Time and place

Primitive Methodism arose on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border in the first decade of the 19th century. Its birth is often dated to May 1807, when the first camp meeting was held at Mow Cop, a camp meeting being a large open-air gathering for prayer and preaching, usually lasting the best part of a day.

Belief and action

The Primitives held identical doctrines to the Wesleyan parent body, but the latter, eighty years into their development, had grown somewhat staid and respectable, and nervous of offending the government in the wake of the American war of independence (1775-83), the French Revolution (1789-99), and, later, the Luddite riots (1812). Their attempt to suppress the exuberant evangelism of the Primitives led to a formal separation, and the name Primitive Methodist was adopted in 1812. The movement then spread rapidly to many parts of Britain.

Their faith and ethos conforms well to “the Bebbington quadrilateral” of four distinctive characteristics of Evangelical religion: emphasis on the authority of the Bible for faith and practice; the centrality of the Cross where Jesus died; the call to personal conversion; engagement in active Christian service. A fuller exploration of their faith, ethos, shared and personal inner life, and methods of evangelism will be found in The great River: Primitive Methodism till 1868, for which see the page in this website on My Books.

Working class

“Primitive Methodism was a predominantly working class movement” says The Ranters’ Digest, Spring 2013:11. Primitive Methodist Minutes, 1873:88, state: “No church in Great Britain is proportionately so largely connected with the working class as ours.” The parliamentary Report on the 1851 religious census (Religious Worship, England and Wales, Report and Tables, Volume LXXXIX) states on pages lxxxiii and clxv, concerning Primitive Methodism, “Its sphere of operation is, however, much more exclusively among the poor; numbers of whom, no doubt, who probably would never venture to the formal meetings of the other sects, are found attending the out-door preaching or engaging in the cottage services conducted by the Primitive Methodists… The community whose operations penetrate most deeply through the lower sections of the people is the body called the Primitive Methodists.” Taylor (1935:106) writes: “The Primitive Methodist Church has done most of its recruiting from a lower social order, and it has always been a predominantly working-class Church.” Hobsbawm (1959:136) says that Primitive Methodism “was from the first recognised as a predominantly working class cult.” Bebbington (1992:16) writes: “Of all the Nonconformist denominations, the Primitives with their emotional intensity had most appeal to the poor.” Selbie (1908:190): writes: “the Primitive Methodists … worked largely among the poorest and most illiterate of the population.” Morris (1967:168-9), Turner (1985:39, 59), Dews (1984), Munson (1991) all write of Primitive Methodist penetration of the working class.

Membership grew from 33,720 in 1829 to 106,074 in 1851, the year of the Government’s Religious Census.

Works quoted

Bebbington, David (1992) Victorian Nonconformity (Bangor, UK: Headstart)
Dews, D. C. (1984). Methodism in Leeds from 1791 to 1861 (M. Phil thesis, University of Bradford)
Hobsbawm, E. J. (1959) Primitive rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries (Manchester University)
Morris, G. M. (1967) Primitive Methodism in Nottinghamshire 1815-1932 (Doctoral thesis, University of Nottingham.
Munson, James (1991) The Nonconformists: In search of a lost culture (London, SPCK)
Selbie, W. B. (undated, post 1908) Nonconformity: its origin and progress (London: Williams & Norgate)
Taylor, E. R. (1935) Methodism and politics 1791-1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Turner, J. M. (1985) Conflict and reconciliation: Studies in Methodism and ecumenism in England 1740-1982 (London: Epworth)