Historic England awards grant to rebuild George Whitefield’s Tabernacle

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Historic England has awarded a grant of £137,859 towards stabilising the Grade I listed Whitfield Tabernacle in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire. Whitfield Tabernacle is an exceptional building with international significance. It was commissioned in 1741 by Anglican cleric George Whitefield (1714-1770) who, together with John Wesley is considered to be one of the originators of the Non-Conformist Movement in England and America.

The grant will go towards the cost of essential repairs to the building which has been derelict for nearly 30 years and was last in use in 1992. It was destroyed by fire in 2000 and has been vandalised over the years. It’s hoped that once restored, it can be used for community events.

A preaching space for the coal miners of Kingswood

The Tabernacle was the first place of worship built by George Whitefield who wanted to provide a preaching space for the hard working coal miners of Kingswood, increasingly alienated by the established Church of England.

During the 18th century, evangelical preachers took their message to the poor, the labouring classes and those on the wrong side of the law, who were often left out of organised religion. Banned from preaching in Anglican churches in the city due to his radical ideas, Whitefield went to Kingswood in 1739 – an area with a reputation for lawlessness, and began to preach in the open air. Over the following weeks he preached at various sites in and around Kingswood, attracting crowds of between 200 and 10,000 people.

Growing with the community and the Methodist Movement, the building bears testimony to the industrial and social changes of Kingswood and South Gloucestershire since the mid-18th century. Methodism was most successful in poorer areas where the Church of England was weakest. John Wesley describes Methodists as a people who had been raised up to spread ‘Scriptural Holiness’ throughout the land, and recognised that immersion in Scripture was one key way in which the people of God grew into maturity and faith. The provision of social facilities and schoolrooms were evident in Methodist Places of Worship.

The Tabernacle

The Tabernacle has been on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register since it began in 1998. Since then, Historic England has been working closely with South Gloucestershire Council and the Whitfield Tabernacle Trust providing advice and expertise to prevent further deterioration of this important building.

The Tabernacle is a modest structure with few decorative details which is in-keeping with the movement’s philosophy– even the wooden window frames are unpainted. Above the entrance, was a bronze plaque commemorating the building’s importance to early Methodism. It reads: “This building was erected by – George Whitefield BA and John Cennick AD 1741 – it is – Whitefield’s first tabernacle, the oldest existing memorial to his great share in the 18th century revival.”

Ross Simmonds, Regional Director for Historic England in the South West, said: “The Whitfield Tabernacle is special for many reasons, from its architectural distinctiveness to its international significance as the birthplace of Methodism. Our grant will help secure this long-term building at risk and aid the regeneration of Kingswood. The repairs to this building will take place alongside a multi-million pound scheme to improve the high street.”

Neil McKen, Project Manager for the Whitfield Tabernacle Trust, which acquired the building in 2019, said: “The Trust greatly values the support that has been provided. We have always regarded Historic England as a key partner in this project, and look forward to continuing to work with them as we embark on this transformative phase. We are confident that the benefits will be long lasting”. 

Chris Skidmore, MP for Kingswood, said: “The Whitfield Tabernacle is one of the most important historic sites in Kingswood and of huge international significance. The building has been sadly derelict for too long and I welcome the news of this investment which will help stabilise this fantastic local listed building further and carry out essential repairs.

“The full restoration of the Tabernacle forms a significant part in our wider vision for the multi-million pound regeneration of Kingswood and its High Street, and this grant is a first step in the full transformation of this Kingswood’s only Grade I listed building into a brand new cultural and heritage centre for the entire community to enjoy”.