The primitive Methodist connexion: Tackling the myth

Calder, Alexander J. (2013). The primitive Methodist connexion: Tackling the myth. PhD thesis The Open University.



The Primitive Methodist Connexion is usually seen as a product of its working-class origins. This thesis argues that whilst the movement saw itself thus, its leaders were from the outset often discreetly prosperous. One of its co-founders, Hugh Bourne, was also its first chronicler, and he chose instead to portray them as humble latter-day disciples ministering to a Biblical poor. Bourne's diaries, which tell a rather different story, were marginalised or ignored by the connexion's later writers, who preferred the retrospective version; and historians of the last half-century read the resulting religious allegory as a factual aCcoWlt of class-inspired contestation. Most previous studies of the movement have focused on rural areas, concluding that it comprised the poor and ill-educated end of the working-class spectrwn; yet this was, in its first half-century, more a movement of the industrial village.

The thesis uses early baptismal registers and the 1851 Religious Census to demonstrate that its earliest adherents were broadly a match, socially, for their Wesleyan counterparts, and that its many small plain chapels reflected expansion strategy, not denominational poverty. It argues that the early movement's fo llowers were distinguished by revivalistic preference. not socio-economic circumstances or alienation. It also exploits. in a way impossible only five or ten years ago, two new sources. The British Library digitised archive of 19th-century newspapers provided a less embattled image of Primitive Methodism than that afforded by anecdote. Meanwhile, the genealogical databases spawned by the internet era and a growing interest in family history made it possible to track the fortunes of many of the movement's officers and itinerant preachers, who proved to be surprisingly - and increasingly - prosperous.

It concludes that the predominantly working-class composition of the denomination which has so dominated subsequent accounts was a mature product of its religious nature, not the source of its success.

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