On the origin of the Primitive Methodist Connexion

A useful source for anyone interested in the early history of Methodism in the Potteries area of north Staffordshire is an article published in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine for 1835.  It was written by Thomas Harris, dated ‘May 16th, 1835’, and entitled ‘Methodism in Tunstall and its vicinity’.  Beginning with John Wesley’s first visit to Burslem in March 1760, it tells the story of Methodism in Tunstall until the opening of the new chapel there on 29 March 1835.  It can be found on the Google Books website.

However, two seemingly innocuous sentences in the article so annoyed Hugh Bourne, the co-founder of Primitive Methodism, that he responded with an article of over thirty-three thousand words in twenty-nine chapters, and published it in several monthly parts of the Primitive Methodist Magazine for the following year. (See attached document for the full text.) He refers in his opening and closing chapters to Harris’ article, calling it ‘wide of all historical truth,’ and pointing out that many Tunstall Wesleyans could have informed him of this.  The article is anonymous, although its content suggests that it was indeed written by the magazine’s editor, Hugh Bourne.  It has the title ‘On the origin of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, with notices of the origin of the Wesleyan Connexion’.

The twenty-first century reader must be grateful for the fascinating, first hand, details of the beginnings of the Primitive Methodist movement that the article provides.  But what were the offending words, and why was Bourne so affronted by them?  They were as follows:

‘… but in the year 1812 a very serious division took place in the society, and nearly one half of the members left, and formed themselves into a separate body.  They afterwards assumed the name of Primitive Methodists; and Tunstall continues to be their most important and influential Circuit.’

According to Bourne’s own history, the new connexion decided on its name of ‘the Society of the Primitive Methodists’ at a meeting in Tunstall on 13 February 1812, so Harris was reasonably accurate on that score.  Many historians also record the expulsion from Methodist membership of Bourne, Clowes and Steele.  Many others, adults and children, followed them into the new denomination.  Kendall describes it as ‘a serious loss to the Old Methodist Society’.

However, Bourne’s belief was that the creation of Primitive Methodism was neither ‘a split nor a division,’ nor ‘ undesigned of man,’ but arose by Divine Providence and as a ‘first movement’ was ‘as really an original, as was Mr. Wesley’s’.  This explains why his article begins with the early life of John Wesley and details the three phases, or ‘rises’ of Methodism up to 1835.

In his final chapter, Bourne writes, ‘I cannot but look back and admire the wonderful hand of God.  It was not my intention to have had any thing to do with raising up separate societies, but to have raised up as many people into the service of God as I was able, and then to have encouraged them to join other societies’.


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