The 'highly improper' story of Mow Cop

“…highly improper in England and likely to be productive of considerable mischief”

Large public gatherings have often been controversial; even religious ones! In England in the early 1800s, soon after the French Revolution, any large group of people meeting outdoors was considered to be suspicious and potentially revolutionary.

Methodists, who had started as a new movement in the Church of England in the 1730s, originally preached to crowds in the open air, as they wanted to find new ways to reach everyone, rich and poor, with the message of God’s love. By 1800, they still wanted people to know God, but having now set up their own church, they were keen to be seen as respectable, and led by proper ministers.

‘Rough, unbroken, and but half civilised’, local people in 1834 (Short History of Mow Cop)

Mow Cop, outside the growing towns of Tunstall and Burslem, was surrounded by other small villages where people earned a living though farming, mining and quarrying. Hugh Bourne, a Methodist preacher from the area, felt that the Methodist church wasn’t doing enough to reach ordinary working people like him and his neighbours.

In 1807, Bourne organised a whole day event on Mow Cop, where people could pray, sing and hear inspiring preachers. It was called a Camp Meeting, an idea brought to England from the United States, where people camped out for a few days, like a modern festival, with lively prayer and passionate preaching the headline acts. It was so successful, that a four-day event was organised a few months later.

‘I felt a love in all mankind, and my desire was that friends and enemies and all the world, if possible, might be saved’

Anyone could take part in the Camp Meeting, and offer their own words and inspiration to the rest of the crowd. It was this freedom that the official Methodist church disapproved of – where would it lead?

‘Even supposing such meetings to be allowable in America, they are highly improper in England and likely to be productive of considerable mischief; and we disclaim any connexion with them.’ (Wesleyan Methodist Conference, 1807, of Camp Meetings)

Bourne and his followers were eventually dismissed from the Methodist church. They set up their own new form of Methodism, deciding on the name Primitive Methodist, as they felt they were being true to the spirit of the first – or “Primitive” Methodists.

The movement rapidly grew, eventually becoming the second largest branch of Methodism.

Mow Cop continued to be a special place for the Primitive Methodists. Anniversary Camp Meetings were held there every year, with special celebrations in 1857, 1907 and 1957 attended by many thousands of people. It is still a special place for Methodists today, as we think of new ways we can inspire and work with people everywhere.

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