Primitive Methodism and the Miners

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. Henry Fletcher 

THE miner of to-day is a much criticised individual. Is he thoroughly understood by intimate acquaintance with his whole life environment? There is nothing in a coal mine to refine, but everything to coarsen. It is a tribute to his triumph over surroundings, that the miner often exhibits fine artistic tastes, and a true appreciation of the best literature. From the pit mouth right to the coal face and back again there is no beauty to be desired. Impenetrable darkness envelops the toiler seven hours daily, only slightly relieved by the light of the safety lamp he carries. One, two or three miles he may travel underground to the working place, with black coal walls on either side, and the hard stone roof above, forcing him into a bending position. Loathsome mud or choking coal dust is the daily portion. Slimy water throwing off a foul stench is a commonplace. Heavy tools, picks, shovels, hacks, mells and wedges are daily handled. Drilling machines, baulks, girders, props, wet and greasy, heavy and unwieldy, are constant companions. Grovelling in the muck, plunging in the filth, drugged with powder reek, soaked with dripping water and pouring perspiration, so the day passes. Danger is associated with every moment. Seen sometimes, it is heroically faced. Often not seen, cheerfully the risk is taken. Hours are spent in cramped position, boxing a hard resisting coal, or bent double loading tubs. There is much that is irksome and revolting in coal mining life. It is dull and drab; narrowing and restrictive; repellent and repulsive. Returning home weary and hungry (only a miner knows how hungry) it may be in a cold cutting wind that searches through his wet clothes and chills to the bone, he enters a house not too well adapted to his needs. While the miners’ homes at some of the newer collieries are more accommodating, a large number are in use that are quite unsuitable. We have knowledge of houses to-day where families of eight, children’s ages ranging from three to eighteen years, sexes equally divided, are living in one fairly large room with an attic above used for sleeping purposes. This one room serves for dining, bathing, sleeping, living, reading, cooking and clothes washing. It is the birth room. It is the death room. In colliery life some men are compelled to work during the night, and therefore must sleep in the daytime. You may call any day at these homes and find the husband or the son in bed, sleeping in the same room where the wife is cooking the food or washing the clothes, and find heat or steam in undesirable quantities. These houses are a blight on pit life. They afford no comfort, give no place to privacy, offer no chances of self-improvement and are a positive moral danger. When the miner is dubbed as rough and uncouth, when condemnation and damaging criticism are levelled at him, let these facts of daily life be pondered and remembered. While muscle predominated over brain, the miner knuckled down to his slavish work and unsuitable house. As brain gains the ascendency over muscle, working conditions and living conditions must become more humane. The policy to be pursued by the miner is educational. Men like Dr. John Wilson, M.P., compelled coal owners to respect them, because of inherent qualities of mind, will and heart.

What is the relationship of the Primitive Methodist Church to this army of toilers? No Church can claim to better understand and more truly interpret their aspirations. Throughout the nineteenth century our Church made a real contribution to the social, moral and religious life of the mining counties of Durham and Northumberland. Call to mind the famous revivals of devoted ministers and laymen. Rough men and women in pit villages were transformed into loveliness of character through the evangel of our missionaries. The Primitive Methodist Chapel became central in village life. A lofty Christian experience developed. Christ was in the midst. Prayer Meetings were spiritual meals. Class Meetings were genuinely experimental, truly educational and really inspirational. Love of fellows deepened. From the Colliery Chapel as a centre, gracious influences emanated that invigorated all phases of public me. These little Bethels were often miniature colleges. Deep conversations on important life topics that increased knowledge, developed ready utterance and equipped men for public work, were the order of the day. Strong religious experience was at the root of the social and industrial reforms occupying the minds of intelligent miners in our church. Preaching the democratic gospel of Jesus, emphasizing liberty of conscience, equality of opportunity, brotherhood of man, and Saviourhood of Christ; it was only to be expected that in mining areas our church should be interested in the working conditions of the people. Laymen inspired by our principles became associated with Trades Union matters. Trusted by their fellows, taught in our Class Meetings and Pulpits to express themselves clearly, large numbers were appointed Union Officials. In times full of danger and risk, these Primitive Methodists strongly advocated the just and righteous claims of the miners, when up against a tyrannical capitalism. They were men of fine intelligence, possessing the truly human touch and aflame with zeal for a noble cause. Take John Johnson as a shining example. The story of the suffering of these heroic souls is great reading. Unselfish, sacrificial, Christian products of our church they were. Embedded in the constitution of the Miners’ Associations of Durham and Northumberland lie lofty social and industrial ideals, that were first conceived in the minds of leading laymen of our church. Miners they were, and also Christian gentlemen. Read the fine ethical, human and spiritual emblems adorning the splendid Miners‘ Lodge banners that visit Durham City annually for the Gala Day, and you get creations of the heart and soul of ardent moral and spiritual giants, and Primitive Methodist local preachers. In days when the collier was treated as a chattel, a cog in the industrial wheel, a tool and not a man, with no acknowledged right to organise for industrial justice, then this Church, through its godly men, did much to lift the standard of life. Colliery Directors have paid tribute to our Church’s influence on the miners’ moral life, by employing evangelists like the Rev. William Gelley to preach at their colleries, to bring salvation to the workers and so stop idle time and increase output. Brutal pugilism, beastly drinking, degrading gambling often yielded to the potency of love’s evangel. The standard was improved by bringing Christ into the miners’ lives and homes. Those pit village homes, situated in drab streets, took on a new air of neatness and cleanliness when Primitive Methodism arrived there. What a rich family idea was present in colliery village Churches! Bearing one another’s burdens, sharing one another’s joys, weeping with those that wept and rejoicing with those that rejoiced. The appetite for the House of God was keen, the relish for religious services was marked, the heart and flesh cried out for the living God. Troubles were conquered in the praise service, carking cares were overcome by the joy of the Lord. Minds were opened to the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and sound judgment, wholesome character, and strong personality were realised amongst the mining folk.

It is not such an easy task to state clearly and strongly the present day effect of Primitive Methodism on the social, industrial, moral and spiritual life of coal miners. Good and great men and women there are still in our midst, who, while saturated with the spirit of our Church, are vital factors in ,the wide, varied life of mining centres, and forcibly mould public opinion. Men of the type of Councillor Peter Lee, Chairman of the Durham County Council, Agent of the Durham Miners’ Association, Primitive Methodist Local Preacher and Sunday-school Teacher, serve as illustrations. Furthermore, a large number of miner local preachers are possessed of considerable ability and keep abreast of the thought and literature of modern times, and take an intelligent part in the civic affairs of their districts and sweeten the atmosphere with their powerful and fragrant personalities. Mr. W. Smith, J.P., of Cramlington, Northumberland, who so impressed Berwick-on-Tweed District Synod and Hull Conference, is a case in point. He is Christian, poet, philosopher, social reformer and humorist thrown into one man. What a testimony these men are bearing today to the redeeming, moralising, progressive force in Primitive Methodism! They abundantly prove that moral wholesomeness, Christian robustness, and humanity are ingredients of a worthy character that grows in the soil of our Church in mining areas. A survey of the coal fields calls up names of present day men and women of the collier class who are seers, statesmen, readers, thinkers, mystics, poets, saints, and humanitarians. We think of Mr. John Williamson, of Brandon, a local preacher, is great lover of books, and a true poet.

We cannot, however, truthfully claim to be inspiring the mining policy, moulding its form and vitalising its life. There are proportionately fewer Primitive Methodist laymen acting as Union Officials than in past days. The percentage of miners who attend our Churches is not large. Apparently the masses of the colliery workers are meagrely interested in our Church and but slightly influenced by her teaching. A section of the younger colliers are reading and thinking on social and economic questions. They are deeply interested in better wages, shorter hours of work, improved houses, a fairer share of profits for workers and nationalisation of the mines. Ardent, intelligent, materialistic they are, feeling little need for the religion of the Church. Politics is religion to them; and Sunday a good day to educate their fellows on current political topics, or to hold Trades Union Meetings. In growing numbers these men are finding official positions in the Miners’ Lodges. Mining Congresses we understand have little praise for the Church as organised. One of the real dangers of the modern mining world is a dwarfing of its soul. A robust body, and an alert mind requires to be perfected by a cultivated soul.

Another sinister influence on modern colliery village life is the Workmen’s Clubs. In Durham and Northumberland these Clubs are great social centres where crowds of miners congregate day by day and have long hours of fellowship. News rooms and libraries are provided as well as billiards and other amusements. They endow scholarships for members’ children and make grants for college courses of promising young miners. Philanthropy is to the fore and unfortunate fellow workers get financial help. Vegetable and flower shows are organised. Charabancs are owned and excursions are made to holiday resorts. The foul blot on them is Drink. Dividends are large according to the amount of drink consumed. Members who drink most freely guarantee the greater success of the club. Drinking habits are encouraged amongst the young men. Young married miners neglect their wives and homes and debauch themselves with drink in these places. They are a blight on the village life. They damage the home life and lower the moral standard of the miner. In these places political power is being vested. Elections to Parish, Rural, District, County Councils, and even the House of Commons are being strongly influenced by these Clubs. The predominant tendency of them is downward. Our Church may be compelled in the near future to attack them in the interests of the moral and spiritual status of the villages.

The Primitive Methodist Church, so closely allied with the mining community ought to adequately cater for the soul growth, and the moral health of these workers. We are called to strike into the current of their daily life, and bring to their hearts and homes the health-giving Christ gospel with its lofty ethical code. Our business is to kindle warm spiritual fires, to reveal the ringing joy note in Christian life, to give keen edge to spiritual appetite and to foster romance in mining Church life. While we sympathetically acquaint ourselves with the miners’ programme of social and industrial amelioration, we must steadily endeavour to inculcate into it the moral dynamic and spiritual fervour that centre in Christ. As keen labour men stand at corner ends in colliery villages and earnestly and faithfully preach the social gospel; so Primitive Methodist ministers and laymen, the best equipped of them, must take to street preaching at every opportunity, and preach the human and Divine gospel of Jesus with glowing hearts and appeals irresistible.


Christian Messenger 1921/18


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