The Primitive Methodists were a major offshoot of the principal stream of Methodism – the Wesleyan Methodists – in 19th Century Britain.
In the early decades of the 19th century there was a growing body of opinion among the Wesleyans that their Connexion was moving in directions which were a distortion of, not to say a betrayal of, what John Wesley had brought to birth in the 18th century.
Eventually a Methodist preacher called Hugh Bourne became the catalyst for a breakaway, to form the Primitive Methodists.
Probably ‘primitive’ was used to clarify their self-understanding that they were the true guardians of the original, or primitive, form of Methodism.
Bourne and Clowes’ Primitive Methodism germinated in the Camp Meetings from 1807 onwards and its separate organisational form came about as a direct result of the Wesleyan circuit authorities’ reaction to these Meetings.
Camp Meetings were all day, open-air gatherings for Christian preaching and group prayer, usually followed by a Love Feast.
They were based on evangelical revival meetings in America. The first such meeting in England was held on Sunday 31 May 1807, between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., in a field at School Farm, Mow Cop, about a quarter of a mile south west of Mow Cop Folly (a mock castle ruins built in 1754).
Mow Cop, on the Staffordshire – Cheshire border, was a bleak spot lying as it does on a limestone ridge rising to 1,091 feet above sea level. Nevertheless, during the afternoon, the Camp still managed to draw a crowd of up to 4,000 people.
Image: Descendants of Hugh Bourne.
The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:
The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people. The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers. The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship. The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings. The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor. The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes. The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.
By the end of the 19th century these two streams of Methodism realised they had more in common than they might have supposed.
So conversations began which led to their being the two principal partners in the union to form the present-day Methodist Church in 1932.