The development of Governance in the Primitive Methodist Connexion


As the Primitive Methodist movement developed and rapidly expanded from the original beginnings of the Tunstall Circuit, it was realized that a Connexional Structure of Governance was required.

Some of the key developments in Governance are discussed below.

1819 – Preliminary meeting at Nottingham

By 1819 there were four PM circuits; Tunstall, Nottingham, Loughborough and Hull. A meeting was held at Nottingham in August 1819 with the aim of organizing the system for the general management of the people called Primitive Methodists. The outcome was agreement that there should be an annual meeting (or Conference). 

The first meeting was arranged for May 1820 in Hull with each of the four circuits to send three delegates, chosen by the Circuit Quarter Board after dinner on the first evening of the meeting. Only one of the delegates was to be a Travelling Preacher, thus setting the ratio for the future of two lay delegates to each ministerial delegate to Conference.

The Nottingham meeting also published 9 pages of rules embracing the chief principles of discipline for the Connexion.

Minutes of Conference

When considering the development of Governance it should be recognized that the early minutes of Conference are not readily recognizable as minutes in the modern sense of the word. For example, they do not record the President, Secretary and attendees as we might expect. (Attendees can be inferred from the lists of expenses paid out, but not the capacity in which they attended.) The Minutes were written in a question and answer style designed to provide a concise summary of the regulations of the Connexion, fulfilling the role the current day Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church. The ‘Minutes of Conference’ were designed to replace the previous year’s document.

What is clear is that during the time that the Primitive Methodist Book Room was at Bemersley, the Bourne brothers had effective control of the material published by each Conference. An example of this is found in the preface to the 1832 Minutes where a potted history of the Primitive Methodist movement from the earliest Camp Meeting is provided. The preface clearly states that in the early days the movement was composed of just two members, Hugh and James Bourne! No doubt that would not have been well received in some quarters when it was published.

1820 – First Conference

The first Annual Meeting took place with 18 persons present, 6 Travelling Preachers and 12 laymen.  Various worship events and camp meetings were held around the time and location of the meeting. By this time, the connexion had expanded to 8 circuits, 48 travelling preachers, 277 local preachers and some 7842 members.

A significant outcome was agreement to continue publishing a monthly magazine at a price of 3d per month. A monthly publication had been started from Leicester in late 1819, but it had not been well received and ceased after 8 issues. It was agreed to publish a further 4 issues in 1820 to complete the year and then to make a regular start from January 1821. Hugh Bourne was appointed the first editor and James Bourne the first Book Steward. It was agreed that the magazine would be published in Staffordshire.

Follow these links to view the list of Connexional Editors and Book Stewards.

1821 – Book Room and Printing Press established – first mention of Districts

The 1821 Conference was held at Tunstall. The connexion had expanded to 16 circuits. At this Conference, it was agreed to establish a Book Room and a Printing Press, an agreement that was speedily implemented at Bemersley by the Bourne brothers.

The Connexion was organised into Districts, each with a District Meeting, although delegates continued to be sent to Conference by each circuit.

1822 – General Committee established

The 1822 Conference was held at Loughborough. The rapid increase of the connexion and formation of many new circuits, whose office holders had little experience in church governance, required several new regulations to be agreed. The most important of these was the appointment of a General Committee at Hull and the Book Committee at Tunstall. The duties of the General Committee were not very well defined at that time but it’s chief duty was to ‘give advice to circuits in cases of difficulty or exigency’, and if need be to send a deputation to examine matters urgently calling for attention in any station.

1823 – Travelling Preacher Friendly Society

The 1823 Conference recommended that the Travelling Preachers form a fund or friendly society among themselves.

1824 – Representation at Conference based on Districts

The Conference in 1824 was held at Halifax. The number of circuits had increased to 24. Concern was expressed concerning both the size and increased cost of running an ever- increasing conference. As a consequence the Connexion was arranged into four Districts with each district sending 9 delegates. The Editor, Book Steward and Secretary of the General Committee would also attend conference. This conference also provided additional regulations with regard to the formation of new circuits to ensure that circuits were not created prematurely.

1825 – First General Missionary Committee

At the 1825 Conference the General Missionary Committee was set up with the aim of co-ordinating missionary activities, although only one mission appeared to have been undertaken by the General Missionary Committee in those early days. At that time each circuit pursued missionary activities according to its inclination or ability.

This Conference also set up a Committee comprising Hugh Bourne, James Bourne, William Clowes and James Steele to make, sign and execute a Deed of Declaration or Settlement that would put the connexion a legal basis. It was agreed that this ‘Deed Poll’ would make allowance for twelve permanent members of Conference, four ministers and eight laymen. Whilst officially these were designated the Permanent Members of Conference, they are often referred to as Deed Poll members. (Work had started on this document before this date, but this gave the formal sanction of Conference to proceed.)

1828 – Office of Superintendent Preacher instituted.

The 1828 Conference provided for Superintendent Preachers in each circuit and defined their roles and responsibilities.

1831 – Deed Poll approved

The Deed Poll was a document designed to legalise the connexion and secure its chapels. It was a long time in development. A first draft was considered by the 1823 Conference but it was not until 5 February 1830 that the document was signed by Hugh Bourne, James Bourne and William Clowes in the presence of John Ward, Attorney at Law, Burslem. James Steele was to have been one of the signatories but he died in 1827. The document was finally presented, read and approved that the 1831 Conference in Leicester.

The original Deed Poll Members were;

Hugh Bourne             James Bourne

William Clowes          Sampson Turner

John Garner               John Hancock

Richard Odin             George Taylor

David Bowen             Thomas Sugden

Ralph Waller              John Gordon Black

Follow this link for a complete listing of Deed Poll Members of Conference.

1834 – Earliest obituaries in Conference Minutes

This Conference was the first to provide a form of obituary for travelling preachers who had died in the year.  It was not until 1852 that this became a regular practice in the Minutes of Conference.

1842 – Bourne and Clowes superannuated

The conference of 1842 superannuated both Hugh Bourne and William Clowes. John Flesher was appointed at Editor with effect in January 1843. The last Conference with the Minutes printed at Bemersley.

1843 – Book Room to London and revised GMC

The conference of 1843 approved the move of the Book Room from Bemersley to London. It also set up a stronger General Missionary Committee with a salaried Secretary.

Follow this link to see the list of Secretaries of General Missionary Committee and General Committee.

1845 – Tighter Rules on delegate’s qualifications

Legislation passed at the 1845 Conference, and only partly rescinded in 1865, required lay delegates to have been officials for 12 years. Ministerial delegates had to have travelled for eighteen successive years, 12 as superintendents. These rules tended to make Conference ‘a court of elders, cautious and conservative both in temper and legislative action’ (Kendall)

1855 – Minutes start to include the names of Deed Poll Members

There is no mention in the minutes of who were the Deed Poll members of Conference until 1855. Thereafter the list was maintained.

1857 – Requirements for future Deed Poll membership defined

Given that there was starting to be a significant turnover in the permanent members of Conference a regulation was established that required candidates for election to have been members of the PM Connexion for at least 36 consecutive years.

1861 – Candidates for the Ministry

A Committee was initiated to define subjects for the examination of candidates for the ministry.

1867 – PM Insurance Co Ltd

The Conference of 1867 initiated the PM Insurance Co Ltd primarily to insure against the risk of loss by fire.

Stronger Connexionalism

Up to the late 1870’s the Connexion tended to be decentralized with more focus at local level on the circuit and District meetings. From the late 1870’s Conference became a larger and more representative body.

The President of Conference also ceased to be simply the Chairman of proceedings and like his Wesleyan counterpart became the representative of the Connexion visiting all parts of the country in the year of his office. 

From 1885, the role of Vice president of Conference became better defined and was generally held by a prominent layperson.

Follow these links for the lists of Presidents of Conference, Vice Presidents and Secretaries of Conference.


J Petty, The History of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, 1880, p98, p109, p164, p194, p214, p248, p456/7

H B Kendall, Origin and History of the PM Church, vol 1, p438

Kenneth Lysons, A Little Primitive, 2001, p94/5

Minutes of Conference 1820-1870 

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