Hugh Bourne - Camp Meetings, Bourne's Expulsion and The Origins of Primitive Methodism

Camp Meetings, Bourne's Expulsion and The Origins of Primitive 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.

Although Mow Cop was supposed to be a one off, the number of conversions confirmed Bourne in his belief in the relevance and effectiveness of Camp Meetings and others soon followed. There was a second Mow Camp Meeting (19 July) and a third at Norton-in-the-Moors (now a north-eastern neighbourhood in Stoke-on-Trent) on 23 August 1807. Others included Ramsor (Staffordshire) (two miles north of Alton Towers).

"Men naturally turn to Mow Cop rather than to Norton, for there is more to engage and impress the imagination in the former; but to those who judge of events by their significance and results, Norton overtops Mow. It is not always the first step that is the most difficult: sometimes it is harder to go on than to begin... (The Norton Camp Meeting) is, historically, the most important; for, before it was held, the Liverpool Conference of 1807 had given its judgement, and the judgement was adverse. Naturally, the ministers of the Burslem Circuit, the storm-centre of the movement, lost no time on their return in endeavouring to preserve their societies from complicity with what the Conference had pronounced to be `highly improper and likely to be of considerable mischief'".

After the Wesleyan authorities' reaction to the first three Camp Meetings, it was no surprise that, ten months after the Norton-in-the-Moors Camp, Bourne was expelled from the Wesleyan Methodists by the Burslem Quarterly Meeting. The reason given was non-attendance at Bible class but the real reason was explained by the Wesleyan superintendent who told Bourne that it was "because you have a tendency to set up other than the ordinary worship". (Ironically, this was the reason the Anglican Church of England gave for refusing to endorse John Wesley's mission in the mid eighteenth century).

Unlike Rev. Joseph Cooke of east Lancashire, who had been expelled by the Conference of 1806, Bourne and his suppoerters had no doctrinal dispute with the Wesleyans. Thus, for the next couple of years, the societies sympathetic to Bourne (known as ‘Camp Meeting Methodists’) continued to remain part of the parent body but things changed in 1811. After the Ramsor Camp in 1810, William Clowes was excluded from the Wesleyan Methodists and, in 1811, Bourne and his brother founded the first Chapel since his expulsion in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. Around that time Clowes, and his followers (‘Clowesites’), issued an invitation to Bourne, and his supporters, to form a new organisation. In February 1812 the new body adopted the name ‘Society of the Primitive Methodists’, which is believed to refer to John Wesley’s assertion that the early Methodists manifested the “Primitive” Christianity of the first century. The fledgling movement spread rapidly, first along the valley of the Trent. In 1819 the inaugural Primitive Methodist Conference was held at Nottingham (the site of a large Camp Meeting on Whit Sunday 1816 which had been attended by 12,000) and the second at Hull in 1820.

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