Hugh Bourne - Bourne's Organisational Ability and The Growth of Primitive Methodism

Bourne's Organisational Ability and The Growth of Primitive Methodism

Missions, often accompanied by Camp Meetings, were disproportionately successful in working-class mining and agricultural communities. Each circuit planned and carried out its own missionary work separately until 1825, when the Conference appointed the General Missionary Committee to centralise guidance. By 1842 membership had increased to almost 80,000 with 500 travelling preachers and more than 1,200 chapels.

Bourne travelled and preached widely in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the USA until his death in 1852. He was a man of exceptional energy and organisational abilities. Bourne also wrote the ‘History of the Primitive Methodists’ (1823), a variety of theological tracts on subjects from baptism to salvation, edited the Primitive Methodist hymn book, and was editor of the denominational magazine for two decades.

Whilst there were no essential doctrinal differences with the Wesleyans, Primitive Methodism was shaped by the experience of vilification shared by Bourne, Clowes, and others. Thus, whereas the Wesleyans concentrated a great deal of authority in the hands of their Ministers, the Primitive Methodists chose instead to trust the role of lay people.

Another difference of emphasis between Hugh Bourne and some of the Wesleyans of his time was his desire to follow closely the teaching of John Wesley in the mid eighteenth century. Weary with persecution, many Wesleyans, though true to the same doctrines, had toned down their preaching in an effort to court respectability. This was one of the factors behind the 1807 Methodist Conference's condemnation of Camp Meetings. The Minutes (widely quoted in Holliday Bickerstaffe Kendall and most histories of Primitive Methodism) say, "It is our judgment, that even supposing such meetings to be allowable in America, they are highly improper in England, and likely to be productive of considerable mischief; and we disclaim all connection with them."

Primitive Methodism was also shaped by Bourne’s joint concern for the spiritual salvation and social welfare of ordinary working people. For example, just like Keir Hardie in the early twentieth century, Bourne understood that drunkenness was a major factor which kept working-class people down in base conditions. Also, In the face of establishment opposition, Bourne promoted working class education, including instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, in addition to religious teaching, at the Primitive Methodist Sunday Schools. Many early trade union pioneers were drawn from the ranks of Primitive Methodist Preachers, and a basic ‘welfare state’ used to operate among chapel-goers, their neighbours and families. In common with some other non-conformists, Bourne accepted women as of equal status with men by (amongst other things) appointing women Preachers.

By the time of his death (11 October 1852), Bourne was regarded as a father figure for the movement and his funeral procession was attended by more than 16,000 people. He is buried at Englesea Brook chapel, in Weston, near Crewe, south Cheshire, not far from his home in Bemersley, near Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, north Staffordshire.

By 1860 the international movement he helped to found and organise had 650 Ministers, 11,304 local preachers and over 100,000 members. It had extended beyond the British Isles, Canada and the USA to Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa.

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