In hundreds of villages in this country the only evangelical interpretation of the Gospel is in the Methodist chapel. Quite often it is the only Free Church in the hamlet and bears the immense responsibility of offering Christ (as evangelicals understand it) alone. 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. – William E. Sangster (1947) Methodism: her unfinished task (London: Epworth)

This article is mainly about chapels as such, and of course the life, fellowship and ministry that were experienced within them, but many rural Primitive Methodist Sunday services and mid-week meetings in the 19th century were conducted in small, humble cottages. I can recommend two descriptions of such meetings, found in Henry Woodcock’s Piety among the Peasantry: Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds (London, 1889, pages 179-182) and quoted at length in my The Primitive Methodist Mission to North Wales, for similarly located gatherings were held in the agricultural land of north-eastern Wales; and in Flora Thompson’s autobiographical book about life in the 1880s in the hamlet of Juniper Hill, Oxfordshire, entitled Lark Rise (Oxford University Press, 1939). My paperback copy was published in 1993 by Puffin Books in their Puffin Classics series, and the description of the ranters‘ cottage services is found on pages 205-9. She writes:

There was something fine about their discourses, as they raised their voices in rustic eloquence and testified to the cleansing power of ‘the Blood’, forgetting themselves and their own imperfections of speech in their ardour. … Their lives were exemplary.

It is good to read of God’s work in the past, but always sad to see how many places where his gospel was once preached have suffered closure. As one of my boyhood hobbies was long bike rides, I became aware that Primitive and Wesleyan Methodist chapels lay thick on the ground. All, no doubt, had been places where people had found pardon, peace and joy in times past, but many either were already then closed , or have been abandoned since those days. Many such were in places where now there is no evangelical witness at all; and when a witness is extinguished, it can be extremely difficult, and is humanly impossible, to start a totally new work.

Scripture records numerous times when almost all was lost, but when God restored the old rather than extinguishing it and starting again. This seems to reveal an aspect of God’s character and of how he chooses to work: a God who restores.

The future for true Christian witness in our land lies, largely, I believe, with local churches in fellowship with one another; this is what will preserve biblical Christianity. It is vital that each generation should do all it can to maintain the existence and ministry of gospel churches – even when, for a while, they have entered a day of small things. In time, under God’s blessing, the small cause can become the flourishing cause., but this cannot happen if a cause has been extinguished and a chapel closed.

A true Welsh proverb says, “It is easier to burn a house than to build it” (Haws llosgi ty na’i adeiladu). What is lost is gone for ever; what is preserved may be revived and prosper again.

Hadlow Baptist chapel, Kent

For four years (1972-6) I preached at the Baptist chapel in Hadlow, to the church that had been formed in 1823. The church had dwindled to four members; all were ladies, and only one still lived in the village. I had been recognised as a minister in 1973, and when, in April 1974 those four ladies unanimously called me to become their minister, my wife and I decided to accept. No accommodation was available in the village, and it was not possible to purchase a house on the salary from the part-time work I was obliged to undertake. When in time we lost even the one remaining member who lived there, there were no local members at all.

We attempted to ensure that every home either heard the Gospel or had the opportunity to read it. The congregation grew and so did the membership, reaching twelve, but all the new members were from outside the village, and no one from the village itself was added to the church. Eventually it came to be felt that “Hadlow Baptist Church” was a now fiction, and the members agreed to disband. The chapel closed and it now a private dwelling.

Probably only God knows whether our decision was right: we felt at the time that it was. But as the years passed, so my awareness increased of the irreversible finality of our action – and my concern grew that the same should happen as seldom as possible elsewhere.

Back in May 1989 Rev. Peter Brumby wrote in Evangelicals Now expressing the need for Christians who were worshipping in prosperous town churches to bring help to smaller, local congregations. He wrote that many “are unprepared for the change and never realise their potential to help … then drift away to somewhere less demanding.” On my door-to-door visiting in Hadlow I discovered five professed believers worshipping nowhere; a Baptist family travelling to a large town church; a Brethren family travelling likewise to a nearby town; and about half a dozen other believers similar commuting to church elsewhere – evangelical Anglican, Pentecostal, or whatever. What a thriving church we might have had if they had decided to worship where God’s providence had placed them to live! Sunday School, youth work, Sunday services – all might have thriven. They ‘wished us well, but that helped us little if at all.

How could we seriously expect local unbelieving people at attend the chapel, when they saw all the Evangelical Christians in the community turning their backs on it to travel elsewhere? The story is repeated in village after village elsewhere in England and Wales, and must like seem like a persuasive testimony against the local chapel – ‘a letter known and read by all men.’

I have a vision of the religious future of England and Wales, in which Evangelical religion is a purely urban phenomenon: a vision of vast tracts of rural darkness, with lights gathered only into the towns, and entire generations growing up in the villages without ever knowing a Christian witness in their communities – not because Christians do not live in the villages, but because they prefer to commute to churches where, perhaps, it is more blessed to receive than to give.

There was a time when unnumbered villages in England and Wales had a vibrant, living Christian church, where God was known and at work bring salvation and a desire for holiness: my burden for maybe fifty years has been that God will restore what has been cast away. That is why I am writing this plea for the village churches to be sustained by giving, prayer, service and sacrifice.

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Hadlow Baptist Chapel

Golly, North Wales

Golly is derived from the Welsh for light, and the presence of a Primitive Methodist chapel would indeed have added significantly to the appropriateness of the hamlet’s name, for they worshipped him who said “I am the light of the world,” and sought to make him known to others. The chapel was built in 1861, but has vanished, and Chapel House now stands on the site at a bend in the road. Golly, together with Commonwood, Rossett and Llay, was in the Chester Second Circuit. In 1900, if the four preachers gathered at a particular spot in Chester, transport was provided for them to their appointments in Wales.

Mrs Winifred Alliss, who was evacuated to the parish in which Golly lies from the slums of Liverpool in the War had never seen so much as a cow before, and when she arrived in this agricultural area she felt she was in Heaven! In 1951, having married, she moved into Golly itself, when the Primitive Methodist chapel was a very real part of the community. People were poor, and walked to chapel; indeed, if you owned a bicycle you were deemed lucky, and few people owned cars. But the chapel was well attended by the farming community. Mrs Alliss particularly commented on the delightful harvest festivals, with country produce, sheaves of corn, home-made cakes, which would be auctioned the following day. The Allisses’ son was the last person to be christened in the chapel.

Some glimpses into village chapel life can be gained from Golly’s trustees’ account book (1857-1923). In 1858 one item of expenditure is “oil for the lamp 5/-” whilst others are “2lb candles 1/10; glass for the lamp 6d.” To keep warm in 1859, they bought “2 hundred of cole” for a shilling. They also spent 4/6 on “books for the scool”.

I spoke once with a man who had been conversing with a friend of his late grandfather. The friend was reminiscing about visits to Golly chapel in about 1950, when if you wanted a seat you had to get there early. Now, not only the chapel, but also the school and the Anglican church have been knocked down.

Commonwood, North Wales: an acted parable?

The 1947 Ordnance Survey map shows the position of the Primitive Methodist chapel, where most services were conducted by local preachers, William Belmont Saddler, a farmer, being considered one of the best. The last person deemed likely to have personal memories of the chapel was born in 1928 and died at Christmastime 2016. Sadly I missed the opportunity to interview him by about seven months.

On the site today, no  trace remains of the chapel, and a lady living in a house opposite had no knowledge of there ever having been one. Such situations make me ponder whether what we see here is a sort of parable: is the influence of Primitive Methodism being allowed to fade so widely and so completely that soon it will leave no more trace than it has at Commonwood? And so I end where I began, with some serious words from William Sangster: “The withdrawal of this ministry would be a calamity which few who care for spiritual things could contemplate with equanimity.”

– David M. Young (edited from my writings in Evangelicals Now, Grace Magazine, and the
booklet The Primitive Methodist Mission to North Wales)

* * *

The restoration of the country chapel to its proper position as a citadel of spiritual power, is a necessity that demands patient and serious thought. There are few questions indeed which are more urgent than this. Large areas are practically going out of spiritual cultivation. … The need to do more for the villages than has yet been done is greater than ever. Though it may not generally be recognized, we are at a crisis in rural life. The coming of the bus and the motor-car has robbed the villages of their former seclusion. The sequestered vales and quiet haunts are rapidly being obliterated. In places where, a few years ago, the presence of a stranger would provoke general comment, the roads now teem with people from all parts of the land. It ought to be possible, in a united Methodism, for every group of four or five villages to have their pastor. He should regard it as a privilege to visit the homes of the sick and the aged, and to know the children by name. The disinclination to a country circuit is now as distressing as it is disastrous, and Methodism is already paying a heavy price for its failure to cultivate these rich areas.

– Richard Pyke (1929), sometime President of the United Methodist Conference, in Methodism in the modern World (London: the Epworth Press)

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Bethesda United Methodist chapel, 1853, Holt

* * *

I felt that something should be done to preserve the record of those faithful men and women who, in our country circuits, had sustained our common Methodism and made the greatness of its tradition, but whose names never appeared in our history. For the examples of these I turned, naturally, to the circuit which was best known to me – the circuit which gave me birth, in my growing years, with many living examples of the power of the Grace of God. Hence it is of these I write. My knowledge of many other circuits, however, has convinced me that the characters portrayed in this book are typical of village Methodism in general, and the reader will no doubt recall some such examples in his own particular area.

The first articles of the series appeared in the “United Methodist Magazine” in 1914. Others followed in 1918, and two or three were published in “The Christian”, whose Editor kindly sanctions the inclusion of one of them in this work. I now send them forth in this form with the earnest desire that they inspire our young people to something of that love for Christ and devotion to Methodism which characterised those Old Lights who shone about me when I was a boy.

– Lewis H. Court (1921) from the Preface to The Romance of a Country Circuit: sketches of Village Methodism (London: Henry Hooks) Hardback, 143 pages

Romance Country Circuit

Photos facing page 32

* * *

It is clear that the villages of England have held a very important position in Methodism from the beginning; …  The great feature of those early times was the strongly marked conversions which took place among the people.

The change was often so great as to produce wonder, astonishment, and awe in the neighbourhood; and one such strongly marked conversion often led to the conversion of a number of others. These men became mighty in prayer; hence the prayer-meeting became to them a social means of grace which had great attractions; and they were ready also to bear their testimony to the power of Divine grace, and to witness both in speech and song.

“What we have felt and seen
With confidence we tell,
And publish to the sons of men
The sings infallible.”

The Methodist class-meeting, therefore, was exactly suited to their experience; the delighted in the fellowship of saints, and in these weekly meetings much religious instruction and profit was realised, the tendency to worldliness and unbelief and despondency was checked, the snares and temptations of Satan were overcome, and the souls of the people were stimulated to press forward with increased ardour to the higher and richer enjoyments of the heavenly life. This social prayer and conversation on religious and experimental topics brought out and developed the natural gifts of these people, and many of them soon began to give evangelistic addresses, and these, consisting as they frequently did, of personal experience, were in themselves a powerful illustration of the ability and willingness of Christ to save; and in this way and by this means the work of God spread with considerable rapidity. It will be no exaggeration to say that the village societies have been by far the most prolific in the growth of both ministers and local preachers; and many of the most distinguished men of Methodism, whether as ministers, local preachers, or other laymen, have been indebted to village Methodism for the honourable and useful position they occupy in the Church and the world to-day.

I would like to say a word to those members of our Church whose lot is cast in the villages. It may be confessed that many are the discouragements to which they are subjected. When young people are brought to God in the Sunday school, or in connection with the services in the chapel, and give every indication of a life of usefulness, their removal to some town or city at a distance, and the blank occasioned by it, is a cause of discouragement to those who are left behind; and the one element wanting among them is this youthful ardour, which is often so powerful in its influence upon the children and young people growing up. This is without doubt a very disheartening circumstance, especially where the society is small and the members are few. Yet we must remember there is another side to the picture. Any one living in the town or city who has taken the trouble to ascertain the facts of the case will find that many of those who are carrying on the work and bearing the burdens of the Church were converted while young in some remote country village, and are now filling the offices of leaders, local preachers, society and circuit stewards, Sunday-school teachers, and superintendents.

I would presume to address a few words to the local preachers, on whom the villages are dependent to a very large extent for the supply of the pulpit from Sabbath to Sabbath. I hope that any of my brethren who may read this simple account of what has been accomplished in a very small village may ponder over the grand possibilities of a life of earnest labour among the rural populations. of our land. A largely increased number of young men are needed ion this harvest field, where much fruit may be gathered.

If we value our Church privileges, if we feel any interest or concern in the future welfare of our country, if we wish to see this land lifted out of the grasp of infidelity on the one hand and superstition on the other, if we wish to heal the moral sores of our country, if we wish to liberate the captive souls of thousands of our countrymen, if we wish to stand our stand as the harbinger of liberty and peace to the oppressed and morally degraded nationalities of the earth – then it will be necessary to spread the knowledge of Christ through all the villages of our land.

– Thomas Willshaw (1891) Methodism in my native Village; or, short biographical sketches extending over a century (Rochdale: “Joyful News” Depôt) – published following the centenary of the Wesleyan society in Cheddleton, Staffs.

Cheddleton, Staffs.jpg

* * *

Certainly the rural difficulties are not small: but are they any more formidable than the difficulties which our pioneers had to face? … yet we have in the Home Districts about four hundred fewer places than we had twenty years ago. We cannot afford to lose our hold upon the villages, neither can the villages afford that we desert them.

Aldersgate Magazine (1912, page 700), Conference Address to the Churches

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Broughton Primitive Methodist chapel (built 1880)