FEMALE PRIMITIVE METHODIST TRAVELLING PREACHERS – [lecture given at WHS/WMHS Conference, Oxford, Easter 1991]

I must start by making clear that I am only dealing with the female itinerants, who were actually stationed and who are but a small percentage of the women preachers of Primitive Methodism. It has been far from easy to track down these women as evidence is scanty and when found is often biased. The starting point of my inquiry was a comment by the late Rev. Wesley Swift in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society in 1953 where he wrote, with reference to the Primitive Methodist Female Preachers:

‘We have been able to identify more than forty women itinerants, but the full total must be considerably more’ (1)

Mr. Swift was correct, as I have now traced ninety and I feel sure that there are still more lurking behind the initials of the stations of the travelling preachers listed in The Minutes of the Primitive Methodist Connexion. Sometimes it is possible to discover the sex of the itinerant by studying the accounts of the various funds published in the Minutes. For example, ‘A. Go(o)dwin was pledged’ (2) and she is found to be ‘Ann’ (3); ‘M. Bugden’, also pledged (4) is Mary (5); ‘E. Brown’ (6) turns out to be ‘Elenor (7) and ‘S. Willis’ (8) rejoiced in the name of Sophia (9). Other sources of information are, of course, The Primitive Methodist Magazine and local church and circuit records. Just one example of the difficulties encountered – I went to Cornwall to find information about an Elizabeth and a Harriet, but they turned out to be Edward and Henry. However, I found a Sarah and a Mary I knew nothing about so ended up all square!

I am not going to talk about Mary Dunnell or Sarah Kirkland in a short talk like this. It has been possible only to find biographies, memoirs or obituaries for twenty. These records vary in length, in the information they give of the personal lives of the person and in many cases they seem to fit into a pre-conceived religious frame- work concentrating on their spiritual state and inner feelings.This is understandable when it is remembered that articles written for the Magazine were intended to inspire and encourage the readers. However, a few conclusions can be drawn from these twenty, though one would hesitate to say that this sample group, being less than a quarter of the number of known women, could be regarded as in any way typical of the whole.

The twenty women in question were all born before 1816 and thus fall into the early period of the Primitive Methodist Connexion’s history and they became members between 1811 and 1834, soon becoming local preachers and quickly going on to be travelling preachers. Most of them were born in the North Midlands or further north, little information is given about their backgrounds – usually ‘poor,but industrious’ -, few had the benefit of much education and several went into service to help with the family income. Not surprisingly most came from Wesleyan or Anglican religious backgrounds and about half of them were converted when Primitive Methodist missions visited their home localities. Mary Ball of Belper was the only one apparently to attend a Primitive Methodist Sunday School. The two, Mary Edward(e)s and Fanny Hurle, who faced family persecution for joining the Primitive Methodists it is not surprising to find came from families of pronounced Anglican allegiance.

In view of the missionary nature of Primitive Methodism it is interesting to note that anyone possessing any speaking ability was soon pressed into service first as a local preacher and then as an itinerant. The call to preach sometimes came from an overwhelming conviction of the girl herself, sometimes because of a need for someone to minister in the local situation and sometimes because the church authorities simply ‘put her on the plan’. Many of the women felt a natural reluctance to accept the call, mainly through a sense of inadequacy. When we remember the tender ages of most of this group of twenty this is easily understandable, as apart from two who were in their forties the oldest of the group was twenty-six and the youngest fifteen when they commenced preaching.

Ministry – 5/20 remained single; many only remained as t.ps. for a short time, though Elizabeth Bultitude (29); Mary Burks (13/14); Mary Clarissa Buck (11 + 25 special); Jane Aycliffe died at 22 after 1 year; Lucy Hubbold retired through ill-health (3); 6 married male t.ps. and therefore continued, but not in their own right; 4 married l.ps.; 2 married twice and 2 were 2nd wives. When they left most reverted to l.ps. and also became class leaders. Settlec mainly in North Midlands and further north except Fanny Hurle (Frome) and Martha Doncaster (Australia).

Ill-health, stress and strain may have contributed to their retirement as well as marriage. Most had large families – probably the norm rather than P.M. Elizabeth Johnson – 7 sons and 3 became Mayors of Walsall. Certain circuits were very happy to have women itinerants. No doubt there were several reasons for this. They were a novelty and drew large congregations to hear them, which helped the spread of Primitive Methodism. Then the women were paid less than the men, receiving as stipend only 2 guineas a quarter in 1819, increased to 2.2s.0d in 1823 with board and lodging. In 1831 it was decided that the women preachers, after two years travelling, should receive 2.10s.0d whereas the men came more expensive at 4.0s.0d. plus a board and lodging allowance of 2.10s.0d and this rate was ratified in 1849. Obviously also there would not be the additional expense of allowances for a wife and family. All these things could be of importance to an impoverished circuit or to one where the work was just starting to make an impact. Let me give just a few examples to illustrate this point. Elizabeth Smith was not offered a salary, but expected to raise her own when she was ‘taken out’ to itinerate in Radnorshire. Sarah Price, who travelled for fourteen years, was stationed in the Redruth Circuit in 1828 and the circuit’s accounts for September read:

‘Sarah Price Sallery 6s.4d

Sarah Price Travelling expenses 1s.6d

Sarah Price Lodging 4s.0d’

Obviously, the circuit was financially embarassed and Sarah was not paid the going rate for the job. This is not an isolated case, Sarah also experienced it in the St. Austell Circuit, as did others elsewhere – of both sexes. The novelty value of female travelling preachers has already been mentioned and there are numerous references to their drawing power. Sarah Kirkland: ‘curiosity to hear a young female preacher hastily drew together a large concourse of people.'(11) and in Hull the preaching room was too small for all who wished to hear her. Great crowds flocked to hear Elizabeth Allen on her missions to Scotland and Ireland. People had to be turned away when Mary Buck preached at Bradwell and her superintendent minister reported of Elizabeth Smith that ‘the novelty of a female preacher drew numbers to hear.’ So I think it is fair to say that in some quarters, at least, the large congregations and perhaps even the success of Primitive Methodism was due to the novelty of their female itinerants as much as to the more general appeal of Primitive Methodism itself.

Another interesting point is the way in which Primitive Methodism spread. Often someone attended a camp meeting or service and then invited the preacher to go to another town or village. This was doubtless true of both sexes, but allied to the novelty aspect was particularly marked in the case of the women. Sarah Kirkland, Elizabeth Smith and Jane Ansdale certainly went on missions by special invitation. The Primitive Methodists were very ready to make use of every contact which was available to help the spread of the Gospel and it is likely that a network of useful contacts was built up over the years.

Little special consideration was given to the women just because they were women. They were expected to take their full part in conducting services, in pastoral visitation and particularly in undertaking missions and ‘opening’ villages and towns. Mary Porteous was sent to the Ripon Circuit and it is expressly stated that there were five travelling preachers stationed there and that Mary was not given any special consideration because of her sex. The distances travelled by the early preachers is amazing, especially when we remember that most of the travelling was done on foot, with only occasional lifts in ‘conveyances’. Elizabeth Smith travelled one hundred miles in a week, while Mary Buck journeyed vast distances taking special services for many years. It is an interesting exercise to plot the places visited by a particular preacher to see the area covered. Often they took three services on a Sunday in three different villages several miles apart – there cannot have been much time for meals to say the very least! One can imagine the danger these travelling preachers faced as they travelled around the country – actual physical danger as well as possibly accusations of promiscuity. The Minutes contain many regulations designed to avoid slander and to promote right behaviour.

Why the decline?

  1. M. became more established and organised and more male orientated – at least in the public image of the itinerancy.
  2. felt it would be more socially acceptable if it became more orthodox and respectable – shed female itinerants.
  3. period of consolidation – more lay opportunities in local churches and circuits.
  4. ministerial training – early preachers learnt on the job; conversation preaching etc.; later more educated congregations wanted more educated ministry. 1865 a 1 year course was started in York and then a theological College in Sunderland in 1868.
  5. strain of the itineracy – but men also, in later years the men were replaced, but not the women. Remember many were very young – Mary Ball, Ann Noble; Elizabeth Johnson (16); Martha Doncaster, Sarah Brown (17); and 4 more only 20.
  6. marriage – good excuse – unmarried and widows allowed, but not those with family responsibilities – stay at home not respectable to go wandering round the countryside preaching.
  7. missions and chapel building – women in rural and missionary situations – evangelistic missions, novelty to pull in the crowds, message was fiery ‘they preached the 3 Rs, ruin, repentance, and redemption and the appropriate style was plain, pithy and practical. Conversion was the aim, as many as possible and as quickly as possible’ as Obelkevich put it.
  8. chapel building – In due course the evangelistic thrust gave way to revivalism as the societies which had been formed as a result of missions needed building up into cohesive ‘chapels’.

The converts needed not only spiritual food, but also a permanent and often a special place in which to receive that food, so a logical progression ensued from cottages and hired halls to the purpose-built ‘Prim’ chapel. Chapel-building with the attendant development of structures of church and connexional government brought a completely different outlook within the local chapel community. The mere possession of a site and bricks and mortar meant that special office holders were needed to ‘service’ these buildings, so there was a proliferation of offices, of trustees, and of financial and building experts, of astute negotiators who could meet and deal with professional and business men on all aspects and levels of building programmes. Inevitably the itinerant became involved in this and as they were regarded as predominantly male preserves this became yet another factor which acted against the continued use of women travelling preachers. Graphs based on the 1851 Religious Census indicate the ‘explosion’ of chapel building in the mid-nineteenth century just at the same time as the phenomenon of female itinerants was on the wane. Thus it would seem illogical to think that there was no relation between the two facts, but equally illogical to regard this as the whole answer.

The building of chapels meant that there was now a tangible focus for the ‘life’ of the chapel community. A purpose-built building meant that all the ancillary organisations associated with Primitive Methodism evolved and developed. By providing activities such as Sunday Schools, tract societies, Dorcas societies, mutual improvement societies, sick visiting and missionary collecting the chapel was not only catering for its own members and their families, but also for the local neighbourhood. Life in the community tended to centre on the local chapel and there were more opportunities now within the local chapel for dedicated service. So, from the 1840s it appears that the women continued to exercise their ministry, but in a localised rather than an itinerant situation. It is a fact that there were many local preachers, class leaders, Sunday School teachers, sick visitors and missionary collectors, (15) so obviously there were capable women in the Primitive Methodist Connexion, but now they were working in the local chapel.

It appears that Primitive Methodism was very willing to use women preachers, but was no longer ready to ‘station’ them officially. Why? Does this smack of double standards, in that they were happy to use the women, but not to give them equal status with the men? Was it male chauvinism? Or was it just plain jealousy? Did the men wish to relegate the women to a more respectable role in the church in order to appear more in line with the other denominations? Whereas the women had been very useful in the evangelistic era now that the Connexion had settled down to a more mundane existence did they feel that it would be more appropriate for them to seem to be more conformist and thus hoped to bury their early ‘ranter’ image? Special occasions or missions would be ideal opportunities for the women to be used once again to attract the crowds in order to have great anniversaries and perhaps, unworthy thought, help to raise a good collection to assist with the upkeep of the chapel building so that the activities of the chapel community could continue to the mutual benefit of the members and the neighbourhood. As the Connexion strove towards attaining respectability in the eyes of the world and the other denominations the apparent excesses of its earlier years were toned down or abandoned and the female itinerant was one of the casualties.

  1. social change – affected Primitive Methodism as people moved from a rural to an urban environment. Much of Primitive Methodism had centred on rural areas and small village communities, largely untouched by the other denominations. So places like Scotter in Lincolnshire, Shefford in Berkshire and Cwm in Herefordshire were the heads of large and flourishing circuits. With the drift from the countryside the Connexion was forced to change its emphasis as well as coming to terms with the other changes which occurred as it made the transition from sect to denomination.
  2. conformism – As the denomination became more respectable middle-class values pervaded its thinking and now it was considered better to engage in ‘good works’ rather than ‘preach for hire’. As Primitive Methodism moved nearer to the other denominations the phenomenon of female travelling preachers was seen as an embarrassment.

CONCLUSION – women were still welcomed, but in local ministry rather than itinerancy. 2 stories to end:

  1. Mary Buck appointed to preach at New Mills, went to parish church to morning service, heard pointed sermon on’ It is shame for a woman to speak in the church.’ Perhaps unable to resist a challenge she took same text on the Monday evening.
  2. Hugh Bourne was asked in Glasgow why he allowed women to preach in his churches and replied ‘The men have monopolised the preaching for upwards of 18 centuries, and you must admit that on the whole they have made out very badly; and suppose now you permit the women to try and see if they cannot do better than the men have done. At any rate God owns them in the converting work, so we had better not interfere with them.’

Quite a number of the women itinerants married their male counterparts and this accounts for their disappearance from the stations, though in fact I suspect that they continued to exercise their ministry as before, but were no longer stationed in their own right. The Minutes record a Conference decision which may well have affected the ministry of some of the women travelling preachers:

‘No married female shall be allowed to labour as a travelling preacher (permanently) in any circuit, except that in which her husband resides (special cases excepted).’ (12)

It was Mary Porteous who fell foul of this edict in 1827 when the Conference re-stationed her in Whitby, while her husband, a seaman, was living in Gateshead. When she asked for a ruling on her case the General Committee decided that hers was ‘an extraordinary case’. The implication is that while the itinerancy was permissible for unmarried women or widows, those with family responsibilities were excluded. A widow who itinerated was Elizabeth Wheeldon, who worked under her maiden name, Elizabeth Hunt, then retired on her marriage to Richard Wheeldon, but on his death she returned to the itinerancy and continued till her second marriage to fellow travelling preacher Samuel West.

We have already mentioned that the women received less stipend than the men although they worked equally with them. For a while the women were allowed to participate in the Preachers’ Fund when it was started in 1823, but they were declared ineligible when it was enrolled in the High Court of Chancery of 28th January, 1841. Then there is no record of any of them ever becoming superintendents or ever reaching connexional office. In fact they were only co-opted members of the circuit quarter-day board and were only allowed to speak, but not vote. Even this was altered in 1824 to read that ‘none of our females speak or vote unless specifically called upon.’ (13)

Now I would like to indicate a few pointers which may help towards trying to account for the decline and ultimate demise of the Primitive Methodist female travelling preacher. The number of female itinerants reached a peak in 1834, when twenty-six were stationed and from that year the number declined until only Elizabeth Bultitude was left. It would appear then that once the Primitive Methodist Connexion had become established and organised it became more male-orientated at least in its public image of the itinerancy. It is likely that the Church dignitaries felt that their movement would be more socially acceptable if it became more ‘orthodox’ and ‘respectable’ and if this meant shedding their female itinerants then this was a price they were willing to pay at this point in their development. As the period of consolidation evolved obviously more lay opportunities arose for the women to exercise their talents within local churches and circuits. Ministerial training was another likely factor in the demise of the female itinerant phenomenon. Just a few more details to fill out the picture:

The strain of the itinerancy was such that many, of both sexes, retired and in the early days the women were replaced by the others, but as time went on this no longer happened. The men were always replaced. As well as the strain of the work, as we have already noted, the women often had to retire through ill-health or marriage. I feel these were contributory factors rather than actual causes for the decline of the women itinerants.

Early Primitive Methodism was essentially a missionary movement with the preachers breaking new ground in evangelistic missions in the Midlands, East Anglia, Yorkshire, the North-East of England and in Berkshire and Wiltshire particularly. These early missionaries used all available means to attract attention and to pull in the crowds, especially with street processioning, hymn singing, camp meetings and the novelty of women preachers. They faced ridicule and persecution, even imprisonment, and they endued privation and poverty. Their message was fierce and their style was passionate as James Obelkevich puts it ‘ they preached the three R’s, ruin, repentance and redemption and the appropriate style was plain, pithy and practical. Conversion was the aim, as many as possible and as quickly as possible.’ (14)

Consideration of the stationing of the Primitive Methodist Preachers indicates a trend towards the placing of the women in rural or missionary situations particularly later in the 1840s, so it seems that the pioneering spirit of Primitive Methodism still relied upon the novelty value and attraction of the female preacher to present an impact on the area to be ‘opened’. The statistics of the South of England, using the classification of the 1851 Religious Census to define that area, seems to confirm the theory that Primitive Methodism was most willing to use the female itinerants in missionary and evangelistic situations and in the more rural areas before a great deal of church building was undertaken. So, in 1840, 20.5% of the members were to be found in the South; 24% of all, both sexes, the travelling preachers; 24% of the male travelling preachers, but 40% of the women. In 1843 there were 22% of all the travelling preachers in the same area, 22% men and 45.5% of the women. If the figures are extended to look at the use of women in rural areas in addition to these used in the South, we find that 70% in 1840 and 91% in 1843 were stationed in these circuits. These figures would seem to bear out the contention that women were chiefly used in rural and mission areas in the later period particularly. Perhaps novelty value was still being exploited and there was less pretentious chapel building, with correspondingly less need for administrators and financial expertise to be found in such circuits.

As Primitive Methodism built its chapels, developed its organisations and activities, became more conformist and respectable so the whole concept of the ministry changed. The status of the travelling preacher was raised. In the early days there had been virtually no training for the young preachers, they learned as they worked. Extended articles published in the Magazines of 1823 and 1824 were intended to help the new preacher and he/she was encouraged to study in order to further the work. Certainly both Mary Porteous and Mary Buck ‘improved’ themselves, for example, and the very fact that the preachers had to keep and present journals of their work ensured that they had at least the rudiments of good English. Evangelism and the saving of souls was considered to be much more important than a formal education. Much of the evangelism was carried on in the homes of the people by ‘conversation preaching’ and it was not considered necessary to be highly educated to engage in this type of ‘missioning’ – a burning evangelistic fervour for the saving of souls was more important, together with a sound constitution, for the work was exhausting and arduous. It has been said: ‘It is generally known that the early Primitives possessed those peculiar qualifications which the good John Angell James said were needful for a missionary ministry, viz., ‘brains, bowels and bellows,’ i.e. good sense, a loving heart, and lung power.’ (16)

As the century progressed the educational demands of the ministry increased and the education of the congregations increased. As congregations became more knowledgeable and sophisticated they demanded better educated ministers and so the need for a more professional approach and a formal programme of ministerial training became evident. So a college training was required and this added to the other factors worked towards the change in the role of women in Primitive Methodism. In the country in general it was not yet considered necessary for women to be educated equally with men, so when the Connexion set up in 1865 a one year training scheme for ministers at Elmfield College in York followed by the establishment of a theological college in Sunderland in 1868 this further militated against the use of women in the regular ministry. It also appears that an ample supply of young men was coming forward to be trained and so by implication there was no need for women, who could, it was felt, therefore better employ their talents elsewhere.

To sum up then, it seems evident that although the preceding factors played a part in the decline and demise of the female travelling preacher, the chief prejudice, as the nineteenth century progressed was towards women engaging in itinerant preaching. Local preachers and evangelists were still welcomed and well used in the circuits and for missions. The climate of the age turned against some revivalist personalities rather than than against revivalism itself. When the centenary of the Primitive Methodist Connexion was being organised in 1907 there was a considerable feeling that women were not being given their rightful place in the official programme of celebrations. Then later when Methodist unity talks were under way the phenomenon of female itinerants was an embarrassment to the leaders of the churches and so they were conveniently forgotten.

I hope that I have given you a little glimpse of a fascinating subject. The stories of the women travelling preachers of Primitive Methodism deserves to be told and to-day I have tried to give you a bird’s-eye view of the work of the early itinerants, rather than tell the individual stories, and to suggest some reasons for their disappearance. It was 1974 before Methodism accepted women into the ranks of the itinerancy, though if it had not been for the conversations with the Anglican Church it is possible that women would not have had to wait so long before being admitted to the ordained ministry.


  1. Proceeding of the Wesley Historical Society Vol. xxix (1953) p. 79.
  2. Primitive Methodist Minutes (1832) p.4.
  3. (1838) p 16.
  4. (1833) p.2.
  5. (1841) p.22.
  6. (1839) p.1.
  7. (1847) p.30.
  8. (1841) p.4.
  9. (1846) p.22.
  10. The parish registers of Bingham contain the following entry: John Harrison (a preacher of the Primitive Methodists called Ranters) a batchelor, and Sarah Kirkland (a preacher also of the same persuasion) a spinster, both of Bingham, were married in church by banns 17th August 1818. (Nottinghamshire Record Office). cf. Herod, George, Biographical Sketches of some of the preachers whose labours contributed to the originated and early extension of the Primitive Methodist Connexion. (n.d.? 1855). p.321 where the date is given as 11th August 1818.
  11. Primitive Methodist Magazine (1881) p.164.
  12. M. Mins. (1827) p. 4; cf. Lightfoot, J. The Life and Labours of Mrs. Mary Porteous, p.102.
  13. M.Mins. (1824) p.4.
  14. Obelkevich, J. Religion and Rural Society, South Lindsay, 1825-1875 p.223.
  15. M.Magazine (1862) contains the biographies of fifteen women, most of whom engaged in these activities.
  16. M.Magazine (1878) p.351.