1. A Year of War, and a very Militant Hymn Book

Transcription of article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by H Bickerstaffe Kendall in the series “One Hundred Years Ago”

THE year 1812 closed with the disastrous French retreat from Moscow. In June 600,000 men, led by Napoleon, had crossed the Niemen. Of these only 80,000 returned. The Russian arms and, still more, the Russian winter, had effected the discomfiture—well nigh the annihilation—of a host such as mortal has seldom led to battle. The news was startling; men trembled and some rejoiced. Undaunted, Napoleon was now draining the life-blood of France to raise a fresh army. Wellington was ready to pounce on France from the north of Spain, while the Allies were marshalling their forces in North Eastern Europe in preparation for the supreme conflict which was to be crowned by the defeat of the man of blood and his deportation to Elba. So continental Europe, from the Tagus to the Vistula, was in the throes of war.

Such were the public events that men were talking of a hundred years ago. There was hardly a village in the land but some youth had gone from it to help man England’s ships, or serve in its armies which, in 1813, were fighting on two continents. We must think of these things as, month by month, we pen these jottings. The shadow of war with all the anxieties it involved brooded over the homes of the people. Its presence could be felt even in these quiet Derbyshire valleys and uplands, where Primitive Methodism was winning some of its most notable recruits. Eleazar Hathorn, John Benton’s co-evangelist, was an old soldier who had left a leg on one of England’s many battlefields. Mary Hawksley, whom we shall soon see as the second female travelling preacher, had a husband now fighting in the Peninsula War, and she would not be the only Primitive Methodist in these parts to whom the fact that England was at war was being poignantly brought home. 

May it not be that the militant character that is noticeable in so many of the hymns our fathers sang can be accounted for in part from the fact that these hymns were the spiritual reflex of a warlike time?

War was then a terrible, ever-present fact; they could not sing its glories. Yet there was an inverted grandeur about it. It was an unholy travesty, of the “Holy War” —of a conflict wider, more intense, and one having far vaster issues, in which they themselves were participants. Of this bloodless, but very real, conflict they might sing to their hearts’ content—and they did. Would a close examination of the Hymn Book in constant use by Benton in his evangelistic labours in Staffordshire and Derbyshire from 1812 to 1814 bear out these views? It would; remarkably so. Out of the forty-five hymns making up the book, no less than twenty strike the militant note. In some it is the lietmotif, as in the first part of “The Holy War,” and in “Pilgrim and Apollyon,” the second part of which is “Pilgrim’s Victory.” In No. 12 also, which is the quaint and tunable, “Hark, listen to the Trumpeters.” There can be no mistake about these; they are martial all through. The same spirit flashes out in particular stanzas or lines of the remaining  sixteen hymns. Thus in “Methodist Hymns” we have

“Ye sons of hell, come turn and list
And fight like valiant Methodists.”


So we think our point is proved; Benton’s Hymn Book was a reflex of the war-spirit of the time, and would encourage and fix the militant aspect of the Christian life so characteristic of early Primitive Methodism.


Primitive Methodist Magazine 1913/16

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