Folk Religion: A God Who Intervenes
Primitive Methodism in Hampshire
Although examples in this article are mainly from Hampshire, it should be remembered that Primitive Methodism and folk religion in Hampshire were similar in other rural parts of England in the 1800s.
Johnson, Hatcher, Obelkevich, Ambler and Bebbington have observed shared beliefs between Primitive Methodist and folk religion, which made Primitive Methodism attractive to rural populations, enabling them to feel at ease amongst the Primitive Methodists, who offered a vivid awareness of the spiritual world and faith in an almighty God who loves believers and intervenes on their behalf. Such beliefs included signs, the Devil, and direct divine intervention for guidance, deliverance or judgement.
In 2000 Oxford University Press published A Dictionary of English Folklore compiled by Simpson and Roud. Entries show:
- Notable storms seen as omens or signs of God’s wrath
- Dreams conveying true information and giving warnings sent by God
- Dogs able to sense anything uncanny, and many supernatural dogs found in folklore
- Evil forces including devils who actively bring harm
- “Cunning men and women”, able to heal sickness or foresee the future
- Curses invoking God’s power, generally by a clergyman, sometimes by a person deeply wronged
- The Devil
- Exorcism of haunted houses
- Thunder perceived as the voice of God
- Punishment sent in the form of dramatic calamities to punish and warn others
Experiences among Primitive Methodists resonated strongly with these, as the following examples show.
Thomas Russell (1886:460) writes of fellow minister Aaron Bell, who “received a letter from one of his sisters to say that she had three times dreamed of her brother being killed and thrown into a river, and that the body was identified by his watch and pocket book.” In August 1838 “he turned aside to bathe in a back stream of the Thames. A boy seeing some clothes lying on the bank raised an alarm, some watermen came, and on searching found the dead body of brother Bell. From his pocket book they discovered his name.” He was 21 years old.
Russell (1886:12) recounts John Ride’s conversion in the winter of 1811-2, aged 21:
I thought I heard a voice speaking, “Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee.” I looked round to see who spoke, but no human being was to be seen. Such love, joy and glory filled my soul… I shouted, “Glory to God! He has pardoned all my sins!”
Premonitions of Death
Martha Ride in 1872 was made aware that her death would occur within a year. Antliff (1892:304) shows that Hugh Bourne believed for some fifteen years that he would die in 1852, which he did.
Russell (1869:208) relates “a remarkable preservation she [Elizabeth Smith] experienced one day in going to her appointment. In going by a farm yard, a very large and apparently savage dog came out to her and smelled at her. The dog kept close to her, and she went on. She had a considerable distance to travel, and her way lay through some solitary woods, in which that part of Hampshire abounds; and coming to a narrow part of the road, where there were no inhabitants, and where thick woods were on either hand, she saw two very ill-looking men. Fear started in her mind that they intended her some evil. But the dog came up close to her; and, as if he was to be her guard, kept close to her side. Terror seemed to strike the men. She went past them; and the dog attended her to the door where she was going; but she could not get the dog to go in; he went away and she saw him no more. But she acknowledged the hand of Providence.”
Divine Guidance or Assurance concerning the Future
William Peacefull was a travelling preacher who lived in Shefford 1836-7, was assistant to John Ride, and was trained by him for future superintendency. Dorricott (1878:35-6) records an instance recorded in Peacefull’s Journal:
While I was visiting from house to house at Aldbourne and in its vicinity, I felt impressed to go to a lonely farm house at some distance from the others. The master and mistress I found both in bed, dangerously ill… near the point of death.
He explained the Gospel to them, prayed, and promised to return the same evening after preaching. They both believed, and rejoiced “with a sweet hope of glory in their souls.” They died the next day, “triumphant in the faith,” and Peacefull felt convinced that it was the Lord who had impressed him to visit their home.
Misfortune or untimely Death as divine Judgement
John Ride and Edward Bishop supply a report that when the preachers first came to evangelise the village of C- (probably Combe), a farmer said he would rather lose all his stock than that Primitive Methodism should gain a footing. He gave money and beer to a number of young men, and said he did not mind what they did, as long as they drove the preachers out; “and from them, we, for some time suffered much. But the Almighty did not forget the farmer.” At the next lambing, from 700 ewes he saved only about 200 lambs, and large numbers of dead ones were removed in his own carts; and Primitive Methodism gained the footing he had sought to obstruct.
The Magazine (1835:30-1) prints a number of instances, supplied by Ride and Bishop, in which sudden or unnatural death is presented as an act of God against persecutors.
“The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven” – Psalm 77:18
The 1900 Magazine quoted records how the turning-point came in the persecution at Andover. following a Sunday in 1845, interesting as being urban, not rural:
The little band continued undaunted, and … the faithful ones were again found engaged in worship in front of the Town Hall. Beyond was a still greater crowd drawn up in semi-circular array, with the obvious intention of persecuting. As the service proceeded, a hurricane of wind came on, bringing down with a clatter some boards stacked underneath the Town Hall. Then gathering up the dust on either side of the building, it was whirled round and round in the open space, and thrown, as it were, in the faces of the persecutors with such severity that many had to turn their heads to avoid its force. The phenomenon made a great impression, being regarded by many as a sign of the displeasure of the Almighty, and indeed it was significant that the hostility was subsequently less pronounced; gradually, indeed, it ceased, and open-air services were held without molestation.
Such an event would have turned Primitive Methodists’ minds to such Bible verses as Nahum 1:3, “the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.”
Exorcism of persons does not seem to have been common among the early Primitive Methodists, but it was not unknown. William Clowes on pages 77-9 of his Journal, published in 1844, relates the case of ‘old Jenny Hall, of Harriseahead’:
On many occasions it was very dangerous to be in the house with her… in the periods of her violence they had to bind her down to the bed with chains…
Daniel Shubotham sent me a message to my residence at Tunstall to come up to Harriseahead, and see if by united faith and prayer the woman could be delivered from the powers of darkness… The struggle was great… her body appeared singularly convulsed, as if some internal power was rending her in pieces; her face was absolutely black, her throat rattled, and she foamed at the mouth… Then one began to adjure the devil in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to come out of the woman; immediately there was a sudden alteration, – her deliverance came…
About eighteen years subsequent to this event … I visited Jenny Hall, and found her living in the same place, happy in the Lord, and shouting glory.
Physical healing is not a frequent phenomenon. Nonetheless, it was not wholly unknown. Dorricott’s biography of William Peacefull, on pages 34-5, records “an unusual answer to prayer” at Crookham Common, some five miles from Newbury. The person prayed for was an invalid of some years, who had injured his back whilst removing the root of a large tree, and required two hours to walk a mile with the aid of sticks. All attempts to find medical help had failed, and he grew continually worse. When the Primitive Methodists came to the Common, he “sought the Lord with a penitent heart, and found him to the joy of his soul.” Rising to his feet, he said to the people, “If you will agree to pray for my poor body, the Saviour can as easily heal that. The people “began to wrestle mightily with God in prayer” and the man was able to put aside his crutches and walk home. Subsequently he could walk 30 miles a day, grew mighty in faith and prayer, worked earnestly among the Primitive Methodists, and was a blessing in the neighbourhood.
Dorricott (1878:38-41) records the laying a ghost. Peacefull was on his way to preach in a distant village, and feeling weary called at a house to request an opportunity to rest a while. The residents were a blacksmith and his wife; the wife, “a clean, respectable woman,” came to the door, and invited Peacefull in. She had a pale, saddened face and listened silently as Peacefull spoke the Gospel to her. She invited him to join her and her husband for dinner, but said they could not accommodate him overnight. He persisted in the request, and when her husband came in from work, he said they would manage. That night Peacefull read a portion of scripture to them before bed, and prayed, but was taken aback by the strangeness of his own prayer, for he found himself asking that they might be delivered from fear of witches, ghosts, apparitions and superstitious bondage. Despite his embarrassment he noticed that they were both “bathed in tears”. The next morning, the wife told him they had not had such a night’s rest for many months, and they felt sure the Lord had sent him to them. Knocking and rapping had frequently been heard outside the house, and, believing it to be haunted, they were too terrified to sleep. Peacefull advised them to read Numbers 23:23 and to pray every night before retiring. About a month later, he visited them again, and was told they had experienced no further disturbances. They both joined the class, and the smith became a class leader and local preacher.
These phenomena were not sought, engineered, made prominent, or allowed to take precedence over the preaching of divine grace in forgiveness and new birth. Reports show preachers as surprised at their occurrence, although accepting them as acts of God. Primitive Methodism was not a sensationalist religion, but neither did it belief in a remote deity. It was a faith in a freely active God whom they believed to be in every sense the Lord. It offered a filial relationship with a God who speaks to his children, and intervenes actively in guidance, blessing and protection. It invited its hearers into an intimate and more relevant faith. The Gospel still does.
Johnson, W. J. (1993) Between Nature and Grace: the Folk Religion of Dissident Methodism in the North Midlands, 1780-1820 (Staffordshire Studies 5)
Hatcher, S. G. (1993) The Origin and Expansion of Primitive Methodism in the Hull Circuit 1819-1851 (Ph D, University of Manchester, 1993)
Obelkevich, J. (1976) Religion and rural Society, South Lindsey 1825-1875 (Oxford: Clarendon)
Ambler, R. W. (1989) Ranters, Revivalists and Reformers (Hull University, United Kingdom)
Bebbington, D. (2012) Victorian religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts (Oxford University, United Kingdom)
Russell, T. (1869) Record of Events in Primitive Methodism, (London, United Kingdom: Lister; 2005 Stoke on Trent, United Kingdom: Tentmaker)
Russell, T. (1886) John Ride, the Apostle of Berkshire (serialised in Primitive Methodist Magazine)
Antliff, W. ( 1892) The Life of Hugh Bourne (London, United Kingdom: Knapp)
Dorricott, I. (1878) Memorials of an earnest Life (London, United Kingdom: Elliot Stock)
 Magazine, 1835:30