On Friday 15 January 1819, William Clowes, a missionary preacher of the Primitive Methodist movement, arrived in the northern English city of Hull. Known as Ranters, the reputation of the movement he represented was spreading far and wide. The cry soon went out that “a Ranter preacher” had arrived, and a lively crowd of the curious, the intrigued, rabble rousers and many others soon gathered around this preacher as he spoke.
Called Ranters because of their loud singing in the streets, William Clowes and his helpers brought a powerful message to the working class men and women of Hull. Within four years there were over eight thousand members of this young and dynamic movement of God in the Hull district. Clowes records in his journal “On the very day of my entering into Hull I preached in an old factory in North-street. Vast numbers of people attended, many influenced by curiosity, others with an intention to create disturbance, having heard of the arrival of the “Ranter preacher ”; however, God was present in my first effort to make known the riches of his mercy, and the wicked were restrained, so the meeting terminated in peace and quiet.”
The very name Ranter was enough to secure a crowd. Often when it was announced that a Ranter preacher was to speak, people gathered from the local neighbourhood and from the countryside to hear what he (or she) had to say. The Ranters walked up and down the streets singing loudly as they approached a market place, the village green or other outdoor venue to speak. Ranter was often used as a term of derision, scorn and abuse. Just as it is said “All publicity is good publicity” so it was with the nickname Ranter. Once the label had been given, it stuck.
The nickname was first used in 1816 when a young preacher by the name of John Benton and a number of young converts entered the town of Belper in Derbyshire. They sang in the streets as they approached the market-place where Benton began to preach. Hundreds gathered to hear him speak, including a group of rabble rousers who intended to disrupt the event. As the mission party returned home they sang as they went along the streets. A young woman heard the noise and asked someone listening to the singing “what religion are these people?”. He replied “I believe they are the people I have been reading about – they are Ranters.” The young woman worked in a cotton factory and the next morning she said to those around her, “Joseph Turner says that these folks that preached last night in the market-place are called Ranters” – and from that time the Primitive Methodists had the nickname of Ranters.
It is said that God works in mysterious ways. It is certainly the case that this term of derision and scorn was used to gather crowds and enable the gospel to be preached to thousands of working class men and women during the early decades of the nineteenth century.