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Women Preachers in the Bible Christian Connexion*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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In 1862 Mary O'Bryan Thorne, daughter of the founder of the Bible Christian Connexion and a Bible Christian local preacher, wrote in her diary: “At our East Street anniversary I spoke at 11, and Serena [her daughter] at 2:30 and 6; one was converted in the evening.” She regarded this as a routine engagement; something she had been doing since her sixteenth year, and that her daughter had every right to continue. Female traveling preachers (itinerants) were important, perhaps crucial, in establishing the Bible Christians as a separate denomination and their use was never formally abandoned. The persistence of this tradition makes their history an important case study of women preachers’ experience in nineteenth-century Britain, showing a trend toward marginalization similar to the experience of many other nineteenth-century women who sought to enter increasingly professionalized occupations open only to men. Even in the early years of the Connexion when the organizational structure was fluid and evolving, women were never on an equal footing with male preachers. With the development of a formal organization in the 1830s their numbers started to drop and the gap between male and female responsibilities widened, with women never assigned the full duties of male ministry.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2004

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I would like to thank Joan Mills for sharing her work on female Bible Christian itinerants; the Rev. Keith Parsons for copies of his transcription of Lois Thorne's diary and his biography of her; George Potter for arranging to have Serena Thorne's diary, owned by the Uniting Churches of South Australia, photocopied; librarians at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, particularly Gareth Lloyd, the Royal Institution, Cornwall, and Shebbear School; Connie Gates, Tom Lloyd, and Jane Ellis for research assistance. Some of the research for this article was funded by SUNY College at Brockport and United University Professions.


1 Mary O'Bryan Thorne Diary, Jan.14, 1862 (Shaw Collection, Royal Institution Library, Truro, Cornwall).

2 For the history of women in the Connexion before 1850 see Valenze, Deborah, Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton, 1985)Google Scholar and Shorney, David, “‘Women May Preach but Men Must Govern’: Gender Roles in the Growth and Development of the Bible Christian Denomination,” in Gender and Christian Religion: Studies in Church History 8 (Woodbridge, 1998), pp. 309–22Google Scholar.

3 For the exclusion of women from the medical and legal professions, see Poovey, Mary, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago, 1988), pp. 4050CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class (Chicago, 1987), pp. 260–65Google Scholar; Vicinus, Martha, Independent Women (Chicago, 1985), pp. 2730Google Scholar.

4 “Connexion” was used by Methodist sects to emphasize their organizational separation from but doctrinal connection with Wesleyan Methodism. “Bible Christian” referred to the Connexion's perceived greater emphasis on biblical authority. They were also called Bryanites or Free Willers. See Shaw, Thomas, The Bible Christians 1815-1907 (London, 1965), p. 22Google Scholar.

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48 Mary O'Bryan diary, Apr. 13, 1824.

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56 Bourne, , Bible Christians, pp. 38, 347Google Scholar; Deacon, Lois, So I Went My Way: William Mason and His Wife Mary (London, 1951), pp. 24, 30Google Scholar.

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63 Shorney, , “Women May Preach,” p. 320Google Scholar.

64 William O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan July 9, 1824, Court Collection MS. 91.15. Mary never recorded any such celebration in her diary. Graham identifies one instance of a female Primitive Methodist administering the Lord's Supper, but none of baptism (“Chosen by God,” pp. 98, 104).

65 Arminian Magazine (Dec. 1826); 399400Google Scholar. When William Mason arrived shortly afterward, he agreed that Mary Ann Werrey should be relieved, but he wrote, “If the woman was to be taken away and not another sent, I believe many would not attend at all who now do….I must desire to have a female of a strong constitution” (Arminian Magazine, [Feb. 1827]: 37Google Scholar).

66 Catherine O'Bryan to Mary O'Bryan, June 10, 1823, Cornwall Public Record Office X241/4.

67 Freeman, Henry, False Prophets Described, and Thoughts on the Call, Appointment, and Support of Ministers, also on Worship and a Vindication of the Ministry of Women (Dublin, 1824), p. 27Google Scholar.

68 A Digest of the Rules, Regulations, and Usages of the People Denominated Bible Christians (Devon, 1838), p. 11Google Scholar.

69 Pyke, , Golden Chain, p. 61Google Scholar. The 1837 allowances were more generous but equally unequal.

70 Minutes, 1820, pp. 7, 16Google ScholarPubMed; ibid., 1825, p. 8.

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73 Half the women who joined the Primitive Methodist itineracy between 1824 and 1828 had left by 1828 (Graham, , “Chosen by God,” p. 82Google Scholar).

74 Statistics from Mills “What Are Our Thoughts,” and Beckerlegge, O., United Methodist Ministers and Their Circuits (London, 1968)Google Scholar. Possibly, some men preached for only one or two years trying to avoid “going on the parish” at a time of high unemployment. See Turner, J. Munsey, “Primitive Methodism from Mow Cop to Peake's Commentary,” in From Mow Cop to Peake, 1807-1932 (Wesley Historical Society, Yorkshire Branch, 1982), p. 4Google Scholar.

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77 Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 10, 1825.

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79 Maynes, Mary Jo and Waltner, Ann, “Women's Life-Cycle Transitions in A World-Historical Perspective,” Journal of Women's History 12, 4 (Winter 2001): 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hunt, Margaret R., The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780 (Berkeley, 1996), p. 81Google Scholar.

80 William O'Bryan diary, Oct. 8, 1825; Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 15, 1825.

81 Mary O'Bryan diary, Aug. 7, 1825, Aug. 15, 1825.

82 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 17, 1865. We have no record of what Catherine O'Bryan thought of his regrets, which he reiterated throughout his life, but in old age when they moved between their daughters' households in Manhattan and Brooklyn she usually moved on when her husband arrived.

83 VaIenze, , Prophetic Sons, p. 59Google Scholar; Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Jan. 17, 1865.

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85 Bourne, , James Thorne, p. 186Google Scholar.

86 The resentment may have been against William Lyle and Mary Ann Soper, who married on June 16, 1823 and disappeared shortly afterwards (Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 57Google ScholarPubMed).

87 Minutes, 1820, p. 7; (1823), p. 8Google ScholarPubMed; Shaw, , Bible Christians, p. 27Google Scholar.

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89 Memoir of R. Sewell,” Bible Christian Magazine (Feb. 1853): 55Google Scholar.

90 He returned six times over the next thirty years, and eventually received an annual pension of £20 from the Connexion.

91 The number of Primitive Methodist female itinerants increased between 1828 and 1832, possibly the result of a crisis in Primitive Methodist finances. Preachers were paid by local circuits (Bible Christian preachers were paid by the Conference), so women were less expensive and therefore attractive to cash-poor circuits (Graham, , “Chosen by God,” pp. 11, 8081Google Scholar).

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93 Thorne, Roger, “The Last Bible Christians,” Transactions of the Devon Association 107 (1975), p. 50Google Scholar.

94 Valenze identifies chapel building and numerical growth as the main indicators of institutionalization (Prophetic Sons, pp. 274-81).

95 Shorney, , “Women May Preach.” p 319Google Scholar.

96 “To the circuit stewards, society stewards, class-leaders and principal friends, who feel interested in the establishment and spiritual welfare of the Bible Christian Connexion” (Shebbear, 1830), United Church Archives, Victoria University, Toronto.

97 History of the Bible Christian College, Shebbear,” Bible Christian Magazine (Nov. 1891): 668–69Google Scholar.

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119 Ibid., p. 74; Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, Mar. 8, 1869.

120 The Conference Minutes do not record the cheering, but see Serena Thorne diary, Nov. 24, 1870; Bible Christian Magazine (Dec. 1869): 542Google Scholar. The last Primitive Methodist woman itinerant retired in 1862 (Graham, E. Dorothy, Chosen by God: A List of the Female Travelling Preachers of Early Primitive Methodism [Bunbury, 1989], p. 7Google Scholar).

121 Serena Thorne diary, Nov. 24, 1870, Nov. 28, 1870.

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152 For deaconesses see Prelinger, Catherine M., Charity, Challenge and Change: Religious Dimensions of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Movement in Germany (New York, 1987)Google Scholar; Vicinus, Independent Women, ch. 2.

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156 Minutes, 1897, p. 16Google ScholarPubMed.

157 Ibid., 1895. Not all pages in the minutes were numbered..

158 Ibid., 1898. A male evangelist earned approximately £5 a month more than a woman.

159 Ibid., 1895; 1897; Mills, , “What Are Our Thoughts,” p. 26Google ScholarPubMed.

160 Rules, Regulations & Usages, 1892, p. 91Google Scholar.

161 President's Circular, 1902, p. 9; Minutes, 1903.

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163 Bible Christian Magazine (Nov. 1895): 698; (June 1896): 497Google Scholar.

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165 Minutes, 1907, p. 6Google ScholarPubMed.

166 Minutes of the United Methodist Church (London), 1907, p. 90; 1908, p. 62Google Scholar.

167 Mary O'Bryan Thorne diary, 1/17/65.

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