The national politics and politicians of Primitive Methodism
Thesis or dissertation
- © 2016 Melvin Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.
This thesis, which assists our understanding of the interaction between religious belief and political activity, presents a study of the politics of the Primitive Methodist Church and the MPs associated with it between 1886 and 1922. This was the zenith of the Church’s political activism. It traces Primitive Methodism’s evolution from an apolitical body, preaching individual salvation and with a particular mission to the working classes, to one that also promoted social salvation through progressive politics. The Church’s emphasis on individual moral improvement during its early decades receded and it increasingly advocated collectivist solutions to social ills, eventually espousing a balanced and synergetic combination of the two principles. This increasing engagement with progressive national politics manifested itself in the election of December 1885. In the wake of the franchise extension of 1884, 12 working-class MPs were elected, five of whom were closely associated with the Church. Although two working men, including Thomas Burt, the son of a Primitive Methodist local preacher, had preceded them in 1874, this influx of plebeian MPs was an event unprecedented in parliamentary history. The proportion drawn from a minor religious denomination was also notable. All told, my research has identified 44 MPs associated with Primitive Methodism between its foundation in the first decade of the nineteenth century and 1932, when the Church merged with other Methodist denominations. Although it frequently asserted that it was not wedded to any one political party, the reality was different. Initially, the Church and its MPs were firmly Liberal. However, the Liberal allegiance gradually diminished and an increasing number of Primitives supported other political parties, particularly the emergent Labour Party.
Historians have often focused on the importance of Primitive Methodists in the foundation and leadership of a number of early trade unions, particularly those for coal miners and agricultural labourers. The historian Eric Hobsbawm deduced from this that the Church experienced a ‘partial transformation … into a labour sect’: mutating from a purely religious organization into one that provided the Labour Movement with leaders. However, he lamented the lack of detailed inquiry into the religious background of the early generation of working-class MPs. This thesis remedies that deficiency in relation to the Primitive MPs, within the context of the Church’s own parliamentary agenda.
The core of this study begins in 1886 with the election of the group of Primitive MPs and ends in 1922 as the Church’s leadership began to realise that political activism was no longer a harmonising force for its members. It explores the Church’s official parliamentary aims and priorities as expressed at its Annual Conferences and District Meetings, the spectrum of members’ views articulated in Church publications, and the activities of its MPs in and out of Parliament. These are considered in the context of Primitive Methodism’s social and occupational composition, its geographical distribution, and theological foundations. Although necessary to understanding the Church’s political trajectory, lack of space has restricted discussion of the Church’s political activism from 1923 to 1932 to a brief overview.
- Department of History, The University of Hull
- Reid, Douglas A.; Macleod, Jenny, writer on history
- Qualification level
- Qualification name
- 3 MB