From the earliest days, Methodist Churches have been organised into Circuits: groups of churches served by a team of Ministers and Local Preachers, and led by a Superintendent.

In the early days the size of a circuit was dictated by how far the Superintendent could travel on horseback.

the origins of the Wesleyan Church

Tolpuddle,
the mother church of the Dorchester Wesleyan Methodist Circuit

Tolpuddle was so described by John Simon in 18703 and to that extent, it is still so regarded. In some ways, with the passage of time, it has gained greatly in significance in a wider national and even international sense.

When a Methodist Society was first formed in Tolpuddle the members probably met in one of their homes, and in 1810 the house of Thomas Loveless (George and James' father) was formally licensed as a "Dissenters' meeting house".

While it is not certain, it is thought that the Loveless family, and others in the village, first came to the new Non-Conformist church through the Wesleyan society in Wareham.

Picture of a Cottage iin Tolpuddle, thought to be the home of the loveless family

This is thought to be the cottage that the Loveless family lived in.

In 1816 there was a great spiritual revival in Salisbury, and two young men went from the Wesleyan meeting in nearby Wareham. This gathering of enthusiasts and the curious featured large public meetings, lectures and more intimate study and the locals returned home with “their hearts glowing with sacred fire”. Around the same time the Methodist Church in Weymouth sent preachers to work as missioners in Puddletown and Milborne. In Tolpuddle, according to the historian Rev John Simon, that “success crowned the zeal of their endeavours”.

As the Tolpuddle Society grew in strength and numbers, the need for a chapel of their own became apparent and the first chapel was built adjacent to Thomas Stansfield's cottage in 1818.

Tolpuddle initially came within the Weymouth Wesleyan Circuit, but in 1831 it became part of the newly formed Dorchester Circuit (now the Bridport & Dorchester circuit).
Elsewhere, in neighbouring villages, emerging Methodist societies were meeting in houses and other buildings, until they were strong enough and had the resources to build new chapels for themselves.

Unlike most other major denominations, Methodism has always recognised the importance of ordinary people in leadership and worship leading, rather than focusing all authority on ordained clergy.

People like George Loveless and the Standfields were encouraged to become local leaders, to found new societies, and to build new chapels.

The official term for people who are not ordained is "Lay", and key officers of the Methodist Church are drawn from the "laity" to this day.