A rather eccentric fellow student at Cambridge in the mid 1960s once exclaimed, “Amen for Brother Young and the Primitive Methodists!” Some fifty years later, as I was welcoming people at the door in Providence Chapel, Hookgate, in 2018, as they arrived for a meeting at which I was the speaker, one man shook my hand and said, “You’re the Primitive Methodist, aren’t you?”
But many years ago, when I was a young man, I was invited to work alongside the elderly pastor at the Pentecostal church shown in my photograph, with a view to taking over from him as minister when he reached retirement. In fact, it did not seem to be the direction my life was intended to take, and I didn’t accept his generous invitation.
The following year, I preached in another Pentecostal church, and here is the account I wrote to my wife Margaret (not yet even my official fiancée at that stage):
In the afternoon I went to a hay-loft above a cattle-shed to prepare. I could look through its door to the hillside, and all the time there was the quiet jangle of bells hung round the necks of heifers. And God was there. I wrote: “I would like to return there. Preachers aren’t made in churches… they are made alone with God.” In the evening, there was a felt presence of the Lord, and some seemed to lap up the Word, to be grateful and refreshed as I ministered on Hebrews 8 on the theme of living under the New Covenant, and the spirit of the New Covenant, and not living in the spirit of the Old Covenant by the keeping of many unscriptural rules.
The sense of the anointing presence of God in that service remained as a fragrance in my soul for many years afterwards.
Some Pentecostal preaching places were, like early Primitive Methodist ones, simple buildings adapted from their previous uses and set up for religious services. Here are two I preached at in France in 1970 (I am on the far left of the second photo):
The title “La bonne Nouvelle” on the wall of the first means “the good news”, that is, the Gospel; on the second photo you see “Dieu est amour” (God is love), and above that were the words “Viens et vois” (Come and see), the invitation given in John 1:46.
Some fifteen years later, on 11th April 1985, I had the privilege of speaking at the Pentecostal Church in Congleton, where the late Fred Howell was pastor. In fact he arranged for me to speak both at the Pentecostal church in Congleton and at the one in Mow Cop, and I recall a conversation one evening, after the meeting whilst I was staying the night at his home in Primitive Street, Mow Cop, when it became apparent how closely our vision and desires for revival were to each other’s. A website (www.moriel.org) published an obituary of Fred Howell, dated 15th may 2016, which included these words: “Fred Howell was from the ranks of traditional Pentecostalism. He was as much an evangelist as a pastor and faithfully led many souls to Jesus over many years of ministry. … Men of God did not come much better than Pastor Howell … one of a remnant of Pentecostals in the true sense of the term.”
Pentecostals and Primitives
There is, as far as I know, no link of personnel between late nineteenth-century Primitive Methodism and early twentieth-century Pentecostalism – no ministers or other leaders who, having come to faith and developed within Primitive Methodism, were instrumental in founding and establishing the Pentecostal churches in Britain. However, Professor William K. Kay sent me an email on 24th June 2018 in which he wrote:
I looked back at my 1989 Nottingham PhD entitled ‘A History of British Assemblies of God’. There I had analysed the background of 135 AoG [Assemblies of God] ministers from their testimonies in Redemption Tidings, the denominational magazine. I did find evidence of connections with the Prims. I don’t have the precise figures because they are all included under the heading of ‘Methodist’. Methodism is the background in 33 cases and very often it is Wesleyan or Primitive Methodism. These figures are drawn from a sample which is not necessarily representative. Nevertheless, because there were about 350‑400 ministers during the time when these figures apply, we have an insight into the lives of about one third of the total number of pastors. No comparable statistics have been collected or published anywhere else.
However, it seems to me that a transfer of ideas, outlook and spirit took place, or that the spring from which the great river of Primitive Methodism flowed sprang up anew, albeit with some changes, in the form of the early Pentecostal movement – that there was a clear affinity between the two movements.
It is not necessary here to recount the history of the origin, spread and development of the Pentecostal churches in Britain, as this has been adequately attempted by other writers. Nonetheless, a brief consideration of whether they were in any sense a renewal or continuation of Primitive Methodism is appropriate.
Professor William Kay of Glyndwr University is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God, and he has suggested three of his books in this regard, and also recommends Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, by Donald W. Dayton, which has this review on Amazon:
In this landmark study, Donald Dayton explains how Pentecostalism grew out of Methodism and the nineteenth century holiness revivals. He finds evidence of Wesleyan teaching in the classic writings of many Pentecostal leaders. He shows how Pentecostalism is rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition, rather than being a contrived system of modern revivalistic ideas.
Prof. Kay also wrote (email 16th February 2018) that “it is true that the Pentecostals did in some respects take over the mantle of the Prims.”
John Minor (1982:141-9) has asked in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, “Has the spirit of nineteenth-century Primitive Methodism come to rest on twentieth-century Pentecostalism?” and answers with, “it does seem that something of the spirit of the one has been taken up by the other. … In some ways the two movements seem quite close in their theological bases, but that is not the point of the comparison I wish to make. … Rather I perceive the sense in which the mantle of Primitive Methodism has fallen to Pentecostalism to be more sociological: the kind of parallel to be discovered by asking, What did these two movements do for their followers?”
Focusing primarily on Pentecostalism as found in Britain, Minor perceived “a conversionist sect, like Primitive Methodism, now moving through the stage of revivalism and heading for the stage of denominationalism,” and he explains that he will “take the line that Pentecostalism has met the needs of particular types of people in a real way.” Such people he sees as those who feel disadvantaged; those who received welcome, understanding, advice, help, significance, and a voice; intellectual people who sought a spiritual dimension which provides a more emotional experience than the more sterile worship of mainline churches and who felt the need to be taught, not how to think, but how to believe and to live.
Minor does also believe he perceives some differences between the two movements: less emphasis on discipline and attendance at the means of grace among Pentecostals than among nineteenth-century Primitives; a more pastor-centred structure and thus less opportunity for the laity to develop their skills and ministries, and a better balance among Primitives between the head and the heart in religion. But he concludes with, “I am convinced that no other Christian group has come as near as the Pentecostalists to taking up Elijah’s mantle.”
I would go further than Minor, by pointing out also some theological similarities between the two movements. Both hold a robust Arminian theology; both teach the importance of a “second blessing” – in the case of Primitive Methodists it was entire sanctification, with Pentecostals the baptism in the Spirit. The Assemblies of God taught that the baptism in the Spirit should be accompanied with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues (“glossa lalia”), but I have found no example of tongues-speaking among early Primitives, either in my own archival research or cited in others’ writings. (Some authors say that there was speaking in tongues among the Prims, but I have never found an author who gives an actual example.) The Pentecostals also put a lot more emphasis on divine healing, whereas when God granted it, or another gift of the Holy Spirit, among the Prims, it was more likely to be received with glad surprise than as an experience that might be expected as a usual part of the religion.
I would also observe that Minor‘s article describes what might be called “classic Pentecostalism” such as it was in perhaps the first three quarters of the twentieth century, for it seems to me, from my now limited contact with Pentecostal churches, that many have changed over the years since my closer contact with them described above: and remember – Minor’s article was published in 1982. That was certainly Fred Howell’s perception.
Accounts of meetings confirm that Primitive Methodism and early Pentecostalism were truly akin. Here is a Primitive Methodist meeting in Berkshire in 1830, as described in my book The great River:
During the service the power of God brought me to the floor, so that there was no preaching that night. The leader, a very strong man, fell like a log of wood by my side, and there was a great shout in the camp. I lay about two hours under the power of God.
And here is one in Shropshire in 1839, described in my booklet The Primitive Methodist Mission to North Wales:
At the time of preaching the chapel was crowded to excess. A powerful time in preaching, and a wonderful and surprising work in the prayer meeting. How many were converted I cannot tell. Many were weeping, others singing, others praying, others filled with joy, praising God for what he had done for them, others, overwhelmed with the power of God, lay on the floor for a considerable time, and these then rose up, praising the Lord, and exhorting others to seek the Lord. Men, women, and children, are engaged in this great work.
I suggest that, without much if any direct link in terms of history and descent, the Pentecostal movement of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century did indeed constitute a continuation of the major features of the spirit, ethos and beliefs of Primitive Methodism in a range of ways. There was a strong affinity between them in both creed and revivalistic zeal.
I would wish also to add that, if or when Methodists and Pentecostals abandon that kind of creed and spirit, they leave a void in British religion which needs to be filled, either by a new movement raised up by the same God who raised them up, or – and this is my even, strong desire for Methodism – by their return to their original faith, experience, vision and calling:
Stung by the scorpion sin,
My poor, expiring soul
The balmy sound drinks in
And is at once made whole:
See there my Lord upon the tree!
I hear, I feel, He died for me. …
O for a trumpet voice,
On all the world to call!
To bid their hearts rejoice
In Him who died for all;
For all, for all my Lord was crucified,
For all, for all, my Saviour died!
- The Primitive Methodist Hymnal 155
- The Methodist Hymn-book 114 [with the healing sound in the third line quoted]
- Redemption Hymnal 154
Kay, W. K. Pentecostalism (core text), London, SCM, 2009, pp xviii + 358. ISBN 978-0-334-04144-3.
Kay, W.K. Pentecostalism: a very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp xiv + 145. ISBN 978 0 19 957515 2.
Kay, W. K. George Jeffreys: Pentecostal apostle and revivalist, CPT Press, 2017, pp. viii+461.
Minor, J. (1982) The Mantle of Elijah: nineteenth-century Primitive Methodism and twentieth-century Pentecostalism (Bunbury: Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society XLIII)