Bible Christians

The denomination was founded in 1815 by William O'Bryan, a WM local preacher turned self-appointed evangelist working in the vicinity of the WM Stratton Mission in north east Cornwall. Expelled (for the second time) from membership of the St.Austell Circuit and failing to gain the approval of the Superintendent of the Stratton Mission for his local evangelizing, on 1 October 1815 he established an independent circuit based on Week St.Mary, where the whole society joined with him. Soon afterwards he formed new classes at Launcells and at Shebbear across the Devon border. This was at Lake Farm, home of the Thorne family who joined him en masse. Shebbear rapidly became the centre of the new denomination. As yet it was still unnamed, but from among several nicknames the title 'Bible Christians' emerged. (The term had sometimes been used by John Wesley, e.g. in his letter of 27 May 1769 to Joseph Benson; and in the 19th century it was for a time used by the Unitarian followers of William Cowherd in Lancashire.) To this O'Bryan sometimes prefixed the adjective 'Arminian', but that was finally dropped in 1828. They were also popularly known as 'Bryanites', but although many chapels were licensed in this name in the early days, it was never an official title.

Circuits were soon formed and a quarterly meeting was held in 1 January 1816. The first Conference met in 1819 at O'Bryan's home at Launceston. It was composed of male preachers only, although at this point females filled almost half the stations. The movement was not a break-away from WM, but, like the PM movement, an attempt to return to its roots. Yet like the PMs, it was shunned by the WM. However, O'Bryan himself said that Wesley was 'ever near' him; the BC Rules of Society were closely modelled on Wesley's Rules of the United Societies, and when the monthly magazine was begun in 1822 it was, like Wesley's, called the Arminian Magazine. As an evangelical mission, the movement followed the WM model, reflected the form of contemporary Cornish revivals and was, in many ways, an outreach of the 'Great Revival' of 1814, which began among the WM in Camborne-Redruth. The attitude of the WM, however, rapidly made the BCs into a separated movement. Its own hymn-book emerged in 1820 when O'Bryan introduced a supplement to the 1780 WM Collection of Hymns, and in 1824 O'Bryan and James Thorne produced a full hymn-book for their own use. Although strongly based on the 1780 book it was an original and institutional book for an emerging denomination in its own right. New editions were produced by Thorne in 1838 and 1862 and it was superseded by a new book in 1888.

O'Bryan's small army of itinerant preachers, most of them young men and women, went across north Devon and into Cornwall, usually on foot, to engage in open-air preaching, form societies and eventually build chapels. Young women in particular were successful in drawing crowds and establishing new causes. In the west of Cornwall the small 'connexion' begun by former WM itinerant John Boyle was absorbed in 1817. Thus the movement took root in the West Country and by 1825 had been transplanted from there, though on a smaller scale, to Kent and London, along the south coast, to the Channel Islands and South Wales and had achieved an unlikely outpost in Berwick upon Tweed. The 1851 Religious Census shows it as still concentrated in Devon and Cornwall, with outposts in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Kent and London.

Increasingly, the leading figure during this period of expansion was James Thorne.By 1829 what had begun as an evangelical revival movement had grown into an infant denomination. The charismatic and autocratic O'Bryan was a not untypical revival movement leader, but his skills were less suitable to lead a denomination. A growing tension between him and the senior itinerants led to a schism in 1829. O'Bryan left the denomination he had founded, accompanied by a few of the preachers including the two in Berwick and perhaps up to a thousand members, who reverted to the name Arminian Bible Christians.

Reunion was achieved in 1835 although by then O'Bryan had emigrated to America and the denomination grew steadily under the more statesman-like leadership of James Thorne. It settled down to a long period of slow expansion in the west. Towards the final quarter of the century it began a series of missions in the north of England, to mining migrants in modern Cumbria (1871), Co.Durham (1874), north Yorkshire (1876) and a short lived attempt at Chesterfield (1877-80); to what had been strike breakers imported to Cramlington in Northumberland (1875-84), and to woollen industry migrants at Bradford, West Yorkshire (1877). A brief foray to mining migrants in Ayrshire (1875-7), the only BC entry toScotland, was again short lived. Adopting, in their own manner, the idea of a Forward Movement from the WMs, they opened missions in Blackburn (1888), and then Bolton (1889), and in Birmingham (1894). None can really have been called a success; those with no end date quoted entered United Methodism in 1907. From 1872 F.W.Bourne succeeded James Thorne as effective leader.

Recorded membership rose from 6,297 in 1830 to 27,572 in 1900. Successive versions of the Digest of the Rules, Regulations and Usags of the People Denominated Bible Christians were published in 1838, 1856, 1863, 1872, 1882 and 1892.

The BC Missionary Society had been formed as early as 1821, and although O'Bryan had emigrated to north America in 1831, it was not until 1832 that official 'missionaries' were sent to 'Canada West', western Quebec and southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island. As later in northern England, they were following west country migrants. The work expanded in eastern Canada and included two districts in Ohio and Wisconsin, USA. Similar colonial missions followed to west country migrants in South Australia (1850), in Victoria (1855), in Queensland (1866) and *New Zealand (1877). In none of these ventures does any serious attempt appear to have been made to evangelise indigenous peoples. All eventually entered Methodist unions in their own countries. In 1896 South Africa appeared on the stations: 'Johannesburg One asked for', but no one was sent, and the entry never reappeared.

In 1885 conference accepted the offer of Thomas G. Vanstone and Samuel T. Thorne to work in China. The station appeared in the Minutes the following year. Working in the south of the country, fame came to the mission with the work of Sam Pollard among the Miao peoples. It was supported across the Connexion by much sacrificial giving.

In 1907 the BC Church, with over 32,000 members, joined with the MNC and the UMFC to form the United Methodist Church. In the years immediately preceding the union it was the fastest growing branch of British Methodism, with 27% of its chapels in Devon. At the timetime of that Union there was still one female itinerant on the stations, Lillie Edwards at Hastings, although she rapidly disappeared from the UM Church.


'Then there was the intense loyalty the Connexion generated. When west-country men migrated to Canada many took their Bible Christian heritage with them, and it wasn't long before Bible Christian ministers were being sought. The same story hapopened for migrants to Australia, to New Zealand and in England to Cumbria and County Durham and the strike-breakers who went to Cramlingham in Northumberland. The Bible Christians at Bradford in the West Riding came from Wellington, Somerset, and called themselves Bible Chgristians long before the Connexion caught up with them.'

Colin Short, in Methodist Recorder, 28 June 2012

  • W. O'Bryan in [BC] Arminian Magazine, vols.2-6 (1823-27)
  • James Thorne, et al., A Jubliee Memorial of Incidents in the Rise and Progress of the Bible Christian Connexion (Shebbear, 1865)
  • John S. Simon, 'The Origin of the Bible Christian Connexion', in London Quarterly Review, 1887 pp.322-37
  • Frederick W. Bourne, The Bible Christians (1905)
  • New History of Methodism (1909) 1 pp.502-13
  • Richard Pyke, The Golden Chain: the story of the Bible Christian Methodists from… 1815 to… 1907 [1915]
  • Richard Pyke, The Early Bible Christians (1941)
  • Thomas Shaw, 'The Stratton Mission (1811-18) and Bible Christian Origins', in WHS Proceedings, 30 pp.120-26; 31 pp.39-43
  • Thomas Shaw The Bible Christians 1815-1907 (1965)
  • Glyn Court, 'The Bible Christians, 1815 - ?', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, October 1965, pp.295-303
  • J.H.B. Andrews, 'The State of the Church in North Devon at the Time of the Early Bible Christians', in WHS Proceedings, 35 pp.25-31
  • Thomas Shaw, 'The Historians of the Bible Christians', in WHS Proceedings, 35 pp.39-41
  • Michael J.L. Wickes, The West Country Preachers;; a new history of the Bible Christian Church (1815-1907) (Appledore, 1987)
  • History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol 4, 'Documents and Source Material' (1988), pp.329-33, etc.
  • Oliver A Beckerlegge, A Bibliography of the Bible Christians (Westcliff-on-Sea, 1988)
  • Colin C. Short, 'The Bible Christians in Scotland', in WHS Proceedings, 48 pp.91-94
  • Oliver A. Beckerlegge, 'The Making of an early Bible Christian Circuit', in WHS Proceedings, 52 pp.45-49, 127-30, 151-54
  • Gareth Lloyd, [catalogue of] Lewis Court Bible Christian collection (Manchester, 1995)
  • Roger F.S. Thorne, 'The First Bible Christian Hymn Book', in WHS Proceedings, 55 pp.13-16
  • Colin C. Short, Durham Colliers and West Country Methodists: the Story of the Bible Christian Mission in Coonty Durham (1995)
  • Colin C. Short, 'They're a West Country Sort of Methodism: the Bible Christian Tradition', in Epworth Review, 31:1 (January 2004) pp.59-66
  • John K. Lander, '"Exclamations … convulsions … groans": an assessment of the early Bible Christians from the pens of the Cornish Established Church incumbents', in Journal of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association, 10:2 (2004) pp.15-21
  • Methodist Recorder. 20 November 2015; 8 December 2017