Back to Basics

Primitive Methodism was a grassroots, mainly working class movement which began in north Staffordshire at the beginning of the 19th century, and quickly spread across the country, and overseas to America, Australia and Africa. It fired the hearts and minds of agricultural labourers, miners, potters, mill workers, fishermen, dressmakers and domestic servants, inspiring a passion for justice which led many to become leaders of the early trade unions. Many women became gifted preachers, and were paid to go out as travelling or itinerant ministers from 1813, which was very radical at the time.

What's in a Name?

The first open air or camp meeting was held at Mow Cop in 1807, and the name 'Society of Primitive Methodists' was adopted in 1812. This reflects a wish to return to the earlier, purer form of Methodism started by John Wesley in the 18th century. After his death the 'Wesleyan Methodists' lost touch with their roots, banning open air meetings and women preachers because they valued their new respectability and feared government repression. Those who held open air meetings also became known as 'Ranters' because of their enthusiastic style.

When did it End?

In 1932, the Primitive Methodists joined the Wesleyan and United Methodists in an Act of Union to become The Methodist Church of today.

Mow Cop Poster

The Mow Cop Connection
Many people see Mow Cop in Staffordshire as the birthplace of Primitive Methodism because the first camp meeting that led to the emergence of the denomination took place there in 1807. However, the ordinary men, women and children of the Potteries who participated in that event were strongly influenced by events that were going on in the United States.

American Camp Meeting

The American Connection
At the beginning of the nineteenth century a religious revival swept across America that became known as the Second Great Awakening. At the heart of this remarkable movement were camp meetings. These were a kind of religious festival that often went on for in excess of a week and were characterised by very emotional expressions of religious faith. Accounts from the time refer to people barking, jerking and being overcome by ‘holy laughter.’ Contemporary pictures of camp meetings show people enduring a kind of dark night of the soul on mourning benches from which they emerged full of a sense of real and present salvation. What is also significant about camp meetings is that anyone and everyone was allowed to participate and in that sense camp meetings echoed the emerging democracy that was to characterise the new nation that was the United States.

The camp meeting movement produced its share of nineteenth century celebrities and among these none were more famous than Lorenzo ‘Crazy’ Dow. Whilst Dow never saw his dream of being a Methodist minister fully realised, no one worked harder or more persistently than him to promote camp meetings, a task that took him to England on several occasions.

The Primitive Methodist Connexion
It was on one of these trips that Lorenzo Dow met Hugh Bourne, a wheelwright from North Staffordshire who was to become the driving force in the emergence of Primitive Methodism. Bourne became convinced that camp meetings could be a powerful influence in England and this belief led to the first camp meeting at Mow Cop in 1807.  Whilst the outdoor revival meeting that took place that day had little in common with its American counterpart (no barking, jerking or laughing is recorded and the event lasted only a day), its association with the dangerous ideas of American radicals made the Wesleyan Methodist authorities nervous and those who continued to promote camp meetings were eventually expelled from membership. Eventually they were to form the Primitive Methodist Connexion, a denomination that found its appeal chiefly among working people and was to contribute a great deal to the spiritual and political life of nineteenth century England.

Hugh Bourne and William Clowes

Hugh Bourne’s contribution to the Primitive Methodist story is extraordinary, not least because he was unusually shy and serious in character. When speaking from a pulpit it is said that Bourne could rarely remove his hand from in front of his face which can hardly have made him the most charismatic preacher. Nevertheless, thousands of people responded positively to him. Maybe it was his persistence. Certainly his sincerity was evident to many. Whatever it was he ended up earning the nickname of Father Bourne in a ministry that spanned almost half a century which you can explore at the museum.

For the centenary celebrations of Primitive Methodism in 1907, thousands of decorative plates were produced. An image of Hugh Bourne appeared on these plates but they also featured another man – William Clowes.

Press Gang chase through Hull

The early life of William Clowes is a colourful story including incidents of drinking, brawling and even being chased through the streets of Hull by a press gang! William Clowes was a very different man to Hugh Bourne but his contribution to the Primitive Methodist movement was very significant indeed. He was a notable preacher with a real gift for building up new societies. His impact in the north was particularly impressive and, indeed, strolling through the streets of Hull you can still encounter echoes of his memory as you see a sign for some houses (Clowes Court) or wander past the Clowes Memorial Methodist Church.

At Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum you can not only explore the lives of Hugh Bourne and William Clowes but you can get a real sense of what religion meant to ordinary people who lived in the nineteenth century. You can explore the role of religion in developing ideas about the role of women in society, working conditions in mines and mills, political representation and much more besides. You can discover what Primitive Methodists did that ordinary people found so appealing. You might even get a flavour of a Victorian Sunday School but if you do please be on your best behaviour.

In our collection there are stories waiting to be discovered so please come and visit us soon!