Primitive Methodist Missionary Society

Scope and Content

The papers of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society include: an incomplete set of Minutes of the General Missionary Committee (1863-1933); home correspondence (1894-1933); correspondence from the Home Committee (1903-1908); foreign reports (1914-1933); quarterly reports from South and Central Africa (1894-1916); and correspondence from the overseas missionary areas of Australia and New Zealand (1895-1913), Fernando Po [Bioko, Equatorial Guinea] (1894-1933), Nigeria (1897-1933) and South and Central Africa (1892-1934).

Only a small amount of records survive for the Women's Missionary Federation comprising the Minutes of Executive Meetings, Minutes of Annual Council Meetings, Secretary's Reports, lists of secretary's engagements and correspondence concerning Methodist Union in 1932 (1926-1933).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Primitive Methodist Church did not formally constitute a Missionary Society, though its Missionary Reports used the term from 1843. Overseas work was directed by the General Missionary Committee of the Primitive Methodist Conference. The main Primitive Methodist fields were West Africa (Fernando Po [Bioko, Equatorial Guinea] and Nigeria) and Southern Africa (South Africa and Northern Rhodesia). These fields were transferred to the Methodist Missionary Society upon Methodist Union in 1932. Earlier work in the British colonies of North America and Australasia became autonomous by the end of the 19th century.

Primitive Methodism was the largest of the Wesleyan offshoots. Founded by Hugh Bourne (1772-1852) and William Clowes (1780-1851), both Wesleyan Local Preachers, the movement had no essential doctrinal arguments with the Wesleyan Methodism. Whereas the Wesleyans concentrated all power in the hands of the Ministers, the Primitive Methodists placed great emphasis on the role of lay people. Laymen were highly influential at connexional level and were occasionally elected President of the Conference. From 1872 the Vice-Presidency was open to ministers or laymen and after 1883 was almost always held by a layman. Women were permitted to be ministers. The Primitive Methodists represented a desire to be free to experiment in worship. They were sometimes known by the nickname 'Ranters', on account of their habit of singing in the streets.

The Primitive Methodist movement grew out of Camp Meetings, all day, open-air prayer and preaching meetings which had been introduced in to England from America. One of the first, and the most famous, of these was held on Mow Cop, on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire in May 1807. Camp Meetings spread throughout the Midlands and the North of England. The Wesleyan Conference of 1807 considered this style of meeting to be 'improper' and 'likely to be productive of considerable mischief'. Hugh Bourne was expelled from the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1808, and William Clowes in 1810. Bourne issued a ticket of membership for the new denomination in 1811, and the following year the first preaching plan was printed. In February 1812 the movement took the name of the Society of the Primitive Methodists, which is thought to represent their desire to revive Wesley's original (primitive) doctrine and practices. The first Primitive Methodist Conference was held at Hull in 1820 and the Deed Poll giving the Connexion official status was signed at the 1829 Conference.

Initially, the Primitive Methodist Church was a Home and Colonial missionary organisation. By 1843 there were 53 Primitive Methodist stations in the British Isles. Each home circuit carried out its missionary operations separately until 1825, when the Conference appointed the General Missionary Committee to provide centralised guidance. This Committee collected and distributed funds for missions, through a Primitive Methodist Mission Fund, and it was responsible for the appointment and supervision of missionaries.

At the beginning of the 1840s the Primitive Methodist Connexion re-organised. With the retirement of Bourne and Clowes in 1843, new figures emerged, notably John Flesher and John Petty. There were changes in the administration of the Conference, and impetus for overseas missionary enterprise. In 1841 the Conference asked John Flesher to draw up a code of 'Regulations Affecting Foreign Missionaries'. These regulations were adopted by the General Missionary Committee and were printed by the Conference in 1843. From the same year Annual Missionary Reports were issued under the name of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society (PMMS).

The first overseas missions were to the British Colonies. In 1829 Primitive Methodist missionaries sailed to the United States, and they entered Canada the following year. Work began in Australia and New Zealand in 1844. Missions in North America and Australia were absorbed by Methodist Churches in those countries and by 1900, the overseas missionary work was focused on Africa. In January 1870 the first missionaries sailed for Africa and settled on the Island of Fernando Po [Bioko, Equatorial Guinea], off the coast of West Africa. Nine months later a mission began in South Africa. From these 2 pioneer missions sprang two larger ones: Northern Rhodesia (mostly now the Zambia) in 1893 and Nigeria, by far the largest mission, in 1894. PMMS Reports referred to the African work as 'Foreign Missions' (as opposed to the 'Colonial Missions' in British North America and Australasia).

As overseas missionary work developed, a number of missionary departments arose within the Primitive Methodist Church. In 1897, a Women's committee was formed with the further development of the foundation of the Primitive Methodist Women's Missionary Federation in 1909. Within their first year of the federation 56 auxilaries were enrolled in the UK with a membership of c2,200 who raised £800 for missionary work. In 1919 the Federation's first two missionaries, Mrs Langley and Miss Richardson, were dispatched to the newly established Girls' Institute in Jamestown, Nigeria. By 1932 membership of the Women's Missionary Federation stood at 33,733 with 24 missionaries in Southern and West Afrca.

A Laymen's Missionary League was established in 1910, for the 'education of the Primitive Methodist laity to an adequate sense of the great missionary opportunities at home and abroad'. The League was modelled on existing lay organisations in the United States and Canada. Around this time, the Young People's Missionary Department was also founded. This aimed at bringing awareness of missions to thousands of young scholars.

The General Missionary Committee continued until 1932. When the Methodist Union took place, the overseas missionary work of the Primitive Methodists merged with that of the Wesleyan and United Methodists under the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS). Nigeria was the most significant ex-Primitive Methodist field to be added to the MMS.

Further reading:

Methodist Missionary Society, 'Our Missions Overseas - Past and Present. The First Annual Report of the Methodist Missionary Society, 1932' (MMS, 1932).

N Allen Birtwhistle, 'Methodist Missions' in volume 3 of 'A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain' (Epworth Press, 1983).

Urennah Christie Olehi, 'The History and Development of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society, 1893-1932' (University of London MA Thesis, 1984).

Joseph Ritson, 'The Romance of Primitive Methodism' (MPH, 1910).

'Atlas of Primitive Methodist missions in Africa' (PMMS, 1920).

John W. Young, 'The Quiet Wise Spirit: Edwin W.Smith (1876-1957) and Africa' (Epworth Press, 2002).


The material has been arranged by type of record and by region. Within this structure, correspondence files has been arranged alphabetically by correspondent or subject.

Access Information

Only available for consultation on microfiche.

Restrictions Apply

Acquisition Information

Deposited on permanent loan by the Methodist Church of Great Britain from 1978 onwards.

Other Finding Aids

A guide, based in part on Elizabeth Bennett's 'Guide to the Archives of the Methodist Missionary Society', is available in the SCRR (see also 'Document' field above for just PMMS section).

Archivist's Note


Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by Methodist Missionary SocietyApply to SOAS Archives & Special Collections in the first instance.

Related Material

SOAS holds the records of the (Wesleyan) Methodist Missionary Society which include the personal papers of Primitive Methodist missionaries. These are located in the biographical series of the (Wesleyan) Methodist Missionary Society. These include Rev. Edwin Smith, the noted Anthropologist. Surviving photographs of PMMS missions are kept with - and not necessarily distinguished from - the (Wesleyan) Methodist Missionary Society photographs. However, there is one small file of photographs, dating from 1870 to 1939, for Fernando Po [Bioko, Equatorial Guinea] and some extant photographs for Northern Rhodesia [Zambia] and Eastern Nigeria. Microfiche copies of the minutes of the Primitive Methodist Church (1819-1932) are also available.

SOAS also holds the Methodist Missionary Society Library, consisting of approximately 7,500 books and pamphlets. The Library includes Primitive Methodist Annual Missionary Reports (1843-1932), Primitive Methodist Missionary Records (1870-1904), Primitive Methodist Women's Missionary Federation Yearbooks (1919-1932) and periodicals including Primitive Methodist Missionary Notices (1851-1869), Herald of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society (1905-1922) and Advance (1923-1936). The Methodist Missionary Society Library is included in the on-line catalogue of SOAS Library (; books within the the Methodist Missionary Society Library can be recognized by the prefix MMSL.