Our Centenary – Stories of Early Primitive Methodism
Transcription of Article in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Rev. J.T. Horne
No church has reared more men of marked moral might than Primitive Methodism – men who were saturated with truth and goodness, and diffused it wherever they went; no community has produced more stalwart characters who have made for righteousness, and who “have stood four-square to all the winds that blow;” men who were patterns of transparent and real goodness – and yet we do not hesitate to say that no complete picture of these men has ever been shown in any history. Old names suggest new ideas to us. We still use them, linking them to our colleges, our churches, and even our manses; they circulate from tongue to tongue, but they do not convey to us the ideas which they expressed to these old men. During the celebrations of this centenary time we hope to see those heroic days, and should like to hear the voices of the past, however indistinct and awry as to dates and statistics, melodious with Eternal Melodies. For if the body be all dead, the soul which animated it cannot die; it should live in all hearts, causing the spiritual children of those ancient Braves to glow with a holy fire, and stand out radiant with the splendours of the very heavens.
We want to know these men, but it is one of the difficulties of the historian to create an atmosphere. Carlyle writes, “Histories are as perfect as the historian is wise, and is gifted with an eye and a soul.” We want to see the characters living in their peerless fashion, engaged in the common details of a workman’s life, yet animated with the sublimest ideals of unconventional Evangelists; we want to know their privations and persecutions, their sacrifices and hardships; we want to know something of their mental life, their thoughts and meditations, their inner struggles and conflicts; and then we want to get behind the scenes and learn something of their spiritual warfare, their conflicts and their conquests. It is true we have been told something, but surely ‘‘the half has never been told.” Cold type can never show us the enthusiasm which kindles passion into a flame, nor reveal the stirrings of emotions when the heart embraces a new object of worship. But conduct is dependent on emotion, and emotion on knowledge. Thought determines feeling, and ideas rule life; but life is coloured by its atmosphere. Many interesting facts are told in our history, and the number could have been multiplied; for the work was not closed for want of material, but because enough was written to show that nothing more marvellous had occurred in the wonderful Nineteenth Century than the rise and progress of Primitive Methodism. But much of this desired information was never given by the workers. They were not Scribes but Evangelists – not writers but plodders – men with one idea, doing “one thing,” – men who asked nothing from earth, yet lacked nothing from heaven – and whose record is on high. What thrilling incidents they could have told of squalid haunts of crime which they had evangelised; of untaught and neglected peoples whom they had enlightened; of victims of vice and misery whom they had raised to happiness and respectability. What graphic records they might have left of the imprisonments and penalties and pains which they endured for daring to do good; of the hurricanes of abuse through which they passed, and the measureless insults which they encountered; of the enemies’ outposts which they stormed and captured. All this might have been done and the world would have been the richer, for it would have helped us to a better understanding of their common spiritual experiences. But we have to face the fact, they were not men of writing, but men of action; none were braver in conflict, few were poorer penmen; and the consequence is, not one in ten thousand can understand, even in imagination, what early Primitive Methodism was to our fathers.
As we think on this subject we are made to see that “The fashion of this world passeth away,” for some of the few stories which have come down to us have been torn from their settings, and lost much of their original favour. They appear as common incidents in Evangelistic work. But fortunately for us, loving disciples – Boswells who sat at the feet of cur Johnsons – preserved some of these thrilling stories of striking conversions, of mob perils, of extravagant and erratic movements, which formed such a large element in their daily life, and passed them on to their children: and these are now amongst the cherished traditions of our churches in certain localities. These stories are open windows, through which the light streams, showing us the old saints at work. We see an inspiring picture. Ninety years ago they were men with well-knit frames, of strong common sense, with dauntless courage, frightened by no danger, hindered by no difficulties, and turned aside by no clerical combination. They knew no fear, and were paralysed by no opposition. No journey was too long, no labour too arduous, and no sacrifice too great. We gather at their preaching services where scores of sinners seek salvation, and join their songs of victory as ‘‘the spoils are taken from the mighty.” We follow them to the prisoners’ dock where they rebuke their aristocratic opponents, and by ready wit and native shrewdness perplex and confound their clerical adversaries.
By the aid of this open window we enter the pillared hall of our Connexion’s biography, which Mr. Kendall has reared, and mark the statues erected. We see Father Hugh with his heart of fearless courage, and near him stands William Clowes in his robe of fleckless white. Alongside is brave, manly James Nixon, in close company with good old James Steele, with a conscience sensitive as the apple of the eye. Hard by is the Cheshire farmer, Thomas Bateman, a thorough business man, and withal a devoted Christian, in close company with his friend, John Wedgwood, the roving Evangelist, who wept over the sins of the people. Near them is John Harrison, courageous as a lion, with Sarah Kirkland, tender and true to the Christ she loved. Who are these? and why are they there? These are the foundation builders of Primitive Methodism, who have already taken the crown of their goodness, and whose memories we lovingly cherish for their unflinching heroism and self-forgetful toil.
The first thing we propose to consider is the mental and spiritual condition of this people, from whom our Church was formed. If we can get a clear idea on this point it will considerably help in a correct understanding of the question. The masses were seething with passions hardly restrained by the musket and the sword, and our fathers carried to them a Gospel message which they delivered in a dialect which corresponded to theirs to whom they spoke. It is almost impossible to conceive the dense darkness of this people. The late Dr. W. Antliff used to tell that he was once praying with a woman in Cheshire, about ninety years of age; and among other simple expressions which he used, was this, “Lord, Thou knowest Thy Son died for this aged woman, more than eighteen hundred years ago on the Cross of Calvary.” Suddenly seizing him by the arm, she shook him violently and cried out, “Stop, master, do you think it is so long since?”
By the same person we were told the following: An old lady went to be confirmed by the Bishop of Chester. Observing her appearance the Bishop asked her age, and she replied, between seventy and eighty. He then inquired: if she had never been confirmed before, and she replied, “Aye mony a time.” “Well, how is it you have come again?” “Nay, nought much; only folk say it is good for rheumatics, and I’m sadly troubled with them, so I just thought I would try.” Another illustration comes from the same source. An elderly woman was asked how many commandments there were, and she gravely replied, “Six.” To the question, “What are they?” she answered, “One is Good Friday, another Easter Sunday, another Pancake Tuesday, another Ash Wednesday, another Workington Football Day, and the last St. Bees’ Races.” To the question, “Who made her?” she said she was not very certain, but she believed “Pontus Pilate, or some of them great men.” A little girl in the room having been asked the same question, replied, “God, sir.” “Ah, you hear this little girl can tell better than you,” to which she replied, “Aye, she is always likely, she has not been made so long as I have, – she can remember better.”
Such instances are like mountain peaks which have emerged into view, but underneath there are whole regions which we cannot see, because their records have not been preserved. When Primitive Methodism began its enlightening Mission, there was not a village or hamlet in this “Christian England” where such actual ignorance did not exist. Perhaps I may give an illustration from the pen of the late Rev. J. Best, which relates to the County of Wiltshire. A good woman gave a tract to a ploughman, and she asked him, “ Do you know anything about the Saviour, William?” He replied, “No, missus, I don’t know Him myself, but I have heard that he is a very fine gentleman, but he don’t live in these parts.” She then began to explain the Gospel, and said, “O, William, what an awful thing to be eternally lost!” “Why, why, bless ye marm, I’ve been lost twice. One night on the downs I was lost, waggon, horses and all.”
This people were despised by “good society,” and sneered at by respectability. Fashion went her idle way and passed them by; whilst Church Leaders practically boycotted them, and vetoed any Evangelistic efforts. They lived like heathens and died like brutes. The existing need for something to be done was a cry for help which grew so loud that it filled the souls of our Pioneers, and shut out all other sounds. They felt themselves begirt by the ring of necessity, and the Divine Spirit brightened it into a ring of duty.
In supplying this need, we must give a high place to the heroism of James Nixon and Thomas Woodnorth, who paid William Clowes ten shillings per week to devote himself exclusively to Evangelistic work. These two men were unconscious that they were doing a brave act, and it is this element of unconsciousness which proclaims its greatness. It may not be generally known that to make this payment Nixon often went without food, and his family shared his hunger. It was arranged that he and Woodnorth should pay Clowes on alternate Saturdays. His daughter told us that once when it was her father’s turn to pay, his whole weekly wage was only ten shillings and sixpence. He, however, paid the money, leaving him but sixpence to supply the household needs. The next morning, Sunday, he was planned at a place a great distance from Tunstall, and he started without any food, gathering blackberries from the hedgerows to satisfy his hunger. He conducted three services, but no one offered him bread, Returning to his home, footsore and hungered, he called at a friend’s house to beg for food. The door was bolted, as all had retired for the night. In trying the door he awoke the sleeping man, who quickly admitted Nixon, after which he was supplied with a plentiful supply of food, which revived his expended powers and enabled him to reach his home in the early hours of the morning
This is but a sample of the privations he voluntarily endured to enable him to contribute this payment. But Clowes and his devoted wife also experienced destitution through Clowes forsaking his employment. They used the coarsest food, very often dining on a little suet and potatoes, or a piece of bread and a drink of water. Indeed he tells us that even these narrow means were insufficient to keep his expenditure within his income, and he sold the feather bed on which they slept to supply his household needs. It is true the poverty was not known to his friends, but it was none the less real. While an August Conference was debating the subject of open-air Evangelism, and in its un-wisdom vetoing such an irregular proceeding, two poor men stood out like an embodiment of Heaven, radiant with the splendour of Calvary, and proclaimed that the Gospel should be carried to the people. The hunger of James Nixon, and the sale of the bed of William Clowes leads to endless reflections. This was a memorable incident in our origin, and we ought not to forget such sacrifices as these in our Centenary rejoicings. Acts of such quality give these men a high place amongst the world’s benefactors; and after such self-abnegation who would dare to charge them with irregularities? It cost them something to respond to the Divine call.
Their mode of missioning was somewhat singular. An early preacher entered a Derbyshire village, and commenced at one end of the place, by taking off his hat and crying with a loud voice, “I’m come, I’m come,” and then went a little further and cried again, “I’m come, I’m come.” Windows and doors flew open on all sides, and children flocked around him; still he went on crying, “I’m going to begin, I’m going to begin.” He then came up to twelve or fourteen men sitting together at the end of a barn, and said to them, “Lads, I’m going to sing, will you help me?” He started singing:
“Christ He sits on Zion’s hill.”
By this time he had got a company, and he cried out, “I’m now going to tell you something you never heard before.” This announcement drew the company close together, and was followed by this quaint declaration, “I was born in a clough, brought up in a cow-lane, and converted to God in a sand-hole.” Having thus got their attention he preached a short pointed sermon, and took the names of fourteen persons as the foundation members of that village church.
Such men knew nothing of ecclesiastical canons or stereotyped methods of Evangelism. They were prepared to adopt any form without regard to prudence or propriety. Their work was to rescue the perishing, and we must not judge them by the standard employed by the modern churches. From the beginning they saw the use to which music could be put in arresting and retaining the attention of the people. They perceived that it had a humanising influence, and could be used to awaken the souls of those who had sunken so deep in animalism. They therefore wisely resolved to utilise music – this most democratic of all the arts – to arrest the attention of the “common people.” Gospel truths were taught in hymns specially written by them for Evangelistic purposes, and sung to popular tunes; and some of these have come down to us, and the ring of battle may still be heard in the music to which they are sung. Take as an illustration the well known song “The Lion of Judah,” the first verse of which reads:
“Come, sinners, to Jesus, no longer delay,
A free, full salvation is offered to-day;
Arise ye dead spirits, awake from your dream,
Believe, and the light of the glory shall stream.
For the Lion of Judah shall break every chain,
And give you the victory again and again.”
It may not be generally known that this hymn was written at a time when the Chartist agitation was powerfully affecting the working classes. This Chartist movement was greatly aided by its popular songs, which were sung to easy swinging tunes. Amongst the Chartists in the Midlands, a great favourite was a piece written in glorification of O’Connor, one of the Chartist leaders, and contained this line,
“We’ll rally around him again and again.”
The Rev. W.R. Widdowson tells us that “The Lion of Judah” was composed by the late Rev. W. Jefferson, under the following emergency. At that time he was stationed at Nottingham, and during his term the churches in the town experienced a great revival; and he had reason to fear that its continuance would be seriously affected by the excitement created by the Chartist meetings. To counteract this baleful influence by supplying a song which could successfully compete with the popular Chartist rallying cry, Mr. Jefferson wrote this “Lion of Judah” under rather peculiar circumstances. He had been thinking on the subject during the day, and awoke the next morning with the rhyme in his mind. Hastily arising he committed the words to paper, and the hymn first appeared on his Circuit Plan, and was sung at the open-air Services in connection with this Nottingham revival. As it rang forth from a body of warm hearted singers to the well-known Chartist tune, crowds were attracted expecting to hear Chartist advocates, and were thus brought under the influence of the Gospel. The Missioner’s fervent, energetic opening prayer – frequently accompanied by a remarkable spiritual power – had a serious, sobering effect upon the rough crowd. This prayer was followed by an address in which the speaker portrayed the character, conduct, and circumstances of his hearers, and hundreds were brought into the enjoyment of religion, becoming as zealous in the service of Christ as they had formerly been in the cause of Chartism.
“Happy Day,” is another well-known refrain written by the late Rev. George Peake. These words have played a very important part in our Evangelism, and according to the Rev. W.R. Widdowson were first brought into public use at a District Meeting at Belper. The words,
“Happy day! happy day!
When Jesus washed my sins away.
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day! happy day!
When Jesus washed my sins away,”
were sung as a refrain to the following lines,
“Tis done; the great transaction’s done,
I am my Lord’s and He is mine,
He drew me, and I followed on,
Charmed to confess the voice divine,”
and the singing of these words was attended with marvellous manifestations of spiritual power, crowds being swept into the Kingdom.
We must remember that the hearts as well as the minds of the singers were thrilled with the theme of their song, and therefore their words had a magnetic power, producing deep emotion in their hearers. The guilty were startled, consciences were roused, and under its influence wonderful changes were wrought in the hearts, habits, and morals of thousands. The following quaint experience was given by a member of one of our Midland Churches. In answer to the query how he was brought into the Kingdom, he said:
‘Well, thee sees, lad, I was as big a sinner as ever lived; and as ignorant as a Hottentot, but when the Lord took me in hand He soon made a good job of me. Tha sees, I was so ignorant that when I was convinced I thought I’d got an inflammation, and I axed my neighbours what I wor to do? They, some on em, said I must go to oud Molly – for some yerbs to make some yerb tea. And so I did. I got rue, mint, sage, cammomile, and lots o’ things, and made tea of all sorts; but they did me no good, not a bit. So I said, what mun I do now? And I wur told to go to Mark—’s prayer-meeting. And I went. And after meeting began, I got o’ my knees behind the door, and after a bit some o’ fowk came and talked to me; and I said I want to know what to do. They said I mun pray. So I said, ‘What mun I say?’ And they said, ‘say after me.’ So I began, ‘say after me.’ Then they said, ‘Lord ha’ mercy on me,’ and I cried, ‘Lord ha’ mercy on me, if you please. And I prayed till at last the power came down, and then I jumped on my feet, and shouted, ‘A’ glory to God, my inflammation’s cured, my inflammation’s cured.’ And bless God, lad, it was cured, by the balm o’ Gilead, and I never had it since.’ ”
(To be concluded.)
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1907/864