Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What’s in a name? Why “Primitive” Methodism?

The name “Primitive Methodism” seems rather quaint to our modern ears. The word “primitive” usually conveys a negative impression – that of being prehistoric, out-of-date or archaic. That is not what is intended.

John Wesley founded the Methodist movement in 1738. One of the most effective methods he pioneered, together with George Whitfield was field preaching or open-air preaching. In so doing he was able to preach the gospel to hundreds or even thousands of people at any one time. Ironically, by the early 1800s, Wesleyan Methodism had become respectable, and field preaching had fallen out of favour.

In 1790, Wesley preached a farewell address to the preachers of the Chester Circuit. He urged his preachers to preach the gospel wherever there was opportunity. He said “they must enter in, and preach the gospel, under a hedge or a tree” or in any place that was available. Wesley was passionate about using any and every means to declare the Good News.

By 1807, a group of Wesleyan Methodists, led by Hugh Bourne, organised a series of open-air tent meetings (or camp meetings as they were known). These meetings were officially denounced by the Methodist authorities. In response, the Wesleyan Conference of 1807 passed the following resolution:

Q. - What is the judgment of the Conference concerning what are called Camp meetings?

Ans. - It is our judgment that even supposing such meetings to be allowable in America, they are highly improper in England, and are likely to be productive of considerable mischief; and we disclaim all connection with them.

Consequently Hugh Bourne and others were expelled from the Wesleyan Methodists. They continued to practice open-air preaching and camp meetings, believing that in so doing they were reverting to early, authentic Methodism.

One of Hugh Bourne’s fellow preachers defended his position to the Wesleyans when accused of preaching for the Quaker Methodists. Referring to Wesley’s farewell address he said “Mr. Chairman, if you have deviated from the old usages I have not; I still remain a primitive Methodist.”

In 1812 the time came for a name for the new movement. At a business meeting they decided on “The Society of the Primitive Methodists”. The primitive Methodists became Primitive (with a capital P) Methodists.

That is how this slightly anachronistic name identified a great world-wide movement of God.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget that John Wesley's use of "primitive" in this context was that he regarded Methodism as following the "primitive Christianity" of the Book of Acts, in the sense of it being first in time, authentic as originally begun.