Thetford Circuit, Norfolk

Thetford Primitive Methodist chapel interior
Christian Messenger 1901/237

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger

For nearly sixty-five years Primitive Methodism has lived and flourished in the historic town of Thetford, on the South boundary of Norfolk. Any stranger visiting Thetford could not fail to notice the numerous vestiges of antiquity which claim attention on every hand. There are ancient landmarks which remind you of the time when it was the metropolis of the East Anglian Kingdom. A few crumbling stones in the form of crosses scattered here and there suggest the days when the streets were paraded by monks from its eight monastries. A pupil from the ancient grammar-school will tell you about its twenty churches and its famous ecclesiasticism; he might supply dates when the old town prepared the coins for the Saxon Kingdom, and give a quotation from Domesday Book in its favour. He could tell you something about the house which Queen Elizabeth had in the burgh and of the pleasure she took in the famous metropolis. Then with honest pride he might remind you that his Grace the Duke of Grafton takes his title of Viscount from the ancient burgh, and suggest a visit to his magnificent seat, which is within four miles of the town. The mention of these and other interesting historic associations makes the present prosperity of Primitive Methodism all the more wonderful. After centuries of ecclesiasticism it would appear that the founders of Primitive Methodism had but few chances of building up a church in Thetford. As a matter of fact, the first efforts were a failure, and it seemed that the new evangelic fervour of the first missioners was not equal to the task of breaking down the severe prejudices raised against them. For a brief period nothing was done and the few faithful souls waited for reinforcements. But they did not wait long, for there came a man whose name was John Kent, who was destined to be the founder of Primitive Methodism in Thetford. He possessed all the qualities needed for open-air preaching. He was a man of strong physique, of heroic patience and mighty in faith and prayer. His clarion voice called together a large crowd of people in St. Nicholas Street, and taking his stand where the street opens into a sort of square, he proclaimed the unsearchable riches of Christ, and warned sinners to repent and make haste to flee from the wrath to come. He held not his life dear for Christ’s sake. He had scarcely got half way through with his message when rude hands were laid upon him and he was conducted to the neighbouring prison. He was escorted with a singing host of God’s people, who later in the day held a prayer-meeting on the common for his deliverance. Their prayers were answered and the same evening John Kent was preaching in a village chapel ten miles from the town. This episode was the means of inspiring renewed hope and a mighty confidence in the power and wisdom of God. Hence it came to pass that the first Chapel Deeds for Thetford were signed in the year 1839. This was the result of little more than three years’ efforts, and the achievement was the first visible foundation-work of the first Primitive Methodists in the town.

Thetford belonged to the Brandon Circuit – a circuit which had at that time four travelling preachers and thirty-four preaching places. Its area was so extensive that the travelling preachers sometimes journeyed from village to village for a whole fortnight or three weeks before reaching their homes again. But the deeds that were done in those days were according to their ardent spirits. A popular handbook of 1835 was entitled, ‘Less water and more fire,’ and doubtless the title was an axiom of their lives. The fire and holy passion of the Rev. Robert Key will be remembered in East Anglia for generations to come. There are those living in the Thetford Circuit to day who turn suddenly grave and silent as they remember the preaching of that sainted man of God. Thetford has been honoured by his presence, and to no small purpose. Robt. Key and his colleagues did much to make Primitive Methodism in Thetford a power and force to be reckoned with.

The church prospered and grew to such an extent that in 1851 a deputation was appointed to propose to the Brandon Circuit officials that the circuit be divided and that Thetford should be made the head quarters of the new Branch or Circuit. It was decided that the new section be formed into a branch, and under the able superintendency of the Rev. George Tetley the new departure proved in every way successful. The branch became an independent circuit in 1859, and in the same year the Deeds of a new property in Thetford were signed. It is now fifty years since the first steps were taken for the formation of the present circuit, and a glance backward over those busy years reveals a continued prosperity, a growing enthusiasm, and a most hopeful promise of future greatness. The circuit is commemorating the event by preparing for a great revival and the clearing off the debts on the trust properties, which amount to £700.

Space will not permit a detailed account of the ministry of the men who have faithfully toiled on the circuit for the extension of God’s Kingdom. The list includes men of outstanding character and zeal, notably the Rev. Robt. Eaglen, whose name is linked with the immortal Spurgeon. The Revs. Charles Robbins and James Kemish, men of great tact and skilful administration. The Rev. Geo. Rudram, then a young man of great promise, and the Rev. Thomas Swindell, who is remembered for his gifted preaching. In succession came men like the Revs. F. Webster, W. Yeadon, W. Moore, G. Cripps and W. Martin, all men of plodding industry; and by the time the half-century had passed two-thirds of its journey the Rev. George Edwards was appointed superintendent. During his four years’ ministry a great change took place in the conditions of the chapels on the circuit. His lawyer-like gifts, combined with tireless energy and faith, were devoted to renovation schemes and chapel building. The famous revival which continued for months without a break in the village of Barnham gave the opportunity for building a substantial chapel in the village. The chapel was opened free of debt. The success or the event would have been impossible (considering the years of opposition) had a man with less worthy gifts than the Rev. George Edwards been given the same task. Honourable mention must be made of the Rev. Samuel Willetts, who laboured with dauntless courage in order to reduce chapel debts. The circuit enjoyed great prosperity under his ministry. Recent ministers, Revs. G. Hughes, M.  Cushing, J. Cooper, J. T. Clarke, and J. Guy,  have followed in the steps of men who have made it easy to carry on the evangelical work in the villages. The present ministers are – Revs. F. R. Brunskill and J. H. Geeson both young men, but with a good outlook before them and the promise of a rich revival.

It is a happy coincidence that our present circuit steward, Mr. E. Doran, should also be spending his Jubilee year amongst us. It is just fifty years ago since he was engaged by the Thetford officials as hired local preacher on the circuit. Although he is more than 80 years of age, he is able to take a few appointments each quarter. His vitality and energy are wonderful. He has been a preacher for fifty-seven years. Kindly, sympathetic, and ever ready to aid in any noble cause, he has won the hearts and love of all who know him. Mr. Charles Clarke, of Barnham, joins him in official capacity and is assistant circuit steward. Though Mr. Clarke is a younger man than Mr. Doran, yet he has had a remarkable experience. He was converted during the great revival already referred to in Barnham. He is large-hearted, always kind and sympathetic, and without making much ado about it, seeks to minister to the needs of the many people he has to mix with. As a local preacher, he has a happy mixture of wit and humour with a deeply earnest spirit, and is in much request in the neighbourhood.

There are a few worthies still living who shared in the work of fifty years ago. Messrs. Bradstreet, G. Savage, and J.Sayer have each had a part in the making of Thetford Circuit. The memory of Messrs. J. Foulger, G. Carter, R. Nurse, W. Bolingbroke, and J. Roper brings forth a whole host of achievements wrought in the name of Jesus. The mantles of these men have fallen upon men who are now doing great work and are zealous for the salvation of souls. Messrs. Loveday, Whistler, G. Brown, G. Foulger, T. Bradshaw, T. Lillingstone, F. Pryke and B. Jarrett are each in his own order capable and diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. One of the secrets of success is the keen and painstaking interest that these brethren manifest in business and spiritual assemblies. One of the most loyal workers, who has spent a whole life-time in the service of Primitive Methodism, is Mrs. Whittaker. She has for many years been a veritable Martha, giving of her best and spending her strength in ministering to the needs of ministers and people. And the above names do not include many who without applause have silently and bravely stood by the side of the leaders and office-bearers and strengthened them for the good work.

At the last District Meeting the Circuit reports showed that there was property to the value of £5,000, with only £700 debt on the whole of the chapels. The total income for the year is about £600 inclusive, and with one exception the chapels are in good order and the finances in a healthy condition. There are thirteen places in the circuit, twelve of which are village causes; and a membership of 438. There are 600 scholars in the eight Sunday schools, and three prosperous Christian Endeavour Societies.

There is probably no section of England where the Connexion has a greater number of villages under its care than in East Anglia and not only so, but where the villages are so isolated and self-supporting. Aggressive work is comparatively easy in growing towns, but when it comes to our work in the villages, there is a constant demand for fresh effort to keep up the village societies in the face of the continued removals to the towns. Though the Thetford Circuit is typical of the usual order of East Anglian Circuits, there is every reason to believe that the staff of preachers and officials that it is blessed with will be able to continue the traditions of the past. For some time it has been reported in the higher courts of Methodism that village Methodism is on the decline. The danger has been seen and watched by the leaders on the circuit, and if prayer and faith, blended with hard work, is of any service, it will not be wanting. By means of the horse-hire system, there are frequently three trap-loads of enthusiastic preachers scattered about among the villages on a Sunday.

There are only two Districts – Lynn and Cambridge and Norwich – which report a decrease to Conference, and undoubtedly the cause is to be found in the constant removals from the villages to the towns. To prevent a continuance of this it is clear that, not only Thetford Circuit, but the whole of the East Anglian Circuits, will need to realise their great responsibility and prepare the Way for a mighty revival after the manner of fifty years ago. The signs of the times point to a return of evangelistic methods, and the faith of the toilers in Thetford Circuit runs high, and they are as those who are ‘Waiting for the ?re.’


Christian Messenger 1901/237

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