Canada - the origins of Primitive Methodism


Primitive Methodism arrived in Canada with William Lawson, a local preacher, who emigrated in 1829, with his wife Ann, from Brampton in the Carlisle circuit. He began to preach in the streets of Toronto, then called Little York, in July 1829, and the first class meeting began to meet in his house in September.

The first itinerant minister was sent out by the English Conference in August 1830. Nathaniel Watkins was the brother of Ruth Watkins, who had been sent from Tunstall as one of the first missionaries to America in 1829.  In 1832 Canada became a mission station under the Hull Circuit, until 1843 when responsibility was taken over by the General Mission Committee.

Hugh Bourne visited Canada in 1844, sailing from Liverpool to Quebec at the age of 72, and he  travelled on to America before returning home in 1846.

In 1847, William Clowes son-in-law, John Davison, was sent as a Primitive Methodist minister to Canada, and became Secretary of the first Canadian Primitive Methodist Conference, held at Brampton, Ontario in 1854. He remained there until his death in 1884, and a Diary covering his ministry in Canada has just been acquired by Englesea Brook Museum.

First Chapel

The first chapel was built in Toronto in 1832. Standing in Bay Street, it was a simple building with a planked walkway in front of it.  It was replaced in 1854 by a new building in Alice Street, which was the same year the Canadian Primitive Methodists held their first Conference. The Alice Street chapel burnt down in 1873, and was replaced by a new church in Carlton Street in 1874, which cost 50,000 dollars.

Early Leaders

William Lawson (who died in 1875) set up his business in Toronto, and was soon joined by one of his employees, Robert Walker, also a Primitive Methodist, who later took over the business. Robert Walker was known as a generous giver, and John Davison said of him, ‘Few men have done so much to extend Primitive Methodism in Canada.’ He chaired an important public meeting at Grimsby in 1869, and with J C Antliff, represented Canadian Primitive Methodism at the Methodist Ecumenical Conference of 1881. He died in 1885.

William Lawson and Robert Walker were later joined by another layman from the Carlisle circuit, John Elliott, and another leader of the early church in Canada was T Thompson, from Driffield.

Pioneer Ministers

After Nathaniel Watkins, other early itinerant ministers were William Summersides (1831), William Lyle (1833-57), John Lacey (1836-65) – ‘a walking cyclopedia of divinity, a man whom men crowded to hear’,  William Jolley (1838-44), Matthew Nichols (1841-54) – from Norfolk and died of cholera, John Towler (1843-51), Thomas Adams (1844-65), Robert Boyle (1846-80) – an Irishman – ‘sensitive, clever, popular, much in demand among the churches’, James Edgar (1846-80) – ‘a man nearly all soul and sympathy’, John Davison (1847-61), John Garner (1848-81) – son of John Garner, William Gledhill – an eccentric but saintly man who returned to England in 1861.

By 1854 there were two Districts, 15 stations, 23 ministers and 2,326 members.

By special request, Thomas Guttery was sent out in 1871, and served in Canada for eight years. James Antliff, a minister in Canada from 1880, was appointed President of the Primitive Methodist Conference in 1883. There were now over 8,000 Primitive Methodist members in Canada, and 99 travelling preachers.

In 1884 the Primitive Methodists joined with the Wesleyans and Bible Christians to form the Canadian Methodist Church.


Mrs Hopper, Old Time Primitive Methodism in Canada, 1904.

H B Kendall, The Origin and History of the Primitive Methodist Church [1903], vol 2, pp.449ff

For more on Robert Walker see A Memorial of the Centenary of the Venerable Hugh Bourne, 1872, and the Biography of Robert Walker, written by John Davison.

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