Primitive Methodism in Hertfordshire from 1838 to 1918: a Socio-Economic and Demographic Study
Noble, David Peter
This is a study of the history and development of Primitive Methodism in Hertfordshire from 1838 to 1918. It aims to discover and document, principally by means of socio-economic and demographic analysis, firstly, how Primitive Methodism became established in the county and how it grew and developed, secondly, the particular characteristics of Primitive Methodism in Hertfordshire, and, thirdly, the importance of the position of Primitive Methodism in Hertfordshire society that the movement had managed to create for itself by the early years of the twentieth century. The study finds that, in the 94 years of its existence in Hertfordshire, Primitive Methodism spread across the whole of the county and was to be found both in villages and rural areas as well as in towns. It confirms that the chapel was central to the life of local societies and it also provides evidence that Primitive Methodism attracted a distinctive following mainly, but not exclusively, from the lower social classes. In the early twentieth century, rather later than in other parts of the country, there was a noticeable change in emphasis, with a marked shift from the labouring classes to the semi-skilled and the craftsmen. This occurred at the same time as societies became an increasingly accepted and important part of their local communities, as evidenced by the active support of local politicians and other dignitaries. In addition, there was often close collaboration between Primitive Methodists and other nonconformist denominations. The life of the local society at Anstey is considered in detail. This case study demonstrates how the four themes of ‘organisation’, ‘people’, ‘property’ and ‘finance’ come together at the grassroots level and it illustrates the part that societies played in the growth and development of the Connexion. It also provides an insight into the lives of grassroots members of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, an aspect which is often overlooked since ordinary members rarely feature in the national record. Whilst each local society offered its members a variety of leadership roles, status and responsibility, the pattern of circuit development in Hertfordshire demonstrates considerable flexibility and fluidity as the Connexion responded both to changes on the ground and to outside influences. The study also finds that finance underpinned the very existence of a local society. Although the main purposes of chapel building were to support a society’s aspirations regarding its permanence and status in a particular locality, to function as a ‘focus for group identity’, and to be the heart of its religious and social activities, nevertheless chapel building meant that a society would be encumbered with a considerable burden of debt. However, the chapel was of central importance to the life of Primitive Methodist societies in Hertfordshire, and the records show just how much money, time and effort was spent over the years by all societies in ensuring that it was looked after and remained fit for purpose. This study addresses a missing element in the Connexional story not only by adding to research at the local level but also by advancing understanding of a previously neglected and under-researched area of Primitive Methodist history. It confirms that the Primitive Methodist story in Hertfordshire, whilst distinctive, is nevertheless generally consistent with the broader national picture of nonconformity in the journey from ‘dissent’ to ‘free church’. This study provides further evidence of the extent to which nonconformity, and religion generally, was an important part of 19th and early 20th century society in England. It also adds to knowledge and understanding of the history and development of nonconformity from a national perspective.
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