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Women Preachers in the Bible Christian Connexion*

  • Jennifer M. Lloyd
Extract

In 1862 Mary O'Bryan Thorne, daughter of the founder of the Bible Christian Connexion and a Bible Christian local preacher, wrote in her diary: “At our East Street anniversary I spoke at 11, and Serena [her daughter] at 2:30 and 6; one was converted in the evening.” She regarded this as a routine engagement; something she had been doing since her sixteenth year, and that her daughter had every right to continue. Female traveling preachers (itinerants) were important, perhaps crucial, in establishing the Bible Christians as a separate denomination and their use was never formally abandoned. The persistence of this tradition makes their history an important case study of women preachers’ experience in nineteenth-century Britain, showing a trend toward marginalization similar to the experience of many other nineteenth-century women who sought to enter increasingly professionalized occupations open only to men. Even in the early years of the Connexion when the organizational structure was fluid and evolving, women were never on an equal footing with male preachers. With the development of a formal organization in the 1830s their numbers started to drop and the gap between male and female responsibilities widened, with women never assigned the full duties of male ministry.

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I would like to thank Joan Mills for sharing her work on female Bible Christian itinerants; the Rev. Keith Parsons for copies of his transcription of Lois Thorne's diary and his biography of her; George Potter for arranging to have Serena Thorne's diary, owned by the Uniting Churches of South Australia, photocopied; librarians at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, particularly Gareth Lloyd, the Royal Institution, Cornwall, and Shebbear School; Connie Gates, Tom Lloyd, and Jane Ellis for research assistance. Some of the research for this article was funded by SUNY College at Brockport and United University Professions.

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1 Mary O'Bryan Thorne Diary, Jan.14, 1862 (Shaw Collection, Royal Institution Library, Truro, Cornwall).

2 For the history of women in the Connexion before 1850 see Valenze, Deborah, Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton, 1985) and Shorney, David, “‘Women May Preach but Men Must Govern’: Gender Roles in the Growth and Development of the Bible Christian Denomination,” in Gender and Christian Religion: Studies in Church History 8 (Woodbridge, 1998), pp. 309–22.

3 For the exclusion of women from the medical and legal professions, see Poovey, Mary, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago, 1988), pp. 4050; Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class (Chicago, 1987), pp. 260–65; Vicinus, Martha, Independent Women (Chicago, 1985), pp. 2730.

4 “Connexion” was used by Methodist sects to emphasize their organizational separation from but doctrinal connection with Wesleyan Methodism. “Bible Christian” referred to the Connexion's perceived greater emphasis on biblical authority. They were also called Bryanites or Free Willers. See Shaw, Thomas, The Bible Christians 1815-1907 (London, 1965), p. 22.

5 Kent, John, Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2002), p. 6.

6 Kent, Wesley and Wesleyans, ch. 4; Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 92; Swift, Wesley F., “The Women Itinerant Preachers of Early Methodism,” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 29 (1953): 7683.

7 Minutes of the Methodist Conferences (London, 1862), p. 187.

8 Mack, Phyllis, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley, 1992), pp. 911. Women occasionally addressed the Men's Yearly Meeting; see Isichei, Elizabeth, Victorian Quakers (Oxford, 1970), p. 95.

9 Taft, Zachariah, Thoughts on Female Preaching with Extracts from the Writings of Locke, Martin, etc. (Dover, 1803).

10 Kent argues that the “failure to make more generous use of women partly explains why Wesleyanism had lost its unity by the 1840s (Wesley and Wesleyans, p. 121).

11 Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, pp. 10, 2227.

12 O'Bryan, William, “The Rise and Progress of the Connexion of People Called the Arminian Bible Christians,” Arminian Magazine (Aug. 1823): 256–57.

13 Bourne, F. W., The Centenary Life of James Thorne (London, 1895), pp. 178–79.

14 Graham, E. Dorothy, “Chosen by God: The Female Itinerants of Early Primitive Methodism” (D.Phil. Thesis, University of Birmingham, 1986), p. 33; Werner, Julia Stewart, The Primitive Methodist Connexion: Its Background and Early History (Madison, 1984), p. 142.

15 Barker, David, A Catechism of the Methodist New Connexion, Shewing the Origin of that Community, with the Great Principles on Which It Is Founded (London & Ashton-under-Lyne, 1834), p. 37.

16 Clark, Anna, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Berkeley, 1995), pp. 107–11.

17 “The Experience of Catherine Cowlin,” last volume of William O'Bryan's diary, John Rylands Library, pp. 4, 6.

18 Rise and Progress,” Arminian Magazine (Apr. 1923): 113–14, (Sept. 1824): 296.

19 Rise and Progress,” Arminian Magazine (Oct. 1823): 330.

20 Catherine O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan Sept. 24, 1818, John Rylands Library: Court Collection MS 92.5.

21 William O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan Sept. 9, 1823, Court Collection MS 92.7.

22 Thorne, Samuel, William O'Bryan, Founder of the Bible Christians (Plymouth, 1888), p. 80.

23 Bourne, F. W., The Bible Christians: Their Origin and History (London, 1905), p. 413.

24 Ibid., p. 413.

25 Ibid., p. 413; Shorney, , “Women May Preach,” pp. 314–15.

26 Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, pp. 136–37; Andrews, J. H. B., “The Rise of the Bible Christians,” Transactions of the Devon Association 96 (1964), p. 179.

27 In a sample of 28 female preachers (not confined to Bible Christians) between 1827 and 1841, 11 of 28 (39%) first preached in their teens and 6 more in their early twenties (Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 114).

28 Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 81; Minutes of the Conferences of the Bible Christian Connexion (Mill Pleasant, 1819).

29 A Discourse in Vindication of the Gospel Being Published by Females,” Arminian Magazine 2, 12 (Dec. 1823): 405–25. While O'Bryan's defense was similar to those of Zachariah Taft and Hugh Bourne, with which he was probably familiar (Werner, , Primitive Methodist Connexion, p. 21), he did not deal with two texts (I Cor.i.27 and Acts.ii.18) that Valenze (Prophetic Sons, p. 97) points out have gender connotations, referring to women as weaker vessels and slaves. It is possible O'Bryan did not wish to alienate his wife or Mary Thorne with such analogies.

30 Shorney, , “Women May Preach,” p. 316.

31 Mills, Joan, “What Are Our Thoughts on Female Preachers?” (unpublished MS.), p. 19.

32 Pyke, Richard, The Golden Chain (London, n.d.), opposite p. 46.

33 Thorne, John, James Thorne of Shebbear, A Memoir: compiled from his diary and letters, By his son (London, 1873), p. 144.

34 Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 112.

35 Arminian Magazine (Dec. 1823): 423.

36 Arminian Magazine (Mar. 1828): 112–13.

37 Arminian Magazine (June 1823): 213.

38 Short, Colin C., “The Bible Christians in Scotland,” Proceedings of the Wesleyan Historical Society 48 (Oct. 1991): 9192.

39 Mary O'Bryan diary, July 10, 1823

40 Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 155.

41 Mary O'Bryan diary, Dec. 7, 1823; Pyke, , Golden Chain, p. 56.

42 Bourne, , Bible Christians, pp. 78, 112, 115; Pyke, Golden Chain, ch. 8.

43 Pyke, , Golden Chain, p. 45.

44 Arminian Magazine (Sept. 1823): 323–24.

45 Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 113.

46 Arminian Magazine (August 1824): 281–86.

47 Catherine O'Bryan, “My Pulpit Feelings,” lines1–6, transcription, Shaw Collection, Royal Cornwall Institution.

48 Mary O'Bryan diary, Apr. 13, 1824.

49 Shorney, , “Women May Preach,” pp. 318–19.

50 Rev.Burnside, A., “The Bible Christians in Canada 1832-1884” (DT diss., Toronto Graduate School of Theological Studies, 1969), p. 284.

51 Freeman, Ann, A Memoir of the Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman, A Faithful Servant of Jesus Christ and an Account of Her Death by Her Husband Henry Freeman (London, 1826), pp. 21, 24-25, 36, 60, 71.

52 Bible Christian Magazine (Nov. 1865): 490.

53 Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 141.

54 Anderson, Olive, “Women Preachers in Mid-Victorian Britain: Some Reflexions on Feminism, Popular Religion, and Social Change,” Historical Journal 12, 3 (1969): 469.

55 Rowe, John, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (2d. ed.; St. Austell, 1993), p. 247.

56 Bourne, , Bible Christians, pp. 38, 347; Deacon, Lois, So I Went My Way: William Mason and His Wife Mary (London, 1951), pp. 24, 30.

57 Thorne, S. L., A Funeral Sermon Occasioned by the Death of Mrs. Catherine O'Bryan, Wife of Mr. William O'Bryan, Founder of the Bible Christians (Shebbear, 1860), p. 23.

58 Bible Christian Magazine (Apr. 1890): 212.

59 Johnson, Dale A., ed. Women in English Religion 1700-1925 (New York, 1983), p. 63.

60 Wilson, L., “Constrained by Zeal: Women in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Nonconformist Churches,” Journal of Religious History 23 (June, 1999): 193–96.

61 Lewis Court, extracts from Chatham Circuit Book, Court Collection MS 91.5. In 1820 Grace Barrett was traveling and preaching without pay and lent William O'Bryan £50 to help build chapels (Bourne, , James Thorne, p. 145).

62 Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 81; Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 11.

63 Shorney, , “Women May Preach,” p. 320.

64 William O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan July 9, 1824, Court Collection MS. 91.15. Mary never recorded any such celebration in her diary. Graham identifies one instance of a female Primitive Methodist administering the Lord's Supper, but none of baptism (“Chosen by God,” pp. 98, 104).

65 Arminian Magazine (Dec. 1826); 399400. When William Mason arrived shortly afterward, he agreed that Mary Ann Werrey should be relieved, but he wrote, “If the woman was to be taken away and not another sent, I believe many would not attend at all who now do….I must desire to have a female of a strong constitution” (Arminian Magazine, [Feb. 1827]: 37).

66 Catherine O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan, June 10, 1823, Cornwall Public Record Office X241/4.

67 Freeman, Henry, False Prophets Described, and Thoughts on the Call, Appointment, and Support of Ministers, also on Worship and a Vindication of the Ministry of Women (Dublin, 1824), p. 27.

68 A Digest of the Rules, Regulations, and Usages of the People Denominated Bible Christians (Devon, 1838), p. 11.

69 Pyke, , Golden Chain, p. 61. The 1837 allowances were more generous but equally unequal.

70 Minutes, 1820, pp. 7, 16; ibid., 1825, p. 8.

71 Minutes, 1820, p. 10; Mary O'Bryan diary, Nov. 13, 1824, Aug. 15, 1825.

72 Graham, , “Chosen by God,” pp. 271, 287.

73 Half the women who joined the Primitive Methodist itineracy between 1824 and 1828 had left by 1828 (Graham, , “Chosen by God,” p. 82).

74 Statistics from Mills “What Are Our Thoughts,” and Beckerlegge, O., United Methodist Ministers and Their Circuits (London, 1968). Possibly, some men preached for only one or two years trying to avoid “going on the parish” at a time of high unemployment. See Turner, J. Munsey, “Primitive Methodism from Mow Cop to Peake's Commentary,” in From Mow Cop to Peake, 1807-1932 (Wesley Historical Society, Yorkshire Branch, 1982), p. 4.

75 Beckerlegge, United Methodist Ministers, passim; Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” pp. 2829.

76 Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” pp. 8, 18, 4041.

77 Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 10, 1825.

78 Beckerlegge, United Methodist Ministers, passim.

79 Maynes, Mary Jo and Waltner, Ann, “Women's Life-Cycle Transitions in A World-Historical Perspective,” Journal of Women's History 12, 4 (Winter 2001): 13; Hunt, Margaret R., The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780 (Berkeley, 1996), p. 81.

80 William O'Bryan diary, Oct. 8, 1825; Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 15, 1825.

81 Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 7, 1825, Aug. 15, 1825.

82 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 17, 1865. We have no record of what Catherine O'Bryan thought of his regrets, which he reiterated throughout his life, but in old age when they moved between their daughters' households in Manhattan and Brooklyn she usually moved on when her husband arrived.

83 VaIenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 59; Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 17, 1865.

84 Minutes, 1820, p. 7.

85 Bourne, , James Thorne, p. 186.

86 The resentment may have been against William Lyle and Mary Ann Soper, who married on June 16, 1823 and disappeared shortly afterwards (Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 57).

87 Minutes, 1820, p. 7; (1823), p. 8; Shaw, , Bible Christians, p. 27.

88 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 17, 1865.

89 Memoir of R. Sewell,” Bible Christian Magazine (Feb. 1853): 55.

90 He returned six times over the next thirty years, and eventually received an annual pension of £20 from the Connexion.

91 The number of Primitive Methodist female itinerants increased between 1828 and 1832, possibly the result of a crisis in Primitive Methodist finances. Preachers were paid by local circuits (Bible Christian preachers were paid by the Conference), so women were less expensive and therefore attractive to cash-poor circuits (Graham, , “Chosen by God,” pp. 11, 8081).

92 Statistics from Mills, “What Are Our Thoughts,” and Beckerlegge, United Methodist Ministers.

93 Thorne, Roger, “The Last Bible Christians,” Transactions of the Devon Association 107 (1975), p. 50.

94 Valenze identifies chapel building and numerical growth as the main indicators of institutionalization (Prophetic Sons, pp. 274-81).

95 Shorney, , “Women May Preach.” p 319.

96 “To the circuit stewards, society stewards, class-leaders and principal friends, who feel interested in the establishment and spiritual welfare of the Bible Christian Connexion” (Shebbear, 1830), United Church Archives, Victoria University, Toronto.

97 History of the Bible Christian College, Shebbear,” Bible Christian Magazine (Nov. 1891): 668–69.

98 Burnside, , “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 25.

99 Statistics from Mills, “What Are Our Thoughts,” and Beckerlegge, United Methodist Ministers; Graham, , “Chosen by God,” p. 259.

100 Mason, Michael, The Making of Victorian Sexuality (Oxford, 1995), pp. 5051.

101 Valenze, Deborah, The First Industrial Woman (Oxford, 1995), pp. 182, 185.

102 Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 281.

103 Wickes, Michael J. L., The West Country Preachers (privately published, 1987), p. 56.

104 Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” pp. 3536. Martha Hutchings was Mrs. Mills' great-great-grandmother.

105 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 12, 1864.

106 The James Thorne Centenary: A Souvenir (London, 1895), pp. 63, 71.

107 Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” pp. 35, 68, 70.

108 Shaw, , Bible Christians, p. 33.

109 Ibid” p. 41

110 Burnside, , “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 236.

111 Bible Christian Magazine (Mar. 1848): 123.

112 Burnside, , “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 183.

113 Observer, Aug. 18, 1869, quoted in Burnside, “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 373.

114 Burnside, , “Bible Christians in Canada,” pp. 103–4.

115 Observer, Mar. 15, 1882, quoted in Burnside, “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 372.

116 Burnside, , “Bible Christians in Canada,” p. 373.

117 Octavius Lake, obituary of Serena Lake pasted into the last page of her diary.

118 Shaw, , Bible Christians, pp. 5758.

119 Ibid., p. 74; Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Mar. 8, 1869.

120 The Conference Minutes do not record the cheering, but see Serena Thorne diary, Nov. 24, 1870; Bible Christian Magazine (Dec. 1869): 542. The last Primitive Methodist woman itinerant retired in 1862 (Graham, E. Dorothy, Chosen by God: A List of the Female Travelling Preachers of Early Primitive Methodism [Bunbury, 1989], p. 7).

121 Serena Thorne diary, Nov. 24, 1870, Nov. 28, 1870.

122 Shaw, , Bible Christians, p. 74; Minutes 1870, Resolution IV. 1.29.

123 Beckerlegge, Oliver O., “Women Itinerant Preachers,” Proceedings of the Wesley Histprical Society 30 (1955-1956): 182.

124 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, July 22, 1860, Jan. 26, 1861; Obituary of Mrs.Lake, Octavius, Bible Christian Magazine (Sept. 1902): 421.

125 Mary Thorne diary, July 31, 1857, Jan. 26, 1861.

126 Obituary of Serena Lake pasted into the end of her diary.

127 Anderson, , “Women Preachers,” p. 480.

128 Anderson, , “Women Preachers,” pp. 469–72.

129 Bible Christian Magazine (Mar. 1865): 139; (Mar. 1868): 142; (June 1868): 281.

130 Ibid. (Apr. 1893): 238.

131 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, July 22, 1860; Apr. 23, 1862; June 7, 1863; Mar. 20, 1864; Oct. 25, 1865; Bourne, , Bible Christians, p. 432.

132 Bible Christian Magazine (Sept. 1870): 434; (Feb. 1871): 88-89.

133 Hunt, Arnold D., The Bible Christians in South Australia (South Australia, 1983), p. 34.

134 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Apr. 3, 1868; June 4, 1871; Hunt, , Bible Christians in South Australia, p. 34.

135 Anderson, , “Women Preachers,” p. 478.

136 Serena Thorne diary, Nov. 24, 1870, Dec. 1, 1870, Dec. 2, 1870.

137 Bible Christian Magazine (June 1868): 290–92.

138 Swain, Shurlee, “In These Days of Female Evangelists and Hallelujah Lasses: Women Preachers and the Redefinition of Gender Roles in the Churches in Late Nineteenth-Century Australia,” Journal of Religious History 26, 1 (Feb. 2002).

139 Thorne, Susan, “Missionary-Imperial Feminism,” in Gendered Missions: Women and Men in Missionary Discourse and Practice, ed. Huber, Mary Taylor and Lutkehaus, Nancy C. (Ann Arbor, 1999), p. 47.

140 Haggis, Jane, “A Heart that Has Felt the Love of God and Longs for Others to Know It': Conventions of Gender, Tensions of Self and Constructions of Difference in Offering to Be a Lady Missionary,” Women's History Review 7, 2 (1998): 171–92.

141 Rules, Regulations, and Usages, (6 ed.; London, 1892), p. 96; Minutes, 1894, p. 53.

142 Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 26.

143 Gagan, Rosemary R., A Sensitive Independence: Canadian Methodist Women Missionaries in Canada and the Orient, 1881-1925 (Montreal, 1992), pp. 20, 89.

144 China's Millions: The Monthly Magazine of the China Inland Mission, 1886, p. 62, quoted in Parsons, R. Keith, My Moving Tent: A Biographical Sketch of Lois Anna Thorne (privately published, 1985), p. 5.

145 Minutes, 1905, p. 55.

146 Parsons, , My Moving Tent, p. 7.

147 Bible Christian Magazine (Oct. 1892): 630.

148 Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” pp. 6064.

149 Beckerlegge, , “Women Itinerant Preachers,” p. 182.

150 Bible Christian Magazine (Sept. 1894): 556–57.

151 Minutes, 1894, pp. 4647.

152 For deaconesses see Prelinger, Catherine M., Charity, Challenge and Change: Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement in Germany (New York, 1987); Vicinus, Independent Women, ch. 2.

153 See Graham, E. Dorothy, Saved to Serve: The Story of the Wesley Deaconess Order 1890-1978 (Peterborough, 2002); Smith, Henry, Ministering Women: The Story of the Work of the Sisters Connected with the United Methodist Deaconess Institute (London, n.d). The Primitive Methodists established their Sisters of the People in 1901 (Graham, , Saved to Serve, p. 462).

154 Bible Christian Magazine (Sept. 1894): 571–72.

155 Ibid. (Sept. 1894): 556-57.

156 Minutes, 1897, p. 16.

157 Ibid., 1895. Not all pages in the minutes were numbered..

158 Ibid., 1898. A male evangelist earned approximately £5 a month more than a woman.

159 Ibid., 1895; 1897; Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 26.

160 Rules, Regulations & Usages, 1892, p. 91.

161 President's Circular, 1902, p. 9; Minutes, 1903.

162 Minutes, 1895, p. 53; Ibid., 1896, President's Circular, p. 10.

163 Bible Christian Magazine (Nov. 1895): 698; (June 1896): 497.

164 Minutes, 1900; 1904, p. 16; Bible Christian Magazine (Sept. 1897): 334.

165 Minutes, 1907, p. 6.

166 Minutes of the United Methodist Church (London), 1907, p. 90; 1908, p. 62.

167 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, 1/17/65.

168 Valenze, , Prophetic Sons, pp. 274–81.

169 Graham, , “Chosen by God,” p. 192.

* I would like to thank Joan Mills for sharing her work on female Bible Christian itinerants; the Rev. Keith Parsons for copies of his transcription of Lois Thorne's diary and his biography of her; George Potter for arranging to have Serena Thorne's diary, owned by the Uniting Churches of South Australia, photocopied; librarians at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, particularly Gareth Lloyd, the Royal Institution, Cornwall, and Shebbear School; Connie Gates, Tom Lloyd, and Jane Ellis for research assistance. Some of the research for this article was funded by SUNY College at Brockport and United University Professions.

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