preached in the Temple. Best known as the founder of the Salvation Army, later he became a Methodist minister.
Alterations have been made in recent years. In the 1960s the rear pews were removed to create a corridor space between the church and the hall. In the 1970s the angled choir stalls were removed, the stage in the hall was removed to create a meeting room and the kitchen refurbished. Redevelopment schemes took place in the 2000s with major improvements to both the ancillary premises and the worship area and the installation of a lift. This has created the attractive and flexible accommodation which we have today.
The national ‘Anne Frank Exhibition’ was held in 2006, visited by thousands of adults and schoolchildren, and the Methodist Art Collection was displayed in 2009. The Bi-Centenary year was in 2012 celebrated with events including a Victorian Christmas Market, talks and lectures, an exhibition in the Sanctuary, a commemorative ‘Sunday School Outing’, a performance of the 1812 overture by Taunton Concert Band and an Old-Time Music Hall.
Now the congregation is turning to the future and reflecting on new ways to witness and to serve.
Taken from “A People’s Story, Temple Methodist Church, Upper High Street, Taunton 1812-2012”
By Jeannette Gill