How my Ancester became a Primitive Methodist Preacher in the 1820s

Introduction

When we look back in census records, we see our ancesters described as a Primitive Methodist Minister, a Dissenting Minister or even as a Local Preacher (as well as their day job). Have you ever wondered how they came to be recognised in that role? What sort of training or examination did they undergo? This short article aims to answer those questions.

Many of the rules and references to preachers are written in the masculine, though of course in the Primitive Methodist Movement of the early 1800’s there was equality between the sexes in the sense that women were allowed to be both local and travelling preachers. Whether there was full equality in all aspects is another story!  In my notes below, where I refer to he or him, this could equally be she or her.

Conversion

The starting point for becoming a PM Preacher is the conversion experience. This was generally seen to be in two parts. First you are convinced of your sin. Through the words of a preacher or exhorter you realise the gulf between yourself and God. This troubles your conscience because you realise there is nothing that you can do to repair the damage. Secondly, through prayer or further discussion with the preacher, maybe the same day, sometimes weeks later, you receive the assurance of forgiveness from God, through Christ , and your life is changed henceforth.

Many people used their desire to know more about their new faith as a stepping stone to learning to read and write.

The new convert would join a PM society near where they lived or worked. There they would attend worship and prayer meetings and attend a weekly class meeting. The class leader provided continuing pastoral support and encouragement to the new convert. Some, having been converted, wanted to tell everyone about their experience and how it was changing their lives. This led them on to local preaching.

Local Preacher

The first stage to going on to the plan was often to become an Exhorter. This was an activity which consisted of denouncing sin, giving a testimony and speaking about the joy they knew after coming to Christ. This was done in the context of worship or missionary work. The dividing line between exhorting and preaching was the ‘taking of a text’ and expounding upon it. The new exhorter would usually work with an experienced preacher. The process of training local preachers has been likened to the craft apprenticeship ‘with skills learned by practising them under the watchful eye of more experienced operators.

Local Preachers came under the discipline of the Circuit Quarterly Meeting. The criteria for accepting a local preacher was essentially the same as defined by the Wesleyan Conference in the mid 1700’s. These criteria flowed over into the practice of the Primitive Methodist church where many of the early preachers had previously been Wesleyan preachers. Essentially there were three questions to be answered.

Has he grace?

This addressed the conversion experience of the preacher, the life he was living and his devotion to the will of God.

Has he gifts as well as graces?

This addressed whether the preacher has a sound understanding and sound judgement about the things of God i.e. his knowledge and interpretation of the scriptures. Has the preacher a clear perception of salvation by faith, i.e. his knowledge of theology? Can the preacher express himself justly, readily, and clearly?

Has he fruit?

What evidence is there that any people have been convinced of sin and converted to God under his ministrations?

Persons who ticked these three boxes were deemed to be fit to be a preacher and went onto full plan. To maintain their status, a local preacher had to regularly attend class meetings and fulfil planned appointments. Failure to attend class meetings was the official excuse for expelling Hugh Bourne from the Wesleyan Methodists when he refused to stop holding Camp Meetings.

Hired Preacher

Hired preachers were local preachers employed by circuits or districts to carry out missionary work on behalf of the circuit. These missions could be a considerable distance away from the commissioning circuit. It was allowed for circuits to swap hired preachers for short fixed term periods e.g. 3 or 6 months. These were full time appointments which often required the preacher to be away from home for considerable periods. This type of work enabled potential travelling preachers to explore their calling to full time itinerancy.

Travelling Preacher

Travelling Preachers were stationed by the Annual Connexional Meeting which became known as the Conference. They later became known as Ministers.

Travelling preachers had to be recommended to conference by their respective district meetings, having undergone a previous examination by a circuit committee.

The examination included:

  • His (or her) conversion and experience;
  • The doctrine he holds and intends to inculcate (teach);
  • His views on the ministry;
  • His call to the work.

The minutes of the examination had to be laid before the quarter day board. The board had to send a report to the district meeting including information on; age; station in life; martial state; whether his circumstances were embarrassed; if married details of his family; a description of his talents, length of service as a local and/or hired preacher, an account of his usefulness, Christian experience and conduct in society, a statement of the doctrines he holds. Also it had to be distinctly stated whether or not he was a smoker of tobacco. Anyone who was a smoker had to produce a medical certificate to show that it was necessary for him to continue to smoke tobacco and to what extent. Applicants had to be under the age of 45.

Persons accepted as travelling preachers carried out two 6 month probationary appointments in their first year, where they assisted established travelling preachers and were mentored in the process. Training continued to be entirely ‘on the job’ for many years.

All travelling preachers were required to maintain a journal. This formed the basis of reports back to their superintendents and the quarterly meeting. Extracts of many journals found their way into the Primitive Methodist Magazine.

Further information on the requirements on travelling preachers can be found by following the link to the page about John Ride – see Regulations for PM Missionaries.

References

L Church, More about Early Methodist People, Epworth Press, 1949 p 101-2

Minutes of Primitive Methodist Meeting held at Nottingham, 1819

J Petty, The History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, 1880

Joseph Ritson, The Romance of Primitive Methodism , 1909

B A Barber, A Methodist Pageant, 1932, p.125

H B Kendall, Origin and History of the PM Church, vol 1, p.400

W Leary, Directory of Primitive Methodist Ministers and their Circuits , 1990

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