A Century of Primitive Methodism in Silsden, Yorkshire
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. John Hodges
In the early spring of 1821, two young men – John Flesher and John Harrison – petitioned the authorities of Hull Circuit to send preachers to mission Silsden, then a village of 1,300 inhabitants, mainly engaged in the nail-making and wool-combing trades. The response to their request came in the person of the Rev. John Hewson, who conducted the first service in the open-air, just in front of Flesher’s home, near to the present post office. The old house is still standing, and in a good state of preservation. The next service was held in the house, but the congregations so rapidly increased that the house became too strait, and subsequent meetings and services were held for nine months in “Flesher’s barn,” which became the scene of marvellous spiritual triumphs. History records that one night in that barn as many as forty-four people professed their faith in Christ.
John Flesher was born in Otley on December 3rd, 1801, but removed when a boy with his father to Silsden. As a youth he was religiously inclined, he joined the little community who worshipped in his father’s premises, became a local preacher, entered the ministry, was elected Connexional Book Steward, edited one of the early editions of the hymnal, and was the silver-tongued orator – the Demosthenes of early Primitive Methodism. In the early forties he was one of the greatest orators in the country. His last public appearance was at one of the opening services of the present Silsden Chapel on Easter Monday evening, 1871. He died on July 31st, 1874.
The work grew and multiplied. In the December following its inception, Silsden was made a “Branch” of the Hull Circuit, and on the “Branch” Plan for the next quarter there were thirty preaching places. By June 626 members were enrolled. Mr. Hewson’s stay in Silsden was brief. He was succeeded by Thomas Batty, “the Apostle of the North.” In December, 1822, Silsden became a separate circuit, and in the ensuing year it comprised fifty places. From this mother church have sprung what are now the Otley, Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, Skipton, Clitheroe, and the Grassington Circuits.
The first chapel was erected in Chapel Lane, at a cost of £350, and was opened on Christmas Day, only nine months after Silsden was first missioned! This is commendable enterprise. It seated two hundred people. Subsequently it was enlarged at a further outlay of £750, and remained the home of the Society until the present chapel was built. Some desired an entirely new chapel, and in 1846, a resolution was passed “That the question in reference to a new chapel be agitated,” The needs of the time, however, were met by the enlargement, and the “agitation” for a new sanctuary was postponed. Up to 1857 the chapel was lighted by oil lamps, and then gas was installed. The trustees decided that “they would have sixteen lights and pay ten shillings a light deposit money.” Oil lamps had given them trouble for earlier there is the minute, “that Brother Gill be requested to inform J. B—— that he must not clean the chapel lamps nor dress them on the Sabbath Day, and that he must not clean the chapel lamps nor dress them on the Sabbath Day, and that he must clean them so as not to oil the seats, complaints having been made of persons spoiling their clothes.” The foundation stone of the present chapel was laid by Mr. Joshua Fletcher (grandfather of Mr. Richard Fletcher, J.P.), on August 10th, 1869, and the building was opened for worship on Good Friday, 1871. Joshua Fletcher was converted in the old barn on the evening of April 21st, 1821, and was one of the first members of Primitive Methodism in Silsden. He was a great stalwart, and it is estimated that he walked over 16,000 miles and preached not less than 3,000 times for the extension of the Kingdom of Christ. His son William (father of Richard) caught his father’s mantle. In labours he was heroic and abundant. One Sunday he and Charles Weatherhead walked to Hebden to preach, Mr. Weatherhead announced that Mr. Fletcher would preach first, but when he turned around lo! he saw him sitting in the pulpit seat with his boots and stockings off, and his feet bleeding, but William Fletcher stood up and preached in his bare and bleeding feet. All honour to such men. Thank God for the memory of them! Two of his sons – tom who passed to the church triumphant last rear, and Richard, who is happily with us – have worthily filled the exalted position of Vice-President of the Conference.
The present church is a beautiful structure with “sittings” for eight hundred. The Circuit now consists of Silsden, Addingham, Farnhill, Steeton, and Eastburn. The property at every place is magnificent, with adequate up-to-date school accommodation. In four of the five chapels are fine organs. The circuit’s membership is four hundred, with two married ministers. The Sunday-school scholars number over eight hundred. The value of the manses, caretaker’s house, chapels, and Sunday-school premises is £25,000. They could not be built now for £40,000. It speaks volumes for the generosity and sacrifice of the members that no debt remains on the property.
Among the outstanding worthies and workers of the first and second generation of Primitive Methodists in Silsden were Messrs. T. Bradley, D. Tillotson, T. Glover, Joseph and William Newton, L. Green, Cryer Smith, James Sawley, T. Page, George Baron, Wm. and J. Lund, James Sugden, Jonas Gill, E. Lambert, Jonas Newton, George Clarkson, W. Butterfield, and John Cowling. By their devotion and self-sacrificing gifts and labours they laid the foundations deep and strong, and most of their descendants are in the church efficiently carrying on to-day. Some of them were very acceptable and powerful local preachers, and partly through their agency many of the chapels in Wharfdale, from the top of the Dale to Addingham, and in Airedale from Silsden to Gargrave were erected.
Some of these worthies rendered distinguished service, also in high offices and responsible Denominational positions. George Baron, J.P. Brown, and C. Weatherhead. J.P. served with efficiency at the Book Room, and Wm. Fletcher was for sixteen years Treasurer to the General Chapel Fund.
Others like John Driver, and Sugden Lund have acquired fame beyond the Dale by their eloquent advocacy and valuable service to the cause of Temperance. The circuit has been fortunate also in having a long succession of devout and able ministers, two of whom – James Macpherson, and Thomas Newell – became Presidents of the Conference. One of the most impressive services in Silsden was the ordination service held just fifty years ago when the Rev. T. Newell gave the charge to the Revs. J.P. Osborne, J. Swales, T. Mitchell, W.J. Kirkland, and E. Dalton. Two of these also, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Dalton, occupied the Presidential Chair. The years 1857, and 1882, stand out as periods of great Revivals. The ranks of the ministry have been augmented and enriched by many laymen from Silsden Circuit: John Flesher, William Inman, Thomas Baron, Samuel Bracewell, Charles Weatherhead, William Kitchen, Thomas Baron, Jnr., William Sidebottom, Fred Mosley, Ernest Metcalfe, Nathanael Boocock, and John R. Shaw, have all been sent into the ministry from this circuit. The two last-named have rendered great service to the cause of missions by their labours in Africa.
Sunday-school work has always been to the fore in Silsden. A Sunday-school was commenced in “Flesher’s barn” with sixteen scholars, and for a hundred years the spiritual instruction of the young has remained an unbroken Institution. The Sunday-school premises now with their large assembly hall, lecture hall, junior, primary, kindergarten, and library departments and many class-rooms are among the most admirably equipped in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The teaching staff is strong with Messrs. J. Dunn, J.N. Green, and W.H. Lambert as Superintendents. For thirty years Mr. H. Butterfield rendered splendid service as Secretary. Mr. Leonard Law has recently been appointed his successor.
This brief review is mainly reminiscent. But let me pay a tribute to Silden’s present choir. I do not hesitate to say that if all our congregations attended in the same proportion as they do, all our churches would be full both Sunday mornings and evenings. Our services would be drab and dreary without music and song. The first Primitive Methodist organ was used in Silsden Chapel (it is now in the Lecture Hall) and the choir has always been famous for its good singing. The leading musicians, from the erection of the first church to 1909, as given in the choir records are Organists: James Laycock, Jonas Gill, John Gill, C. Weatherhead, Thomas Green, Miss Weatherhead, W.H. Gwen, Wm. Weatherhead, A. Hudson, P. Fry, Walter Booth, Percy Fletcher, G. Orr, Miss J. Clarkson, and N. Murgartroyd – all Primitive Methodists. Choirmasters: James Barker, J. Gill, T. Green, H. Laycock, S. Sugden, Frank S. Green, Wm. Booth, Wm. Weatherhead, and Arthur Newton, who is still conductor, Mr. Newton’s father – Mr. E. Newton, world-famed for his compositions of brass-band music – rendered, at various times, great assistance to the choir.
For more than eighty years services have been held occasionally in the home of Mr. and Mrs, Jowett, Woofa Bank, on Silsden Moor, and for sixty years at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Green at Brunthwaite. Mr. Green has worthily held many offices in church and school, and until recently was Junior Circuit Steward. The present Circuit Stewards are Messrs. R. Fletcher, J.P., and J.N. Green.
Many of the men referred to in this resume were great citizens as well as great saints, and helped considerably to mould the civic and educational life of Silsden. They were pioneers of evening schools and technical education, served with great ability on School and Local Boards, Board of Guardians, District Councils, and the Magisterial Bench. For want of space we have only been able to name a few. But we do not forget the great and many un-named – class leaders who cheered the pilgrims on their heavenly way; Sunday school teachers who denied themselves comfort and ease to train the children in the love and fear of the Lord, private members – saints in the background who prayed, and toiled, and sacrificed, and without whom the church could not have been what it is to-day. We revere their memory. They bequeathed to us a goodly heritage. We thank God for the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that was magnified in them.
Great meetings have been held to celebrate the Centenary. The Rev. Peter McPhail, who was ordained in Silsden Chapel – preached and lectured on “Hugh Gilmour.” The Rev. T.J. Gladwin preached and lectured on “Thomas Russell,” and the Rev. J. Hodges preached “On these hundred years,” and gave an address on ” The influence of Primitive Methodism in the Life of the Nation.” But the great days of the Feast were the Sunday when all the Local Preachers took part in the services, and the Saturday of “The Reunion Tea” and great Public Meeting. To that meeting the Revs. John Swales, T. Baron, J.R. Shaw, Mrs. Morris, Messrs. C. Kitchen, Sugden Lund, W. Lund, and J.C. Arnold, by message and speech eloquently contributed; while the personality of the Chairman, Mr. R. Fletcher, linked up the old barn where the cause started, and where his grandfather was converted a hundred years ago.
When I think of Primitive Methodism in Silsden, I ask “What is the secret of its success? ” As I turn over the chronicles and see a few men, pitiable in their poverty, building and opening a chapel in nine months; when I look at Wm. Fletcher preaching in bare and bleeding feet; when I watch David Tillotson, a grocer’s assistant, going into any and every home, however squalid, where there was sickness, and death, and distress, and making families glad by his prayers; when I listen to George Bradley, a humble and quiet layman, urging young John Greenhough – who became President of the Baptist Union – to the altar of consecration; and when I hearken to women like Rebecca Summerscales petitioning the Throne of Grace, I know the secret. It was their sanctified audacity their passion for souls, their boundless faith, their loyalty to their church, their consecration to Christ, and their power to pray so as to prevail. They have passed on to their reward. God grant we may worthily follow in their steps.
Christian Messenger 1921/234