‘Shooting stars’ leave a dramatic, but brief trail of light and fire in the night sky. So it was with Primitive Methodism. The Primitive Methodist (PM) movement blazed forward, but was extinguished within 120 years.
What lay behind its rapid success and extinction? Consider the description of Primitive Methodism provided by C. H. Spurgeon’s paradigmatic account of his own conversion.
He was a 15-year-old lad, under conviction of sin and on his way to a dissenting chapel in January 1850, when a snowstorm constrained him to turn into a PM chapel in Colchester.
Spurgeon wrote, ‘In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the PMs, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose.
‘At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach … The text was, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”.
‘He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter … The good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto me; I am dead and buried.
“Look unto me; I rise again. Look unto me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto me! Look unto me!”
‘When he had … managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable”.
‘Well I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before … He continued, “And you always will be miserable – miserable in life, and miserable in death, if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved”.
‘Then, lifting up his hands he shouted as only a PM could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live”.
‘I saw at once the way of salvation … There and then the cloud was gone … and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the precious blood of Christ and the simple faith which looks alone to him’.
Note Spurgeon’s observant description: a layman able to give a word at short notice; the preacher’s humble social background and his decidedly evangelistic message and uninhibited personal application.
Next Sunday Spurgeon returned to the chapel, battling with temptation. This time the minister preached, but Spurgeon was not helped.
‘I took up my hat, and left the chapel and I have very seldom attended such places since. They are very good for people who are unconverted to go to, but of very little use for children of God. That is my notion of Methodism’.
Although polite English society found the PMs far too ‘enthusiastic’ and called them ‘ranters’, Spurgeon had a profound respect for their zeal. One particularly significant reference comes in a sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, on 30 January 1862.
It was just after a mining disaster at Hartley Colliery in North Tyneside. A giant cast-iron beam had broken from the mine’s pumping engine and blocked the only exit. 215 men and boys lost their lives below ground, suffocated by poisonous gases.
When the rescuers eventually reached them, they found the bodies in rows. Boys were lying with their hands on the shoulders of their fathers, and one had his arms clasped round the neck of his brother.
On the body of a miner surnamed Amour there was a small notebook containing this last entry: ‘Friday afternoon, at half-past two, Edward Armstrong, Thomas Gledstone, John Hardy, Thomas Bell, and others took extremely ill. We had a prayer meeting at a quarter to two, with Tibbs, Henry Sharp, J. Campbell, Henry Gibson, and William Paltrier. Tibbs exhorted us again, and Sharp also’.
Spurgeon preached, ‘Let me commend to you the example of some of those who were in the pit, praying and exhorting their fellow men just as they were all in the last article of death. They were PMs. Let their names clothe Primitive Methodism with eternal honour! …
‘The PMs think that a man may preach who never went to college; that a man may preach to his fellow-miners even though he cannot speak grammatically; and hence they do not excite their ministers to labour after literary attainments, but after the souls of men’.
How did the PM movement begin?
By the 1780s, Methodism’s fervour was waning. Upward social mobility had brought challenges more searching than persecution.
In 1791, just before his death, John Wesley exhorted preachers in Chester: ‘Fellow labourers, wherever there is an open door, enter in and preach the gospel. If it be to two or three under a hedge or a tree, preach the gospel. Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind.
‘And after you have done this, you will have to say like the servant in the gospel: Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room!’ Then he repeated, with tears, ‘And yet there is room!’ Then, with emphasis: ‘And this was the way the primitive Methodists did’.
The need for renewed effort was urgent. In spite of the Evangelical Awakening, many village communities spawned by the Industrial Revolution lay in deepest spiritual darkness. This was exemplified, in 1838, when two PM preachers John Ride and Aaron Bell were missioning Surrey. They walked 30 miles to Guildford and on their way met an old lady.
The conversation went like this. Mr Ride: ‘Do you know anything of Jesus Christ?’
Aged woman: ‘There is no man of that name living anywhere about here’.
Mr Ride: ‘Do you know the way of salvation?’
Aged woman: ‘I have lived here many years, but I have never heard of such a way yet. But there are some men making a new road down yonder; you had better ask them if that is the way of salvation’.
In spite of the spiritual darkness, a revival of extraordinary power broke out in 1806 among Methodist laymen at Harriseahead, in Staffordshire’s Burslem circuit. There were fervent prayer meetings and unfettered personal evangelism. Their intense desire for extended prayer times led to the first, so-called ‘camp meeting’ in Britain. This took place on Mow Cop hill, on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border, in May 1807. William Clowes described the scene:
‘The first day’s praying on Mow Hill presented … a most magnificent and sublime spectacle. Four preachers simultaneously crying to sinners to flee from the wrath to come; thousands listening … many in deep distress and others pleading with heaven on their behalf; some praising God aloud for the great things which were brought to pass, whilst others were rejoicing in the testimony which they had received, that their sins which were many had all been forgiven’.
Such an event was highly innovative and too much for the Methodist hierarchy, who viewed camp meetings as highly irregular. In fairness, they had legitimate concerns. England’s poor groaned under the war with France and successive bad harvests. The nation had witnessed with horror the upheavals of revolutionary France and the Methodist hierarchy knew too well that political gatherings were viewed by England’s authorities with extreme suspicion.
Methodism was also uncomfortable with revival. Witness this useless local attempt to rein in the new prayer meetings. A set of rules was formulated: Persons praying must not lift their voice; they must not address the divine being as ‘my God’; they must not use the words ‘send the fire’; and they must not repeat the same petition three times!
Hugh Bourne persevered in organising the camp meetings and for this ‘sin’ was in 1808 unchurched in a disgraceful manner. Others associating with the new movement were forced out too. A serious schism had taken place.
What were the ‘camp meeting’ Methodists now to call themselves? The question was addressed at Tunstall in February 1812. Various names were considered until someone recalled John Wesley’s Chester exhortation, ‘And this was the way the primitive [first] Methodists did’. That clinched it!
What followed was one of the most thrilling episodes in British church history.
To be continued