Kilham, Alexander
1762-1798; e.m. 1785

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GainsboroughRadical WM itinerant and founder of the Methodist New Connexion. He was born on 10 July 1762, the third son of Epworth Methodists. Converted in 1781 in a local revival, along with three of his brothers, he became a local preacher in 1782 and as assistant to R.C. Brackenbury accompanied him to the Channel Islands. During a further year in Lincolnshire he professed himself a Dissenter to obtain a preaching licence, met John Wesley in Gainsborough and in 1785 became an itinerant. He played a leading part in the constitutional debates following John Wesley's death. His first pamphlet defended the itinerant Joseph Cownley, his Superintendent at Newcastle, for having celebrated the Lord's Supper. For this he was censured by the Conference in 1792 and 'banished' to Aberdeen, where his encounter with Presbyterianism confirmed his hostility to episcopacy and the Church of England. He went on to produce a stream of tracts (under such pseudonyms as 'Trueman and Freeman', 'Aquila and Priscilla' and 'Martin Luther') expounding the case for Methodist reform and for lay representation in Conference, and thus became the spokesman for those who wished to separate totally from the Establishment. His doctrinaire approach, coupled with his exposure of petty abuses among the itinerants, earned the hostility of his colleagues. They closed ranks following his most strident pamphlet The Progress of Liberty (1795), in which he opposed the Plan of Pacification, and he was expelled the following year.

Kilham spent the next year soliciting support through the periodical he founded, the Methodist Monitor, and by preaching in northern towns. When Conference in 1796 again rejected lay representation, three preachers, William Thom, Stephen Eversfield and Alexander Cummin withdrew, met with Kilham and a few laymen and inaugurated the MNC. Kilham went to Sheffield, where, his first wife, Sarah, having died some months earlier, he married a local Methodist, Hannah Spurr (1774-1832) in April 1798. The MNC Conference of that year moved him to Nottingham, where he died on 12 December, following a visit to Wales where he caught a haemorrage of the lungs. He had combined evangelical passion with a zeal for constitutional reform, but lacked the discrimination needed to change WM from within.

By 1803 his widow Hannah had joined the Society of Friends. She started a school in Sheffield in 1806 and later became an early missionary to Sierra Leone, using her considerable linguistic gifts. She paid two further visits to West Africa, dying suddenly on 31 March 1832 on her way back from a visit to Liberia.

Kilham's daughter by his first marriage, Sarah Kilham (1788-1852), was brought up by her step-mother, became a Quaker and later a Congregationalist. She taught in her step-mother's school and in 1820, in response to an appeal, went out to St. Petersburg to set up a school for poor girls. She married a William Biller there, returned home twelve years after his death and died in 1852.


'Whereas Mr. Kilham has published to the world so many particulars so highly injurious to the characters of Mr. Wesley and the body of the Preachers, and declared himself able and willing to substantiate his charges before the Conference; and, notwithstanding, on his trial, was not able to substantiate a singhle charge; the Conference, on due consideration of the whole body of evidence, to gether with the disunion, confusion, and distraction, which Mr. Kilham's pamphlets have made through the Societies, do unanimously judge Mr. Kilham unworthy of continuing a member of the Methodist Connexion.'

Resolution of the 1796 Conference, quoted in James Macdonald, Memoirs of the Rev. Joseph Benson (1822) p.302

'A man of some acuteness, and great industry. - Lived by fault-finding. - Preferred a bushel of chaff to a handful of wheat… Made every conversation, and private letter, subservient to his revolutionary purposes. - Began to manifest the restless spirit of a reformer in the third and fourth years of his itinerancy, viz. in 1788, 1789.'

Wesleyan Takings (1840), pp. 327-8

'As I remember, his stature [was] low, his countenance common almost to coarseness, he had a clumsy hobbling sort of walk, as though his toes might stumble against his heels at every step. In preaching, his delivery was slow, his voice weak and faltering, and un-harmonious; but there was a solemnity in his look, an earnestness in his manner, a richness in his matter, and an unction accompanied his word, whiuch more than compensated for every natural defect: he commanded attention still as night.'

Eyewitness account in MNC Magazine, 1846 p.13, quoted in WHS Proceedings47 p.243

'During the internal disputes of the 1790s many within the main body of Methodism paw Kilham as an incorrigible dissenter, an agitator who was disturbing and unsettling the people called Methodists. However, it is clear from his publications and correspondence that, as one of his early biographers has concluded, "He loved Methodism with an ardour too sincere to desire its division."… It would be reasonable to conclude that Kilham was an earnest, pious evangelist whose main fault appeared to be that his ideas were way ahead of his times.'

Simon Ross Valentine in Methodist Recorder, 23 October 1997

  • J. Grundell and R. Hall (eds.), The Life of Mr. Alexander Kilham... (1799)
  • Charles Atmore, Methodist Memorial (1801) pp.237-39
  • S. Biller (ed.), Memoir of the Late Hannah Kilham, chiefly compiled from her Journal (1837)
  • John Blackwell, Life of the Rev. Alexander Kilham... (1838)
  • William Cooke, Methodist Reform and its Originator... (1850)
  • G.J. Stevenson, Methodist Worthies (1884-1886) 4 pp. 595-99
  • W.J. Townsend, Alexander Kilham, the first Methodist reformer [1890]
  • WM Magazine1887 pp.689-96, 773-82, 1888 pp.375-81
  • Mora Dickson, The Powerful Bond: Hannah Kilham (1980)
  • History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain 2 (1978) pp.281-90; 4 (1988) pp.269-79
  • Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography
  • Oxford DNB
  • Methodist Recorder, 23 October, 1997
  • John Dunstan, 'Alexander's Daughter: the childhood of Sarah Kilham', in WHS Proceedings, 56 pp.213-27
  • Colin Ella in Methodist Recorder, 25 October 2019