One of the most outstanding features of the early Primitive Methodists was their sheer hard labour for the Lord.
Despite continuing in long hours of public employment, they preached in four counties, organised meetings, held ‘walking-services’ — in which they would sometimes walk a mile and a half, preaching as they went — on one occasion to a troop of marching soldiers.
They prayed together on the way to preaching engagements, and called such occasions ‘walking prayer meetings’.
Bourne’s early impression of Clowes gives us an insight into the deep spirituality of these men: ‘This man is such an example of living faith as I scarcely ever met with, and which I am not at present able to follow…
‘He is one raised up immediately by God — a man of uncommonly deep experience, of unusual growth in grace, deep humility, steady zeal, and flaming love. Such a man I scarcely ever met with.
‘O God, that thou would’st make me like him. I desire it from my heart; grant it me, O my Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ’.
James Crawfoot, a man of great wisdom and spiritual discernment who lived in the Delamere forest between Northwich and Chester, was alone among these men in giving up his secular employment, being supported by gifts of ten shillings a week. He is described by Bourne in these words:
‘I sat with Crawfoot and others’, writes Bourne in his Journal, 3 November 1808. ‘They were talking and I breathed my soul to God for the Holy Ghost to come upon that church. I turned my head and Crawfoot was looking at me.
‘His face shone, I could not bear it, but was near fainting away. I felt as if my inside were raising out of me and going to God. My soul breathed “Lord Jesus receive my spirit”…’
No less illuminating is George Herod’s account of Crawfoot’s influence on Clowes: ‘His home was the college in which Clowes received instruction. We candidly acknowledge that Clowes was under the greatest obligation to the old man of the forest, and that much which he taught in the infancy of the Primitive Methodist Connexion can be traced to this source.
‘Crawfoot taught Clowes the law of faith, the method of opening heaven, and bringing down an influence that caused believers to thirst for more purity of heart and sinners to grieve for their sins’.
These expressions, such as ‘opening heaven’ and ‘bringing down an influence’, describe one important part of the praying of these men of God. Under the influence of ‘the old man of the forest’, as they called him, ‘they became conscious of an atmosphere, rare and fine, their hearts burned within them, and they caught glimpses of heights the soul is competent to gain’.
Liveliness was characteristic of their prayer meetings. ‘All at it, always at it’ was the watchword, and every-one was expected to take part.
Bourne tells us, ‘The people got to be in a great measure Israelitish’ (i.e. noisy), justifying it by such Scripture expressions as, ‘All the people shouted with a great shout — and the noise was heard afar off’.
Bourne describes the extraordinary effect of a meeting at Jane Hall’s house in Harriseahead: ‘The door of a house on Mow Cop happening to stand open, Elizabeth Baddesley, a miner’s wife, who was given to the use of profane language, distinctly heard the sound of prayer and praise coming from Harriseahead a mile and a half off, and was convinced of sin and set out for heaven’.
By prayer they strove to ‘get into faith’, or to ‘rise in faith’, and to obtain what they were asking.
Two incidents may best be used to illustrate this, the first in the life of ‘praying Johnny’ or John Oxtoby: ‘Filey had been impervious to repeated evangelistic appeals and when it was suggested that Filey should be abandoned, Oxtoby would not hear of it and expressed his firm belief that God would yet manifest himself in that stubborn stronghold.
‘He himself undertook the mission and when he arrived at Mustin Hill, within sight of Filey, he fell on his knees in an agony of soul. In simple and familiar language he stated in his prayer that he had given a pledge that God was going to revive his work in Filey.
‘He pleaded with God to vindicate that promise — pleaded that his servant’s pledge might not be dishonoured: “That be far from thee, Lord”.
‘And as he prayed he gained the assurance, and rising from his knees he cried, “Filey is taken! Filey is taken!” The revival which immediately followed laid the foundation of one of the most powerful churches on the north east coast’.
In Bourne’s words, ‘The people were exhorted in all exercises to get as much into faith as possible and were shown that faith is one of the great mainsprings of action in all exercises, that it sets the arm of heaven at work, and that the Lord says, “All things are possible to him that believeth”.’
Another example of this exercise of faith and pleading is found in Dr H. B. Kendall’s The origin and history of the Primitive Methodist Church (1905). Describing two Primitive Methodist peasant preachers, who had spent the day together in prayer and counsel, he writes:
‘Reaching the wood, they had to part as their destinations lay in different directions. They had already shaken hands. But no; they must not, should not part until it had been fought out on their knees whether their mission was to prosper.
‘“Let us … have another round of prayer before we part”, was the remark of one of them … Oblivious of the snow, and of personal considerations, they throw themselves upon their knees, and in an agony they pour out their souls to God.
‘The success of their mission which is for God’s honour, and the salvation of souls, is summed up in the burden of their prayer, “Lord, give us Berkshire! Lord, give us Berkshire!” The pleading continued for hours.
‘At last the younger one receives the assurance, and rising to his feet, exclaims with an outburst that betokens a new-found possession, “Yonder country’s ours, yonder country’s ours! And we will have it”, as he points across the country, the prospect of which is bounded by the Hampshire hills some thirty miles distant.’
Such was the conflict: the powers of darkness on one side; and, on the other, the two men sent forth to establish the Primitive Methodist Mission to Berkshire. Dr Kendall completes the account:
‘Remarkable revivals of religion followed this time of wrestling prayer. The habits and practices of the people became changed, scores of sanctuaries were erected. Until now there are more Primitive Methodist congregations in Berkshire than of any other Nonconformist body, and probably more Primitive Methodist chapels.
‘It is surely a noteworthy coincidence that almost on the spot where the struggle for Saxon and Christian supremacy in England was decided, there also took place a struggle which decided whether Primitive Methodism was to be a power in the county.
‘It is also illustrative of the way in which God honours prayer, for while Messrs Ride and Russell pleaded for Berkshire, he gave also territory beyond’.
We must go back, however, to the prayer meetings in general. Bourne comments: ‘Anyone that could distinguish his or her own voice must have had a pretty good ear; since the general practice was for all to pray simultaneously’.
But the meetings themselves were in no way lawless, but were governed by strict rules. Phrases such as ‘dear Lord’ or ‘sweet Lord’, which John Wesley called ‘fondling expressions’, were forbidden. Nor were the gatherings prolonged beyond an hour and a half, so that all should be fit for work the following day.
To be concluded