The Rise of Manx Methodism,

This page is an extended version of a lecture delivered in a series


A definitive history of Manx Methodism, for a brief period at the end of the 18th century the most numerous circuit in the British Isles, remains to be written. It is a great pity that two scholars of the recent past, the Revs C.C. McFee and Rex Kissack, though both contributing greatly to various aspects of the story, did not tackle the grander theme. Two denominational histories have been written - James Rosser "A History of Wesleyan Methodism" of 1848 and William Curry's "Story of Primitive Methodism" of 1904/5.

Originally a Methodist was a member of a religious society, founded in Oxford in 1729 by the brothers John and Charles Wesley (1703-91 and 1707-1788). This society had the object of promoting piety and morality within the Anglican church. However the Enthusiasm (i.e. fanactism or religious hysteria) of these members, and especially the Calvinism of the followers of George Whitfield (1714-1770) did not fit well with the more rational and decorous Georgian Churchmen. After much debate, and disagreement with the Established Church the Methodists became a independent sect from 1836.

This is not the place, nor am I qualified, to consider the theological arguments behind Methodism - see the readable discussion in Davies which being published by the Epworth press may be considered as possessing the Methodist Imprimatur. John Wesley has been the subject of virtually countless biographies and studies. A recently published review of Methodist Theology by Thomas Langford provides a readable and succinct modern view of his theology - Wesley was not a deep theoretical theologian and it was often left to others to rescue him from some inconsistencies. He was however a great practical theologian. Wesley was very much of his time, interested in many things, including medicine, being shaped both by, and by his opposition of, the eighteenth century enlightenment view of the perfectibility of Man. "Wesley forthrightly emphasised original sin and the destitute character of human life" - he fought against a world increasingly questioning of authority, especially that claiming to be supernatural, and also one which was starting to see tremendous social upheavals. The original rules of Wesley's bands are included in Grindrod's Compendium of 1842.

Manx History

The first Methodist preacher arrived in 1758 but decided there was little probability of doing any considerable good while the whole island was a nest of smugglers. It was left to John Crook, sent by Liverpool Methodists in 1775, to have any real effect. His second visit in 1776 provoked some decided opposition, especially from Bishop Richmond who issued, in Moore's words an intolerant and violent pastoral letter to the clergy demanding that they expel any Methodists from their parish. However several of the clergy, and the Governor were more friendly towards him. In 1778 the Island was entered as a separate circuit with John Crook and Robert Dall appointed as preachers for a three year period. Wesley himself visited in 1777 and again in 1781 by which time there were some 1600 members on the Island. It was Wesley, who thanks to his support of the English position in the American war of Independence was in good political standing, managed to defuse some of the persecution of Crook.

Primitive Methodism arrived on the Island in 1822 and quickly established many meeting places and chapels. A brief history of the early days is given by Petty in 1859 and a fuller history by Curry in 1906/7. By the time of the census the Wesleyans appealed more towards the better-off working and lower middle class whilst the 'Prims' tended to be a working class, and in Man stronger in the south than the north of the Island, though for both Douglas was numerically their main strength (e.g. the Prims drew 30% of their total congregations in Douglas whereas this was only 18% of the Wesleyan) .

The Manx New Connection arrived late on the Island and played virtually no part. See report in MMHSoc No17.

Although there were at least two earlier false starts, the start of Methodism on the Island dates from c.1775 - almost a generation later than in most other parts of the British Isles.

The 225 years of Manx Methodism falls neatly, though somewhat simplistically, into three periods

(a) early growth: 1775-1850 -covering the rise of both Wesleyan, from 1775, and Primitive Methodism from 1825. This period also spans the years of tension and conflict within Wesleyan Methodism following the death of John Wesley and the 'papacy' of Jabez Bunting. 1851 is a convenient termination date for the period, the never repeated Religious Census of that year provides a snapshot of chapel attendance and a comparison with other denominations.

(b) mature period: 1850-1925, in which Methodists had significant impact on both Island politics and culture.

(c) decline: 1925-date, the effect of WW1 in reducing both numbers (especially male Sunday School teachers) and religious conviction, the union of Wesleyan and Primitive connexions in 1932 after which the smaller chapels started to be closed; and the post WW2 situation in which membership declined, especially from the mid 60s after which membership plummeted. Union with Anglicanism, agreed to by the Methodist Conference, failed to gain sufficient votes in Convocation in 1972 and left both parties somewhat confused as to future directions.

Early Days

The Rev John Meriton, 1672-1753, who, it is conjectured, was invited to Douglas by Rev Philip Moore in 1740 is generally counted as the first connection of the Island with Methodism - referred to by John Wesley as 'from the Isle of Man' and a friend of Charles Wesley, he played some role in the early days at the London Foundry. Kissack could find no obvious reason why he came to the Island or that he had any influence here. After what was possibly some scandal over finances he disappears from Wesley's attention though Charles Wesley composed a funeral hymn on his death.

The next known connection is the accidental landing during a voyage from Whitehaven to Liverpool, in 1758, of John Murlin, known as the Weeping Prophet from his style of preaching. From his journal we learn "We were carried to the Isle of Man where we stayed for a week. The second evening I preached in a large barn but on Sunday it could not contain all the people who would hear, and I was obliged to preach abroad.... the people behaved well...." However he must have made little lasting effect, excusing any further attempt as wasted effort whilst the Island was a nest of smugglers, and it is nearly 20 years later that we learn of the next, and ultimately successful, attempt to preach Methodism in the Island.

In 1775 the Liverpool District found enough resources to support one of their members, John Crook then 33 years old, to mission the Island for a six-month period. Crook left a diary of his time here from March 1775 - the usual mixture of elation and despair found in most missionary journals e.g. in Douglas "I preached an hour and a half, but the people were scarcely satisfied : they still wanted to hear more..." but he was obviously troubled by hecklers, especially a Presbyterian coppersmith whose "word doth act as a canker" and elsewhere "I find the work is abundantly more arduous than I at first conceived ; otherwise, I fancy I should not have taken it in hand; but the Almighty withheld the sight of its difficulty from me".

The political situation in the Island had changed enormously between 1758 and 1775 - in 1765 the British Government, in a relatively successful attempt to stop the 'running trade', had forced the sale of the Regalities from the Athol Lords to the Crown. The economic effect of this on the Island is still a matter of debate - certainly several of the non-Manx traders panicked and pulled out of he Island after selling up cheaply. Woods writing in 1808 writes "Many persons being by its failure thrown out of employment, emigrated to America; some went to sea; some engaged themselves in the fisheries; and others turned attention to the cultivation of the ground. To exchange an irregular and idle life for one of constant activity- and industry is no easy achievement: the waste lands and short crops evince how much remains to be done"

Crook, often styled 'Apostle of the Manx' by later Methodists, concentrated on Castletown but raised a class in Peel and another in Douglas - Ramsey appeared somewhat hostile towards him. He was obviously extremely popular as when, in August 1775, he was accepted by Conference as a full Travelling Preacher and stationed off the Island, letters were written to John Wesley asking that he be moved to Whitehaven from which he could again visit the Island. Meanwhile the Island societies had been placed under Whitehaven from where the Travelling Preachers took it in turn to spend one month in turn on the Island. Crook returned in the May of 1776 to find that Castletown and Douglas had prospered but that encouragement was needed at Peel - in the June we read of him staying there and sending deputies to Castletown and Douglas "to help the weaker brethren by prayer and exhortation" of these deputies he writes " After some time, others arose, who have all been also useful, especially by speaking in Manks."

This last quote brings up two related topics - the role of Local Preachers (these early helpers were better described as exhorters) and that of the Manx language. Although a Manx translation of Mathew's Gospel had been printed in a limited edition in 1748, the first edition of the New Testament in Manx appeared in 1763 , the Old Testament some 9 years later and the complete Bible in 1775. However even by 1807 the Rev T. Stephen stated that the number of extant Bibles and New Testaments were less than 800 of each. Rev Hugh Stowell writing in 1809, in support of a proposed SPCK reprint said that two thirds of the population read, speak and understand Manx much better than English and that third of the population spoke only Manx. The relative paucity of these Manx translations would indicate that they may have had less effect than W.T.Radcliffe and R. Kissack thought - nowhere in his journal does Crook refer to the availability of these Manx Scriptures Although Castletown and Douglas would be expected to have relatively large English speaking populations Peel was always considered the most Manx of the towns so it is a little surprising that the English speaking Crook enjoyed so much success there. Only a few years later in the minutes for Jan 1781 we read (in the Q & A format adopted from the English Conference)

Q: As it is very observable that the public are in general, getting better acquainted with the nature of Doctrines than formerly, what method would be best to assist our Manx Brethren in this respect

A: Might it not be requisite our brethren should acquaint their brethren, if English Preachers, what text they wish to have explained or to have their sentiments, manner or methods so explained or corrected as may make them appear to better advantage and make them more unexceptionally useful in public. This if duly attended to may be productive of very salutary effects both to the preachers and to the public.

Thus it would appear that one key role of these early LPs was to accompany the Travelling, or as usually termed, English Preachers.

Crook would appear to have devoted most of his exertions towards the poor for at several points in his journal we read similar comments such as this "I am by no means fond of having either clergymen, or gentlemen about me, since I know right well, if we endeavour to please them, the poor will have little benefit, and if we pay no regard to them, they will be offended. But I think it the best way to be on the safe side, that is, to preach in such a manner as, if possible, to benefit the poor ; for it is to these that the gospel is preached with most success." It would appear that these poor were not unchurched for when Crook worried that he was thought of going beyond conventional doctrine "in order to shew the people that I did not, in these things, go beyond the bounds of the church, I read to them, this evening, the homily on salvation and all seemed to give great attention"

However by this time Crook was attracting large congregations and enthusiasm was beginning to appear "I preached in a field near Mr. C.'s and we had a precious season. One person was so struck under the word, that he fell down as if he had been shot, and many more were much affected. We then set off for Peel, where I found the town, all in an uproar about the extraordinary emotions on the people's minds..." It was now that organised opposition began to appear - especially in Douglas where it was instigated by the Rev Philip Moore, Master of Douglas Grammar School and curate of St Mathew's. Philip Moore, a young prodigy of Bishop Wilson who had played a leading role in the translation of the Manx Scriptures, had been led to believe that Crook was preaching Calvinist doctrines. Here Moore may have been misled by reports from England for although Wesley had strongly disagreed with Whitefield on these grounds, they had managed after an initial break to keep friendly personal relations and indeed, at Whitefield's dying wish Wesley had preached his funeral oration in 1770. However Calvinist doctrines were difficult to extirpate, especially amongst new converts, Wesley noted that "the doctrines of Justification and Salvation by Faith are grievously abused by many Methodists".

Crook writes of being subject to all sorts of aggression "A great outcry was raised against the swaddlers, as the preachers were then designated, and they were often dangerously entreated, and almost every where met with the most scurrilous abuse. Mud, rotten eggs, stones, &c., were thrown at them without the least mercy or regard, and these devoted servants of the Lord Jesus and of mankind, 'of whom the world was not worthy,' were often covered with dirt and filth. Many who heard them seemed almost torn with rage and would interrupt them with all sorts of questions and observations, several of them frequently exclaiming, 'Ta breg ayns dty veeal'-It's a lie in thy mouth-allowed to be one of the most insulting and offensive sayings in the language." These disturbances seemed centred on Douglas " more so than in all other parts of the island put together" - Kissack suggests that a root cause was the identification of Crook with the new English administration - the Act of Revestment (or in Manx 'Yn Chialg Vooar' - the great cheat) was not popular with most Manx.

Bishop Hildesley had died in 1772 and was replaced by the first of a long sequence of poor and ineffective Bishops. The first of these Bishop Richmond issued his notorious anti-Methodist directive to the Clergy in July 1776 in which "unordained, unauthorised and unqualified persons from other countries" who had been "preaching, teaching publickly and maintaining Conventicles" with their "crude, pragmatic and inconsistent, if not blasphemous extemporary effusions of these pretenders to the true religion". Such persons were to be excluded from the church. Richmond appears to ignore the differences between Manx and English laws - the English act strongly regulating preaching did not apply to the Island though Island laws did require parochial schoolmasters (of whom several later became Methodist) to be licenced by the Bishop. Crook wrote to Wesley informing him of these attacks, Wesley, the well connected politician, advised him to stay on the Island but not to provoke his opponents. However in his reply, which was obviously intended to be 'leaked' to the civil powers, he writes " Violent methods of redress are not to be used, till all other methods fail. I know pretty well the mind of Lord Mansfield, and of one that is greater than he. But if I appealed to them, it would bring much expense and inconvenience on Dr. M-- and others. I would not willingly do this" a lightly veiled threat of intervention from London. This obviously had the desired effect as Crook recounts (presumably at second hand via the Governor's wife who was a Methodist supporter) that the Governor indicated to Dr Moore that "he would suffer no one to be persecuted for his religion, adding, I Sir, I bear the sword here.'"

That violent methods of 'self defence' had been resorted to is obvious from Crook's comments "Some of our young friends, who had more zeal than knowledge, could hardly be restrained from giving the adversaries advantage against the good cause in which we were engaged by their imprudent conduct" - also "In Baldwin, a poor idiot armed not with a common stick, but with a weapon more resembling a hedge-stake, was in the habit of placing himself near the preacher, and it was at the peril of anyone venturing to molest him"

However the physical attacks seemed to have died down within a few months; there is no mention of them in the Circuit Minute Book (from 1778) and by 1781 we learn of the wider dissemination of Methodist teaching (previous quote).

In 1788 George Holder was appointed to the Island as his first appointment and the first of three such appointments - his wife has left a diary in which we read:

" We soon had many friends to welcome us. But everything was new and strange to me. The people,-their manners,-language; I neither knew yes nor no in their tongue. In the evening we went to hear a Manx preacher, and I was struck with surprise at seeing the people flock to chapel."

Methodist Organisation

At this point it is probably best to review the organisational structure of the Methodists as they had developed by about the time of Wesley's death.

Travelling Preachers, Circuits and Districts.

Travelling Preachers (TP), initially termed assistants (to John Wesley) and later Ministers, were appointed to a locality in which a number of Societies were established. Initially the Travelling Preacher would visit each society in turn - hence the term 'Circuit' for the appointment. Preachers stayed in a given circuit for two years (later extended to three) though newly entered Preachers may only stay for one year before finding a better appointment.

This gives one of the major structural differences between the Established Church (and its parent the Roman Catholic Church) with its beneficed vicars attached for an indefinite period to their parish church and responsible for conducting all services there, and the Chapel arrangement in which chapels are grouped into circuits, provide a nucleus of Local Preachers nearly all of whom would be in full-time employment, supplemented by a few Travelling Preachers.

The choice of Preacher for the circuit was the job of Conference (an annual gathering of delegated Travelling Preachers) though the details would be delegated to a Stationing Committee. Circuits could put in a request for certain Preachers or object to others but the authority lay with Conference (more on this later). One Preacher in each circuit would be appointed Superintendent. Circuits would also be grouped into Districts with each District controlled by a Chairman - these District meetings would provide judicial control between Conferences.

The Island became a circuit in 1778 (part of Liverpool District), in 1798 split into two Circuits - Douglas with Castletown and Ramsey with Peel. Judging from minutes of the 'Manx Conference' this North/South split appears to have been undertaken on an experimental basis in the flush of an apparent high growth rate of members. Resources were split equally between the two circuits though Northside was intrinsically poorer. Within a year or two as numbers plummeted back to what appears to be their norm, several expressed disquiet and blamed the fall in numbers on the spilt but the two circuits remained (as in so much of Manx life the North-South division is an accepted norm)

In 1805 the Island Circuits were separated from Liverpool and the Island formed a single District.


The base unit was thus the Society established in some locality, initially by the travelling Preachers and later by organic growth allowing daughter societies to separate from the parent. As Wesley's rules put it 'each society is divided into smaller companies, called classes, according to their respective places of abode' - each class, or band, would be led by a Class Leader and have around 12 members (though actual numbers could vary widely depending on ability and charisma of the Class Leader). Some members may even be appointed class leaders with no class - they had to recruit their own! The duties of this Class Leader included

Besides collecting the weekly 1d offering (plus the quarterly 1s) the Class Leader would liase with the Travelling Preachers so that sick members would be visited etc. The Superintendent has the task of ensuring that each class was visited regularly by a Travelling Preacher - the classes had to be met at least once a quarter for the members to be given their Ticket which confirmed their continuing membership of a Society.

Leaders' Meetings

All Class Leaders were to meet at least once a quarter, which Leaders' Meeting, chaired by the Superintendent Minister, was the governing body for that Society. Each society would also have a Society Steward whose job included looking after Class money and the Society finances in general. Circuit Stewards would also perform a similar financial oversight role for the circuit.

A key role of these Leaders Meetings was to find the money to pay the Travelling Preachers - who in some cases they may not have wanted, and certainly had little say in their appointment.

Local Preachers

Class members who felt drawn towards becoming Local Preachers would according to the rules and regulations approach the Superintendent who would examine him (women preachers were never encouraged though tolerated by non-Wesleyans - but more on this later) and if satisfied the Superintendent would suggest his name to the existing Local Preachers. As Grindrod put it in 1842 "There are but few positive laws relating to this useful class of officers recorded in our Minutes. Much of the discipline by which they are governed, and especially that by which they are admitted into office, is determined by common usage." Legally the Superintendent could veto a suggestion coming from the LPs' meeting and suggest names for consideration but could not force acceptance. Judging from a few comments in minute books of the LPs meeting several prospective Manx LPs were approached by existing LPs rather than vice-versa. Assuming that they were acceptable then they would spend a period (generally six months) 'on trial' before being fully accredited or as generally said 'on plan'.


A characteristic feature of Methodism is the provision of a 'Plan' . The plan is in essence no more than a diary of appointments for the group of preachers working within a certain circuit - in practice they are considerably complex than this and cover more than just the Sunday services.

Quite when the first plan, as such, was drawn up is not known for certain; Wesley himself had drawn up a weekly preaching plan for the London preaching places and preachers in 1754. Leary dates the first mention of a plan to a letter by John Wesley dated 16 February 1780 requesting that Christopher Hopper, one of his assistants at Colne furnish him with a copy of the 'plan' and implying that Hopper had been the originator of such plans within the Colne Society. Certainly in Wesley's journal entry for 8 June 1781, re his second visit to the Island, he states of the Local Preachers: "They speak either Manx or English, and follow a regular plan, which the assistant gives them monthly".

These plans, originally designed for the convenience of the Preachers, were at some time started to be printed and made available for members to buy. The earliest printed Manx plan to survive is that of April-June 1813, which was issued in facsimile form, as a fund-raising effort, in 1898. The earliest Primitive plan to survive is that of July-Sep 1824 (i.e. within a year of the first Primitive missioning).

At the head of the list are the travelling preachers - in Manx Wesleyan plans these are generally indicated by Surname alone whereas Local Preachers are given by Initial and Surname. The Primitives were somewhat more democratic in not distinguishing them by style, though travelling preachers still headed the list. However there is a manuscript copy of a plan for 1800 for preaching stations in the North of the Island - interestingly names are written in full except for Travelling Preachers are indicated by 'EP' (English Preacher).

Local Preachers are ranked in order of seniority (i.e. how long they have been L.P.s) in the plan - they could lose some of this seniority, to 'be sunk', by missing appointments or other misdemeanors, more serious breaches of course meant that they were expelled.

Chapels and Trustees

The plan assumes some regular preaching stations - originally these would be farmhouse kitchen or barns in the country and rented rooms in the towns. Although Methodism started as a 'ginger group' within Anglicanism it was not long before it started to build its own meeting places or Chapels - the first of these is generally said to be the Horsefair Rooms in Bristol opened in 1739. Wesley often preached out of doors but the Conference strongly encouraged indoor preaching (which avoided some potential problems under English law) and progressively placed stronger emphasis on buildings set aside for preaching. Thus by the time Methodism spread to the Island it was the usual practice for societies to build chapels for their meetings. The first Methodist chapel was opened in Peel, according to Rosser in 1777, with he next being Kirk Lonan in 1780 - Thomas Street Douglas came in 1787. By 1800 there were around 15 Wesleyan Chapels and on the 1813 circuit plan 67 meeting places were listed, of which 54 were specially built chapels.

The legal owners of this chapel would be the Trustees - as Grindrod expresses it: "They hold. the public property in trust for the use and enjoyment of the Conference, according to our general rules and usages, and have no power to appoint Ministers, to officiate in the chapels of which they are Trustees," Wesley was very insistent that although the chapels were built and paid for by local Societies it was Conference who would determine who could preach in them. Sometimes this was expressed in the jibe "The chapels are ours - the debts are yours". This control over the usage of chapels was controlled by requiring them to be settled by a model deed which expressly limited who could preach and the functions to which the chapel could be applied - the so-called 'Methodistically Settled' chapels. The Trustees would generally be men of good standing both in the Society and also in the wider community as legally they would be responsible for debts etc. There was a difference between Manx and English law which allowed Manx trusteeships to be passed down to heirs as property rights - certainly the Primitive Methodists ran into some problems with unsympathetic inheritors and engineered a law through Tynwald in 1906, to avoid these problems.

As Sunday Schools were added to many chapels they too had to have their own trustees.

There were however some chapels built and owned by individuals which were never settled - Thomas Lewin's Chapel appears on Wesleyan Plans under his name.

Official Roles

As can be seen from the discussion of the structural arrangements, there were many opportunities for lay involvement from Class Leaders and Local Preachers on the spiritual side through to Stewards and Trustees on the secular. To those roles could be added the great number of Sunday School Teachers - Currie estimated that if all offices were held singly then every other Methodist would be an office holder. Even though in many societies certain people would occupy many roles, it was still an excellent mechanism by which relatively uneducated people with low social status could gain both self-esteem as well as practice in 'political' organisation. Certainly this experience spilt over into early English industrial unionism which, if not led by Methodist officials, adopted Methodist arrangements. In Man the second generation Primitive Methodists were the driving force behind many of the social changes around the turn of the century.

Dissent within Methodism

During Wesley's lifetime he kept a tight control on the organisation; however following his death there arose several dissenting groups - the first being the Methodist New Connexion of 1797 which though similar to Wesleyan Methodism adopted a much more pronounced Congregationalist stance. The MNC though strong in the North of England had no presence on the Island until the late 19th Century when they 'missioned' the Island and built Derby Road Church which however closed within 20 years . The more important dissent was that of the Primitive Methodists, often disparagingly referred to as Ranters, which was caused basically by enthusiastic members not wishing to toe the more conservative 'party line'. Dissent was caused by the decision of Conference to forbid 'camp meetings' in which large numbers of followers assembled in an isolated spot for a day and a night revival meeting. In many ways this decision was wise considering the suspicion in which the Methodists were beginning to be regarded by Authority, and the possibility of these meetings becoming seditious, together with reports from America of loose behaviour in such camps. The proponents of these camps, Bourne and Clowes, thus separated from Wesleyan Methodism in 1810 and, mostly due to the organisational ability of Bourne, prospered.

All these groups differed little in terms of theology (though the PMs were often more prone to biblical fundamentalism) - the differences were in the polity or organisational structure. Wesley's authoritarian structure has been put down to his original High Tory leanings with their belief in the divine right of Kings and his fear of any looser control. His background as an ordained priest of the Church of England encouraged him to separate the laity from the 'ordained ministry' as seen in the travelling preachers. Wesley effectively broke with the Established Church when he ordained preachers for work in America but did not 'ordain' any for work in the British Isles thinking that the Methodists would be also members of the Established Church. Wesley's Model Deed on which chapels were to be settled carefully removed the right of Trustees (the legal owners of the Chapel) from control of the Pulpit, placing this power initially in his own hands and, after his death, in that of Conference controlled by the 'Legal Hundred'. Wesley thus left the Methodists an ambiguous legacy of assent to the Established Church in terms of an ordained ministry yet an alternative network of chapels and a highly controlled set of 'ordained' Preachers with the two grades of 'Assistants' and 'Helpers', and 'Bishops' in the form of superintendents.

Many adherents from earlier dissent had joined the Methodists and wanted to cut all ties with the Establishment; also many clergy, like Bishop Richmond, were intolerant of a sect within a church. Within a few years of Wesley's death it became impossible to reconcile these two components. It was Thomas Coke in the few years after Wesley's death who established the supremacy of the Conference with its London based secretariat and all important Book Room. It was this organisation that was taken over by Jabez Bunting by the mid 1830's and who controlled the Wesleyan organisation, very much as a 'Methodist Pope' for some 25 years.

Both the MNC and the PMs disagreed with the separation of laity and ministry and gave equal roles to each - the PM's had explicit rules as to the composition of Conference requiring the ratio of laymen to ministers to be 2:1. Contrast this with the Wesleyans who allowed no lay representation at Conference until 1876.

Manx Wesleyan Methodism - the first 50 years.

Membership figures for the Weslyans can be found in Rosser (up to 1848) and are plotted below:

Wesleyan numbers per year

Note the very high growth needed to reach some 2,000 members within 8 years of the start - assuming that membership was restricted (as it should be) to those over 14 then around 1 in 10 of the adult population was a member by the end of the 18th Century. As a comparison the London circuit (the largest) had 2,950 members at Wesley's death in 1791. By the time of the split from Whitehaven in 1781 the Manx numbers were already some 1500, about five times those of the parent circuit which had been established for many years. Apart from the blip at the end of the 1790's reported membership remained at around the 2,500 number for some 50 years. The jump in the early 1830's was due to panic at the arrival of the cholera epidemic.

Whether these numbers were genuine and exactly what happened to cause the doubling of members at the turn of the century is not clear. The sudden growth has been put down to a mission by Mr Graa of Whitehaven but a more critical judgement of both may be overoptimistic reporting by the class leaders. Reported membership always dropped with the arrival of a new preacher. Rosser suggests some of the drop of membership may be explained by the poverty of the country folk - especially when it comes to paying in the quarterly shilling.

"Owing to the peculiar circumstances of this island--the inhabitants in the country parts using chiefly the Manx language ; and being thinly scattered through the mountain districts ; and few of them possessing much of this world's goods, they have a strong reluctance to meet the preacher at the regular quarterly visitation. The preachers have uniformly regretted this circumstance, but have generally submitted in such cases to write the tickets and entrust them to the care of the leaders : some preachers, however, especially on first going into the island, have positively refused to act upon this plan, and have returned only those classes, the members of which have been willing to meet them for the renewal of their tickets ; and this has sometimes occasioned a very serious apparent decrease".

This is collaborated by John Mercer though here he hints at a much more 'congregational' arrangement than was countenanced by Methodist rules:

I allude to the manner of giving tickets to the country societies. About the year 1797 or 1798 there was a great revival through the whole island. Several hundreds joined the Society. And as the preachers never visited them but on the weekdays, and were accustomed to hold their meetings till twelve or one o'clock in the morning, there was no time to give tickets: consequently they were given to the Leaders to give to their respective classes. This laid the foundation of one of the greatest evils which ever happened to Methodism in the Isle of Man. For though the preachers one after another attempted to give tickets to the country Societies year after year, yet it was labour in vain, as not one in ten of them attended to receive them. And this was the case with many of the Leaders as well as the members. So that the preachers, not knowing what to do, added to the evil by giving tickets to the Leaders who were present for their absent members, and leaving tickets for those Leaders who were absent, without either seeing their class papers, or knowing the number of members in their classes. By these means I may safely say that every part of discipline, in the country societies, fell to the ground. This caused a separation between the preachers and the Societies, and hundreds of them knew not their preachers from other men, unless they happened to meet them on the road, and guessed that they were English preachers because they had saddle baggs under them. The weekly and quarterly collections were very little attended to, and hundreds looked on the travelling preachers as a burden because they were now and then asked for something to support them. Most of the preachers would complain of the existing evils; and if one now and then had resolution enough to attempt to reform them, he was sure to be opposed by some or other of those who ought to have come forward to his help. When I came to Douglas Circuit in 1813 I found things in this deplorable state.

Relationship with the English preachers may well have been fraught from the beginning -

The preachers here in general are pious, and lovers of discipline; and will, I believe, respect the English that are so too.

[letter from Mr Brown to Wesley 1781]

Crook instituted a 'Conference of Manx and English Preachers' - the title apparently placing the Manx Local Preachers on a par with the English Travelling Preachers - an equality that was never recognised in Wesleyan Methodism. For this he was soundly criticised by John Mercer in his 1820 missive to Jabez Bunting

"He established good order in all the Societies; and had everything among them as regular as clockwork. However he set up one rule, which in my opinion has been, and still is, a great evil. I mean his giving so much power into the hands of the Local Preachers. He began by meeting them regular every Quarter, but instead of giving it the simple and proper name of Local Preachers' Meeting he gave it the high sounding name of Manks Conference, and adopted most of the phraseology used in the Minutes of the English Conference. But the evil did not consist so much in the name, as in the nature of that meeting. For instead of attending to the simple business of a Local Preachers' Meeting, they also transacted the business of the Quarterly Meeting too, and I may say almost everything which belongs to the Leaders' Meeting. And at last grew to such a height of despotism, that no man, however well qualified, must be a Circuit Steward but a local preacher. The above particulars have been a source of much grief to many of the travelling preachers, and of much contention between them and the Local Preachers. Mr. Lumb was the first who atacked their mixed system with any degree of success; for which daring attempt he brought on a paper war between himself and the Local Preachers, which was carried on with great spirit by both parties and ended in an appeal to the conference. Most of the preachers who followed Mr. Lumb have been doing a little towards pulling down this stronghold. So that through mercy we have so far succeeded as to get the Leaders' Meeting and the Quarterly Meeting raised up again as a separate concern from the Local Preachers' Meeting. And in Douglas Circuit [we] have prevailed so far as to get a man for one of the Circuit Stewards who is not a Local Preacher. And if the travelling preachers would be unanimous, and every one attend to his proper work, I have no doubt but this part of Methodism might be redeemed. "

Economic conditions worsened in the 1820's and 1826/7 saw the start of mass emigration to Ohio.. Work on emigration manifests showed that in 1827 at least the Manx travelled in large groups of families which indicated some form of community organisation. At least two Local Preachers emigrated in these parties - one of them, John Sayle a senior LP in the Ramsey Circuit, was placed at the head of the list indicating some authority within his group

The growth of available seats slacken during this period

number of chapels + seats

Although more chapels were opened, most were small - the majority of available seats were in the towns, especially Douglas. From the 1830's many earlier chapels were enlarged or rebuilt - often the older chapel then serving as the Sunday School.

Travelling Preachers

These and their wives and children had to be supported by 'quarterage' raised from members though Conference could allot some funds. Thus poorer circuits were loath to accept married preachers with many children to support and many ambitious preachers would avoid the poorer circuits. Not for nothing could John Mercer write to Jabez Bunting in 1820 "For as you have travelled upward of twenty years in the richest of the rich circuits, and I have travelled upward of nineteen in the poorest of the poor circuits".

The number of stationed preachers on the island, initially 3 until the split to form circuits when 4 were stationed, which was increased to 5 from c.1812 though Mercer was angling for 6.

Of these one in each circuit would be relatively experienced but the others were almost always newly entered preachers of which the Island received many more than its due share. Few of these stayed more than a year - their youth, inexperience and lack of Manx must have put them at a disadvantage when it came to 'controlling' the local preachers - hence Mercer's barbed comment " And if the travelling preachers would be unanimous, and every one attend to his proper work, I have no doubt but this part of Methodism might be redeemed." John Mercer was certainly the driving force for most of the decade before 1820; born Farndale Yorkshire, in 1770 he became a Methodists LP in 1794 and a Travelling Preacher in 1800. He first came to the Island in 1802, the next year he married, at Kirk Onchan, Jane Simpson (widow, nee Quayle) of Douglas He and his wife farmed Ballarobin in Malew and are reported as giving the land for Kerrowkeil Chapel. Presumably it was farmed by tenants though a William Mercer, possibly his son became a LP in 1835 but had to remove from the Island in 1836; John Mercer died at Birstal, 26 Jan 1839, aged 68. This Manx connection may explain his choice of circuits, all of which were in Northern England, before he returned to the Island in 1812-20, for most of which time he was Chairman of the District. In his note to Jabez Bunting he describes the Island circuits as so heavily burdened with chapel debts that none can afford to pay any extra towards preachers support. In particular Ramsey, "itself only like a country village in point of size" with "about one hundred in society and most of them very poor", could only afford to pay the single preacher's board and to pay 3/9d per week to the married man! Apparently the lodging for the single preacher was provided free by one of the families but they removed from the place in 1819 thus placing an additional burden on the circuit and thus adding to its debt.

Judging from his letter and from minuted notes he re-organised the district onto a sounder financial basis as well as improving the spiritual side (only under his charge do we read of religious discussions at the LPs meetings).

Although the travelling preachers were supposed to spread themselves around the circuit it soon became the norm for them to preach the Sunday services only in the main towns.

Manx Language

Possibly the Methodists arrived a generation too late to save the Manx Language in the way that the Welsh Calvinist Methodists provided a home for Welsh. Certainly the Manx language had its brief flowering during the last quarter century of the 18th century; even though Wesley had depreciated the use of Manx, a small committee produced a very acceptable translation of many of Wesley's and Watt's hymns.

The entries from the 'Manx Conference Minutes' make interesting reading:


Question How are we to act with respect to the introduction of New Manx Hymns amongst us for the future

Answer: have number and page announced

Q: Have we been diligent in learning our People to sing English Hymns

A No it hath been disregarded. How shall we proceed to amend this. Let an English hymn or part of one, be sung in every manx class


Q: As our printed Manx Hymn book is grown old among our people what shall we do in this case to revive their minds

A it is agreed that a Manks H B shall be printed, if there should be any gain it shall go to the use of this circuit. If any loss the circuit shall make it up

Thus it would appear that explicit action was needed to force English on the Manx speaking societies; presumably before 1788 the hymns sung would be those familiar from the services of the established church. Even as late as 1848 the majority of LPs were listed as Manx preachers - the younger ones tended to be English preachers

Local Preachers

A.W. Moore's comments (Manx Worthies)

"We regret that we have been able to find out so little about the early Manx Wesleyan local preachers, of whom Wesley said:" I never saw in England so many stout, well-looking preachers together. If their spirit be answerable to their look, I know not what can stand before them."

" How strange! ' as the late Thomas Kelly remarks, " notwithstanding we have had Manx Methodists second to none in philanthropy and piety that so little has been written of them "

Some 260 Wesleyan LPs can be recognised (though not all identified!) over the 75 years; and about 120 PM LPs over the 25 year period. One immediate difference from the Wesleyan LPs is the greater fraction of non-Manx names - the Cumberland miners who came over to establish Foxdale and Laxey mining brought their Primitive Methodism with them.

Arrival of the Primitive Methodists

The Primitive Methodists arrived in 1823 - as for the Wesleyans over half a century earlier the mission was underwritten by an English circuit - this time Bolton who sent over Butcher.

Robert Faragher (himself by then a PM LP having been expelled from the Wesleyans) writing in 1850 correctly gets the right tone of popular patronisation.

And lastly we have the services in aid of the poor and despised Ranters and their Missions. It may, perhaps, induce some parties to throw them a crumb, when we state that some six or seven-and-wenty years ago, one of their Missionaries found his way to this Island by a fishing boat, landed at Port St Mary [sic usually taken as Derbyhaven], and there began to preach Jesus and the resurrection. He travelled from parish to parish, and from town to town throughout the Island, where he was ridiculed by some, persecuted by others and followed by a few - and those, as a matter of course, were the poor and despised among men. Months and years rolled along, and old Butcher and his help mate Nanny, as he called her, continued to sing and pray from place to place - God working with them by mighty signs ; and there are yet in this Island who look back with delight and satisfaction to the infant days of Primitive Methodism in the Isle of Man

Primitive Methodist numbers

Dissent within the Ranks

The 1830's saw yet more agitation within the Wesleyans as the travelling preachers became more clerical and the centralising power of conference dominated over local circuits making ever increasing demands for more money. A dispute over the installation of an organ in a Leeds chapel was the spark that provoked the Protestant Methodists who joined with the followers of Samuel Warren, another critic of the centralising power, to form the Wesley Methodist Association in 1832. Further disputes with the all powerful Jabez Bunting led to the expulsion of James Everett in 1849 who formed the short lived Wesley Methodist Reformers (merged with WMA in 1857). Some of these dispute spilt over to the Island with the expulsion of John Cain in 1835 and again in 1850's to give a short lived reform sect under Francis Ward, ironmonger, and one time Wesleyan travelling preacher. Robert Faragher writing in his Mona's Herald devoted considerable editorial space to this dissent and, as would have been expected of him, was in favour of the reformers.

Reaction of the Established Church

Bishop Wilson, 1698-1755, and his successor Bishop Hildesley, 1755-1772, were men of high calibre - Bishop Wilson managed to keep church discipline going in the Island for many years after it had effectively died in England though he had some determined opposition from the civil authorities. The requirement for incumbents to preach in Manx also virtually restricted the choice of clergy to local Manx born and Wilson organised suitable training. Although the Athols who inherited the Lordship of Man in 1736 had got off to a good start in the appointment of Bishop Hildesley who oversaw the translation of the Bible into Manx, subsequent Bishops were of much lower calibre and the church sank in esteem. Hildesley's successor Richmond, 1773-80, was much disliked by his clergy and under him church discipline rapidly failed; as we have seen he was also strong in opposition to the rapidly growing Methodists. Bishop Mason who followed him was also strongly opposed but died suddenly after a short three years in office. The next 29 years were under Bishop Crigan, supposedly appointed as a stopgap whilst the Duchess of Athol waited for her son, Lord George Murray, to reach the canonical age for appointment as Bishop (the Murrays were notorious for nepotism) - after a brief period as Archdeacon of Man, Murray was given St Davids but died in 1803 (he did however had one claim to fame as inventor of the visual semaphore system adopted by the telegraph link between London and the ports). Crigan's health suddenly improved on the Island and although a pleasant and well liked person he made no impact and the church drifted - his task was certainly not eased by the constant strife between his patron the Duke of Athol, appointed Governor in chief in 1798 and the House of Keys. The following appointment of the young (24 year old!) Bishop George Murray - the nephew of the 4th Duke of Athol was a disaster, as Bishop Murray attempted to take tithes on all green crops including the all important potato crop. This provoked riots in 1825 and he left for Rochester in 1827. The English Crown had by then acquired the rights of appointment and appointed Bishop Ward who realising that accommodation in the churches was inadequate commenced on a round of church building. A copy of a letter of Bishop Ward [nd but c.1830]sums up the situation as he found it:

When B. Wilson died four score years ago there was scarcely chapel room for the people, at least not enough; they were then 20,000. There has been scarcely a church built or enlarged since and now the population is 50,000 souls.

The consequence of this neglect is dilapidated churches and not enough room for a sixth part of the people.

You may easily conceive the consequences of this. Schism has crept in, John Wesleys Methodism has sprung up. But such is the attraction and veneration of the people for the church and her ordinances, retaining still a tincture of the Wilson school, that as soon as the church bell rings on the Sabbath they shut up their meeting houses and repair to the church.

As many of them are in sympathy and they never receive the sacrament but in church. So that I know as soon as I can provide churches for them they will return to the true faith.

Most of these churches were designed by John Welch who described his employer:

An ordinary man, with the common tact and generalship of the world, would have acquired immortality by half this amount of beneficial labour properly applied; but strange to say, this ecclesiastical Hercules, who sows churches and ministers over the country as Deucalion would sow teeth, is scarcely thanked for what he has done.

The 1835 Commission on the Church of England recommended that the ancient diocese of Sodor and Man be merged with Carlisle on the death of Bishop Ward and this was passed into law by Westminster. A determined action by Bishop Ward and friends saw this part of the bill repealed Subsequent Bishops stayed but short periods, often using the relatively poor diocese as a stepping stone to richer livings elsewhere.

Bishop Shirley


The Methodist Conference had finally declared itself non-conformist in 1826 At the grass roots links between Methodists and the Established Church remained strong for much longer than in England. H.R. Oswald (a Presbyterian) writing in the 1830's says:

The Manx Methodists of his [Bishop Murray's] time could not be termed non-conformists, for, till very lately, none of them went as far to separate themselves entirely, but were regular attendants at the Divine service of the Establishment, and respected all her ordinances.

Multiple attendance, especially in rural areas, at both Chapel and Parish Church would appear to have been quite common and continued until much later in the century - many chapels choosing times of service so as not to clash with those of the Parish Church (see for example the times of service in the rural Wesleyan chapels). The anonymous diary of a Wesleyan Local Preacher covering the years 1826/8 indicates that even though he attended class and preached or exhorted close on every evening he still attended the Parish Church. He also attended the Primitive Methodist chapel when a known good (or a female) preacher was planned. Even as late as 1841a letter to Mona's Herald (8 June 1841) could say "The Rector of Andreas has changed the hour of evening service from 3 to 6 which has raised a great deal of dismay among the Wesleyans whose service is at the same hour." The writer agreed with the change but mainly for the convenience of a free Sunday afternoon in summer! Ellie Shimmin, writing of Ballaugh in the 1850's could say "We had service at eleven in the morning, and three in the afternoon. There was no service at night ,so we went to the Methodist Chapel at six o'clock. A service was also held in the Methodist Chapel at two o'clock in the afternoon, and, if we had a short service, we all went to another service at Church; we were all friendly".

Sunday Schools

In 1851 returns are available from 35 Wesleyan, 17 Primitive and 1 Wesleyan Reform Chapels. Chapel returns were 59W + 26PM thus about 60-66% of chapels ran a S/S.

Sunday School numbers

The number of Sunday Scholars on the rolls were 4260 students on roll (2759 attended) of these about 50% (2111) were on roll at some day school. They were supported by some 1044 teachers (581 m : 463 f) all of course unpaid - presumably these worked in shifts.

Most SSs were supported by collections generally at some Sunday School Anniversary Sermon.

Situation in 1851

1851 saw the first, and last, religious census held in the UK (and Man); I have discussed these results in detail elsewhere. Although it appears straight forward to just take the reported attendance at services this will overestimate the actual numbers of adherents due to multiple attendance. The adopted formula is based on that used by Horace Mann in presenting the original returns. The following table summarises the town and parish situation:

Influence on the Manx

Whether one agrees with Margaret Killip that Methodism was "an institution that combined a great influence on the life of the Island with an almost complete lack of understanding of and disregard for its traditions." [Killip1975], a sentiment that appeared to be shared in some respects by T.E.Brown " Then comes Methodism, and sweeps everything into the drag net of theological jargon. What chance had the wayside flowers A thing unheard of in the history of any other country we have no love song, no war song, except in obscure, precarious fragments. Nothing that expresses the heart of the people. Poor souls, they loved, even if they did not fight But love and hate alike went down beneath the Ecclesiastical harrows." [Mannin v9 p522] or with the Rev Radcliffe[Radcliffe1895] that it was necessary to correct the deeply degraded moral condition of the Manx following the easy money days of "smuggling" and the depression following the Act of Revestment - it is true to state that Methodism has had a major impact on the Manx. Probably around an eighth of the populace were associated with the chapel in its heyday, though many had a shared allegiance with the established church.


Maybe the final word on the role Methodism has played can rest with Robert Faragher as expressed in his review of Rosser's History of Wesleyan Methodism (1848)

What has Methodism done in the Isle of Man ? Go ask our Sunday Scholars and their teachers, who and what they had been without it. Ask our benevolent and charitable institutions whence they sprung ; or our friendly societies who gave them the first impulse.

Methodism we say, with the greatest propriety, has changed the moral condition on man ; it has laid the foundation of many useful institutions; and is blessing thousands of our present population. Nevertheless, we fear the simplicity, sincerity, and untiring zeal of early Methodism are almost unknown amongst us. There is too much conformity to the world, in manner, dress, conversation, and conduct ; too much love of mammon and the distinctions of life ; for it is the conscientious conviction of our mind that there is much room still for improvement; and that if a second John Wesley should arise, he would find almost as much work and need of reform in this our day, - even amongst his own followers - as did the great reformer of the eighteenth century amongst the members of the Church of England.


A brief guide to Methodist chapels.

References + credits

Moore, drawing heavily on an earlier work by Rosser, gives a brief history setting Methodism within the social history of the Island.
[Davies1985]: Davies, Rupert R. 'Methodism' 3rd Ed Epworth Press (ISBN 0-7162-0280-8) 1983
[Kissack1995]: Kissack R. 'The Contribution of Methodism to the Culture of the Isle of Man' published by Manx Methodist Historical Society
[Killip1975]: Killip, Margaret 'The Folklore of the Isle of Man'
[Moore1900]: Moore, A.W. 'A History of the Isle of Man Vol 2' 1900 (reprinted 1977 and 1992 by Manx Museum ISBN 0-901106-33-x)pp 674-681
[Radcliffe1895]: Radcliffe, 'Ellan Vannin' (esp chap XIV on Manx Methodism)
Some background to the relationship of John Wesley to Man can be found in the article by J. Kerruish in Mannin Vol 9 p511 et seq 1917.

The Manx Methodist Historical Society may be contacted via
The Secretary
28 , Droghadfayle Road,
Port Erin,
Isle of Man IM9 6EN



Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001