Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sheep amongst wolves

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

The commitment of the early pioneers of the Primitive Methodist movement was characterized by active and sustained persecution. One particular form of persecution was the magistrate. Open-air preachers were often accused and brought before a local magistrate on a spurious charge. As a result the preachers became experts at knowing their rights, and became familiar with the state of the legal system and justice in England. It was not unusual for them to be thrown into prison, just like the apostle Paul.

The first Sunday Jeremiah Gilbert began his work as a missionary preacher in May, 1819, he was arrested at Bolsover, in Derbyshire, and thrown into prison.

Two years later he says:

"In the last fifteen months I have been taken before the magistrates for preaching the gospel six or seven times, but I have never lost anything but pride, shame, unbelief, hardness of heart, the fear of man, love of the world, and prejudice of mind. I have always come out of prison more pure than when I went in."

In their relations with the magistrates and police, the missionaries became astute. They developed the acuteness of lawyers. They knew they were on the right side, and that they were fighting for religious freedom. This conviction gave them calmness and confidence in the presence of those who sought to abridge their liberties.

H B Kendall writes that “In the period ending 1843, there are distinct references to some thirty cases of arrest for open-air preaching, issuing, sometimes in detention - frequently in imprisonment - and occasionally in imprisonment with hard labour. … Most of the early preachers had one such experience.”

We have much to learn from these early pioneers of a missionary movement who faced persecution with courage and fortitude.

Abridged from the "History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion", H. B. Kendal, page 34

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How John Garner made a scarecrow

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. (Matthew 5:10)

The commitment of the early pioneers of the Primitive Methodist movement was characterized by active and sustained persecution. This came in two distinctive forms: the mob and the magistrate.

The mob was often a cause of opposition, particularly because of the use of open-air preaching. The mob was verbally and physically aggressive, and it was the lot of many a preacher to face heckling, and violence, often having stones and rotting vegetables thrown at them. The mob was an unruly and unpredictable group who came to disrupt the evangelistic efforts of the missionary preachers. Sometimes the violence became so extreme, that the preacher was fortunate to escape with his life. The missionary pioneers became used to suffering for the gospel of Christ.

John Garner began his work as a travelling preacher in February, 1819. In May of that year he preached several times in the village of Sow, near Coventry. No sooner had he and his friends entered the village when stones were thrown at them by a mob. He quickly retreated to a safe house, but the mob followed him, surrounded the house, broke the windows, and stopped the meeting being held there.

When he realised that the persecution was not going to stop, Garner confronted the mob, who promptly proceeded to drive him out of the village, with stones, rotten eggs, sludge, or whatever came to hand. Garner’s friends who were with him, tried to escape, but Garner was chased by the rebels.

They followed him out of the village, and in his own words, they “propped my mouth open with stones, while some were engaged in attempting to pour sludge down my throat. The cry was raised, `Kill the devil! d---- him!'”

He was knocked down, beaten and kicked, and hit with various weapons. His clothes were badly torn. He was dragged to a pond, and at this point he fully expected to die. Just at this point one of the worst persecutors rescued him from the rest of the gang, and they withdrew.

Garner picked himself up, walked a few hundred metres, and a woman who had seen his pitiful state, took him into her home, washed him and looked after him. With the help of a friend, he walked a couple of miles to Bell Green, where he rested from his injuries. He was given a new set of clothes, and they made a scarecrow out of his old torn ones. After a few days he resumed his normal work of preaching.

Story abridged from the "History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion", by H B Kendal, page 32.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Primitive Methodist annual membership statistics (1820-1888)

The men and women of the Primitive Methodist movement turned their world upsidedown. The movement grew rapidly in the face of persecution by gangs of rabble rousers (the mob), and persecution by those in power who brought them before the magistrate. A number of their preachers were sent to jail. In spite of this opposition, or more likely, because of it, the gospel spread as lives were changed, chapels and class meetings established, and towns and villages were impacted. The statistics below represent one way to measure how effective this movement was.

These statistics are taken from the Annual Conference statistics reported by H B Kendall in the "History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion", chapter 7, “Sidelights on facts and figures”. The first Conference was held at Hull, in May 1820. At this conference, the state of the Connexion was reported to be as follows: - eight circuits, 48 travelling preachers; 277 local preachers; 7,842 members. The annual increase or decrease is then added to this base figure of 7842 members, to give the annual total membership.

The chart shows that the growth was linear and sustained for well over 70 years. The movement grew from 7842 members in 1820 to 194,010 members in 1888. Significant years are 1821, when the movement doubled in size, the mid 1820s when the movement was on the brink of catastophe because of renegade preachers who had joined the rapidly expanding movement, and 1833 when the cholera epidemic caused many deaths in the community. Rapid growth occurred in 1849-1850. The founding fathers of the movement, William Clowes and Hugh Bourne died in 1851 and 1852 respectively. The movement nearly doubled in size in the 36 years after the death of the founders.

1820 Hull 7842
1824Halifax 335074035
1825Sunderland 3358275
1826Nottingham 33582(no return) 0
1827Manchester 33582(no return) 0
1830Hull 358082013
1831Leicester 374891681
1832Bradford 416744185
1833Sunderland 487947120
1834Birmingham 523913597
1836Lynn Regis628205657
1837Sheffield 657912971
1839Bradford 709102730
1840Manchester 745043594
1841Reading 764811977
1842Newcastle on Tyne800293548
1843Nottingham 860796050
1844Lynn Regis889192840
1845Hull 88099-820
1847Halifax 896911191
1848Leeds 922972606
1849Sunderland 984536156
1850Nottingham 1076589205
1851Yarmouth 1116774019
1852Sheffield 1128801203
1853York 111829-1051
1854Manchester 111709-120
1855Hull 109654-2055
1857Cambridge 1144792126
1858Doncaster 1200125533
1859Newcastle on Tyne1276567644
1861Derby 1391853278
1862Sheffield 1449765791
1863Leeds 1503725396
1864York 1524812109
1865Hull 153091610
1866Chester 1552042113
1867Luton 1587173513
1868Sunderland 1635654848
1869Grimsby 163831266
1870Nottingham 164765934
187lOldham 163891-874
1872Yarmouth 164108217
1873London 164067-41
1874Hull 164179112
1875Leicester 1692395060
1876Newcastle on Tyne1763247085
1877Scarborough 1805374213
1878Manchester 1825672030
1879Leeds 182396-171
1880Grimsby 182210-186
1881Hull 1848312621
1882Sheffield 1872002369
1883South Shields 1923515151
1885Reading 1935161187
1886Derby 192777-739
1887Scarborough 19279821
1888Liverpool 1940101212

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How to preach on time

The Primitive Methodist movement began to suffer from preachers and preaching that went on too long. This is what they did about it. The following rules were laid down for their Conference camp meeting in Hull, in 1830:

1. Each preaching service to be three quarters of an hour. …That two preachers should preach and be allowed to preach twenty minutes each, and not to exceed, unless sinners were actually falling down under the word. … Also not to use expressions such as – ‘My time is short’ … but keep to a form of sound words that cannot be reproved and make an honourable and useful conclusion.

2. That the conductor give each preacher a signal, by pressing the point of an umbrella, or something else against his foot, five minutes before his time is expired; and during that five minutes, if not before, he is advised to press a present faith, and a present salvation; and conclude, leaving such an impression as full and as strong as possible on the minds of the people.

3. That the conductor repeat the signal, if need be, when the time expires, and that then the preacher at once break off.

The Conference also made the following instruction: “Every travelling preacher who falls into piece sermoning, or who trespasses by long preaching, contrary to rule, shall forthwith have his salary lowered by ten shillings a quarter, and the ten shillings a quarter shall be put into the charitable fund.” According to my reckoning that is the best part of a weeks wages! Piece sermoning was the practice of promising to complete a sermon at a later time, (and usually failing to do so).

How about that for dealing with long-winded preachers? Try that next time a preacher goes on for too long!

“Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Hugh Bourne", Volume II, p207, 212, republished by Tentmaker Publications 121 Hartshill Rd, Stoke-on-Trent (

Pentecostals before the Pentecostal movement?

Were the Primitive Methodists Pentecostals? Given that the movement started in 1807, nearly one hundred years before the Pentecostal movement in Azusa Street, this is an interesting question. They certainly experienced powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Both of the founding fathers of the movement, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, experienced a personally powerful baptism of the Spirit (see this link for more details).

At the 1829 Annual Conference address it was noted that “Both preachers and all others should look more diligently for the baptism, or outpouring of the Spirit, both upon them and their children”.

The biographer of Hugh Bourne wrote that at the end of his life “the Pentecostal gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit seem to absorb his almost every thought, and his zeal is, if possible, redoubled in the work of the ministry”. At this time Hugh Bourne regularly preached on the ‘Pentecost’.

In the Primitive Methodist magazine for 1824, Hugh Bourne wrote an article in conversational style on the cultivation of spiritual gifts.

“Friend – The scripture, in 1 Cor 14:1 says, ‘Desire spiritual gifts;’ and in 1 Cor 12:31, ‘Covet earnestly the best gifts.’ Now it is necessary, not only to covet and desire, but also to cultivate spiritual gifts; for every gift of the spirit increases and enlarges by exercise. All the spiritual gifts depend greatly on faith, and by works is faith made perfect; and though fervent effectual prayer is one great means to be used in their cultivation, yet conversation on their nature may also be extremely useful.

In 1824 Bourne wrote about the gift of healing. “Having met with striking instances of the exercise of that spiritual gift, which is called – ‘The gift of healing by the same (Holy) Spirit,’ I was satisfied that the Lord had not withdrawn it from man. I was aware that the cultivation of it, as well as of the other spiritual gifts, depended much upon faith that worketh by love, - faith that rests on the scriptures, in all plainness, simplicity, and godly sincerity.” Further, he documents two examples of physical healing.

Were the Primitive Methodists Pentecostal? Yes, in the sense of being a movement of the Holy Spirit where the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit were taught and experienced.

A movement of rapid growth

The Primitive Methodist movement grew rapidly and spread across England, Wales, Scotland, and later to North America, Australia and New Zealand. They started in 1810 with just 10 formal members.

By 1820 there were a total of 7842 members as reported at the first annual conference held in Hull. The statistics for the annual conferences from 1820 to 1888 show a linear growth rate to nearly 200,000 members by that year, with very rapid growth in the early years of the movement 1820 - 1822. In 1820, membership more than doubled from 7,842 to 16,394. Membership increased rapidly until 1825-1827 when there was a decline because of difficulties with leadership issues in Edinburgh and elsewhere, with problems brought about by undisciplined preachers who jumped on the bandwagon and caused dissension. These problems were resolved by 1828, when growth resumed.

The chart shows the linear growth in membership from 1820 – 1888, based on the yearly statistics reported in the annual conference.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A memorial to an amazing church planter

Hugh Bourne, the main founding father of the Primitive Methodist movement, died on Oct 11th, 1852 aged eighty years. More than sixteen thousand people (note that number!) lined the streets for the funeral procession between the town of Tunstall in North Staffordshire and the little village of Englesea Brook where he was buried.

At the funeral sermon, the Rev. W. Antcliff said this: “On the Cathedral of St. Paul’s in London, in honour of its illustrious architect, Sir Christopher Wren, there reads an inscription in Latin, the English of which is, ‘If you ask for his monument, look around.’ We appropriate the beautiful sentiment, and to all the inquirers for the monument of Hugh Bourne respond – ‘Look around!’

Look on the

five hundred and sixty (560) travelling preachers,

the nine thousand three hundred and fifty (9,350) local preachers,

the six thousand six hundred and thirty two (6,632) class leaders,

the five thousand three hundred and eighteen (5,318) chapels and other places of worship,

the one thousand four hundred and sixty three (1,463) Sabbath schools,

the twenty two thousand three hundred and ninety eight (22,398) gratuitous teachers,

the one hundred and eighteen thousand five hundred and eight (118,508) scholars,

and on the one hundred and nine thousand nine hundred and eighty four (109,984) members,

belonging to the Primitive Methodist Connexion, not forgetting those who have already gone home (in other words, those who have died) ….

If he has not left behind him wealth and worldly glory, he has left what will survive them”

How about that for a monument and a memorial to a man of God? Let us pray that God will raise up church planters in our day and generation who make such a large impact on our world for Christ and the gospel.

“Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Hugh Bourne", Volume II, p380, republished by Tentmaker Publications 121 Hartshill Rd, Stoke-on-Trent (

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mission as a verb

For the pioneers of the Primitive Methodist movement, mission was a verb. Travelling preachers such as William Clowes “missioned” a town or village. They would choose public spaces such as large market-places, farmers’ fields, barns, sheds, factories or any other convenient location and use that space for open-air preaching. Mission was the activity of the missionary; mission was what the missionary did.

The movement was a dynamic missionary movement. A missionary, noted one historian, “was simply an open-air preacher. The only instruments he carried were his bible and hymn book and possibly the innocent staff or umbrella.” The missionary and his helpers would sing as they made their way to the preaching spot. The preachers were surprisingly effective. They were bold in proclaiming the gospel and their pointed sermons were just that – they made a point, and lives were changed as men and women who were used to cursing and swearing, violence and drunkenness became followers of Jesus Christ.

William Clowes, the leading apostle, missionary and evangelist of the movement often preached to thousands at a time in the towns and villages he missioned. In 1821 he preached in Northallerton in the open air to about a thousand hearers” . Later that year he preached morning and evening, at Darlington. The evening crowd was estimated at two thousand people. In 1822 he records in his journal “On Monday evening following, at Howden Pans, I preached in a timber shed to about a thousand persons.” Later he “opened a large room for preaching at South Shields; in the afternoon it was crowded, and in the evening vast numbers could not gain admittance”

The missionary preachers “opened up” a town or village in this way. They made new converts and gathered them into a local class (roughly equivalent to a modern home group or small group). A number of classes formed a society, and the local society formed a chapel in the course of time. Changed lives led to changed communities, and the effect of Primitive Methodism rapidly expanded across England in the decades from 1820 onwards.

It is time for us to mission our nation and for the gospel of Christ to transform those whose lives are being wrecked by the evils of our day and generation. Let me name just a few: alcohol abuse, addiction to illegal drugs, the enslavement of pornography, broken sexuality, violence, and relationship breakdown. It is time for mission to become a verb.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Big trees from small seeds grow

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” said Jesus. “Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32)

Here is how the Primitive Methodists grew to become a movement of 200, 000 members, 6000 churches and half a million Sunday School children in attendance each week:

  • 1799 Hugh Bourne converted to Christ

  • 1801 Hugh Bourne led Daniel Shubotham to Christ on Christmas Day 1801

  • 1802 Hugh Bourne, Daniel and a friend, Matthias Bayley bring four coal miners to Christ

  • 1802-1804 The four coal miners lead others to Christ – they become great “talkers” of the gospel

  • 1804 A revival breaks out in the village of Harriseahead and they experience a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit

  • 1807 This group of believers organise an open-air camp meeting. Thousands come from the surrounding localities to attend

  • 1808 -1810 Hugh Bourne (1808), William Clowes (1810) and others expelled from the Wesleyan Methodists, for organising open-air camp meetings

  • 1810 New movement formed. There are 35 formal members

  • 1816 Open air camp meeting at Nottingham Forest, more than 12,000 present

  • 1819 William Clowes, preacher, evangelist and missionary enters Hull and the movement expands rapidly in that region

  • 1820 Movement grows to 8000 formal members

  • 1852 Movement expands to 100,000 members and almost 10,000 preachers

  • 1888 Nearly 200,000 members, 6000 churches and half a million Sunday school scholars, and 17,000 preachers. The movement spreads to England, Wales, Scotland, America, Australia and New Zealand

Monday, November 2, 2009

Grammar isn't what you think it is!

The criteria for being used by God do not always include being highly educated. The difference between Peter the fisherman and Saul of Tarsus make the point. Peter was an uneducated working class man, a humble fisherman. He was certainly not university trained. Saul, on the other hand had had great learning and was highly educated.

What was common to both was that they had had a radical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Peter became the apostle to the Jews, and Saul became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. It seems God can use anyone, whatever their formal education (or lack of it). The story of John Benton from the early days of the Primitive Methodist movement makes the same point.

John Benton was a local preacher, and a coal miner by occupation. His command of the English language was inadequate, and his poor use of grammar in public speaking was considered by some to be offensive. It is an understatement to say he was uncouth in the way he spoke. One local preacher sharply reprimanded him “You are bringing a scandal on the cause of Jesus Christ, you have had no learning, you do not even understand grammar”.

Shortly after this critic made these comments, Benton was preaching on Good Friday. His audience was a group of coal miners and he began with the text “it is finished”. When he had preached nearly half his sermon there was a move of the Holy Spirit in the congregation; some groaned; others shrieked; some fell from their seats; and the whole congregation was thrown into consternation. The Spirit of God was present in a powerful way.

As Benton closed his Bible, and moved to pray for those being convicted of sin, he saw his friend and critic, the local preacher, standing and looking on in amazement. Benton said to him, ‘This is grammar!’ To which his astonished critic replied, “I never saw such a meeting as this."

How true it is that God’s ways are higher than our ways.

Abridged from “Biographical Sketches of some Preachers of the Primitive Methodist Connexion”, p275-276 originally published in 1855 and republished 2002 by Tentmaker Publications 121 Hartshill Rd, Stoke-on-Trent (