Rise of the Methodists

Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood's Bay
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by Dr Jack Binns

Scarborough’s earliest resident Methodist is said to have been a certain Mrs Bozman. She was a native of Robin Hood’s Bay, where there was already an established Methodist society; but even after removing to Scarborough every Sunday she still rode her donkey the 28 miles there and back to join her beloved class. As early as 1753, the Bay’s Methodists were numerous enough to merit a visit from John Wesley.

From 1756 Mrs Bozman had no further need to ride her donkey on Sundays: in that year Thomas Brown (1731-1811) arrived in Scarborough from Sunderland. He was the town’s first resident Methodist minister who hired a room on Whitehead Hill near to its junction with Quay Street and there preached to a small gathering of locals. Eventually, there was a sufficient congregation to form a permanent society class.

On Tuesday, July 10, 1759, a memorable day in Scarborough’s Christian history, John Wesley made the first of what were to be as many as 15 visits to the town. From the Bay he had ridden “over the huge mountains”, as he called them, to address a large crowd “near the main street”. At first, some of his curious audience were “wild enough”, but soon “all were quiet” and when he had finished speaking he heard not “one unkind word”. Scarborough was one of the last places to hear Wesley’s message in person and Methodism was to find a ready reception there.

There are many examples in our history of titles which originally were meant to be insulting but which eventually were adopted and accepted by their owners as compliments. Do today’s Tories know that their predecessors were so-called after Irish Catholic thieves and cattle-rustlers? “Quaker” was originally a term of mockery which has lost its negative associations; and Methodists have long since accepted what was once a derisory label.

John Wesley (1703-91) was the clergyman son of an Anglican clergyman who had followed the family profession to a fellowship at an Oxford college, but by accident, rather than intention, ultimately found himself and his followers reluctantly outside the church of England. At Oxford, his group of charitable, high-minded, strict-living Christians were nick-named “Methodists” which was certainly not meant to be favourable.

In 1735, John and his younger brother, Charles (1707-88), set sail for the new English colony of Georgia on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel founded in 1701. Their mission was an embarrassing failure, but John was deeply moved by the fortitude and faith of the Moravian pilgrims they encountered on the trans-Atlantic voyage. These Moravians prayed as often as monks, loved to sing hymns and prayers, and devoted themselves to missionary work far beyond their central European homelands.

Then, in 1738, at a Moravian prayer meeting in London, John was strangely stirred by St Paul’s message to the Romans to a conviction that he too must spread the message of salvation as far and as wide as he could. The following year, he gave his first open-air sermon and became an itinerant preacher.

The established church had failed to adapt itself to a Britain that was being transformed by industrialisation. If the vast majority of Scarborough’s resident population had never set foot inside St Mary’s, their parish’s only church, the situation in the newly-industrialised areas of the North and Midlands was even more pagan. John was soon amazed by the dramatic affect of his emotional appeal to the illiterate poor who flocked to his outdoor gatherings.

However, like its earliest Quakers, Scarborough’s earliest Methodists were considered fair game for the Royal Navy’s press-gangs and local riff-raff. In 1761, at the height of the Seven Years War with France, four Methodist leaders, including Thomas Brown, George Cussons and William Hague, were seized by force and put on board a tender in the harbour ready to be transferred to a warship. Fortunately, Brown remembered that he was a freeman of the city of Durham and his appeal to General Lambton, its MP, won them a speedy release and an apology from the captain.

An appeal to Scarborough’s magistrates would have been futile. When John Bland, the Quaker, complained that one of his Methodist employees had been physically assaulted by a Sunday mob, he was told “I never transact business on Sunday”. Methodists would have to fend for themselves.

Scarborough’s first purpose-built Methodist preaching-house was in Bennett’s Entry or Foster’s Yard on a site near the later Market Hall. But as about 40 resident were waiting for a visiting preacher to begin his sermon, the mob broke into the building and wrecked it. The preacher escaped through a window, left the town hurriedly and never returned.

Nevertheless, when John Wesley came to Scarborough a third time in April 1764 he found that much had changed there for the better. The town’s society had quadrupled and “God had put it into the head of an honest magistrate to still the madness of the people”. There was no building that could contain the numbers of his listeners, so “though the wind was very high and very sharp”, he preached in the open.

By 1770, Scarborough had become the head of a Methodist circuit which included Malton, Pickering, Sherburn and Brompton. Two years later, work began on Scarborough’s third meeting-house at the top of Church Stairs Street. Wesley preached there in “the shell of the new House” on Sunday, June 21, 1772, to nearly 300 people. Two years later he was back, this time on a Monday: “At six I preached to a numerous congregation in the new House at Scarborough. It is plain; and yet is one of the neatist and most elegant preaching-houses in England...”

Due largely to John Wesley’s enthusiasm, courage and astonishing endurance, a religious revival of the greatest significance had taken place within two decades and no town in the country was more profoundly affected than Scarborough. [to be continued]