NOTES ON HUGH BOURNE

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for BBC RADIO STOKE " STAFFORDSHIRE GREATS" poll NOVEMBER 2002


I am very much encouraged that there are so many nominations for Staffordshire Greats. My vote might go for Dr. Samuel Johnson, Sir Oliver Lodge, or J C Bamford, amongst others, but for Hugh Bourne. His influence did more than almost any other one person to improve the lot of the poor and the welfare of the working classes, through the Primitive Methodist movement of which he might be said to have been the founder. (See our books archive for a biography)

Hugh Bourne’s conversion to Jesus Christ, and his desire to share the good news which he had found were his main motivation. But a desire for the social welfare and betterment of the poor was very much his concern. John Wesley too had a social concern, which led him to become an expert in "physique" or the medication of his time so that he might dispense free medicines to the poor.

Hugh Bourne recognised that education was essential if working class children were to escape the cycle of poverty and a life expectancy as low as 20 for some of the city factory workers. (A carpenter and wheelwright by trade, Bourne reached the age of 80.) Children then worked a 12 hour day, Monday to Saturday, and so the Sunday Schools he promoted were vital for them to learn even the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Opposition was summed up in the phrase, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." This foresaw the economic and social progress which would lift the working classes out of what was then little more than slavery.

He accepted women as of equal status with men by (amongst other things) appointing women Preachers. No, he was not a feminist, but someone who saw both men and women as of great value as persons and equally worthy of respect and honour.

Drunkenness was another factor which kept the working classes in poverty and squalour. The Primitive Methodists were active in various Temperance Societies. But when one of these tried to sign up Hugh Bourne as a member, he replied that he was not joining them, but they were joining him. From his youth, after once experimenting with alcoholic drink, Bourne had been a strict abstainer and an opponent of alcoholic drink.

Many of the Trades Unions owe their rise to the Primitive Methodists and Hugh Bourne’s concern for the welfare of the poor. Much of the early union leadership was drawn from the ranks of Primitive Methodist Preachers, and much financial relief began in the almsgiving of their churches, a primitive welfare state. This is covered in more detail in Joseph Ritson’s book "The Romance of Primitive Methodism", chapter 16. (from 25/11/02)

The influence of the Primitive Methodists transformed society in other ways. For example, wealthier citizens used to employ guards to protect their homes, but they found that former thieves became law-abiding after a Chapel was opened in the village. The Primitive Methodists reached out to the poorest people, who had been written off by the rest of society. While such men as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury battled in Parliament to improve the lot of the nation’s poor, the Primitive Methodists brought to them directly both spiritual salvation and social welfare. By their combined efforts, the whole moral, social and religious state of the nation was transformed, immeasurably for the better.

So I present to you Hugh Bourne, an unsung hero of the Staffordshire Moorlands. Not from a privileged background, but a man in many ways like yourselves. As tough as a hill-farm sheep. Humble. Shy, but able to communicate to high and low, old and young. Educated, but understood by the most ignorant. A man who stood for what he believed to be right, loved by the ordinary folk.. A pioneer who did not seek to get glory for himself. A preacher of good news to the poor. Truly one of Staffordshire’s greatest.

 

HUGH BOURNE'S SPIRITUAL SEARCH and THE BEGINNINGS OF PRIMITIVE METHODISM

Hugh Bourne was born in April 1772 in the Staffordshire Moorlands, and from the age of 7 was concerned about his relationship with God. For the next 20 years, he read the Bible, but had no real guidance about salvation until in 1799 his mother brought an anthology of Christian writings she had been lent.

Bourne wrote, "I believed in my heart, grace descended and Jesus Christ manifested himself unto me, my sins were taken away in an instant, and I was filled with all joy and peace in believing."

Though he was very shy, Hugh Bourne told others about his experience, and saw some of them converted. His closest friends were his cousin, Daniel Shubotham, and William Clowes, who had been a notable drunkard before his conversion in 1805.

Bourne had already established one Methodist society and built a chapel before the famous Camp Meetings. The people had complained that the prayer meetings were too short, so Shubotham commented that they would be satisfied with a day’s praying on Mow Cop. This eventually took place on Sunday 31 May 1807 in a field at School Farm, Mow Cop, about 1/4 mile south west of Mow Cop Folly. Starting at 6 am, this included preaching from several "stations" simultaneously as well as praying. Each preacher had such a crowd as could easily hear him in the open air.

Though this was meant to have been the only such meeting, other Camp Meetings soon followed. The second venue was at Norton-in-the-Moors, held as a counter to the debauchery of the Wakes. Amongst the other venues the following year was Ramsor (2 miles north of Alton Towers). It was for attending a Ramsor Camp Meeting in 1810 that William Clowes was expelled from the Methodists. Camp Meetings were not considered respectable, and the Methodist authorities had ruled against them.

Hugh Bourne and others of his circle were also expelled from regular Methodist society. Finding a group of people who depended upon them for leadership, they continued to meet together. A Ramsor man, Francis Horobin, printed a Class (membership) Ticket which included the text, "What think ye of this sect? For we hear that it is everywhere spoken against."

The first Conference of the fledgling movement was held in 1812, and at this meeting they took the name "Primitive Methodists". It is said that Hugh Bourne, tired from a preaching trip, slept while the decision was made. But he thought the name was good. The idea was taken from John Wesley, who had said that the early Methodists (in the middle of the 18th century) had the "Primitive" Christianity of the first century. Here, "primitive" means "early" or "original" not "undeveloped".

 

For further information, see the volumes in our Books archive.

R J Higginson, 23 November 2002, copyright.