Opening the new chapel at Patrington
A paper given in April 2017 at All Nations Christian College, Ware,
for the Christianity and History Forum
Background of numerical Decline
Lang (1972) wrote that “The impact William Clowes and Primitive Methodism made on Hull has never faded.” The story of Clowes’s early ministry in Hull and the nearby area is told by Petty (1880) on pages 85-91; then on page 497 Petty writes:
This eminently holy and useful minister died in the full assurance of faith on the 2nd of March, 1851, aged 71 years. He was the founder of the society in Hull, and for many years he laboured frequently there with uncommon energy and apostolic success. His ministry was attended with extraordinary power, and multitudes were brought to the Lord through his instrumentality.
Clowes himself tells the story of his early ministry in Hull, beginning in in Chapter XV of his Journals. But in the period leading up to the 1932 reunion of Methodist Churches, there was widespread decline. A booklet entitled Methodist Union: the case against the scheme was prepared by Rev. T. R. Auty, M. H. Bainton and W. Usher, setting forth the reasons, as felt by some Primitives, why the proposed scheme should be rejected. Inter alia they wrote:
Many Methodist people were scared by the feeling that we were all losing ground, which they promptly imagined was only to be rewon by combined staff-work. Others in our own Church had lost confidence in its independent future. Combination with the other threatened Methodist bodies seemed the only hope of survival.
Some of the background to all this may be perceived in the 1917 unpublished Conference journal, where §103 is entitled Resolution on the State of the Connexion, and recorded a decrease in membership of 944: “Nor is this solely due to the War. It has been going on since 1908 and in the interval we have lost no fewer than 6,633 church members and some 30,000 Sunday School scholars.” The 1919 the Minutes of Conference (page 6) report “a small decrease in the membership of our Church at home, though no satisfactory explanation can be assigned for it.” The decrease in membership was 192. The Minutes express puzzlement: “Around us are crowded populations in town and city … steadily drifting away from our churches. They are not opposed to religion, but the Church has lost its attraction for them.” These and many other quotations in the Minutes and the denominational periodicals show considerable signs of disquiet among the leaders of the denomination. The Minutes of Conference for 1919, under the title State of the Connexion (pages 208-9), add another aspect of the situation: “The most disquieting feature in our Church life is the decline in our Sunday School work. Since the war began we have lost 220 schools and 36,000 scholars.” The decline, begun long previously, seemed irreversible. Comparing the population of England and Wales with the Primitive Methodist membership figures numbered (as supplied in this website http://www.brin.ac.uk/figures/#ChurchesandChurchgoers):
65 per 10,000 of the population in 1871 and 1881
62 in 1891
58 in 1901
57 in 1911
52 in 1921
50 in 1931.
In the final year of the Primitive Methodist denomination’s existence, membership declined by a further 1267.
Such was the background to the “lost confidence” in Auty, Bainton and Usher’s booklet and the fact that for m,any “Combination with the other threatened Methodist bodies seemed the only hope.” Thus, in 19th June 1919, the leading article on page 1 of the Primitive Methodist Leader, by Arthur T. Guttery, DD, was entitled Methodist Union in Britain. It stated that “the hour has struck for us either to accept or deny an idea.” The following week’s issue, again on page 1, informed its readers of The Conference: its Issues, and was even more euphoric: “The discussion on Methodist Union will remain a fragrant memory … It was a triumph for union. It was more. It was a unanimity reached after considered discussion.” Thus the die was cast.
In 1923 the Minutes of Conference (pages 198-205) reported that of 686 circuits asked for their verdict on the scheme for Methodist union presented by the Methodist Union Committee, twenty-six rejected the scheme, but none on the ground of doctrine. Reasons given were especially the concern for lay representation at Conference, the sense that the scheme was not democratic enough, while 66 circuits voted for the administration of the Lord’s Supper by local preachers. Further responses to the scheme were given at the 1925 Conference. Primitive Methodist circuits had voted 578 for, 92 against, with 11 ties.
The Defence League
Thought was already turning by the end of 1924 to the possible need to establish what ultimately became the Primitive Methodist Continuing Church. A committee met on 5th December at “Bourne” (presumably Bourne Memorial Chapel, Hull) and recorded these words in their Minutes:
One has thought that our Defence Movement might have to be used, should the big guns form a great Meth Church to form a Hull PM Mission, or even a second Primitive Methodist Church, this certainly at present is only preliminary, but no one knows what might happen and Hull has no mean history with regard to Primitive Methodism.
A leaflet produced by the Primitive Methodist Church Defence Committee was signed by twelve members “on behalf of the Committee”. In reference to the proposed Reunion, it contains the sentence, “There has never been any demand from our people for anything such as is proposed.” The officers listed in 1929 were from churches in Hull, Holmpton, Tunstall, Scarborough, Nelson, Burnley, Crowle, Norwich, Ossett, Fulham and Goole. The minutes do not say which of the nine places called Tunstall is intended, but a search of surviving plans for every Circuit in relevant areas of the country might identify it by means of elimination.
In 1982, F. D. Frankland, General Secretary, wrote a brief history of the Continuing Church, in which he says that “there was set up throughout the country, particularly in the North, the Primitive Methodist Church Defence league, the main purpose of which was to try to ensure that the basic doctrines and polity of the P. M. Church would be safeguarded in any union scheme and would not sacrificed to expediency.”
Although Frankland mentions the doctrines, he adds in his next paragraph that “In particular, there was a desire to maintain the democratic rights of the membership as a whole, and to ensure that the emphasis in decision making remained in the hands of the Laity rather than becoming a Ministerial prerogative.” The published and unpublished writings from the Committee focus almost wholly on what he calls polity, seldom mentioning theology. Lang (1972) also writes that the Continuing Church “came into being because of a longing to keep the role of the layman in Methodism, in the face of the Union of 1932.”
In about 1980, Robert Brabbs wrote The Primitive Methodist (Continuing) Church in Hull and District following the Methodist Union Scheme of 1932. The document includes these words:
I may give the impression that All opposition to the scheme came from Hull and district. This was not so. There was opposition in many parts of the country, the trouble was that it was not organised into a unit, and as I look back, I think it would have been difficult to do, especially with the resources at our disposal. There was considerable opposition in Lancashire, particularly in the Nelson, Burnley, Colne Valley areas etc. … When we continued P.M.’dsm we received a lot of requests – “We don’t like this scheme. Will you come and start a P.M. Cont. Church here?” These cries came from East Hull, Beverley, Goole, Pontefract, and so on. The answer was always the same “No! … We’ll give you all the advice and help possible, we will help you with preachers, but the initiative must come from you.”
In Yorkshire there was a rugged but sincere ‘down to earth’ attitude to Chapel worship – to call it crude would be unjust, but the enthusiasm and sacrifice of those who were ‘Born Again.’ … In many instances the fervour, zeal, single mindedness – yes and the devotion of many Prims may have exceeded what the present age would call the ecumenical outlook. …
It would be less than Just to give the impression or for anybody to form the opinion that the P.M. Continuing Church was formed out of Pique or resentment – it was formed by men and women who knew their Lord and passionately loved P.M’dsm.
Here there are hints at the continuing Evangelical belief and fervour of the opposition to reunion: the enthusiasm and sacrifice of those who were ‘Born Again.’ … the fervour, zeal, … men and women who knew their Lord.
Opposition to the Defence League
To outline the full struggle put up by the Defence League, with its costly petitions to the House of Commons and eventually the House of Lords, involving as it did, great financial burdens on predominantly working class people at a time of great social poverty in the ‘hungry 20’s’, is obviously not possible in a brief synopsis such as this, … Sufficient to say, that finally the League said in essence
“take a vote of the people, and if a majority of the ordinary membership desire this Union – we will withdraw all opposition.”
No such referendum was ever granted and no such mandate was ever sought from the grass root membership.
As stated also by Brabbs, Frankland write that “There were several such groups up and down the country, in Cornwall, Durham, Colne and Nelson – in Lancashire, as well as in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire.” He explains that they were separate movements with no centralising organisation.
He continues, “the ‘establishment’ of the day did all in its power to stifle the ‘voice of dissent’, even to the extent of refusing space within the Church’s own periodicals, even when information was submitted as paid advertisements.”
In some cases, Frankland states, the use of church premises for meetings concerning the League was prohibited. He comments that “it is not surprising that those opposed to the Union scheme should find difficulty in coordinating their activities.” This is to some extent at variance with Brabbs (1980) who seems to suggest that it was a conscious policy that the initiative in remaining out of Reunion must arise and be worked out from each area, unless that policy was adopted because of the surrounding difficulties.
Frankland continues his tale of opposition by referring to “the refusal to allow any community of members to ‘contract out’ of the scheme and retain its right to their buildings and finances, despite the fact that these had been sustained by the members of that community for generations.”
Lang (1972) relates that William Brabbs (father of Robert) fought the case to the House of Lords. William Brabbs was a shopkeeper in Hull, and became the Continuings’ first President.
The Continuing Church is formed
The Primitive Methodist Continuing Church came into being on 2nd July 1932, the day when the reunited Methodist Church was also established. On that day, a Saturday, Redbourne Street chapel, Hull, was opened, and on the Sunday there was public worship at Driffield, Patrington and Holmpton.
Redbourne Street (says Frankland) had been an Anglican Choir School, “empty for some years and in a bad state of dereliction. The owners agreed to let the building for two years, with the option to buy at the end of the period.
The church at Holmpton attempted to buy their chapel back off the authorities (Frankland presumably means the Methodist authorities), but it was denied them and a new chapel was built.
At Patrington they met in a farmhouse till a new chapel was built, shown in the photograph at the top of this article.
At Driffield services were initially held in the practice room of the local silver band. Eventually an old warehouse was purchased and converted into a place of worship.
Robert Brabbs himself was a member at Redbourne Street, Hull. Of that church he writes:
We were a big Church at the beginning – huge congregations – a Class meeting up to 70, where men and women told of their love for the Saviour. … a few of us have heard people like ‘Jimmy Key’ (a brand plucked from the burning), always finished his testimony “Blessed Assurance”. It was strong stuff – it was deep personal conviction – it was of God Himself – and sometimes as the Spirit of God descended – as mighty men prayed, you had to be strong yourself, otherwise you finished up with tears in your eyes as you looked on men and women who in their own words were saved mightily by the Grace of God.
Here again is an insight into the theology and ethos of the new denomination: it was Evangelical in both spirit and belief. After William Brabbs, John B. Herd, a retired farmer at Holmpton, became President.
In September 1972 the Methodist Recorder carried an article entitled “The continuing ‘Prims’ – Report from Hull.” It relates that the Continuing denomination sprang from the Primitive Methodist Defence League, which was active in Hull from 1924 till 1931. Its “headquarters”, says the article, was a former Anglican mission hall in the dockland area of Hull, and its support was drawn mainly from “working people” such as railwaymen, tradesmen, small shopkeepers, farmers and farm workers. It maintained a high standard of preaching, nourished by scholarly second-generation members and a training course for local preachers. Members – the article probably means of the training course, not all church members – were encouraged to study by correspondence with London Bible College. Lang (1972) states that President Nieman asked the Rev. Elijah Green to run the local preachers’ training course.
The Recorder quotes George Brabbs (brother of Robert), by then in his 50s, as saying, “Denominationalism is not entirely separatism. One umbrella Church is not the answer. We have had much help from serving ministers and supernumeraries and laymen in the Methodist Church, while our laymen go out into other churches. This is unity rather than union.” Lang (1972) gives a little more detail: “When their case failed in the House of Lords, they took over an old Anglican mission in Redbourne Street, not far from the fish docks in Hull; converted a building in Driffield into a church, and built two new churches, at Patrington and Holmpton.”
Also in 1972, the Yorkshire Ridings Magazine published an article by W. R. Lang on pages 30-3 entitled The ‘Primitive’ celebrate. The fortieth anniversary celebrations of the Church, planned for the first weekend in July, were expected to attract “friends from all parts of the country.” The denomination’s President at the time was Ron Nieman, a carriage and wagon examiner at Paragon Station. The article calls the denomination “this century’s ‘church of the people’”.
F. D. Frankland, General Secretary, composed a paper in 1982 about the Continuing Church (“Hull and District”) which regrets that “membership has sadly declined as the years have passed, but a lively Gospel witness is still maintained, although our pulpit is now mainly supplied by lay preachers and Ministers from several other ‘free Church’ denominations.” Membership, he says, “is now reduced to the teens at most of the Churches.” He concludes with these words:
The future of the Church, so far as human agencies are concerned, depends on the will of the people who wish to worship with a freedom born of the Spirit of God, who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of salvation to all men, people who believe in the priesthood of all believers, and who accept Christ as the only Mediator between God and Man.
In 1932, the objectives of the ‘Primitive Methodist (Continuing) Church’ were stated in the first Minute book in the following words,
“…to continue with zeal and devotion the Primitive Methodist Wintess in Hull and District – to preach the Gospel, to raise the fallen, to cheer the faint, to minister to the sick, to train boys and girls in the ways of truth and righteousness, and to bring honour and glory to His name through the salvation of men and women.”
These objects remain the same today – 50 years on.
In 1994, Marjorie C. Aked, Circuit Secretary, wrote that “our membership is sadly decreasing.” She adds that the Holmpton church “got down to a membership of three old ladies all in their nineties” and closed in April 1990. At the Wesley Historical Society library in Botley there is a letter dated 22nd June 1994 from the same Marjorie Aked, written on the Primitive Methodist (Continuing) Church, Redbourne Street, Hull headed paper. It says:
Unfortunately our congregation is getting smaller and we average about twelve at a service. Each year some of our older ones have gone to glory. At Redbourne Street we are in a difficult ‘down town’ area in a council estate. We have visited the people around us many times but they just don’t want to know. … Even so, we have some very good services and visiting preachers all say they like coming to us and what a lovely atmosphere there is in our church.
The church at Driffield only meets on Sundays and their congregations range from about six to fifteen but they have good services.
Patrington has a good Sunday School, but only about six or seven grownups attend the Sunday service.
On a separate sheet, an addendum to F. D. Frankland’s 1982 history, Mrs Aked adds that “Redbourne Street Church has been completely modernised and redecorated … Even though our numbers are small, we are keeping the witness going and are praying for great things in the future.”
At the Wesley Historical Society library in Botley there is a letter signed from “Nick”, in York, dated 7th October 2001. His surname is not given; he used to work at the WHS library. He wrote to Dr Peter Forsaith, research fellow at the library, saying he had not preached among the Primitive Methodist Continuing churches since 1995, at which time “The congregation at Driffield was largely elderly, 12 to 15 in number and Revivalist in disposition.”
Here is an email from Jamie Pickering dated 13th September 2016 and quoted with permission:
I am 24 years old and I live in Hull, my birthplace. I’ve have known Jesus as my Lord & Saviour for a little over 5 years having come from a background of drug addiction etc.
I spent the first 3 years of my Christian life ministering at Redbourne Street Church alongside the Pastor, Steve Clark. I’m currently heading up Bourne Chapel in Driffield under the supervision of my Pastor, and I’m just getting off the ground in the preaching ministry.
As I do not come from a church background I knew little to nothing about ‘church’ or denominations and I’ve only recently been looking into our churches heritage and the history of Primitive Methodism, which I am finding very encouraging to say the least.
I’m really grateful to God for those who have gone before us as they’ve planted a ‘real’ and bible based evangelical faith that is rooted in God’s Word.
Here is a link (2018) to the website of the congregation in Hull:
Two features emerge from all this. First, it is plain to see that the minutes, letters and publications written by those who wished to continue as Primitive Methodists focus almost entirely, not on doctrinal matters, but on matters of organisation, especially lay involvement and responsibility. As Currie (1968:269) explains, “The Primitive Methodist Other Side … chiefly criticized the Ministerial Session, and other attacks on the privileges of Primitive Methodist laymen.” Currie explores the debates during the progress towards the 1932 ‘reunion’ at great length and in considerable detail, and records on page 276 that the Primitive Methodist conference of 1925 voted 93% in favour of accepting Methodist Union. This, of course, was the Conference, not the grass root members who Frankland says were never given the opportunity to vote.
Secondly, it is also plain from other writings cited above that the Continuing Prims remained Evangelical in belief and outlook, at a time when Primitive Methodism had, since the 1890s, been turning away from historic Methodist Evangelical beliefs and discarding or even denying a range of doctrines that had formerly been strong and motivating beliefs among both Wesleyans and Prims. It is as if the Defence League’s theology was not well-thought-out but embedded instinctively in their hearts, whilst their minds perceived clearly the organisational differences between the old Primitives and the new Methodist Church. This would not be surprising after some forty years of the mixed, confusing and enervating preaching coming from the ministerial training college and the Primitive Methodist press.
A generation later, a number of Methodist congregations did succeed in seceding from the Methodist Church, and in some cases in buying their chapel back off the denomination. At that time, they seceded, not on organisational grounds, but for clearly defined and compelling theological reasons. Is it possible that the greater measure of success in the later twentieth century was due to greater theological awareness which in turn generated a more clearly focussed persistence?
Clowes, W. (1844) The Journals of William Clowes, a Primitive Methodist Preacher (2006 ed.). Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker
Currie, R. (1968) Methodism divided. London: Faber & Faber
Lang, W. R. (1972) The ‘Primitives’ celebrate. Driffield: Yorkshire Ridings Magazine, July 1972
Petty, J. (1880) The History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion. London: Dickenson.
The archives of the Primitive Methodist Continuing Church
membership figures 1881-1931)