Oxtoby, John (1767-1830)

'Praying Johnny'

Early Life

John was born in 1767 at Little Givendale, near Pocklington, Yorkshire, the son of Robert and Jane Oxtoby. Parish Records inform that he was baptised on 25 February 1766 at Millington, nr Pocklington, Yorkshire.  (We would now reckon that to be 1767 because, at that time, the calendar year ran from 1 April to 31 March.) He spent a short time at a country school, but for most of his early years he worked as an agricultural labourer. He is described as about five feet six inches tall, rather corpulent, straight light brown hair, brown eyes. His general appearance was farmer like.


John underwent a conversion experience in 1804. He was living in Warter, about 4 miles east of Pocklington and undertook a praying ministry within the village. Despite significant opposition, he persisted in regularly visiting each house in the village to pray with the inhabitants, eventually receiving a warm welcome everywhere. It was noted that the character of the village changed; much less profanity and many turned to God.

For about fifteen years Oxtoby worked with the Wesleyan Methodists. He became an unofficial travelling missionary working mainly as an exhorter and prayer. Generally he travelled with a like-minded companion. George Nicholson and Robert Coultas were two such companions. Whilst not well off, he was generally able to support himself as he had no immediate family to support.

In the course of his travels, John met with preachers from the Nottingham PM Circuit for the purposes of visiting Hull and the neighbourhood.

Working with Clowes

In 1819, in Hull, John met with William Clowes and became his right hand man. It was then that he joined the PM Connexion, seeing that many of the PM preachers were likeminded in their approach to mission. It is reported that John’s abilities in prayer were particularly helpful when visiting mourners. John was gradually drawn into preaching himself, initially as a local preacher and later as a travelling itinerant.

Itinerant Ministry

Leigh reports that it was in 1823 that John became a PM Itinerant Minister.

In 1823, the Bridlington Quarterley Meeting discussed whether work in Filey should be abandoned as there had been many difficulties. Oxtoby offered himself to carry out the work and the meeting agreed to one more trial. John reached Muston Hill, where he could see Filey in the distance. He fell to his knees to pray about the work.

He received an assurance from God and rose from his knees saying ‘Filey is taken! Filey is taken!’

There began a remarkable revival and through the labours of Oxtoby, and others, Filey was indeed taken. This revival had a significant impact of Filey, with the Primitives, Wesleyans and established church seeing the benefit. The Filey fishermen led the way in abandoning Sunday fishing to observe the Sabbath.

Oxtoby was appointed to the Westgate Branch of the Hull Circuit in 1824. Kendall reports that he was able to inject fresh impetus into the Weardale Revival that had commenced in 1823.

Barber relates the story of a meeting between John Oxtoby and John Flesher, where Flesher asks why the results of their preaching were so different. Oxtoby replied: ‘Oh, thou leads the people to the tree of knowledge, and I leads them to the tree of life.’  A challenging answer for all preachers to reflect on!

John’s last appointment was to the Halifax circuit in June 1829, but due to his poor state of health he was delayed in taking up his post.  He spent some time recuperating with his sister at Londsbrough, near Market Weighton. Although he was later able to go to Halifax, his illness returned and he went back to his sister’s house where he died 19 Jan 1830. He was buried in Warter Churchyard.

The Rev. Samuel Bottomley, who knew Oxtoby well says: ‘he generally spent six hours each day upon his knees, pleading earnestly with God on behalf of himself, the Church, and sinners, whose salvation he most earnestly desired.’

Whilst John Oxtoby was not recognised as a man of great intellect, and he was by all accounts a very average preacher, his faith, his commitment to prayer and his persistence continues to be a shining example of how God can work through the lives of ordinary people.


  • 1821 Scotter
  • 1822 not shown
  • 1823 Silsden
  • 1824 Hull (2 yrs 6 mths)
  • 1826 Barnsley (6 mths)
  • 1827 Hull
  • 1828 Leeds (6 mths)
  • 1828 Tadcaster (6 mths)
  • 1829 Halifax


Primitive Methodist Magazine 1826/24; 1828/398; 1830/190; 1831/9ff

J Petty, The History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, 1880, p85, p130, p188

H B Kendall, Origin and History of the PM Church, vol 1, p365-70; vol 2, p104-6, p146

B A Barber, A Methodist Pageant, 1932, p62

George Shaw, The Life of John Oxtoby (‘Praying Johnny’),1894

Leigh, Harvey , The Life and Labours of John Oxtoby – Primitive Methodist Minister, 1857

W Leary, Directory of Primitive Methodist Ministers and their Circuits , 1990

Joseph Ritson, The Romance of Primitive Methodism , 1909, p114


Comments about this page

  • This page was modified on 2 April 2017 to add a transcription of an article of reminiscences of John Oxtoby published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine 1901.

    By Geoff Dickinson (02/04/2017)

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