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The Origins of Primitive Methodism


Sandy Calder


Studies in Modern British Religious History Series

Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2016

Hardcover. xvii+293 p. ISBN 978-1783270811. £75


Reviewed by Brian Clark

Hartford Seminary, Connecticut




To read Sandy Calder’s fine monograph, The Origins of Primitive Methodism, is like watching the operator of a crane wield a wrecking-ball. The edifice Calder is bent on demolishing is the entire complex of denominational myths and scholarly misperceptions that surround Primitive Methodism in England, particularly in regard to its rise and 19th-century career. Calder signals his intentions quite clearly in the preface, declaring that Joseph Ritson’s 1909 work, The Romance of Primitive Methodism, exemplifies in its title and tone the heroic self-understandings of Primitive Methodists, canonized in denominational accounts. More pointedly, Calder argues that those origin myths have essentially been preserved and amplified by recent scholars receptive to the story of a brand of Evangelicalism that defined itself as a working-class church in service to the poor [ix]. In The Origins of Primitive Methodism, Calder’s quest is to show that there has always been a stark divide between the realities of Primitive Methodism and the romantic portrayals of the movement, whether the metanarrative involved is rooted in the romance of taking the gospel to the poor or the rise of the British working classes [4].

The nature of Calder’s identification with historic Primitive Methodists is ever present in his work; he writes as a social historian of strongly empiricist bent, concerned with money and material culture, whose sensibilities and loyalties were deeply formed by his own working-class origins. To come to the study of Primitive Methodism from his particular point of view makes him less eager to see gospel heroism among the Primitive Methodists and less engaged with theology and details of religious motivation, but as he declares in the preface, his sensibilities make him both abler and more determined to recover “the silent voices of the past” even when those voices do not say what modern theories of class would lead one to expect [xiii].

Throughout the book, Calder is hunting myths, and for that work of demythologization to convince, he has to plausibly recount each myth, explain who hatched it and why, explain its appeal and reception, then demonstrate its distortions and omissions. The logic of demythologization demands, of course, that Calder create a plausible alternative to every narrative he declares bankrupt, so he must find new evidence or reinterpret old evidence at nearly every point. In keeping with the dictates of that logic, each chapter of the book constitutes an engagement with a distinct era, or distinct body of evidence, which he then places in the larger narrative arc of his revised narrative. Far more chronologically expansive that the title suggests, this book is also about the entire 19th-century trajectory of the denomination, the 19th- and 20th-century trajectory of the mythmaking enterprise, and the ways in which historians provided partial continuities for that mythmaking enterprise during the 20th century.

As Calder acknowledges in the introduction, the deconstructive work is relatively straightforward, but the far more difficult task of establishing a counter-narrative is what draws him to seek out and interpreting new kinds of evidence. Calder is principally concerned with deconstructing the myths of Primitive Methodist origins in the introduction and first three chapters of his argument. In the fifth through ninth chapters, which are organized according to the type of evidence analyzed, he contributes toward the construction of a new and nuanced PM story.

Calder begins his argument by frontally taking on the origin myth of Primitive Methodism in his second chapter, “The Historiography Problem.” There, as elsewhere in the volume, he portrays the leadership of the denomination as a small cadre of prosperous, respectable men determined to fashion out of the limited anecdotes available a narrative of heroic evangelism in the face of persecution. Calder is spare with his praise of most twentieth-century historical treatments of the movement, focusing on the wide influence enjoyed by Robert Wearmouth’s midcentury works, which established the dominant stream of historical interpretation for decades to come by claiming that “PM played a decisive role in the advancement of the working class [23].” That line of historical interpretation provided sympathetic linkages to the heroic myths of Primitive Methodist historiography, and the bulk of Calder’s own work is spent in contending with the complex and diffuse interpretive influences of Wearmouth’s argument.

The subsequent two chapters, “The Sources Problem” and “The Bourne Problem” must be read as a set, in light of the preceding chapter on historiography, since they bring to life the story of PM origins and the origins of the PM story. In order to juxtapose the two, Calder must search out new streams of evidence while interrogating accounts that survived purges of unedifying material. Calder writes of Bourne that “His writings, especially his retrospective ones, need to be decoded – not merely read [78],” and Calder does thorough and convincing work in reframing the events described by Bourne and in explaining Bourne’s efforts to shoehorn them into a convenient story. The tale of how Hugh Bourne sought to claim a central role in founding the denomination while deprecating the role of William Clowes is fascinating, but the way that his efforts were dealt with by the denomination is perhaps even more intriguing.

The fifth through ninth chapters of this work do not constitute a single chain of argument; instead, they are a bit more like the five arms of a starfish, each constituting a creative, coherent exploration of a distinct body of evidence. They all connect back to the central concern of Calder’s work, which is to explore the nature of Primitive Methodism. The effect is to create a composite picture of the movement, or at least the outlines of one, while all the while raising sharp questions about prevailing assumptions. While each chapter repays careful attention on its own terms, they are more than the sum of their parts.

An elegant strand of argument, carried by the seventh and eighth chapters, illustrates the power of his mixed-methods composite portraiture. In his chapter on “The 1851 Religion Census,” Calder demonstrates, by looking at the size, location, and date of construction of PM places of worship, that contrary to all expectations, Primitive Methodism seems to have begun in an area by building a chapel of relatively large capacity, then filling it all around it with small chapels. The net effect, which could not have been intended by a centrally administered strategy, was to significantly over-supply the local Primitive Methodists with Sunday seating and create areas of saturated presence, while leaving other locales entirely bereft of PM representation.

That specific argument in the seventh chapter prepares the reader for the eighth chapter on “The PM Chapel,” which overturns some of the easy assumptions and aesthetic dismissals of the PM chapels. In that chapter, Calder shows, among other things, that perceptions of PM chapels have been skewed by the assumptions of those studying them. He shows that PM chapels were competing with similar Nonconformist chapels in terms of expense and capacity, not reflecting impoverished builders, though they clearly show a very late adoption of the Gothic and an often-unwarranted expectation of future growth. His exploration of the chapels and their building costs in turn prepares the way for an examination in the following chapter of “The Character of the Leadership,” in which he emphasizes that PM leaders, much like their chapels, were much more respectable than often assumed. The relationship between the realities and the myths was not a simple one, however. According to Calder, 

The people who ran the organization were significantly more prosperous than the followers; and while the followers got poorer in the mid-Victorian era, the leaders and the itinerants did not. Discourse drove down the church's recruitment profile as the PM legends became increasingly self-fulfilling, while the status of its preachers and elite members rose; yet that same discourse ensured that those increasingly prosperous chroniclers would continue to accentuate the old hardships, thereby discretely obscuring their own situation [254].

The important thing for Calder is not to dispute many specific points concerning the Primitive Methodists, nor to make any “argument” about the connection apart from the divergence between its mythos and realities. His purpose, rather, is to try to shift the entire nature of discourse about Primitive Methodism, to change the kind of questions asked, the kind of investigations attempted, and the larger narrative into which episodes and details are set. He certainly takes pains to say, in countless ways, that Primitive Methodism and Primitive Methodists were never quite what their treasured myths proclaimed them to be, nor what romantic historical portrayals might make them out to be. In making that case repeatedly, in so many ways, with many kinds of evidence, Calder has provided us more than a volume on Primitive Methodism, more even than a contribution to our understanding of the larger Methodist story. He has shown us how a deconstructive impulse, when coupled with assiduous spadework, can drive us toward confronting the true complexity of the past – or what remains of it.



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