Meteoric Methodism (4)
Meteors are quickly extinguished in the night sky. The history of Primitive Methodism is, likewise, one of dramatic growth followed by rapid extinction.
Such meteoric progress can be illustrated by the life of a leading, northern Primitive Methodist minister called John Watson.
Watson was born in 1832 at Ireshope Burn in Weardale, County Durham. His father died early, and when John was fifteen he and his mother became regular attenders at Wearhead Primitive Methodist Church.
When sixteen, John ‘experienced in fullest measure the pardoning love of God, and gave himself unreservedly into his keeping … he sought earnestly to be filled with the blessing of perfect love and had the assurance that God had answered his prayer’.
Two years later he began service as a PM [PM abbreviates for Primitive Methodism or Primitive Methodist] local preacher. In 1861, when John was 29, Weardale experienced a religious awakening.
An additional minister was needed, and in 1862 John Watson became the third circuit minister. By 1863 the revival had swept through the dale. Hundreds were converted and 170 added to the Wearhead church alone.
In 1866 John moved to Sunderland (where in 1868 he was married, although a year later his wife died). Rev. Joseph Spoor (see November 2009 ET) had laboured in Sunderland with great success, seeing 200 added to that church. Into that same work Watson entered, alongside another distinguished PM minister, Rev. Colin Campbell McKechnie.
Watson remarried, taking a grand-niece of Joseph Spoor as his wife. From 1870-1872 he ministered in Hartlepool and from 1873-1877 in Spennymoor, where he saw numerous converts.
In 1877 he enjoyed a fruitful ministry at North Shields. A contemporary recalled, ‘The whole village was stirred by this time and all felt that some great work was going on at the PM chapel in Church Street. Crowds gathered nightly to hear him, who spoke of the salvation that came through the lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world’.
In 1879 the denomination asked John Watson (now Dr) to run its Aliwal North mission station, near the Orange River in central South Africa. Watson worked there for four years and then again as a PM missionary at Adelaide,
From 1893-1897 Dr Watson was principal of the Primitive Methodist College in Manchester. One of his colleagues there was Dr Arthur Samuel Peake. In 1894 Watson was assistant editor of the Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review alongside Colin McKechnie. In 1895 he became President of Conference – the highest honour his denomination could bestow.
In 1901 John Watson was on the verge of accepting the presidency of the National Free Church Council when he had a stroke. He lingered for twelve years in frail health, until his death in 1913.
Would that were the whole story. But, sadly, more needs to be said. The Manchester college, of which Watson became principal, was PM’s leading seminary. It was renamed Hartley College in 1906 after Sir William Hartley, famous for making jam. Hartley was a rich philanthropist of great integrity, but no theologian.
But crucially, Hartley College’s most famous teacher was Dr Peake, who eventually became the first holder of the Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University.
And among Peake’s written works was a one-volume popular commentary on the Bible, published in 1919, that made huge concessions to Higher Criticism.
Higher Criticism employed a radical approach to the biblical texts and became the Trojan horse through which theological liberalism entered nonconformist churches. Its advocates viewed the biblical books as flawed human documents of debatable origin, mere products of their time.
While they loudly professed the Bible to be authoritative and boasted a fresh emphasis on the person of Jesus, they had actually capitulated to a Scripture full of historic and scientific inaccuracies.
Higher Criticism taught the people to believe that the Bible was ‘only inspired in a rather general sense, obviously inaccurate at least in parts, and composed merely of poetry, myth, and so on’ (Robert Currie).
Professor Peake’s posthumous tribute to Dr Watson revealed the extent of his late colleague’s concessions to liberal theology. In the tribute, Peake compared Watson with previous principal Dr Wood: ‘Dr Wood had been extremely kind to me and we had worked together without any friction. But he was an old-fashioned Methodist, very rigid in his theological views.
‘Our talks accordingly went very little, if at all, towards questions of doctrine or biblical scholarship … With Mr Watson it was different. He was, to quote his own words, “a Methodist theologian by his deepest convictions”.
‘But he was very open to new light, especially to that which was streaming forth in our time with such radiance upon Scripture. He was in full sympathy with the critical view of the Old Testament, and with the whole trend of my biblical teaching…
‘I was six and twenty when I came to Manchester in 1892 and he was sixty when he joined me the following year … He had for many years been deeply interested in philosophy and theology, and now the newer light on the Bible engaged much of his thought and attention…’.
‘[Watson] told me that before he left England in 1879 he had translated several articles … he mentions one on “The prophet Isaiah” and another on “Hebrew historiography”, which contained some ideas so far in advance of what were accepted by the most of our people, that I felt it necessary to write an explanatory footnote’.
If Watson’s ‘Hebrew historiography’ needed a footnote from Peake to ease its way, something was really amiss!
Theological liberalism had indeed got its stranglehold upon PM. By 1891 one PM could write, ‘The old contention that the Bible is an infallible teacher of science – that in the childhood of the race there were anticipated the results of the ages of vast research including the data secured by the trained scientific men of today is heard no more. The wonder is that reflecting men could ever have conceived anything so contrary to reason’.
Hell was a casualty too. In 1900, Joseph Ritson, author of The romance of Primitive Methodism, lamented: ‘At the opening of the century the doctrine of eternal punishment was held almost universally and in its most literal and absolute form … It is still in the creeds, and in some form it is still held by many in all the churches; but it cannot be denied that comparatively little is heard of it in the pulpit’.
The doctrine of Christ was recrafted. Currie describes the change: ‘Christ was no longer the immediate and overwhelming demonstration of divine omnipotence and justice in human life. He was, instead, rather like a popular minister of religion, smiling but grave, enormously learned, wise and experienced, but full of help, understanding, generosity, and fun…
‘Religion was a permanent Sunday school anniversary, Christ the affable minister, the universe a tidy church hall full of happy faces. Traditional Christianity was dead’.
The twofold fruits of this rapid downgrade were institutionalisation and fossilisation. PM membership peaked in 1911 at just over 205,000 excluding adherents and Sunday school children, but thereafter went into a decline accelerated by the First World War and the post-war influenza pandemic.
A generation later, in September 1932, the three main branches of British Methodism (Wesleyan, Primitive and United) joined to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. If there had been no Higher Criticism, this reunion would never have happened, for it could only take place on the mutual acceptance of the Bible as ‘divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures’.
This ambiguous statement fell far short of proclaiming the Bible to be inerrantly and infallibly true in its every word.
The abiding lesson of PM’s tragedy is that theological liberalism has destroyed and continues to destroy vital gospel churches.
Capitulation to scepticism has been the worst catastrophe to hit the Protestant churches for two centuries. This form of unbelief still blights world-wide Christendom, confuses billions of non-Christians and feeds into many other sins and heresies.
Here is a battle that Evangelicals must re-engage with, if ever they would win the nations back for Christ. For he who comes to God must believe that he is, before he is able to receive the rich grace that is in Christ Jesus (Hebrews 11:6).
A history of the work of redemption, by Jonathan Edwards.
A new history of Methodism, by W. J. Townsend, Herbert B. Workman and George Eayres.
Arthur Samuel Peake – a memoir, by Leslie S. Peake
Christianity in earnest as exemplified in the life and labours of the Rev. Hodgson Casson, byA. Steele.
Faith and ferment; ‘Ferment in old England: Revival and the Primitive Methodists’, by Eric Aldritt.
Methodism and the working class movements of England 1800-1850, by Robert F. Wearmouth.
Methodism divided,by Robert Currie.
Northern Primitive Methodism, by W. M. Patterson.
Preaching and revival; ‘The forgotten revival’, by Paul Cook.
Rev. John Watson DD (1832-1913), by Annie Watson Cowie.
The Early Years, 1834-1859, by C. H. Spurgeon.
The earnest preacher: a biography of the Rev. Joseph Spoor 1813-1869, by Rev. E. Hall.
The life of Rev. Colin C. McKechnie, by Rev. John Atkinson.
The life of Sir William Hartley, by Arthur S. Peake.
The life of the Venerable Hugh Bourne,by Rev. Jesse Ashworth.
The origin and history of the Primitive Methodist Church,byH. B. Kendall.
The power of faith and prayer exemplified in the life and labours of Mrs Mary Porteous, by John Lightfoot.
The pre-existent glory and abasement of the Saviour set forth in a Sermon, by Moses Lupton.
The romance of Primitive Methodism, by Joseph Ritson.