Thomas, Robert and the 'Christian Methodists' of Bickerton, Cheshire
'Superintendent' of his own circuit for at least 19 years
At Brown Knowl Primitive Methodist Chapel in the late 1870s or early 1880s, a dispute broke out among the members when changes were introduced to the way the hymns were announced. Early Primitive Methodist practice had been for the preacher to give out two lines at a time, which the congregation would sing before hearing the next two lines read out. At a time when most of the congregation was illiterate this was eminently helpful. However, as all could now read, the Brown Knowl leaders decided to change to reading out the first verse only before singing the hymn straight through. Interestingly this is still the usual practice in many Methodist churches today.
Those who insisted on keeping the old practice broke away and formed their own society, led by Robert Thomas, a local preacher in the Whitchurch circuit. Calling themselves the Christian Methodists of Bickerton, the leaders included Joseph and Ellen Jones, who were neighbours of Robert Thomas.
The small group kept to the old Primitive Methodist practices. A quarterly class ticket was issued to members, whose names were kept in a class book, with a class leader in pastoral charge of them. A collection of class tickets survives from 1885-1895, which were printed on stiff card, but otherwise similar to the usual Methodist class tickets. Other documents which were in the possession of Miss Clara Jones of Bickerton, the daughter of Joseph and Ellen, include a class book belonging to Joseph Jones, recording names and weekly or quarterly contributions, and tickets for the ‘Annual Tea Meeting’ which maintained the camp meeting tradition. The earliest to survive is dated Wednesday, 13 August 1884. The open air singing was accompanied by Joseph Jones on his violin. The last surviving ticket is for Monday, 21 July 1902, in George Dodd’s field at Bickerton. His cottage later became Bickerton Post Office.
A ‘Christian Methodist Preachers’ Plan, Bickerton, 1902’ also survives for the quarter March to May. ‘Places of Worship’ were the homes of Robert Thomas and supporters in other villages. Seven preachers were named, with 16 ‘helpers’, most of whom seem to be Primitive Methodist local preachers from neighbouring circuits.
Robert Thomas died on 3 July 1902, and is buried at Brown Knowl. He was 80 years old, and had been a ‘Preacher of the Gospel for 60 years’. His death marked the end of the Christian Methodists of Bickerton. The society was again absorbed once more into Brown Knowl and other local Primitive Methodist churches.
Ronald F Leathwood, ‘The Christian Methodist Church’, Notes and Queries, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol XXXVII, Feb 1970, p131