Primitive Methodism and the Cotton Operatives

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev L.J. Jackson

LANCASHIRE is known throughout the world as the centre of cotton manufacture. A county rich in minerals and natural resources, it is therefore well adapted to sustain great industries. Many thousands of people are employed in its mines and workshops, shipyards and furnaces, but the majority, in the densely crowded towns and villages, are engaged in its cotton mills and warehouses. Its manufactured goods are sent to every part of the world. It has been called the land of trees without branches, because of the numerous tall chimneys of its many factories.

The rise of the cotton industry dates roughly from the beginning of the last century, when James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and Samuel Crompton the improved spinning mule. In many hamlets and villages there are still to be seen traces of the day of the hand loom and spinning wheel. By many a cottage there remains the long, low, narrow building which contained the hand looms, and along many a little stream are the ruins of what were once small mills driven by water power. With the introduction of steam and improved machinery a great impetus was given to the cotton trade, and the hand loom speedily fell into disuse, being unable to compete with the superior productive capacity of steam-driven machinery. The great expansion of trade which followed led to immense material prosperity and wealth. People in large numbers were attracted from all parts of the country, and this influx resulted in the rapid development of the county. “Rural districts became urban, villages grew into large centres of population, and small towns became crowded cities.” From being a sparsely inhabited county, Lancashire, in a brief period became the greatest manufacturing district in the world. Though dependent on foreign countries for raw material, the rise and progress of the cotton trade forms one of the most extraordinary pages in the annals of human industry.

Historians have frequently given most graphic accounts of the political, industrial, social and religious conditions which existed at the beginning of the last century, and with one consent agree that social distress and religious indifference were everywhere prevalent. The great evangelical revival under the Wesleys had almost spent itself, while the clergy as a whole were unconcerned with the spiritual needs of the people. The machinery of the church was out-of-date and failed to meet the demands of the time. Social cleavage was wide and deep, and large numbers had neither voice nor vote in the politics of the day. Ignorance, gambling and drunkenness were rife on every hand. The conditions which obtained among the cotton operatives were similar to those in other parts of the country.

It is interesting, and surely prophetic, that Primitive Methodism was born about the same time as the rise of the cotton trade. A sort of kinship links them to one another. In a sense both are the product of village life, and, seeing they have so much in common, it is natural they should react upon one another. So far as the cotton operatives are concerned the influence of our church is clearly seen as one of the vital forces making for progress. The cotton workers as a class believe in democratic ideals in keeping with their own independence. It is no wonder, therefore, that our church, largely composed of the rank and file, should appeal to them. Our leaders have been men who know from personal experience their conditions, and so are able to give guidance in all matters affecting their welfare. All through history we have been closely allied and deeply sympathetic with the highest aspirations of the workers for progress and uplift. It would be difficult to rightly estimate the religious influence of Primitive Methodism on the rough and illiterate mill operatives in the early years of last century. But as the preachers took their stand and in homely language spoke of the love of Christ there was that in the message and in the men which appealed to and won a response from the spinners and weavers of Lancashire. As they listened to the wondrous story of the Cross, new impulses stirred within them, new visions opened out before them, conversions were numerous, societies were formed and chapels erected, so that to-day there is scarcely a village in the whole area of cotton manufacture which has not its Primitive Methodist church, which has from time to time been the centre of spiritual awakening. Those who have spent their lives in these localities can bear evidence of the transforming power of the Gospel as preached from our pulpit, and taught in our Sabbath schools. They can tell of many who possessed a simple yet sublime faith, whose lives were absolutely surrendered to Jesus Christ. We recall one, for example, whose memory is sacred because of the piety and purity of his life. In giving his experience he sometimes told how in the time of the great cotton famine when dire poverty and distress prevailed, he was so reduced in circumstances, that when the quarterly meeting came he had but two shillings left, and a family of little children to provide for. For long he debated the course he should follow: should he give the money to support his church or keep it for the needs of home? He attended the meeting and paid his class money, and we remember the old saint declare with tears streaming down his face “from that day until now I’ve not wanted for anything.” His devotion to the Master left an abiding impression for good upon all who knew him. And others we recall who were truly “living epistles known and read of all.” These loyal souls have their disciples who to-day exercise a commanding influence on local life, and readily confess they owe everything under God to the ministries of our church.

In any attempt to trace the religious influences which affect the lives of the cotton operatives a prominent place must be assigned to the Sunday School. In Lancashire it is still believed that “Sabbath schools are England’s glory.” The strong attachment to this institution is one of the outstanding characteristics in the religious life of the cotton workers. Though unfortunately, there is often a lamentable gulf between church and school, and while a large percentage drift away, it is nevertheless beyond question that for large numbers the influence of the Sunday School abides as a cherished memory, acting as a force restraining from evil and a strong incentive to goodness. There are many who seldom attend the church services who rarely miss the afternoon school sessions, and to the last retain a deep affection for it. It is simply amazing to see the crowds who gather for the “school sermons,” and willingly render the most generous financial support to maintain the work. While there is among the operatives, as among others, a vast amount of indifference to religion, and a great passion for pleasure and sport, yet there are many whose lives are permeated by the spirit of Jesus Christ; men of lofty character and ability, and women of rare gift and charm, who freely confess they are what they are by the grace of God through the fellowship of Primitive Methodism. We know village churches which are the centre of powerful religious influence in which young men and maidens have been led to Christ, and have carried the witness of a new life and experience into the mills and workshops, to give a fine moral tone to the atmosphere. Manchester District, which includes practically the whole area of cotton manufacture, has long been regarded as a stronghold of Primitive Methodism, has given to our church many of its finest leaders, and taken a foremost place in shaping the policy and course of our work.

As already pointed out, the cotton trade developed quickly and brought a vast increase in wealth, which gradually affected the social position of the worker. Thirty or forty years ago the customs and ideals of great numbers were low, manners were rude, and nicknames abounded. But great changes have been witnessed in the social conditions of the mill workers. Many factors contributed to this larger life. Compulsory education, political freedom, factory acts to regulate the industry, and such like, all tended to improve the social standing of the operatives. Our church has also made a valuable contribution to this important side of the life of the worker. As stated before, we have always been in sympathy with the best aspirations of labour, and from our pulpits and platforms the great evils of social life have been condemned. The voice of our church has been raised against all forms of vice, such as gambling, sweating, profanity, and the housing scandal. Attention has been directed against them because of the pernicious effect on the lives of the toilers. No organisation has more vigorously assailed the liquor trade. Primitive Methodism is not a political organisation, but it has always been in the vanguard of advance. The leaders of reactionary movements have always feared the voice and vote of the cotton operatives, and more than once has the old saying proved itself true that “what Manchester says to-day England will say to-morrow.” Our church has rendered most effective service for the social improvement of the mill workers, In her fellowship men have breathed the air of freedom and democracy. Young people have been encouraged to think, opportunities have been given to cultivate gifts and practise the art of public speaking. Some of the ablest men in labour ranks have received the impulse, vision and training for public work in the communion of our church, and developed their powers of argument and utterance in our various meetings, such as, “adult classes, C.E. Societies, Bands of Hope and lay preaching. The inspiration which has been the driving force of their action, they derived, not from labour clubs but from Christian churches. Many of the most honoured and trusted leaders of the operatives are loyal members and of?cials of our church.

After the introduction of steam the cotton industry advanced by leaps and bounds. The story has all the fascination of truth stranger than fiction. The first steam engine constructed in Manchester was made in 1789, and in the year 1800 thirty-two were in use. From then the growth has been phenomenal. But prosperity had its dangers. In the eagerness to amass wealth scant regard was paid to health and conditions. Workrooms were overcrowded and badly ventilated, hours were long and wages low. Women, in large numbers, were employed with scarcely a thought about physical fitness; children at an early age were compelled to work long hours which greatly retarded both physical and mental growth, and a system of half-time was adopted for school children with pernicious effects upon health and outlook. The need for improved industrial conditions soon became an urgent necessity. It is greatly to the credit of many labour leaders that even in the face of such disabilities they fitted themselves for positions of trust and national responsibility. From time to time legislation has passed through Parliament to regulate the conditions of the trade, hours of labour have been reduced, rooms are better lighted, cleaned and ventilated, and the general conditions much improved. In these industrial reforms Primitive Methodism has played its part. It has raised its protest against dangers to life and limb. It has remembered the charge of our founder to “take care of the children.” It has realised the injustice to the little ones, and pleaded for better education. It has given to the workers’ unions men of vision, judgment and Christian character. On the roll of our membership are names trusted by their comrades, and who speak with wisdom and moderation on questions affecting the industry.

We claim that our church has taken a worthy part in arousing the conscience of the nation on matters which arrest the best development of a longer, fuller life for the hard-working cotton operatives of Lancashire. We confidently believe that while she remains true to the great and glorious ideal of Jesus, her influence will abide and increase so that in all things which affect the welfare of the worker her ministries will be of vital importance.


Christian Messenger 1921/84

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