By the first decade of the 19th Century, the membership of the Wesleyan Methodist Society was increasing, but they were gradually hiving off in groups to found new centres of worship. It was John Baker, a missionary, who actually started a class in the West End of Freetown among the African settlers in 1819, in a community that later became known as the Bathurst Street Society.
By 1820, the Wesleyans were fairly established with a total membership of 261. By 1835, fifteen years later, not only was there a sufficient increase totalling 994 members, but there were other areas included in the Circuit Plan, indicating the expansion of the District. The Freetown congregation was divided into various chapels,out of which the Bathurst StreetSociety (The Wesley Chapel) had 142 members.
The original Wesley Chapel (Wesleyan Chapel) now Wesley Church was situated at Bathurst Street, in Freetown. The building,which is now occupied by the Bathurst Street Infants School,also houses the City Mission Primary School,for educational purposes. The Sunday School at Bathurst Street School which was started by John Baker in 1819 still remained and by the 1840s, was led by John Ezzidio, a successful business man who had bought a property opposite the St George’s Cathedral.Ezzidio was a merchant and a devout Methodist who became an exhorter, class leader and local preacher. John Ezzidio ran the Sunday School at Bathurst Street for a long time as its Superintendent. He was also the first of seventeen Trustees of Wesley Church, contributing very largely and generously to mission funds, raising money from his English friends in Freetown to also build the Buxton Church.
To quote here from Christopher Fyfe’s history of Sierra Leone (1962),“Ezzidio who preached and ran the Sunday School in a little chapel in Bathurst Street, longed to replace it with a large church on a central site to rival the Cathedral which stood opposite his shop. In 1856, the Premises on the corner of Trelawney and Oxford Streets, where the Cole brothers had their shop, were bought for £700 and vested in Trustees. Government voted £400 towards the estimated cost of £3000 and £1000 fromEzzidio-raised contributions towards the remainder, on business visits in England”.
Reverend Dr. Leslie E.T Shyllon in his book titled “Two Centuries of Christianity in an African Province of Freedom” writes as follows about the origin of Wesley Society:
“Before 1860, this congregation was known as the Bathurst Street Society. The ultimate building of Wesley Chapel in the centre of Freetown, ‘for the use of the most respectable and intelligent congregation’ worshipping in ‘a most dilapidated chapel’ at Bathurst Street, started in 1857, but had to be suspended ‘for want of funds’. In 1859, with the support and encouragement of the then Circuit Superintendent Charles Knight (African), John Ezzidioand Knight went to England in 1860 to petition the WMMS for financial help and got a grant of £1,000. With this grant the work gained momentum, with the land having been purchased in 1856 for £700, borrowed locally at an interest of 5% per annum. The foundation stone was laid in 1859by Governor Stephan John Hill, with a silver trowel ordered from England. Much of the work at the early stage was done by self-help. This scheme lasted till 1862 when the need for funds compelled them to suspend work, with hope of subsequent grant from the London Committee. Unfortunately, John Ezzidio died in 1872, before the completion of the building.
With many obstacles,including that posed by the then European Chairman the Revd. Benjamin Tregaskis, it took the Wesleyan Trustees another twenty-four years before the chapel was completed and dedicated on 24th March 1886, and became available for worship as “the biggest chapel of Sierra Leone Methodism, as well as its status symbol”.
The walls of Wesley Church Chapel now proudly carry plaques of three renowned personalities from the Bathurst Street era as follows:
1. HENRY BENJAMIN CUMMINGS, described as “a member of the Bathurst Street Wesleyan Chapel, now removed to and known as Wesley Church at Trelawney Street, in the construction of which latter edifice he rendered very material assistance”. He died on Thursday 1st September 1892, aged 72 years.
2. MRS. MATILDA WILLIAMS described simply as “for many years a Leader of Wesley Church and Mother of Bathurst Street Christian Association”. She died on 29th January, 1918. And,
3. ELIZA BISHOP, described as “Class Leader for many years and mother of Bathurst Street Christian Association”. She died on 30th March, 1930 aged 61 years.
Since 1886, Wesley Society has been contributing immensely towards the development of Methodism in Sierra Leone and also,through divine evangelism, education and development work,to the development of the spiritual, socioeconomic development of the people of Sierra Leone and more especially the Western Area.
As Wesley celebrates 200 years as a Society, it is the hope that with the divine help of God, Wesley will upgrade the Bathurst Street Infant School to a full Primary School, with the hope of removing children from deprived areas to educate them so that they will not return to these areas.
The highlight of the celebration will be the Grand Thanksgiving Service on Sunday 20th October 2019 at the 9.30am divine service at Wesley Methodist Church, Lamina Sankoh Street, followed by a luncheon Sale at the Prince of Wales School Hall.