In 1812, the Primitive Methodist Connection was formally established. It was John Crawfoot who had unintentionally invented this name, when he declared, ‘If you have deviated from the old usages, I have not. I still remain a primitive Methodist!’
Their first class ticket issued in 1812 bore the title, ‘The Society of the Primitive Methodists’. By this time the ‘Magic Methodists’, as John Crawfoot’s own group had mockingly been called, had ceased to be in fellowship with the movement.
The visions and trances associated with that group had also ceased and the work of directing the young societies was being undertaken by Hugh Bourne. The ‘Camp Meeting Methodists’, the ‘Clowesites’, as well as the Magic Methodists, also used the title Primitive Methodists for a short time.
Hugh Bourne died in 1852 and part of the inscription of the memorial stone reads: ‘At his death he left the Primitive Methodist Connection with 109,984 church members; travelling preachers; 9,350 local preachers; 5,318 chapels, etc.’
The question must surely be asked, how was all this wrought? Part of the answer lies in the real though very local revival at Harriseahead; and the manner in which these men were converted and brought together with the fire of the Holy Spirit. They had experiences of God which were holy and profound.
William Clowes, for example, tells us: ‘I was brought into great sorrow and distress of soul; I felt the travail in birth, and experienced an internal agony on account of the millions of souls on the earth who were posting on in the way of death, whose steps take hold on hell; I wept much, and longed for some convenient spot on the road where I could give vent to my burdened soul in prayer.
‘In a short time I arrived at a forest and then I gave way to my feelings, and poured out my soul, and cried like a woman in the pangs of childbirth. I thought the agony into which I was thrown would terminate my life.
‘This was a glorious baptism into the ministry; the glory of God was revealed to me in a wonderful manner. It left an unction on my soul which continues to this day; and the sweetness which was imparted to my spirit it is impossible for me to describe’.
Dr H. B. Kendall, who quotes this, rightly sees in it a challenge to the ministers of his day — the early 1900s — and remarks, ‘Alas! How few of us enter the ministry by such a baptism! Who is there amongst us to whom such agony for souls comes as a travail?
‘Where have we cried and poured out our souls? Is it not thus we must enter into the fellowship of his sufferings, who loved us even unto death?’
As one would expect, there were also spurious elements in those early days — few revivals have been without them. There were the Magic Methodists, with their over-reliance upon visions and trances; then Lorenzo Dow had systematised the open air meeting, until ‘what was unprepared, but blown along of the Spirit’ became somewhat gimmicky. But overall the revival pulsated with true spiritual life.
We have reservations about some of their doctrinal emphases. They were Wesleyan through and through; although it must be said that their simplicity as working-class men did much to keep them to a biblical expression of gospel truth.
They all used such phrases as ‘filled with the Spirit’, ‘baptised with the Spirit’, ‘sealed with the Spirit’, ‘a spirit of fire’ and ‘a spirit of burning’, though their interpretation of some of these expressions we might wish to question.
In spite of these things, however, there was an amazing triumph of the gospel at home and abroad, with many thousands of conversions.
These men were deeply serious about their communion with God in prayer. Praying Johnny, for example, generally spent six hours each day upon his knees, pleading earnestly with God on behalf of himself, the church and sinners whose salvation he earnestly desired.
They laboured ceaselessly for the salvation of souls. They preached and prayed with great zeal as they travelled the country. Even when they were cast into prison for preaching, they did not stop.
One such sufferer wrote: ‘Praise God! He was with me, and we spared not to preach Christ to the poor prisoners. We preached or exhorted every night. A great reformation appeared among the prisoners; those who had been accustomed to curse and swear and sing, began to read and pray. The Lord was with us in a powerful manner’.
Clowes was a remarkable example of the ceaseless energy expended in spreading the gospel. He arrived at Hull on 18 January 1819, after three days of weary travelling. Praying Johnny and a Mrs Woolhouse received him, and they knelt together to give God thanks for bringing him to his new sphere in safety.
Not a day was lost. Sunday saw him in the old factory where a dense crowd had gathered. The news of his arrival had spread quickly through the town. Many remembered the former leader of their wildest revels; others had heard of that strange act of his paying debts which no one could have enforced.
Wild, lawless fellows came to interrupt, but found their former comrade clothed with a new power. The old factory soon rang with cries for mercy, mingling with shouts of victory and outbursts of thanksgiving, as multitudes passed into the kingdom of Christ.
In a few weeks, Clowes had extended his labours to the places round about, holding vast crowds in awed stillness in the cold winter days, often in the open air, occasionally in a barn or a dwelling-house.
The work in Hull increased so that hundreds were unable to gain admission. There was fierce opposition; ‘the wicked flowed in upon us like floods of water’. Nothing could stop the work.
The power of Jehovah rested upon the living mass of human beings, all was still as midnight, tears flowed down many faces, hundreds stood amazed. Within five months, 300 souls joined the Society. They had looked for and obtained immediate and lasting results.
John Benton preaching on Cannock Common was criticised by a Wesleyan local preacher for his bad grammar, though he was described by Bourne as ‘an extraordinary man’. A little later, John was preaching at nearby Cheslyn Hay, when the Holy Spirit brought great conviction on the congregation, causing many to cry aloud under the burden of sin.
Closing the Bible, he moved into the congregation to pray among the distressed ones, and coming to his critic sitting there, he looked him in the eye and with a wave of the arm across the mourning congregation said, ‘This is grammar’.
Benton knew how to rouse sinners and bring many under conviction. But, as Hugh Bourne remarked, ‘He could not complete the work he had well begun’. The leader had much conversation with him on this point and visited the large class John had brought together.
We read: ‘Bourne spoke to the people and the Lord made bare his arm; six souls were immediately set at liberty … his usefulness after this was greater than it had been before and it kept increasing’. It would be interesting to know what Hugh said to John on this subject.
In closing, I can do no better than to quote the final words of an article by Rev. David Gracy, writing on ‘The rise and progress of the Primitive Methodists’, in the Sword and Trowel for January 1867:
‘We must, in concluding, acknowledge that though a close examination of the records of their proceedings has in no wise increased our appreciation of their views of doctrine, yet our admiration of the spirit that animates the Primitive Methodists has been heightened each stage we advanced in their history.
‘While we would utterly deprecate an imitation of their peculiarities, we do heartily desire a wide diffusion of their fiery earnestness, that it may tend, mingling with the zeal of other Christians, to elevate the standard of Christian enterprise and preserve religious affairs from a state of stagnation’.
The origin and history of the Primitive Methodist Church (2 volumes); 1905, H. B. Kendall.
The romance of Primitive Methodism; 1912, J. Ritson.
History of the Primitive Methodist Connection from its origin to Conference of 1859; 1860, J. Petty.
The secret of Mow Cop; 1910, W. E. Farndale.
Memoirs of the life and labours of the Venerable Hugh Bourne (2 volumes); 1855-6, John Walford.
The life of the Venerable Hugh Bourne; 1888, Jesse Ashworth.
William Clowes — a biography; Thomas Guttery.
This article series has been edited with permission from: ‘Ferment in Old England: revival and the Primitive Methodists’, Faith and ferment; 1982, The Westminster Conference.