May 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Primitive Methodism, which played such a significant part in my own life. I came to faith in Christ aged 15 or 16 and read Joseph Ritson’s The romance of
Primitive Methodism about two years later. It did more to set the ambitions and direction of my life than probably any other book.
Hugh Bourne, the founder of Primitive Methodism, was born on 3 April 1772 at Ford Hays Farm near Bucknall, on the edge of the North Staffordshire moorland. He was the fifth of six children.
The area was bleak, desolate and lonely, with no nearby road. Access to the farm was by a plank over a wide brook. Often he had no contact with people outside the family for weeks.
His mother taught him to read, and he briefly attended two village schools. He was serious, introspective, shy and independent. He was attracted to books, and taught himself Hebrew and Greek.
With his mother, he went on Sunday mornings to Biddulph parish church and became concerned about religion from the age of seven. When he was 16 the family moved to Bemersley.
Despite the Revival of the previous century, the masses in rural England at the beginning of the 19th century were largely un-churched and uncared for. Whole villages had no semblance of religious life, while clergymen were often given to drinking, swearing and fox-hunting.
The Church of England exerted little spiritual influence for good, and the Nonconformists also failed to attract the masses. Dissolution and ignorance of religion were widespread, with loose morals, vicious habits and fighting.
Bourne knew about God’s law and hell, and observed that the faith of chapel-going Methodists was no merely formal religion. He came to Christ in the spring of 1799 through reading John Fletcher, and joined Methodists at a nearby farmer’s house. He also attended prayer meetings after evening services at Burslem.
In 1800 he set himself up in business as a carpenter and timber merchant. In his soul he carried a passion for the lost. He found three other believers nearby and began prayer meetings at Harriseahead, the area of his work. They also evangelised, and several notorious characters were converted. New believers flocked to the meetings.
They were obliged to end their house-meetings early to be ready for work next day – and out of consideration for their hosts. Daniel Shubotham, a former boxer, poacher and criminal, declared, ‘You shall have a meeting upon Mow some Sunday and have a whole day’s praying’. Mow meant Mow Cop, an 1100-foot hill on the Cheshire border.
Thus on Sunday 12 July 1801 Bourne preached for the first time to a congregation, in a house on Mow Cop. There was much prayer, the house was filled, and many could not get in. They moved outdoors and the service ended with powerful praying. From the very beginning the movement placed a serious emphasis on prayer.
There were converts also at Kidsgrove, and Bourne became a class leader. In 1802 a chapel was built at Harriseahead seating two hundred. The revival spread throughout the Burslem Methodist circuit.
In 1805 William Clowes (born 1770) was also converted. He was well paid, but given to dissipation, debt, drink, fighting, gambling and wild living. He later wrote, ‘The power of heaven came down upon me and I cried for help to him who is mighty to save … In an agony of prayer I believed he would save me. Then I believed he was saving me. Then I believed he had saved me. And it was so’. He soon met Hugh Bourne.
Bourne read of ‘camp meetings’ in America – days set aside for preaching, prayer, fellowship and evangelism. He also heard about them from Lorenzo Dow, an American evangelist who visited England in 1805-7.
In Bourne’s locality, annual ‘wakes’ were held – times of abomination and revelry. He determined to hold a camp meeting to counteract the wake at Norton on Moors in August 1807. The class at Harriseahead agreed, but suggested a prior day of prayer on Mow, which was fixed for Sunday 31 May 1807.
The camp meeting began at 6am. Some companies who prayed all the time, and four preachers simultaneously cried to sinners to flee from the wrath to come. By 4pm thousands were present. Many were in deep distress; others pleaded with God on their behalf; yet others rejoiced that their many sins had been forgiven.
Bourne advertised a second meeting for 19 July, but the Methodist circuit and conference opposed it. A third was planned for 22-24 August, but some – even William Clowes, Daniel Shubotham and Hugh’s brother James – held back because of the official opposition. The movement hung in the balance. It needed a man of unmoveable determination – and in Hugh Bourne it had such a man.
He walked more than thirty miles to Lichfield for a licence as a preacher, so that none could invoke the Conventicle Act against them. The Saturday night was spent in prayer. Next day, crowds came to listen. The preaching continued from Sunday to Tuesday.
By June 1808 hundreds had been added to Methodism through Bourne’s ministry, but he was put out of the society in his
absence. The circuit superintendent told him later that it was because he ‘had a tendency to set up other than ordinary worship’.
He arranged his business to allow more time for evangelism and began itinerating. Gospel leaflets were printed and the camp meetings continued.
Converts were encouraged to join the Methodists. By March 1810 there were ten converts in Standley, but the circuit superintendent refused them pastoral oversight. This was a turning point – the preachers now needed to form classes of their own.
In September 1810 Clowes was expelled from Methodism for attending camp meetings, and in December became a full-time evangelist. In April 1811 James Steele was expelled, so a chapel was opened for his flock.
By now there were societies in Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire and in 1812 they adopted the name Primitive Methodist.
Their first ‘preaching plan’ had thirty-five locations and twenty-three preachers. In 1814 Bourne formally became a travelling preacher – foregoing marriage and living meagrely on his savings. He would walk all day, sustained only by two or three hard-boiled eggs and a pocketful of dry bread.
All the travelling preachers practised rigorous self-denial. Clowes described his diet thus: ‘We used coarser food, dining when by ourselves on a little suet and potatoes, or a piece of bread and a drink of water’.
They were bombarded with mud, stones and filth. Magistrates sent them to prison. Church bells were rung to drown their preaching. Land-workers who gave them hospitality risked losing their jobs.
They slept outdoors and travelled mainly on foot. William Garner walked more than forty thousand miles in 21 years – and preached more than six thousand sermons.
In 1820 there were 48 travelling preachers and 7842 members, but four years later there were 33,507 members. When Hugh Bourne was superannuated in 1842, there were 495 travelling preachers, 75,967 members, 1219 chapels and 64,730 in Sunday schools. Bourne died in 1852 leaving 104,762 members.
Thomas Russell became a travelling evangelist at 23 and worked in Berkshire with John Ride. In February 1830 he walked ten miles to consult and pray with Ride. Before parting they turned aside into a coppice for another round of prayer.
They knelt in the snow and, in an agony of prayer, pleaded with God to give them Berkshire. They prayed for hours, till Russell received assurance that God had accepted their prayers.
He sprang to his feet, pointed across the country and exclaimed, ‘Yonder country is ours, and we will have it’. Said Ride, ‘I like thy confidence of faith!’ Until then, not a single society had been gathered, but remarkable revivals followed and within three years there were nearly 1300 members in the circuit.
Scores of chapels were opened and, in time, there were more Primitive Methodist congregations than of any other Nonconformist body.
I grew up near an area dotted with former Primitive Methodist chapels, and came into contact with their spiritual heirs in the 1960s via the Methodist Revival Fellowship. They were elderly men, probably born around 1890, who described what services had been like in days gone by.
Their conversation, their faces and their experience had a quality which left an unforgettable impression upon me. Well did Isaiah write, ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn’. I thank God for them.
The author is Director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission