Bible Christian Chapels of the Canadian Conference – Introduction

The purpose of this work is to tell the stories of some of the people, known as Bible Christians, their emigration from England and their subsequent immigration to Canada. In our first chapter, written by Elizabeth Howard of Norfolk, UK, she tells us how the Bible Christians began and why this branch of Methodism was so successful. It was not the purpose of the this work to write about the denomination, its doctrine, or its hierarchy. That has been done by others, though their work, for the most part is now out of print and hard to find.

To fully understand the “big picture’” one must have a basic grounding in these matters however, so it is with pleasure that I offer the following information as an Introduction, written for the book by Rev. Colin Short, a now-retired minister at Porthleven in Cornwall, formerly with five chapels under his pastoral care, one of them being a former Bible Christian chapel. He comes to this project with great credentials, being a member of British Methodism’s National Committee overseeing the Archives and History, a position he holds in part because of his Bible Christian interests.

Introduction by Rev. Colin Short

Badash House, site of the first Bible Christian Conference in the UK in 1819.
Badash House, site of the first Conference in the UK in 1819

Local Bible Christian churches, in common with all Methodism, were called Societies. A Society would normally be divided into classes for pastoral care and fellowship, and each would be overseen by a Class Leader. However, in Bible Christian usage, such a person was usually called an elder. The ruling body of the Society was the Elders’ Meeting. Only those people who had formally been received into membership after a period on trial, usually having displayed some evidence of ‘conversion’, were technically Bible Christians, and they received a quarterly Class Ticket. If any Canadian Class Tickets survive they would be of much interest.

A Society need not have a chapel; many Societies existed in rooms or hired preaching places. One classic Devon example was The Up Side Waiting Room, Sampford Courtenay Railway Station, which was used from 1892 to 1938. Chapels were held on trust for the Connexion, the body of Trustees sometimes only being loosely connected with the Society. Sometimes preaching places existed without a local Society.

Societies were grouped into Circuits, and were required to contribute to the Circuit Fund. Ministers were appointed to Circuits (not individual societies) and were paid from the Circuit Fund. The senior minister was called the Pastor (in the rest of Methodism his title was Superintendent). One important role of the Pastor was to prepare the Preaching Plan, usually quarterly. This Plan allocated the ministers, and the lay preachers called Local Preachers, to the various chapels and preaching places in the Circuit, both for Sunday services, and for important mid-week meetings. Again, if any Canadian Circuit Plans survive they would be of much interest.

Appointments were made by the National Conference, meeting at one of the larger chapels. Ministers and lay people in equal proportion made up the Conference. Representatives were elected by the Districts, which were area groupings of circuits, and one of the ministers appointed to the circuits in the District was nominated as District Superintendent. Other Methodists called this minister a Chairman. Conference met in the UK at the end of July/beginning of August, and in Canada in mid-June, and new appointments of ministers began in September in UK, and as soon after Conference as possible, usually August or early September in UK, but as early as July in Canada. Each year Conference would elect a President, to take the chair and act as the figurehead of the Connexion during the coming year.

Between Conferences certain standing committees kept things moving, the most important being the Connexional Committee. ‘The Connexion’ was the name used throughout Methodism for the whole structure of each branch.

The first Conference in the UK actually met in 1819, at Baddesh House near Launceston which O’Bryan was then renting. Thirty ministers were stationed at this Conference, about half of whom were women. Another Conference at Baddesh House followed before the first Shebbear Conference in 1821. 

In 1854, Canada was withdrawn from the English Conference and given its own Conference, the first of which was held in 1855 in the little chapel at Columbus in Ontario County, Province of Ontario. In 1865 the District of Prince Edward Island was withdrawn from the English Conference and made part of the Canadian Conference.

In the U.K. the Connexion was never very widespread either in England or in Wales. From its West Country strength it moved along the south coast into London and Kent, and spread into south Wales, all in small numbers. It sought to follow west country migrants to Cumbria in the north west of England, County Durham in the north east, and Cleveland Hills in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and Bradford in the West Riding, and it planted new Missions in Blackburn and Bolton in Lancashire, and Birmingham in the Midlands. All these Circuits struggled into union in 1907, but the list of failures includes early attempts to open work in the Berwick area of Northumberland in the north east, and later at Cramlington also in Northumberland, in Scotland, in Chesterfield in the east Midlands, and Yaxley in Cambridgeshire. There was much of the country where the Bible Christians were unheard of.

So too, in Canada, there were large areas of Ontario and the eastern provinces where the Bible Christians, strapped for man-power and finances, never had meetings, nor set up congregations and Societies, nor built chapels, nor developed circuits. But because of the overwhelming number of people who immigrated to these areas from Devon and Cornwall, it would be misleading to say the Bible Christians were never heard of. Many former Bible Christians never again saw one of their own preachers once they reached Canadian shores.

Colin Short

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