Meteoric Methodism (3)
Primitive Methodism was an astonishingly successful, nineteenth-century denomination that grew at phenomenal speed, especially through conversions among the unchurched (see October and November 2009 ETs).
What were its distinctive features? Answering this is made more difficult by the movement’s relative lack of written remains, compared to Wesleyan Methodism and other nonconformist bodies.
Primitive Methodists (PMs) were, in the main, illiterate and poorly educated lay men and women. Although they had entered into a deep experience of God’s saving power and had new incentives to read the Bible and use the means of grace, they still had only limited access to Christian literature of any kind.
They were converts at a time of spiritual quickening and pulled into Christian service with little opportunity for grounding in the faith other than that provided by local class meetings. However, many had experienced a deep conviction of sin and profound gospel liberation through Christ.
The Primitives, in the early days, mobilised the whole church in prayer and personal witness rather than just relying on their ministers. In fact, they were wary of ordained ministers, since their first opponents, who had come from within the Wesleyan Methodist hierarchy, aspired to a learned respectability and were embarrassed by intense ‘enthusiasm’.
‘Paper pellets’ was how one rustic PM preacher described a well-read colleague’s sermons! Although, in time, the PMs did appoint full-time ministers, these were heavily overworked.
It is plain, however, that there was little difference in the doctrinal beliefs of the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists. Both groups were convinced of the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture; the fallen nature of man and centrality of Christ’s atoning work; Christ’s bodily resurrection; the necessity of the new birth and justification by faith for salvation; and the absolute need for a visitation of the Holy Spirit to bring about conversions.
So it is no surprise to find that when during the 1860s the dales of northern England experienced powerful local revivals, both PMs and Wesleyans were able to work together and worship in each other’s chapels.
The main differences seem to have been in ethos and church polity, although even here the differences were not immense. The PMs had a more ‘democratic’, less centralised system of church government (which may explain why they suffered fewer schisms than the Wesleyans). Their meetings were less inhibited and noisier too.
Another area of similarity was their mutual adherence to the perfectionist teaching of John Wesley. Jesse Ashworth describes Hugh Bourne’s encounter with Methodist perfectionism, in 1804 at a love feast at Congleton, near Stockport.
Hugh Bourne was perhaps the greatest of the PM leaders. He says, ‘I sat in the gallery and two of the revivalists sat in the pew before me. One leaned back and asked whether the Lord had cleansed my heart, but I did not understand him. In the love-feast they spoke very pointedly of full sanctification’.
The term ‘full sanctification’ pointed to their belief that entire sanctification could be claimed in one climactic step of faith. Hugh Bourne embraced this idea wholeheartedly.
Whatever our legitimate reservations about such teaching, Bourne and many other Methodists were undoubtedly deepened in their experience of God through their belief in it.
Bourne continues: ‘The brethren laboured [in prayer] with all their heart and mind and voice … and in my opinion there was the greatest outpouring of the Holy Ghost I had ever known … It was the greatest time of power I had ever known. I was humbled down at this Monday night’s meeting, and shown the manner in which the Stockport men worshipped.
‘I came by simple faith and obtained the blessing. After the meeting was concluded, the power came in such a degree that we began again and again, and for some time I could scarcely stand or speak, so great was the power of God upon us’.
Bourne’s journal also demonstrates that the Primitives’ instincts were Calvinistic rather than Arminian, even though their theology was flawed when measured against the comprehensive and majestic theological system of John Calvin.
This does not mean the PMs would have delighted in the term ‘Calvinistic’, but the truth behind it – namely, that salvation is entirely of the Lord – was their profoundest conviction.
They were slower to succumb to man-centred Finneyism and its ‘anxious bench’, exported into English evangelicalism from the 1840s, than even the Independents and Baptists!
We need to remind ourselves that true Calvinism means complete dependence on Christ for all blessing. Paradoxically, the PMs were in their deepest religious instincts more Calvinistic and reformed than many ‘Reformed’ churches today.
When there was no blessing and few conversions, they urgently sought God himself for fresh interventions from above. They did not put their confidence for spiritual breakthrough in new doctrines, new evangelistic methods and new styles of worship.
An interesting distinctive of Primitive Methodism was its use of women preachers, at least in the earlier part of its history. These were employed extensively as local and travelling preachers and missionaries.
In the Minutes of conference of 1832 thirteen women preachers were listed. Many, like Mary Porteous and Elizabeth Smith, saw great blessing on their work and lived blameless lives of Christian devotion. There are several recorded instances of women evangelists opening up communities for the gospel that had previously resisted the efforts of male PMs.
In the light of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, there seems little doubt that the PMs went too far in their use of women. But, it should be said in their defence that their approach was a far cry from the militant feminising of the Christian ministry that the West has experienced during the last forty years.
Nor was there a trace of the celebrity and entertainment cultures that have often characterised today’s use of women in ministry. This was the case even though bawdy popular drama and the music hall flourished in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Recently, one Ukrainian missionary agency sent women out in pairs as pioneering church planters to work among women and children in the Russian east. When these make significant gospel progress, they send for men to pastor the embryonic churches.
The PMs would not have been surprised by such an approach, but today’s Reformed constituency is probably the poorer for hardly daring to envisage such a possibility. It would be a salutary exercise to evaluate this approach in the light of all the scriptures bearing on legitimate spiritual activities for women.
The PMs’ spiritual strength was drawn, above all, from their simplicity and Christ-centredness. A notable example of this is demonstrated in one of the few early PM sermons still extant.
It was preached by Moses Lupton at the Mechanics Institute in Glasgow and published in 1835. It is entitled ‘The pre-existent glory and abasement of the Saviour set forth in a sermon’. (Currently a copy can be read in the British Library, London.)
His text was 2 Corinthians 8:9: ‘For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich’.
The sermon is remarkable for its wide-ranging scriptural content. And it has a distinctly modern feel as it begins to home in, during its application, on Christ’s death as a penal substitute and not merely as a pious martyr.
He says: ‘[Christ] beareth away as the Lamb of God, not sins in numerical order, but sin in the aggregate; not the sin of a few but the sin of the world. Glory be to God! He pardoneth iniquity, transgression, and sin.
‘When God works he does not do his work by piece-meal, but like himself. Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee. But not only is it a full pardon, but a free pardon’.
Moses Lupton then passionately urges his hearers to close immediately with Jesus Christ. ‘It is a present pardon. Not a blessing to be realized at some subsequent period, but now; now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation…’
‘Come then thou poor, broken hearted, disconsolate and trembling sinner, believe and thou shalt now, in this hour yea this moment, receive the riches of full, free and present pardon.
‘The blood, the Spirit, the Saviour waits; the waters are troubled; the blood is now flowing in all its healing power. Now stretch forth thy withered hand, believe in hope against hope.
‘Jesus is passing by. Come down from the tree of self; hide thyself no longer in the branches of despondency. Let Jesus dine in thy heart today. The Lord help thee’.
Few, even of those uneducated and poor hearers, were able to withstand preaching like that, especially when it was anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit and adorned by the intense evangelistic zeal and love of the Primitive Methodists. What God did then, he can do again!
To be concluded