1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bible Christians

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BIBLE CHRISTIANS, one of the denominations now merged in the United Methodist Church (see United Methodists), so called because its early preachers appealed solely to the Bible in confirmation of their doctrines. The denomination arose in the agricultural districts and fishing villages of north Cornwall and Devon; a district only slightly influenced by John Wesley and the original Methodist movement. The founder was William O'Bryan (afterwards Bryant), a Methodist lay preacher of Luxillian, Cornwall. Finding that the people had no evangelical preaching he began an itinerary to supply the need. The coastmen were expert smugglers and wreckers, the agriculturists were ignorant and drunken, the parish clergy were slothful, in many cases intemperate, and largely given to fox-hunting. Only in a parish or two was there any approach to religious ministry. O'Bryan commenced his labours in north Devon, and in 1815 a small society was formed at Lake Farm, Shebbear. The movement had the seeds of great vitality in it. In 1819 the first conference was held at Launceston. There were present besides O'Bryan one accepted minister—James Thorne—fourteen ministers on trial and fifteen women preachers, a class that was always conspicuous in the denomination. At that conference the work had spread from Ring's Ash in Devon to Morrah, a lonely and desolate parish in west Cornwall. In 1820–1821 Kent, Northumberland, the Scilly and Norman (i.e. Channel) Islands appeared on the list of stations. Then came a serious break. In 1829 there was a severance between the larger part of the new body and O'Bryan, who had claimed to be perpetual president, and to have all property vested in him personally. He tried to establish a separate conference, but failed, and in 1836 there was a re-union. O'Bryan left England for America, where he remained for the rest of his life, and his contingent (numbering 565 members and 4 ministers) returned to the original conference. The growth continued. In 1831 agents were sent to Canada and Prince Edward's Island, in 1850 to South Australia, in 1855 to Victoria, in 1866 to Queensland, in 1877 to New Zealand and in 1885 to China, so that the original O'Bryan tradition of fervid evangelism was amply maintained.

On O'Bryan's departure, James Thorne, the first fully recognized minister, at whose father's farm the connexion started, became its leader. Although reared as an ordinary farm lad, he proved to be a man of singular devotion and spiritual genius. He laid the foundations broadly in evangelism, finance, temperance and education, founding in the latter connexion a middle-class school at Shebbear, at which generations of ministers' sons and numerous students for the ministry have been educated. James Thorne was five times president of the conference and fifteen times secretary. He died in 1872. In this period there was much persecution. Landowners refused sites, and in the Isle of Wight the people worshipped for many months in a quarry. The preachers were sometimes imprisoned and many times assaulted. The old Methodist body even excommunicated persons for attending "Bryanite" meetings. Partly co-operative with James Thorne and at his death independently, the Church was favoured with the influence of Frederick William Bourne. He was a minister for fifty-five years, and served the Bible Christians as editor, missionary treasurer, book steward and three times president of conference. With him will always be associated the name of Billy Bray, an illiterate but inimitable Cornish evangelist, a memoir of whom, written by Bourne, exerted a great influence in the religious life of the denomination.

In doctrine the Bible Christians did not differ from the other Methodists. In constitution they differed only slightly. There was an annual conference with full legislative power, and ability to hold and dispose of property, composed of an equal number of lay and ministerial representatives meeting together. The local churches were grouped into circuits governed representatively by a quarterly meeting. The quarterly or circuit meetings were in turn organized into twelve districts, eleven in England and one in China. In 1906 the statistics showed 218 ministers, 32,549 members and 652 chapels, with 47,301 scholars in Sunday-schools. These figures include nearly 1400 full and probationary members in the China mission, the first-fruits of two years' labour amongst the Miao tribe. In the various colonial Methodist unions the Bible Christians have contributed a total of 159 ministers, 14,925 members and 660 chapels.

The community supported a regular ministry from the beginning. Its members have been keen evangelists, trusting largely to "revivals" for their success, staunch Radicals in politics and total abstainers to a man. Both ministers and people entered with interest and sympathy into the scheme for union between themselves, the Methodist New Connexion and the United Methodist Free Church, which was successfully accomplished in 1906. See Methodism.