Theses fall into three types, focusing on a geographical area; an aspect of Primitive Methodism; or Methodism more widely including Primitive Methodism. Most research, with variations for date and place, draws on similar sources in county or Methodist libraries: the denominational magazine, other Primitive Methodist publications, conference, district and circuit archives (principally minutes, preaching plans, baptismal registers, account books, annual reports, chapel deeds, manuscripts), newspapers, local histories, maps, directories, and official publications including the 1851 religious census. Earlier theses tend to be more descriptive and narrative in style, with less critical analysis save repetitive discussion of writings by Currie (1967) and Everitt (1972). They also consider developments which contributed to later difficulty and decline. In later theses critique and appraisal increase.
The review of the theses is set out chronologically; they are listed alphabetically by author at the end of the review. The abbreviation PM denotes Primitive Methodist.
Currie, R. (1967). A Micro-theory of Methodist growth. Wesley Historical Society Proceedings 36
Everitt, A. (1972). The Pattern of rural Dissent: the Nineteenth Century. Leicester University
Morris’s doctoral thesis from Nottingham University, entitled “Primitive Methodism in Nottinghamshire 1815-1932”, is a ground-breaking work, being the first on PMism. Despite inconsistencies or shortcomings, there is much that is original, perceptive and thought-provoking. Covering a period of 117 years, with a postscript on the period after 1932, as against the 23 years of the present thesis, Morris writes about the origin, maturity and decline of PMism in Nottinghamshire from social, educational, political, theological and ethical perspectives. He comments at length on the democratic, non-clerical character of the denomination’s polity.
His study contains much that is familiar from Hampshire: female preachers, camp meetings, large audiences, visits from denominational founders, formation of circuits, financial weakness, debt, poorly paid working-class membership, building or buying chapels, rapid growth and expansion till 1870 (with some stagnation 1852-5), travelling preachers sent to other parts of England, thus consolidating the homogeneity of the movement nationally, services in cottages, barns and the open air, singing in the streets associated with evangelistic preaching, emotional and ecstatic preaching, praying and singing, emphasis on conversion and entire sanctification, arduous walks for preachers in all weathers, short duration of some societies, visitation of homes by travelling preachers, prayer leaders, prayer meetings, protracted meetings, lovefeasts, days of fasting, missed local preaching appointments, disapproval of long sermons, personal feuds among members: all of this will be met in the Hampshire study. However, many developments are mentioned without date or chronology, which makes some of the study hard to correlate chronologically with Hampshire.
There are further similarities. Nottinghamshire became a centre for PM expansion to other parts. It was predominantly a rural, village movement. Town success was much less than in villages, and “The early Primitive Methodists concentrated their evangelism on the villages rather than the towns” (page 381). Morris gives a perceptive commentary on PM legalism.
He records opposition to the early preachers: throwing of eggs, tomatoes and other missiles, opposition and disruption to meetings, the turning away of children of PM parents from Anglican Sunday School, eviction threatened by an Anglican clergyman landlord if services continued in a cottage, and refusal of burial. Nonetheless, the persecution seems to have been less physically brutal than in Hampshire.
There were other differences between the two counties. When PMs came to Nottinghamshire in 1815, Wesleyans were well established. The New Connexion, Wesleyan Methodist Association, and Independent Methodists were also present. In 1851 Baptists had eight chapels with congregations of over 1000, and Congregationalists had 21 chapels. All this contrasts with northern Hampshire.
Morris’s critique of the movement seems variable. On the one hand he claims that “all the evidence would suggest that Primitive Methodism was a genuine expression of the work of The Holy Spirit … highly successful in channelling the Love of God to many thousands of people whose lives were completely changed. … Under the instrumentality of Primitive Methodism thousands of people experienced for the first time salvation from the power and guilt of sin, and the assurance of God’s continuing presence, guidance and love” (pages 368-70). On the other hand (pages 94-5), writing of Peake, he claims that “by his wide learning and sound judgement” and “his realistic and sensible approach” Peake “liberalised theology”, and he writes approvingly of the new theological fashions, despite the fact that they arose simultaneously with enervation and numerical decline. Morris fails to validate this perspective. Also, he repeatedly likens the early PMs to ‘fundamentalists’ (with small f), yet this argument is dissonant by virtue of being an anachronism, as Fundamentalism did not arise till a century later, as Morris concedes.
Morris also argues (page 381) that the early PM concentration on rural evangelism in contrast to towns “proved to be a policy of doubtful wisdom.” This cannot be confirmed from northern Hampshire, where no pattern of increased success seems to have been initiated by the shift of circuit head from Shefford and Micheldever to Newbury (1846) and Basingstoke (1853), whilst Andover did not become head of a circuit till 1837. The work in the villages around Silchester was based on Reading in the mid 1830s, but it throve sufficiently to be made a circuit in 1870 which consisted entirely of village societies. The mission to Winchester did not begin till 1837. Basingstoke did not feature regularly on the preaching plan till 1840. Garratt (2002) shows that the Shropshire mission chose Prees Green (1825), Cwm, Herefordshire (1826) and Minsterley (1856) as circuit heads, despite their being small villages. Tiller (2006:97) records striking success in rural Oxfordshire. Sheard (1980) gives details of difficulties in Wrexham, Nantwich and Chester, and writes:
The Primitive Methodists are generally reckoned to have been shy of major towns, and to have missioned surrounding rural areas first … by 1851 it is clear that the real strength of the denomination lay outside the major urban centres, in the rural areas and smaller market towns.
The Primitive Methodist Magazine (1845:240) urges all preachers never to think village preaching dishonourable, “for it is the reverse”, observing that “it was practised by Christ.” Watts (1995:129) observes that “Dissent, even with the addition of the Methodists, was struggling in the mid-nineteenth century” in large towns. It is hard to accept that prioritising villages was “a policy of doubtful wisdom”, especially when it is borne in mind that later shifts to concentration on towns was (and remains) concurrent with decline. Elected President of the Methodist Conference in 1949, Sangster (1947:18) argued thus:
In hundreds of villages in this country the only evangelical interpretation of the Gospel is in the Methodist chapel. … The importance of this in the spiritual life of England could barely be exaggerated. The withdrawal of this ministry would be a calamity which few who care for spiritual things could contemplate with equanimity.
This doctoral thesis from Liverpool University, entitled “Methodism in Yorkshire 1740-1851”, contributed little to this thesis. The time scale is very long, and the discussion ranges over many varieties of Methodism, especially Wesleyan, Primitive, Free and New Connexion, but mainly Wesleyan. Regarding Currie, Greaves comments, “The theory of Methodist growth which the findings of the case studies support is not identical, then, to that put forward by Currie, although there are large areas of agreement” (page 248).
Michael Sheard’s doctoral thesis from Manchester University is on “The Origins and early Development of Primitive Methodism in Cheshire and South Lancashire 1800-1860”. The Abstract states that “many of the conclusions are based on statistical material.” He offers statistical, chronological and biographical charts, maps, and graphs.
He devotes 92 pages to the origins of PMism, and then largely a year by year, place by place study of the circuits, with very little commentary, and no exploration of the movement’s inner ethos. He shows the work failing and being given up in some places, thriving in others, and frequently remarks that no obvious explanation for success or failure, increase or decline, is discernible. Features familiar from Hampshire include crowded, emotional meetings. He notes (page 211) concerning Whitchurch, Shropshire, that when the tiny cottage used by PMs proved too small, the Baptists offered their chapel for a service every Sunday afternoon until the PMs were able to open their own in 1840. Such friendly interdenominational relations are noted also in Hampshire.
There follow statistical tables comparing PMs with other religious bodies including Roman Catholics, Mormons and Unitarians. Sheard’s analysis of baptismal registers leads to the comment (pages 503, 508) that they “give support to a picture of a religious community composed largely of ordinary working people, some of whom were amongst the lowest paid of the work-force” and offers the conclusion that the picture of PMism as a predominantly working class sect is accurate. He briefly discusses Thompson’s “chiliasm of despair”, concluding (pages 818-9) that there is not a great deal of support for Thompson’s hypothesis that the revivalists advanced as radicalism waned, and that it “is certainly not applicable to Cheshire.” On page 856 he mentions, without critique, Everitt’s thoughts on the effect of landownership on obtaining land for a chapel. He directs attention to the youth and inexperience of some of the itinerant preachers.
His method is to select a topic, and exemplify it in meticulous detail with reference to individual people or places. He does not primarily discuss or analyse, but where he has done so, on topics selected also for this present dissertation, his assessments and perspectives are critiqued in chapters below.
Ambler’s subtitle to his doctorate from the University of Hull is “Aspects of rural Society in south Lincolnshire with specific Reference to Primitive Methodism, 1815-1875”. He studies an area similar in character to Hampshire, with agriculture dominating in the first half-century and only limited industrial development. The thesis provides suggestive comparisons with Hampshire and demonstrates that PMism was homogeneous in the two areas.
He begins with 134 pages on geography and social history, with almost no reference to Methodism and with much on the second half of the century. He writes at length about the geography, geology, farming, and classification of villages into four types ranging from ‘closed’ to ‘open’, referring to Everitt’s analysis and giving specific Lincolnshire examples. By 1851, the PMs were concentrated in the open villages for (page 81) “The people of the open villages were free to develop independent ways of life … including Primitive Methodism.”
Chapter 3 turns to the establishment of PMism. He mentions the difficulty of getting land for a chapel in places where landowners were unsympathetic, and of efforts to control tenants even in their own homes or barns. Meetings were held in homes, barns, or rented premises, but progress was sometimes retarded or ended where no chapel could be built. By 1851 all PM chapels were in settlements that were divided among many owners. Chapels gave respectability, but open-air preaching continued.
There were female preachers, loud, emotional meetings, camp meetings, midweek services, family visiting by the full-time ministers. In contrast to Hampshire, Wesleyans were the largest Dissenting body in 1851, followed by PMs, with Baptists not far behind, though in different parts of the region. There is little mention of persecution.
Attempts were made to discredit PMism, and its corybantic meetings were despised. However, the popular beliefs and superstitions of the rural working classes constituted an important element in PM success (page 212). Ambler (like Boase (1976)) points out that folk beliefs in Lincolnshire were not peculiar to that county but were local variants of more widely dispersed beliefs. He also records that reforming clergy of the Church of England tried to suppress folk religion and the associated practices, leaving it isolated and confined to people’s private lives. PMism gave its converts “a more comprehensive view of life and the hereafter than the traditional folk beliefs” (page 251), including the hope of heaven and of reunion with deceased loved ones.
PM preachers sometimes came under suspicion as possible “agents of social unrest”. Chapter 5 deals with rural discontent in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. Protest took clandestine forms such as cattle maiming, machine breaking, and incendiarism, but there were no Swing riots. The local press did not point to any links between PMs and rural protest, and Ambler, referring to the unrest of 1842-55, says “there is no evidence of any connection between rural discontent and the growth of Primitive Methodism,” adding that PMism needed a stable background to maintain its flow of income, and therefore tended to prioritise a conservative social stance. He says (pages 266-7) that “There is also little evidence that the Primitive Methodists of south Lincolnshire helped to sublimate these discontents by channelling them into religious modes of expression”: that is, there was no chiliasm of despair.
His chapter on Attendance and Membership supplies some relevant facts. In seven villages, PMs were the only alternative to the Church of England; other villages had Wesleyans, and fewer had Baptists or Independents. Baptismal records demonstrate “that the Primitives drew a higher proportion of their support from among the rural working classes and especially labourers. With the development of the towns … they seemed to have consolidated their position among the craftsmen” (pages 328-9).
The chapter on Chapel Life states that “Building new chapels placed a heavy burden on local societies” for the land, initial building, and maintenance thereafter. The chapter also describes the new revivalism which developed from the mid-1840s, and Ambler notes that camp meetings became much more decorous and formalised. The final chapter includes the beginning of the “temperance” movement, and refers to the agricultural trade unions, showing that they developed, including with PM involvement, no earlier than the 1870s. These data confirm what is found elsewhere in this thesis.
Dews’ M Phil thesis focusses on the city and area of Leeds 1791-1861. He sees the growth of Methodism as due partly to the failure of the Anglican Church to adapt to social changes arising from industrialisation, and refers to Currie (1967) in support of this thesis, arguing that, to some extent, PMs filled the gaps left by the Church of England and the Wesleyans. He asserts that Methodism met more needs than only the religious, and attracted adherents partly by forms of worship that were meaningful to the population at a time when traditional worship risked alienating rather than attracting worshippers. In 1851 the religious census for the area recorded 41.9% of attendance being Methodist, with Wesleyan dominant and PMs relatively weak. The Old Dissent exercised considerable influence, and the Church of England grew in strength from the late 1830s. Dews notes the Quaker influence on PMism.
Analysing the baptismal records for Leeds 1846-50 Dews concluded (page 404) that “the persons to have their children baptised by Primitive Methodists are drawn almost totally from the industrial working class … the urban poor are almost absent.”
Graham writes about the female travelling preachers of early Primitive Methodism. Her thesis was “missing from the shelf” at Birmingham University, and not listed on EThOS at the British Library, and this research was initially unable to consult it; however, three other pieces of writing by Graham, two by the same title as the thesis, distil her findings and theories. Some eighteen months after the formal beginning of this research, her son digitised the original thesis and it became available as http://primitivemethodistwomen.org/Chosen-by-God-the-Female-Itinerants-of-Early-Primitive-.
Graham provides a detailed and comprehensive study of female preaching in approximately the first half-century of PMism; she also writes extensively about the Wesleyans, and makes reference to the Bible Christians and the Quakers. Much of the thesis supplies summaries of various writers’ views for or against female preaching. Page 201 summarises the thesis:
this research has extended knowledge of the numbers involved and of the role played by the women itinerants. It has been proved that there were many more women in the itinerancy than had been positively identified before, and doubtless there are still more to be found; that women were used primarily in mission and evangelistic situations, even when the women were being phased out; that hired local preachers, local preachers and evangelists continued to be used; that there seems to be a definite link between chapel building and the decline of the phenomenon; that ill-health, the marriage of the women, the demand for a college trained ministry, the growing respectability and increasing conformity of Primitive Methodism to other denominations were all factors which militated against the use of women itinerants.
Her findings show that the character and work of the Hampshire local and travelling female preachers conform to the national pattern. Her arguments and conclusions seemed to be expressed more explicitly or succinctly in the writings which followed the thesis, and are discussed in Chapter 7C below.
Vickers writes extensively about various branches of Methodism, including PMism, mainly in “the extent of the original Salisbury Circuit and its later offshoots” minus the Isle of Wight. The Hampshire villages missioned from the Reading base receive no mention. In setting out the sweep of the movement over a wide area, he often gives only tantalising hints or footnotes about details germane to the current study, and deals more with external events and statistics, spending less time on the ethos, experiences and motivation of the movement which is a primary focus of the current writing. He enters the discussions initiated by Currie (1967) and Everitt (1972). Anent Currie he concludes (page 417) that Methodism, unlike the Old Dissent, benefited from Anglican weakness. He correctly terms Everitt’s theory “fairly predictable” (page 384), but adds that whilst Everitt’s general conclusions are largely confirmed, considerable difficulties beset any attempt to test the theory in the southern counties.
Vickers considers at what levels of society Methodism’s appeal was most successful, the relationship between travelling preachers and local leadership, and the relative strength and distribution of the Methodist denominations in 1851. Only pages 217-261 deal specifically with the PMs, and only 236-43 with Shefford, Mitcheldever and Andover Circuits. He demonstrates that the movement was proletarian in character, endured much opposition, and yet enjoyed support from individuals of other Dissenting denominations. All of these findings concur with this thesis.
The approach is largely description rather than critique, with pages 429-31 summarising conclusions which tend to be confirmations of the findings of others rather than new theories: his contribution is the mass of historical data derived from primary sources about an area which has otherwise been little studied.
“This is not a study of famous religious leaders but about the religious experiences of ‘ordinary’ members, … to discover what subjective and distinctive religious responses they made which helped them to come to terms with themselves and their existence, … to see them from their own angle” says the Abstract. Johnson comments that “most recent academic work on the influence of Methodism is dominated still by secular and political interpretations, thus neglecting the essential spiritual nature of Primitive Methodism.” Johnson wishes “to gain access to the subjective world-view, and to the beliefs, values and behaviour of those labouring people of a past world. … to move away from a political, economic and class-bound emphasis towards a more religious consciousness and analysis, to minimise political and secular concerns, for a more ‘cultural’ approach.” He aims “to get beyond an institutional account, and give emphasis to some of the more personal experiences of the individuals who made up the Primitive Methodist movement,” emphasising the religion rather than connexional organisation, “to reconstruct the spiritual world of the labouring people. … to tell the story from the inside.” This coincides closely with the current thesis, studying another predominantly agricultural area.
Johnson focuses on biographical accounts including obituaries and baptismal registers, describing class leaders, local preachers and Sunday School teachers. He draws comparisons with the Wesleyans, emphasises PM beliefs in evangelism and holiness, and discusses at length what drew people to PMism, including the nearness of death and cholera. With many pages of testimonies he describes the process of conversion, the commitments expected of members, the effects of PMism on family life, and the response of PMs to ambient culture, with its prominent drink, gambling and rough sport. He devotes a long chapter to the study of PM hymnody as a means for them of articulating, and for the historian of understanding, their beliefs and aspirations.
Johnson portrays a movement with the same beliefs and ethos as the Hampshire PMs, and frequent reference is made to his thesis. However, he does not contrast his perception of the PMs with those of other, including hostile, writers, and thus does not offer critiques comparable with those of this dissertation.
Hatcher focusses on Hull and area 1819-1851, and his writings are frequently quoted in this thesis, though the differences between the large port of Hull and rural Hampshire are too wide to press for meaningful parallels in every matter.
He reviews the pre-PM background of revivalism, and the movement from Mow Cop to Hull, and outlines the social, religious and economic features of Hull. He describes the work of the missioners, and discusses reasons for their success, arguing that it was not due to a surrounding congenial religious or economic environment, as that was available for other Evangelical groups who failed to match the PMs. He ascribes it to their flexible system, their openness to popular religion and supernatural phenomena in which the poor were more likely to believe than the élite, their feel-good factor in wearisome lives, their homely nature, and features such as class meetings, society, and circuit. He comments on entire sanctification, working class leadership, the trade cycle, epidemics, other denominations, radical movements, and the teetotal movement. Female preachers were used because of their success, but the denomination remained male dominated.
Chapel debt could be a burden for 2-3 generations, but led not to cutting back the number of travelling preachers but to increasing it (presumably to gain more recruits): Calder (2012) makes the same point.
Some of the PM leadership was made up of disaffected Wesleyans. There were communities where both PMs and Wesleyans were established. A venue for preaching was essential. Land-ownership was one factor, but not the key. PMs did less well in towns and cities.
He gives a chapter to the Lord’s Supper, seeing cautious progress towards settled church life. He studies the baptismal registers for the social class of fathers, but (like Calder) precedes his conclusions with immensely long caveats. PMs were essentially working class.
They were not political, but more openness to ‘the contemporary world’ from 1843 laid the foundation for later political activism. “The hypothesis of E. P. Thompson is not proven within the context of this study” (page 550). Rather, revivalism and radicalism often progressed together. He summarises Thompson’s theory by stating that Thompson regarded political activism as good and revivalist religion as a bad substitute for it.
Young, W. J. 1997
The Integrative Vision of a Pioneer Africanist: Edwin W Smith (1876-1957) (M. Phil thesis University of Bristol 1997)
W. J. Young writes: “In 1971-76 we lived at Coxhoe a village a few miles south of Durham, Co Durham. The Superintendent passed on records relating to the former Coxhoe Primitive Methodist Circuit and asked me to look at them and then take them to the County Records Office. There, I found that there were records going back to earlier times and study of these and other work led to this study which I revised in 2007. There was enough material for histories of all the circuit chapels but time limited me to the Primitive Methodist chapel at Coxhoe and this is displayed here. Primitive Methodists missioned in Central Africa and this led me to various studies of their missions, missionaries and missiology. My papers on Methodism in the Zambezi Valley and PM financing of World Mission are now found on:
“Edwin W Smith (1876-1957) was a Methodist missionary from the Primitive Methodist tradition. He was born of missionary parents in South Africa. His father became missionary secretary of the PM church and was President in 1898. Edwin was educated in England and while helping his father with correspondence felt the call to be a Bible translator for a new mission in Central Africa. He went there, did a wide range of mission work and produced a comprehensive grammar and vocabulary of Ila before translating most of the New Testament into that language. He also believed that working with people calls for an understanding of them and with AM Dale produced the classic work of anthropology The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (1920). He left the PM mission in 1915, served as a war chaplain and after being invalided out joined the Bible Society and by the 1930s was in charge of the Society’s translation. He was also prominent in African Studies and anthropology. He was the only missionary ever to became President of the Royal Anthropological Institution. After retiring from the Bible Society, he spent five years teaching missiology and African Studies in the USA. Smith respected African cultures and beliefs and was one of the first to make serious studies of African religions. He is regarded as the founder of African Christian Theology. His thoughts on mission included fulfilment theology and adaptation to local cultures and thinking, and he was increasingly opposed to cultural imperialism. His numerous books, articles and reviews dealt with anthropology, missiology, religious studies, Bible translation and historical studies especially through biography. The thesis traces his life story and follows the development of his thought and showed how he integrated his ideas by drawing on the various disciplines referred to above. He was well ahead of his time in most of those areas. A fuller study, W John Young, The Quiet Wise Spirit: Edwin W. Smith (1876-1957) and Africa, Peterborough, Epworth Press, 2002, followed the same scheme.”
Garrett studies PMism in Shropshire 1820-1900. Shropshire was the root, or route, from which PMism came south to Wiltshire and thence to northern Hampshire. It was predominantly agricultural, and PMism made especial inroads among agricultural labourers. PMism spread through the county from the early 1820s. In 1821 there was economic downturn, reduction in wages, and consequent riots, which bears resemblances to the poverty and Swing riots in Hampshire in the 1830s. Citing Currie, Gilbert and Horsley she suggests (pages 173-5) that PM membership experienced cycles of growth and decline of approximately five to ten years’ duration, associating these with political or economic trends in society.
Her interest focuses on organisational, structural and statistical matters, including the distribution throughout Shropshire of the major Protestant denominations. Her seventh chapter summarises the theories of Snell and Ell, Currie, Gilbert, Obelkevich and Watts regarding the effects on PM success of landownership, the strength or weakness of the Established Church, types of parish, and the presence of other Nonconformity, and supplies examples from Shropshire and elsewhere. She concludes (page 190) that “it is clear that the structure of landownership did not present a considerable barrier to Primitive Methodist expansion,” although PMs experienced problems with obtaining land for chapels, features repeated in Hampshire. These matters are not major focuses of the present thesis. Garratt comments (page 192) that although “the Established Church did best in more compact parishes where the land was little divided, there were certain exceptions” and adds that PMism throve in some areas of relative Anglican strength (page 196), and also that “the success of the Primitive Methodist Connexion was indeed very often dependent upon the ‘weakness’ of the Anglicans.” In concluding the chapter, she comments that her research had uncovered “no clear geographical pattern for the location of Primitive Methodist success”, and in comparison with other Dissent, that “Primitive Methodism was generally weakest in those parishes in which it faced considerable competition from other Nonconformist groups.”
In her chapter on the organisation and structure of the connexion, Garratt comments that “circuit committees regularly found it necessary to deal with many missed appointments, … the neglect of appointments was considered a serious offence. It is clear that making preachers attend to their engagements was a constant battle.” This feature is much in evidence in Hampshire. She also writes (Chapter 8) of the financial difficulties that circuits experienced in paying the preachers. The chapter also observes, as is likewise mirrored in Hampshire, that many preaching places were short-lived, whilst in others [like Newnham in Hampshire] repeated attempts were made and achieved lasting success.
Chapter 8, largely on PMs’ methods, gives a description of their evangelistic tactics which corresponds closely with those employed in Hampshire. She also mentions varied forms of opposition and persecution from all ranks of society.
It is not always clear what she means. When she writes that “the simple evangelistic message … was readily accepted by their unsophisticated inhabitants,” to what extent does she link lack of sophistication with belief in a simple evangel? Does her statement (page 209) that “Converts were made but often deserted, as roving evangelists keen to move onto pastures new, failed to consolidate their gains into permanent societies” mean “they were made but were deserted”, or “they were made but they deserted”? The former would seem dissonant with the diligence in Hampshire in setting up societies, class meetings, mid-week meetings, and continual family visits.
The Primitive Methodist Church in the United States was an institution established predominantly by immigrants from England to serve the spiritual needs of people from their homeland. The church maintained an English flavour through its origins, immigrant membership and intermittent contact with the British Primitive Methodist Connexion but hoped to be recognised as an American institution because of its democratic style of government, patriotism and commitment to the assimilation of immigrant members. In attempting to provide simultaneously a ‘home away from home’ and an Americanising church, Primitive Methodists struggled to achieve either and consequently still belonged to a denomination of unassimilated English immigrants almost a century after the first Primitive Methodist English missionaries arrived in New York City.
British Primitive Methodism has often been portrayed as an institution dominated by working people. This thesis argues that the American movement had more authentic working-class credentials in terms of its membership and commitment to labour issues, though the latter of these was significantly undermined by the individualistic leanings of early twentieth century Christian fundamentalism.
The democratic emphasis of Primitive Methodism and working-class credentials of its members also affected the pay and working conditions of the ministers who served the church. Unemployed or striking church members could not pay their pastors and problems of pay and working-conditions were exacerbated by a sacrificial concept of ministry that was common throughout the Methodist world.
Those who sacrificed most were undoubtedly the women ministers who, after initial prominence, were marginalised and eventually banned from ordained ministry.
The future of Primitive Methodism has been threatened throughout its history by problems of resources, geographical isolation and church government. However, the church’s capacity to adapt to modern challenges and maintain a missionary spirit has ensured its survival as an American institution with recognisably English traits.
Calder seeks to tone down hagiography, in which he is not alone. He sees “much of the twentieth-century academic attention to religious history” as “sociological in character, concerned with the collective at the expense of the individual dimensions”, and he attempts to rectify that balance by understanding the PMs as individuals.
In Chapter 1, commenting on the remarkable success of the PMs, compared with that of the Wesleyans, Bible Christians and New Connexion, he sums up many factors thus:
It was due to their ability, more than any other competitor, to deploy the right mechanisms … and thereby to bind the faithful more securely to their church. They generated awareness and publicity via their Ranter image, street preaching, communal singing and camp-meetings which enabled them to outperform in moving the disinclined into the potentially interested group; the combination of low barriers to attendance at worship, the modest status of their preachers, a lack of central control that allowed flexible responses to local realities, and a heightened sense of community made it easier for the potentially interested to sample what was on offer and to make that offer more immediately relevant; the drama of their worship practice pulled more people across the commitment boundary to membership; and the active nature of that membership – because the Prims performed rather than merely consumed their worship – welded the faithful to the movement.
This concurs with much that is written below concerning Hampshire.
Calder’s main thesis is that PMism is usually seen as a product of its working-class origins, but “that whilst the movement saw itself thus, its leaders were from the outset often discreetly prosperous. … the predominantly working-class composition of the denomination which has so dominated subsequent accounts was a mature product of its religious nature, not the source of its success.” He argues that PMism chose to project that image, and it became self-fulfilling. Hugh Bourne was its first chronicler and chose to portray them as humble latter-day disciples, but his diaries, marginalised or ignored by later writers, tell a different story. Historians read the myth as a factual account. In terms of veiled prosperity among the leaders he may be correct, but this thesis does not pursue the question, if only because only meagre information is available about the early social backgrounds of most of the Hampshire preachers, and because their later lives and possible prosperity lie beyond the period.
Calder deals largely with more northerly areas of England, and a wider timescale, and the facts he amasses fail to gainsay the description of the movement’s first generation in Hampshire. Nonetheless in nuancing the standard picture, his thesis resonates with this dissertation in arguing that some later Methodists have sought to make the early PMs into something they were not.
Woolley’s doctoral thesis is subtitled Retelling the Primitive Methodist creation narrative. Its Abstract declares that “This research looks at the emergence of the Primitive Methodist Connexion in the period 1800-1812, … It examines the ‘creation narrative’ the Connexion told about its beginnings,” a scheme which is repeated on page 22: “This survey of Primitive Methodist historiography will focus upon the telling of the denominational story of origins or ‘creation narrative’.” Consequently it has little to contribute to this study of events and ethos in Hampshire two and more decades later, beyond Woolley’s well-informed first chapter (pages 22-54), which is a comprehensive overview of PM historiography from Hugh Bourne’s first publication on the theme in 1818 to Milburn (2002).
This is the thesis on the basis of which my book The great River: Primitive Methodism till 1868 (2016) was written: for which, see the section My Books of this website.
Truss’s doctoral thesis with Leeds University on Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds is being written concurrently with this thesis, and she hopes to submit it in 2015. She has kindly allowed access to Chapters 3 and 4. She refers to persecution, progress, difficulty and setbacks, and records that PMism spread rapidly across the Wolds, penetrating in the 1840s into the more remote villages. In discussing reasons for their success, she cites the popular appeal of the religion itself, the weakness of the Anglican churches, and the comparative ease with which, in many places, permission was given to build chapels. Her thesis demonstrates that the rural Wolds duplicated much that this research discovered in Hampshire, including the central importance of prayer, and the intense emotion of meetings.
Calder, Alexander J. The Primitive Methodist Connexion: Tackling the Myth (Ph D thesis, Open University, 2013)
Dews, David Colin Methodism in Leeds from 1791 to 1861 (M. Phil, University of Bradford, 1984)
Garratt, Delia, Primitive Methodism in Shropshire 1820-1900 (Ph D, Leicester University, 2002)
Graham, Dorothy Chosen by God: the female itinerants of early Primitive Methodism (Ph D, Birmingham University, 1986)
Greaves, B. Methodism in Yorkshire 1740-1851 (Ph D, Liverpool, 1968)
Hatcher, Stephen George The Origin and Expansion of Primitive Methodism in the Hull Circuit 1819-1851 (Ph D, University of Manchester, 1993)
Johnson, W. J. The Triumph of Faith: Primitive Methodism and the labouring People in the N. Midlands, 1812-1862 (Ph D, Keele, 1990)
Morris, Geoffrey M. Primitive Methodism in Nottinghamshire 1815-1932 (Ph D, Nottingham, 1967)
Sheard, Michael R. The Origins and early Development pf Primitive Methodism in Cheshire and South Lancashire 1800-1860 (Ph D Manchester, 1980)
Truss, Priscilla Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds (Ph D, Open University, 2014)
Vickers, John A. Methodism and society in central southern England, 1740-1851 (Ph.D, University of Southampton, 1987)
Watson, Kevin Primitive Methodism in the United States: A Transatlantic Perspective (PhD, University of Sheffield, 2005)
Woolley, Timothy R. A new Appearance on the Face of Things: Rrtelling the Primitive Methodist creation narrative.(PhD, University of Manchester, 2013)
Young, David M. “The most astonishing Triumphs”: fresh Light on Primitive Methodist History, Hagiography and Detraction from northern Hampshire 1830-1852 (MPhil, University of Chester, 2014)