Meteoric Methodism (2)
Between 1790 and 1840, 1.5 million people were gathered into the churches of England and Wales - approximately one in every ten of the population. This means that by 1840 one third of the English nation attended Protestant churches on Sundays.
If this 50-year period is today called a ‘forgotten revival’, then Primitive Methodism should be called a ‘forgotten denomination’. This denomination, formed in 1812, became during the next 60 years one of the most powerful converting movements England has ever known.
Between 1801 and 1851 England’s population doubled to 27 million and, by the death of Hugh Bourne in 1852, the Primitive Methodist denomination had accelerated from a handful of people to 110,000 church members, 10,000 preachers, 5,300 chapels, and hundreds of thousands of adherents and Sunday school pupils.
Primitive Methodism’s converts were mostly the poor and uneducated, such as miners, keelmen and navvies. Many of its adherents were first drawn in from other branches of Methodism. But probably many were like C. H. Spurgeon (October ET), who was converted under Primitive Methodism but afterward joined another church.
Primitive Methodism’s remarkable expansion took place in the teeth of vicious opposition. The experience of evangelist Joseph Reynolds, on his way from Tunstall to Cambridge in summer 1821 was typical.
He says: ‘One day I travelled nearly thirty miles and had only a penny cake to eat. I preached at night to near two thousand persons. But I was so weak when I had done, that I could scarcely stand. I then made my supper of cold cabbage, and slept under a haystack in a field till about four o’clock in the morning. The singing of the birds then awoke me, and I arose and went into the town, and preached at five to many people’.
Much worse was the treatment meted out in 1832 to another missioner, Thomas Russell. One Sunday morning in the market place of Wantage in Berkshire, ‘he stood up … and began to sing a hymn. He next knelt down and prayed … But ere he commenced preaching a number of ruffians surrounded him, and he had not spoken long when a more violent company arrived and pushed him from his standing-place…
‘After being driven to and fro an hour or more … the lawless mob … again assailed the solitary missionary with ruthless violence … Mr Russell’s strength was almost exhausted … but determining if possible to address those who had followed him thither, he stood upon the side of a hedge and preached as well as he was able. But his persecutors were not yet satisfied; they pelted him with stones, eggs, mud, and everything they could render available for the purpose.
‘Even women … joined in this cruel treatment … When Mr Russell concluded the service he was covered from head to foot with slime, mud, rotten eggs and other kinds of filth; and his clothes were torn, and his flesh bruised. As soon as he got alone by the side of a canal, he took off his clothes and washed them.
‘Then putting them on wet … he proceeded to Farringdon, where similar treatment befell him. When he came to a pool of water outside the town, he washed his clothes a second time, and then went five miles further to Shrivenham, where he was met with another violent reception.
‘At a brook he cleaned himself a third time, and then proceeded to another village, where he preached in peace, except that a person threw a stone or other hard material at him, which cut his lip.
‘After this he walked six miles to Lambourn to rest for the night. He had been on foot eighteen hours, had walked thirty-five miles, had preached four times, and had gone through an amount of suffering such as none but a strong, healthy man could have endured. Next day, however, he walked twenty miles to the other side of his mission, and during the week preached at several fresh places’.
Rev. Joseph Spoor was an outstanding northern Primitive leader. He began his ministry as a 17-year-old in 1830 in the Newcastle-on-Tyne circuit. In 1833, he moved to Brompton, near Northallerton.
Soon that village was brought under deep spiritual concern. There followed a powerful local awakening at the nearby village of Appleton Wiske.
It happened like this. At the end of a Sunday night service a young woman shared with Spoor her concern for her parents and brothers. She asked Spoor to breakfast with the family next morning. Spoor agreed to this, provided that she, like him, would privately spend an hour that night praying for them.
Next morning at breakfast, Joseph Spoor led family prayers. ‘While I was pleading’, he said, ‘I felt something heavy fall upon my feet, and heard bitter and loud cries for mercy. I looked and saw it was the mother. I went on, keeping hold of mighty faith in prayer; and in a few minutes the father fell upon the floor, roaring aloud for salvation’.
The eldest son, hearing the disturbance, came in. Joseph began to pray for him, and he also fell prostrate and began to cry to God for mercy. This brought the other brother in, and he joined his parents and brother shouting out under conviction of sin.
Neighbours were drawn in by these extraordinary noises, to investigate. They too were thrown to the floor. Others ran down the village describing what was happening, and many villagers flocked to the house. All who came in were overwhelmed by the divine influence and fell to the floor under conviction of sin.
The scene in the cottage was almost indescribable. Some were exulting in their new love for the Christ, some weeping over their sins; others shouting in spiritual concern or agonising in prayer.
All the time, Joseph Spoor continued to pray with men and women until they attained an assured faith and peace in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. ‘Hundreds were brought out of the slavery and misery of sin into the life and bliss of the gospel’. And all this happened when Joseph was just twenty years old!
In 1837 Spoor, aged 24 years, was appointed to the Thirsk and Bedale circuit. 116 members were added in a year.
Over the next 30 years, Middleham, Darlington, Newcastle, North Shields, Stockton-on-Tees, Whitehaven and Sunderland witnessed his fruitful labours.
In 1861 he was stationed at Durham and during the first three years nearly 200 were added to the Primitive Methodist church; later, another 150 were added.
Seasons of mercy
These thrilling histories remind us that evangelism need not be confined to church buildings, as happens with many evangelical churches today. Taking their lead from Luke 14:16-24, Primitive Methodists went out literally into the highways and hedges to ‘compel’ people to ‘come in’ to the gospel feast and into kingdom of Christ.
As they travelled along highways they would engage those they met in ‘conversational preaching’ and even lead people to Christ, kneeling down in roads, hedgerows and fields to pray with them.
Jonathan Edwards wrote in his History of the work of Redemption (1739) that: ‘from the fall of man, to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.
‘Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances; yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy’.
The Primitive Methodist revival was a ‘special season of mercy’ when many totally unchurched people were swept into the kingdom of God. Today our nation is equally hard to the gospel and fiercely resistant to Christian truth. But what God did 200 years ago, he can do again.
Christ’s redemption for his people was fully accomplished at Calvary. And since that central date in the history of the world, the Holy Spirit applies redemption’s benefits to whoever God chooses to save.
We have every reason, therefore, to pray and expect further ‘special seasons of mercy’ in the UK, when Christ’s redemption will be applied with widespread efficacy to the millions of lost people in our nation.
To be continued