Kilham, Alexander (DNB00)

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KILHAM, ALEXANDER (1762–1798), founder of the ‘methodist new connexion,’ was born of methodist parents at Epworth, Lincolnshire, on 10 July 1762. As a lad of eighteen he worked at Owston Ferry, Lincolnshire. Returning to Epworth he joined the Methodist Society, during a local revival of methodism, and began to preach in his twenty-first year, his first sermon being at Luddington, Lincolnshire. In 1783 he was engaged, as travelling companion and assistant in preaching, by Robert Carr Brackenbury of Raithby Hall, Lincolnshire, a gentleman of fortune in delicate health, and one of Wesley's followers. Kilham travelled with Brackenbury in Lincolnshire, and accompanied him to Jersey, where Brackenbury conducted a mission. In June 1784 they returned to England. Brackenbury was admitted on the regular list of itinerant preachers at the conference in July. Kilham, on the advice of William Duffton, had applied (6 June 1784), and he was regularly admitted at the conference in July of the following year. He was employed in the Grimsby circuit, where he encountered opposition from his patron's brother, Edward Brackenbury, vicar of Skendleby, Lincolnshire. To secure his position he registered himself under the Toleration Act. His appointments for the next few years were in Yorkshire.

On Wesley's death (2 March 1791) Kilham, though under thirty, at once became an energetic leader of the party opposed to the restriction, in the interests of the established church, of methodist operations. In May 1791 the Hull circular, officially issued by that circuit, advised methodists not to rank themselves as dissenters, but to meet only out of church hours, and to receive the Lord's Supper only in the parish churches. Kilham prepared a reply (anonymous), which was adopted by the Newcastle-on-Tyne circuit. He repudiated Wesley's personal dictation, on scriptural grounds, and argued that methodists were de facto dissenters, and their preachers qualified to administer all Christian ordinances. The conference at Manchester in July passed over Thomas Coke, D.C.L. [q. v.], the conservative leader, and elected as president William Thompson, a moderate man. Kilham was appointed to Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he was ordained by Joseph Cownley. The latter had been ordained by Wesley himself. The preachers in this circuit began (January 1792) to administer the Lord's Supper. An angry controversy ensued, to which Kilham contributed a printed ‘Address.’ He was summoned to the 1792 conference, held in London, and censured for his pamphlet by a large majority, Coke even moving his expulsion. The conference transferred him to Aberdeen, where he was stationed for three years. The conference of 1793 conceded the right of preachers to administer the Lord's Supper under certain restrictions.

In 1794 Kilham wrote, but did not publish, a pamphlet, signed ‘Martin Luther,’ denouncing the hierarchical scheme drawn up at a private meeting in Lichfield [see Coke, Thomas, D.C.L.], and was especially severe on Alexander Mather, whom Wesley had ordained in 1788 as a ‘superintendent.’ The 1794 conference was marked by fierce debates; an address on the sacrament question presented by Kilham was ordered to be torn up by the president. The resolutions actually arrived at went too far in their concessions to suit the conservative leaders, and a stormy agitation was raised throughout the body. Kilham published a pamphlet, signed ‘Aquila and Priscilla,’ going over the whole ground of controversy. Shortly before the conference met in Manchester in 1795 he issued his ‘Martin Luther’ pamphlet. During the meeting of the conference he printed another in Manchester, signed ‘Paul and Silas,’ vindicating the progressive nature of Wesley's principles of organisation. The conference adopted a ‘plan of pacification,’ which Kilham thought had ‘an appearance of duplicity.’ He wished to remain in Scotland, but the conference appointed him to Alnwick, Northumberland. Here he printed a new pamphlet, ‘The Progress of Liberty,’ pleading for the recognition of popular rights in the organisation of methodism. For this he was arraigned before successive district meetings, but decision was referred to the conference. Kilham meanwhile issued several fresh pamphlets, including an ‘Appeal’ to his circuit (24 May 1796).

The conference of 1796, held in London, at once proceeded to try Kilham on charges founded on his various publications, which certainly contained an undue proportion of invective. Such expressions as ‘persecuting Neros,’ applied to methodist leaders, he was prepared to explain, but not to withdraw. On the other hand, his agitation was viewed, absurdly enough, as inspired by the political principles of Thomas Paine. After three days' trial he was condemned by a unanimous vote, and solemnly ‘expelled from the connexion,’ all the preachers (about one hundred and fifty) standing up, and each one attesting the justice of the proceeding by signing a paper which was placed on the communion-table. Efforts were made to induce Kilham to express penitence and apply for restoration. Six days after his expulsion he wrote to the president asking whether the sentence removed him from the society, and whether he could retain a place among the ‘local’ as distinct from the itinerant preachers. The reply was an offer to confer with him on condition that his letter might be taken as an acknowledgment of fault. He made a conciliatory response, and met a delegation from conference. Negotiation was at an end as soon as he was informed that he must bind himself by the ‘plan of pacification.’

Kilham spent the next few months in visiting his sympathisers in the north of England. In October, acting on the suggestion of Moir of Aberdeen, he began a monthly magazine, ‘The Methodist Monitor.’ The first step towards a separation from the main body of methodism was taken at Leeds, where Ebenezer Chapel, purchased from the baptists, was opened by Kilham on 5 May 1797. In July the conference met at Leeds. Kilham had been appointed a lay delegate, but did not present himself. The conference definitely decided against the admission of lay representatives, either to its own meeting or to district meetings, or to form ‘a second house of legislature.’ On 9 Aug. Kilham, with three preachers who had withdrawn from the conference, met a number of laymen in Ebenezer Chapel, and formed a ‘new methodist connexion,’ Kilham becoming the secretary. The total number who joined the new society was about five thousand. Kilham was now stationed at Sheffield. In January 1798 his magazine appeared as the ‘Methodist New Connexion Magazine.’ The organisation of the new body was completed at its conference held in Sheffield at Whitsuntide 1798, when Kilham was removed to Nottingham.

Late in 1798 he undertook a journey with a view to extending his connection in Wales. He returned to Nottingham at the end of November, completely exhausted, yet struggled on with some of his engagements. He died at Nottingham on 20 Dec. 1798, at the early age of thirty-six. He was buried in Hockley Chapel (now primitive methodist), Nottingham. A marble monument to his memory was removed (before 1838) to Parliament Street Chapel, Nottingham. His portrait, engraved by W. Collard from a likeness taken in 1797, is prefixed to his ‘Life,’ 1838. An earlier engraving, from a drawing taken after death, is less satisfactory. He married, first, at Easter 1788, Sarah Grey of Pickering, North Riding of Yorkshire (d. 1797), by whom he had, besides children who died in infancy, a daughter Sarah, who became Mrs. Biller; secondly, on 12 April 1798, Hannah, daughter of Peter Spurr of Sheffield, by whom he had a posthumous daughter, who died in infancy. His widow, Hannah Kilham, who became a quakeress, is separately noticed.

Kilham's publications have only a denominational interest. Had he lived it is not improbable that he might have brought his new connexion (now numbering over thirty thousand members) into reunion with the main body. The subsequent course of methodism may be taken as vindicating his cause. He injured it by an occasional virulence of aspersion that was not in harmony with his general character.

[Life of Mr. Alexander Kilham [1799], an autobiography with additions; Life, 1838, based on original materials furnished by his widow and daughter; Townsend's Alexander Kilham [1889]; Myles's Chronological Hist. of Methodists [1799]; Tyerman's Life and Times of John Wesley, 1871, iii. 408, 504.]

A. G.