Theological Education in the Primitive Methodist Connexion

Hartley College
B A Barber (1932), A Methodist Pageant, p214

Like the Wesleyans in the 1830s, there was early resistance to and strong suspicion of the idea of formal theological education in Primitive Methodism through setting up institutions of learning, fearing that they might encourage “soft and sedentary habits” and foster clerical ambitions and attitudes as opposed to the predominantly lay  character of the Primitive Methodist Connexion.   It had been born as a movement for revival based on evangelism.  This meant that those young (mostly men) selected for itinerant ministry were barely a year or so into preaching with little intellectual preparation but fired by the Spirit whose fruits were then tested in the crucible of experience.

Hugh Bourne of course was a keen advocate of intellectual betterment and the chief means of doing this was through the Book Room he and brother James ran from Bemersley, creating the resources for Christian education for the infant movement. Nevertheless, it was some time before formal theological education was approved.   A proposal for a Ministerial Training College was defeated in the 1844 Conference.  But the work of theological education happened anyway at the grass roots level with local initiatives, notable in the Manchester and Sunderland districts after the 1860 Conference allowed for the establishment of District Theological tutors. Many of these had been involved in ministerial associations which had sprung up in the districts in the 1850s for mutual study and reflection. Notable amongst these was Colin McKechnie who inaugurated ‘Preachers Associations’ which did much to stimulate reading and study among the ministers and laymen. So formal ministerial education for the Primitive Methodists emerged from local preachers training, initial and ongoing, and probationer studies for those selected for itinerant ministry.

James McPherson was a pioneer in this work. He had made up for educational deficiencies by a gruelling course in self education, mastering biblical languages, German and French in order to become a noted expositor of scripture.  He started by tutoring the probationer ministers of the Manchester District. He became the first Principal of Hartley College founded in 1881 as the second theological of the Primitive Methodists, established through the generosity of William Hartley, who enabled the building of a college for over 60 students.

James McPherson was aided in this promotion of theological education by Joseph Petty, who after his spell as President became the first Ministerial Tutor based at the Elmfield College in York, from 1865 to 1868. He published a Systematic Theology in 1873, from the basis of his training for probationer ministers.  He and McKechnie, both Scots, supported by the new journal the Christian Ambassador, founded in 1863 of which McKechnie was the editor, were leading advocates of a theological institution.

The inadequacy of the provision at York (within a Boys` School)  led to the establishment of the first separate Institution at Sunderland, a place long campaigning for ministerial education, through ministers in the District, notably C C McKechnie and Thomas Southron.  In premises converted from the old infirmary, it was established as initially a one year institution under the principalship of Dr William Antliff and with one tutor, Thomas Greenfield.  Antliff had been Connexional Editor and President during those years in 1863 and 1865.  With his brother Samuel, they were primary advocates for improved theological education, through articles in the magazines as well as setting up the Sunderland Theological Institution.  Like McPherson, Thomas Greenfield came from humble origins and was self-taught but became a very competent biblical scholar, linguist and theologian. For four years he was tutor (1877-1881) and then its Principal until its closure and transfer to Hartley College in Manchester in 1883.

Of Primitive Methodism’s contribution to theological education, the best example must remain Dr. Arthur Peake.  The son and nephew of PM ministers, he was born in nearby Leek and was one of the first nonconformists to go to Oxford and study bible and theology. In 1890 he accepted a lectureship at the nonconformist Mansfield College in Oxford and was attached to Merton College but laid these aside to be attracted by Sir William Hartley to go to the new training College in Manchester where he remained for the rest of his life. He also taught for the Independents and United Methodists at their colleges but laid these down when in 1904 he was appointed Professor of Biblical Exegesis at the University of Manchester. Best known for his one volume commentary on the Bible published in 1919, he also wrote about The Problem of Suffering as well as A Critical Introduction to the New Testament and various commentaries on Old Testament and New Testament books. He remained a layman but through his teaching enabled a whole generation of ministers to accept critical biblical scholarship without losing their faith.  He was a great ecumenist and helped to steer Methodists toward union in 1932 and engage in joint Free Church activities as well engaging with Anglicans in the 1920s. He was British Methodism`s representative at the Lausanne meeting of Faith and Order in 1927. He died in 1929.

In 1892 he had a tabula rasa and was able to introduce a curriculum based around Biblical Studies and Languages and Exegesis and a course on the History of Christian Doctrine. His modernist approach led him to be accused of “German rationalism” but his personality and enthusiasm disarmed all critics of the new methods along what one of his students described as “a highway of critical enquiry” which led beyond the “dry bones of criticism alone” and onto a “spiritual vision”, centred on the prayer life of the community and its spirituality. On the tenth anniversary at Manchester, one of his academic colleagues wrote of him: “We trust Dr Peake because of his ability, scholarship and experience, but especially because of his evident love of truth and his sustained devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ”. Clearly he was loved and admired by a whole generation of Methodists.

Principles of Primitive Methodist theological education:

  1. Core subjects of Bible and Christian Doctrine
  2. Locally delivered and contextual relating to practice of ministers
  3. Desire for more educated preachers
  4. Desire to avoid separating ministers from people
  5. Desire to provide all with good printed material, books and magazines
  6. Willingness to be involved in higher education in 20th Universities of Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, London, Leeds and Bristol
  7. Willingness to engage in theological education with ordained and lay together as well as ecumenically.
  8. Communities of scholarship rooted in worship and spirituality around the Bible

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