Northfield Methodist Church, Birmingham


Dr Dorothy Graham – May 2007


As promised this is a “one-off special publication, so please do not expect future ones to be similar! No doubt many people will think ‘thank goodness for that’, but it seemed important in view of all the Methodist celebrations in 2007 to explain what they are as they all form part of our Methodist heritage. I am only too well aware that each section is very condensed with many details necessarily omitted and that some statements are rather sweeping, but if anyone would like more information about anything I will do my best to supply it. I hope you will read about these events and so see how our present Methodist Church came into being. Right from its beginning the Church was ever moving forward and so it continues. For a Church must be a living, vital entity in order to serve the time in which it is set – it must not be static. There are always problems – for the whole of Methodism and also for- our church here at Northfield, but as our predecessors ‘went forth in faith’, so must to-day’s church. Challenges are there to be met and that is a job for all of us.

1707 – Birth of Charles Wesley

As it is 300 years this year since the birth of Charles Wesley this is just a very brief picture of his life, with comments about a few of his hymns.

Charles, born on 18th December 1707 at Epworth Rectory, was four and a half years younger than John. At eight he went to Westminster School, where his eldest brother, Samuel, was already teaching. It is possible that Samuel encouraged him to become a poet. In 1726 Charles followed John to Oxford University, though John was away much of the time acting as his father’s curate in Epworth. When John returned to Oxford three years later he found that Charles and some other students had become very serious minded – studying, reading the Bible and praying together, as well as visiting the poor and the local prison. They were nicknamed ‘Methodists’ and, eventually, Charles was ordained as an Anglican priest.

Although both Charles and John went to America in 1735, Charles was unhappy and unwell, so he returned home after just 14 months. He was longing and searching for a deeper faith. Then, on Whit Sunday, 21st May, three days before John’s heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at the meeting in Aldersgate Street, Charles had his own conversion experience.  For the next 50 years Charles wrote wonderful devotional verse. On the whole, it would be true to say that, because of his hymns, Charles Wesley is better known than John to many people outside Methodism. His hymns appear in hymn books of churches of all denominations.

Many of his hymns are sung on all sorts of occasions, even by people who know nothing of the hymn writer or Methodism. I once had a strange phone call from someone who asked me if I could tell her a hymn by Charles Wesley and she was rather taken aback when I said he had written ‘Love divine, all love excelling’, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ and ‘Christ the Lord is risen today – she’d obviously had no idea that such well-known hymns were his!

Before turning to the hymns we need to finish Charles’ life story: On 8th April 1749 he married Sarah Gwynne of Garth, Breconshire and they became a devoted couple. Although Charles continued to travel as an itinerant preacher he poured out his love for Sarah in verse. Sarah and Charles lived at 4 Charles Street, Bristol (now known as Charles Wesley House and a museum). Here their eight children were bom, but five died in infancy and were buried in the nearby St James churchyard. Of the three who survived, Sarah was a writer, and the two boys, Charles and Samuel, were musical. Charles’ grandson, one of Samuel’s sons, was Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the famous organist and composer. In 1771 the family moved to London. Charles Wesley died on 20th March 1788 and true to his life long loyalty to the Church of England he chose to be buried in the ‘consecrated ground’ of Marylebone churchyard. Recently there has been considerable debate about the relocation of the memorial, but his true memorial is surely his hymns. Sarah survived Charles by more than 34 years, dying on 28th December 1822. In 1876 a memorial tablet was unveiled in Westminster Abbey to both Charles and John Wesley.

A few Hymns

It has been estimated that Charles Wesley wrote about 9,000 hymns – around 4,600 were published during his lifetime and 3,100 after his death. There were many unfinished poems – 1,300 being published as recently as 1988. However, it is the quality and range of his hymns and the way they have enriched the worship of the church which is so important.

  1. The hymns have an ordered structure, with one thought leading on to another. and the fact that we do not often notice this when we sing them shows just how good he was at doing it. Look, for example, at ‘0, for a thousand tongues to sing'[744]. The lines build one on another like building blocks – see vv. 2-6. It is said that when Charles was talking to Peter Bohler about his conversion Peter said ‘Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with all of them’ and this is thought to be the inspiration for this hymn, which Charles wrote to celebrate the anniversary of his conversion. The hymn was always the first in the Methodist hymn book, until it was moved in Hymns and Psalms. It has a note of joyful and triumphant praise.
  1. The hymns are firmly based in Scripture, and full of theology, for example, ‘And can it be’ [216] contains 11 references to the New Testament. Look at v.4, which is based on Acts 12:7 and which may also have been influenced by his visiting the prisoners in Oxford and in Newgate. When I was at University we had a Church of Scotland Theology Professor who, one day, talking about one of the theories of the atonement said it was in one of Charles Wesley hymns and did I know it? Being a good Methodist I said, ‘yes, hymn 371 v 3’ (MHB). To say he was surprised would be an understatement! The hymn has a link with John’s death bed when Elizabeth Ritchie, who was in the room, spoke to him and he repeated the words:

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

So this hymn has a note of assurance and gratitude and wonder.

Another great hymn full of Biblical references is ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ [528]. There are many stories of the comfort it has brought to people.

  1. There is great emphasis on holiness – the ‘perfect love’, which the Wesleys regarded as the goal of Christian living. Conversion was just the start – it was a continuing process, so in hymns like ‘0 thou who camest from above’ [745] Charles expressed his longing to have ‘a flame of perfect love’ burning ‘with inextinguishable blaze’ to the glory of God. He is telling us that we ought not be satisfied with anything less.
  1. Then there are the Communion hymns. Remember the Wesleys were Anglican priests and encouraged their followers to attend Communion in their parish church, so he wrote hymns such as ‘Victim divine’ [629] and ‘Come, thou everlasting Spirit’ [298].
  1. There is a marvellous variety in Charles Wesley’ hymns because he wrote for all occasions and moods – hymns of rejoicing and hymns to comfort the mourning. ‘My heart is full of Christ and longs its glorious matter to declare!’ [799] is full of joy. The hymn ‘Worship, thanks and blessing. And strength ascribe to Jesus! Jesus alone Defends his own, When heaven and earth oppress us….'[574] was written to encourage the people ofWednesbury when they were being persecuted by the mob in 1743 to assure them that God was with them in all their trials and tribulations and nothing could separate them from the love of God.
  1. There are hymns for the great church festivals‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ |109] for Christmas; ‘Christ the Lord is risen to-day’ [193] for Easter; ‘Hail, the day that sees him rise’ [197] for Ascension and ‘Away with our fears’ [296] for Whit Sunday.

I end with the hymn, often sung at weddings, which Charles wrote as a love poem to Sarah Gwynne around the time of their marriage ‘Thou God of truth and love.’ [374]. Charles wrote ‘both’ in verse 3 and John altered it in lines 2 and 5 to ‘we’ and ‘all’ so that it could be used for congregational singing and it was included in the section called ‘For Christian Friends’ in the very early hymn books and in the ‘Christian Fellowship’ section of the 1932 Methodist Hymn Book [716].

The Preface to the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book declares ‘Methodism was born in song’, so long may it continue.

1807 – First Methodist ‘Camp Meeting’, the forerunner of Primitive


Hugh Bourne was bom at Fordhays Farm, near Stoke -on-Trent on 3rd April 1772. His father, Joseph, a farmer, wheelwright and timber dealer, was a professed Churchman, who deeply distrusted religious sects which deviated from the Church of England. His mother, Ellen, a thrifty, conscientious woman, was a strict member of the same Church, who brought up her family in the fear of God. They all received the rudiments of their education at her hands. Hugh was a rather shy, introspective child who loved reading and was influenced by books about and by Quakers. So, although by 1799, he had more-or-less drifted into being a Methodist he had wide sympathies and was ready to learn from any other religious community.

At first Hugh worked for his father, an uncle and then for himself as a timber dealer and carpenter and, in 1802, he built Harriseahead Wesleyan Methodist Chapel at his own expense. Soon after his conversion in 1799 his mother also became a Methodist and they joined a Wesleyan society. Ellen was thrilled when both Hugh and his younger brother, James, became local preachers. In 1801 a regular prayer meeting was established in Harriseahead and it was here Bourne first prayed and preached publicly. As the meeting grew its influence spread and resulted in ‘a camp-meeting without a name’ being held at Mow Cop on 12th July 1801.

The eccentric American evangelist, Lorenzo Dow, who visited England and Ireland three times, encouraged the ‘revivalists’ to realize their long desired wish to hold a camp meeting and the first took place on Mow Cop on 31st May 1807. ‘Camp meetings’ continued to be held and the Norton Camp Meeting of 22nd and 23rd August 1807 proved to be a milestone in Bourne’s life as, on 7 June 1808, the Quarterly Meeting at Burslem excluded him from membership for taking part in camp meetings. In 1810/11 the ‘Camp Meeting Methodists’ and the followers of William Clowes (the Clowites) joined together and adopted the name ‘Primitive Methodists’.

So, what were Camp Meetings? Introduced into Britain by Dow they were a feature of North American revivalism, perhaps best described as being rather like great open air religious picnics. There was marching, preaching, praying, lively folk-type music and shared meals. Many speakers gave short sermons or exhortations with fervent prayers. Dow emphasised audience participation and the use of simple, easily understood language. Wesleyan Methodism was appalled, but Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists embraced the idea. However, there was a major difference, the American camp meetings were open to excess with frenetic preaching taking precedence over prayer, but Bourne insisted that prayer was all important if camp meetings were to be a force for conversion. In 1819 he instituted regulations to ensure that all was done correctly and in order – going as far as having the chairman of the preaching service armed with a walking stick to poke the speaker if he/she went on too long! So, on 31st May 1807, the first English Camp Meeting was held on Mow Cop, a rocky outcrop overlooking the Cheshire and Staffordshire plains. The speakers were a mixed lot – Independent Methodists, Wesleyans, Quakers and others – and preaching was interspersed with praying, singing and sharing food together.

Wesleyan Methodism was unwilling to accept the ‘revivalists’ methods and practices and so, after the eviction of Bourne and Clowes, they simply went their own way and the Primitive Methodist Connexion was born.

1857 – United Methodist Free Churches

2007 sees the 150th anniversary of the first Assembly of the United Methodist Free Churches (UMFC). So what was the UMFC? It consisted of an association of smaller connexions, such as the Protestant Methodists, who left Wesleyan Methodism because they did not want an organ at Brunswick Chapel, Leeds; the Arminian or Derby Faith Methodists, who left in a dispute over doctrine; the Independent Primitive Methodists of Scarborough; the Welsh Independent Methodists; the Independent Methodists of Cornwall and some Wesleyan Association Methodist circuits which objected to the establishment of a theological college. By 1837 these disparate groups had joined together to become the Wesleyan Methodist Association.

Another group, the largest, to make up the UMFC was the Wesleyan Reformers. During 1844-9 several anonymous pamphlets, entitled Fly Sheets, were circulated. These pamphlets attacked the hierarchy of Wesleyan Methodism, especially the power of Jabez Bunting, centralization. Mission House extravagance, the power of the Connexional and Stationing Committees. As a result, three men, James Everett, Samuel Dunn and William Griffith, were expelled from the Wesleyan ministry in 1849. Over the next few years many people left Wesleyan Methodism and, by 1852, the Reformers had established themselves as a separate denomination.

Eventually, after considerable negotiations, the smaller groups, now the Wesleyan Methodist Association, and the Wesleyan Reformers joined and a uniting assembly was held in Baillie Street Chapel, Rochdale in 1857 and formed the UMFC.

The UMFC insisted that each circuit was autonomous and could elect anyone they chose, minister or layman, to the Assembly which only had four ex-officio members. The UMFC published its own hymn book. Magazine, Minutes of Conference and started overseas missions.

1907 – The United Methodist Church formed

The UMFC was always keen on Union with the other smaller denominations, but it was not until 1863 that the Methodist New Connexion (MNC), which had seceded from Wesleyan Methodism in 1797, approached the UMFC about union, however, no real progress was made till 1886. The Rev Hugh Price Hughes raised the question of union between Wesleyan Methodism and the MNC.  Although these negotiations petered out they paved the way for discussion for union between the other groups. There was much talk, but with little result until 1905 when the MNC, the Bible Christians (BC) and the UMFC resolved to make a real effort towards union. In October 1902 the UMFC’s The Free Methodist became the weekly newspaper of all three denominations. Discussions about a constitution continued until the Uniting Conference of 1907. On 17th September 1907 the three uniting bodies met in Wesley’s Chapel at 10.00 a.m., with people queuing for seats from 5.40 a.m. Edward Boden (UMFC) was elected President; George Parker (MNC) became Secretary and John Luke (BC) became the Conference Minute Secretary. New badges were presented – a silver casket containing a President’s gavel, the President’s Bible and a copy of St. John’s Gospel in all the languages of the countries in which the three Churches had missions. The resolution on Union was put to each Church in turn and then to the United Conference. In each case the vote was unanimous, The three Churches became the United Methodist Church and so remained until the Methodist Union of 1932.

1932 – Methodist Union

After the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1907 there were negotiations for further union in 1913 and a tentative scheme reported to the WM, PM and UM Conferences in 1920. In spite of some opposition and considerable reservations the PM and UM Conferences approved the proposals in 1925, but the WM did not get the required 75 vote until 1928. The Methodist Church Union Act 1929 was eventually enacted, so in 1932 the Wesleyan Methodist, the Primitive Methodist and the United Methodist Churches joined to form the present day Methodist Church.   The final independent conferences met and then the Uniting Conference was held on 20th September 1932 in the Royal Albert Hall. Here the Deed of Union was signed in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Thus the Methodist Church was inaugurated.

Local Information

At Union there were 62 circuits in the Birmingham District, consisting of 24 Wesleyan, 27 Primitive and 11 United Methodist circuits. By 1940 we find that in the Bristol Road circuit were listed the WM churches of Bristol Road, Harbome, Selly Oak (St John’s), California, King’s Norton, Northfield, Selly Park, Longbridge, plus Stirchley, a UM one. In the PM circuit of Selly Oak (St Paul’s) were St Paul’s, Boumbrook (Raddlebam Road), Stirchley (Cartland Road), Kings Norton, plus Hay Green noted as UM. This last is interesting as Hay Green was one of the few churches built at Union in 1932, hence their own 75th anniversary celebrations this year. Another fascinating thing is that the original Selly Oak Wesleyan Chapel had belonged to the Wesleyan Association, but instead of joining the Wesleyan Reformers, as most did, it elected to join the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion. So our present circuit is made up of churches from the Bristol Road (WM), High Street, Selly Oak (PM) circuits, plus Stirchley, which at Union was in the Edgbaston (UM) circuit. By looking at old circuit plans and other records we can trace the history of the Birmingham South West Methodist Circuit.

The Future?

This is in our hands and the hands of those who come after us. Anniversaries are cause for great celebration, when we ‘look to the rock from whence we were hewn’, but as we ‘thank God for all that is past’ we must ‘praise him for all that is to come’ – and work and pray.