Thorne family, of Shebbear

John Thorne (1762-1842), of Lake Farm, Shebbear, North Devon, had the reputation of being an honest and upright man and something of a 'Methodist', though no Methodist society had yet been formed locally. His family increasingly shared the evangelical fervour of the Shebbear curate, Daniel Evans. William O'Bryan visited their home on 9th October 1815 and formed a society there of 22 members. This in effect completed the formation of the first BC circuit.

James Thorne   Click to enlarge
One of the sons, James Thorne (1795-1872; e.m. 1816), born at Shebbear on 21 September 1795, became a member, a local preacher, an itinerant and assistant to O'Bryan in quick succession. Together they drew up the first Rules of Society in 1817, keeping, as Thorne wrote, 'as close as possible to Mr Wesley's Rules'. From 1820 to 1826 he was engaged in BC missions in Kent and London and during that period married his fellow itinerant Catherine Reed (1797-1874). After O'Bryan's withdrawal from the connexion in 1829, Thorne became its virtual leader, being involved in chapel building, publishing, the establishment of foreign missions and every other aspect of the developing denomination. He was elected President of the Conference five times (in 1831, 1835, 1842, 1857 and 1865). In his religious thinking he was a traditionalist, holding that Christian theology was a sacred deposit and that there could be no such thing as the development of doctrine. He was a noted speaker in opposition to slavery and in support of temperance, and Sunday Schools. He supported the Evangelical Alliance and the Bible Society, but 'had no use for bigoted or narrow sectarianism'. He had some esteem for the Anglican liturgy, but was opposed to the establishment. He was a sturdy Protestant, but as a political Liberal supported Roman Catholic emancipation. He was assistant editor of O'Bryan's Arminian Magazine from 1822 to 1829 and as editor of its successor, the *BC Magazine, from 1829 to 1866 he guided the denomination in its religious, social and political thinking. Education was a particular interest and he took a leading part in the founding of the connexional school at Shebbear and its development into the prestigious college, of which he became the manager in 1844. He retired to Plymouth in 1870, died there on 28 January 1872 and was buried at Shebbear.

His youngest son, John Thorne (1839-1914; e.m. 1873) was born at Langtree, Devon, worked in the connexional printing office and became a journalist in Plymouth. In 1872 he offered for service in South Australia. When farming settlements opened up in the north of the State in the 1870s he made several visits to the new towns and during the 11 years he superintended the BC work in the north he opened many preaching places, extended circuit boundaries and built churches. He was the main instigator of the Church's Bush Missions. He was President of the South Australia BC Conference in 1887 and 1899 (when he signed the Deed of Union on its behalf). While visiting England in 1895 he was President of the British BC Conference.

Samuel Thorne   Click to enlarge
James's brother Samuel Thorne (1798-1873) was a BC itinerant from 1819 to 1822 and Book Steward 1822-1824 and 1827-1836. In 1825 he married Mary O'Bryan (1807-1883), daughter of the denomination's founder and a fellow itinerant. Mary's journal reflects the ups and downs of their unequal, debt-ridden marriage. They settled for a time at Devonport, then at Shebbear, where Samuel was the denomination's printer and publisher. They both worked in the printing shop and at the same time opened a school at Prospect House (the precursor of Shebbear College) and looked after the farm.

Their ten children, included Samuel Ley Thorne (1830-1892; e.m. 1851). He was born at Shebbear on 24 March 1830 and died on 2 March 1892. A high point in his ministry came when, in 1877, he was sent from being pastor and District Superintendent in Bodmin Circuit & District to be the single minister at Bradford, Yorks (opened without a minister in 1876) and Superintendent of the Barrow & Durham (later Bradford) District. He stayed 4 years and established a society, initially based on Bible Christian woollen industry migrants from Wellington, Somerset, as an indigenous Bradford congregation - the only one of the northern BC Missions made up predominantly of local people rather than West Country immigrants. As Superintendent he visited Chesterfield, and encouraged the infant, but short-lived BC Mission there.

A daughter of Samuel and Mary Thorne,Serena Thorne (1842-1902), became a missionary in Australia and married Octavius Lake.

One of Samuel Ley Thorne's sons was Samuel Thomas Thorne (1860-91), born on 15 October 1860, at Launcells, near Bude. He was one of the first BC missionaries sent to China in 1885. After twelve months in Yunnan Fu, he went alone to open a mission station in Chaotung, but the rigours of the climate, harsh living conditions and the magnitude of the task he had set himself undermined his health and he died of typhus on 23 September 1891. His obituary, perhaps uniquely, appeared alongside that of his father in the 1892 Minutes. After a furlough, his widow, Lois Anna Malpas of the CIM, returned to continue the work until her health also broke down and she died in 1904.

  • John Thorne, James Thorne of Shebbear: a memoir compiled from his diaries and letters (1873)
  • Samuel L. Thorne, Samuel Thorne, Printer (1874)
  • Samuel L. Thorne, The Maiden Preacher, wife and mother: Miss Mary O'Bryan - Mrs. Thorne (1889)
  • Thomas Ruddle, S.T. Thorne, Minister of the Gospel (1893)
  • Frederick W. Bourne, The Centenary Life of James Thorne of Shebbear (1895)
  • Edward Lott, James Thorne of Shebbear (Shebbear, 1995)
  • R.K. Parsons, My Moving Tent: a biographical sketch of Lois Anna Thorne (1985)
  • Oxford DNB
  • Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography
  • Dictionary of Australian Biography