The Life and Ministry of William Bramwell

Dr Herbert McGonigle, Chairman of the Wesley Fellowship, writes about the one of Wesleyan Methodismís greatest holiness evangelists.

In the three decades following John Wesley’s death in 1791, William Bramwell was the most significant revivalist and holiness evangelist in Methodism. From his leadership of the great revival that broke out in Dewsbury in West Yorkshire in 1792 until his untimely death in 1818, Bramwell’s ministry was marked by fervent prayer, powerful preaching, unremitting pastoral care of converts and a clear and uncompromising emphasis on what John Wesley called Scriptural holiness. At a time when revival preaching was under scrutiny among John Wesley’s preachers, and when there was likewise some uncertainty about the doctrine of entire sanctification, Bramwell’s ministry was a model of faithfulness to Wesley’s own practice and convictions. Jabez Bunting (1779-1858), emerging as the dominant figure in Wesleyanism’s ‘high church’ party, had little sympathy with Bramwell’s ministry and made it clear he would be delighted if Bramwell and his fervent admirers left Wesleyan Methodism altogether. By contrast when William Booth, a minister in the Methodist Connexion Church, and his wife Catherine, had their first son, born in 1856, they named him Bramwell in honour of the great evangelist. So who was this William Bramwell who not only had passionate supporters and vocal critics in his lifetime, but who continues to receive both bouquets and brickbats from Church historians and biographers to the present?

William Bramwell was born in February 1759 at Elswick, some ten miles from Preston in Lancashire. 1 His parents were devoted members of the Church of England and instilled into young William a deep respect for God and spiritual matters. Following his years of uninspiring schooling, he was apprenticed to a currier in Preston. From his earliest years he had shown great interest in serious religion and for a while he was attracted by the claims of the Catholic Church. In pursuit of spiritual assurance he frequently cut his fingertips and refused any healing ointments, believing that this mortification would lead to greater spiritual profit. Dissatisfied with his experiences of the Catholic faith, he returned to the Church of England and prepared himself with diligent devotion for the service of confirmation. While partaking of holy communion, he felt a clear sense of his acceptance with God and almost immediately afterwards began to witness to his newfound faith. But after some time he lost the sense of assurance, though to all who knew him well, his honesty, uprightness and moral earnestness marked him as an exemplary Christian. It was then that he met another Preston man, Mr Roger Crane, a recent convert of Methodist preaching and destined to be a leading light in Lancashire Methodism. Bramwell and Crane became firm friends in a friendship that lasted their lifetimes. Crane was anxious to introduce Bramwell to Methodism but Bramwell refused to attend their meetings, knowing it would distress his parents to hear that their son was attending dissenting services. Eventually he gave in to his friend’s invitations and agreed to hear a Methodist preacher. He was immediately captivated by the Methodist spirit and enthusiastically joined the Society.

In late April 1780 John Wesley visited Preston and Bramwell was introduced to Methodism’s founder. His biographer, James Sigston, recorded what Bramwell later related to him about the meeting.

Wesley looked attentively at him and said, ‘Well, brother, can you praise God’? Mr Bramwell replied, ‘No, Sir!’ Mr Wesley lifted up his hands and said, ‘Well, but perhaps you will to-night.’ And so it came to pass; for that very night he found the comfort he had lost, and his soul rejoiced in the glorious liberty of the sons of God. 2

Shortly after this meeting Bramwell was appointed a class leader and a local preacher. He set up morning prayer meetings at 5 am which was to be a feature of his work in the future. Now a journeyman currier, he preached all over the Fylde area with an undaunted passion to save souls and no amount of threats or physical attacks could check his ardent enthusiasm. He battled in his mind over whether or not he had a call from God to full-time ministry and on at least one occasion spent thirty-six hours in prayer as he sought to know God’s will. This preaching ministry continued for about five years and many converts were added to the Methodist Societies as a result. One of his converts was a Miss Ann Cutler, a handloom weaver, who was to become an evangelist herself and established a reputation in the annals of Methodism as ‘Praying Nanny,’ a reference to her mighty exploits in prayer. In subsequent years Bramwell would ask Ann Cutler to come to his help with her prayer ministry when he faced great difficulties in a number of circuits.

Bramwell’s conviction that he now had a call from God to enter full-time ministry was confirmed when John Wesley appointed him to a vacancy in the Liverpool circuit in 1785. He preached there only a few months when his friends in Preston implored Mr Wesley to let him return home and continue the good work among them. Bramwell returned to Preston, purchased a shop and a house, took up again his part-time itinerancy and prepared to marry one of his converts, Ellen Byrom. But hardly had he settled in Preston before he had repeated invitations from Dr Thomas Coke to give up his business and become an itinerant preacher in the Kent circuit. Bramwell’s response was typical of his dedication to the work and call of God in his life. He prayed long and hard over Dr Coke’s invitation, consulted trusted friends and then made his decision in the light of what he believed to be God’s will. He made arrangements for his business in Preston to be taken care of, bought a horse and set off for Kent. Bramwell’s devotion to God’s work was simply without qualification. He would go wherever he believed God was calling him, and no circumstance or friendship or fear of financial hardship could deter him.

When Bramwell arrived in Canterbury in the winter of 1785 it was the beginning of thirty-three years of itinerant ministry among the Wesleyan Methodists in fourteen circuits, most in the north of England. Before some attention is given to Bramwell’s more notable ministries, it is important to look at his spiritual experience in Preston some time before he left for Kent. While he was earnestly searching the Scriptures to discover whether or not he was called to full-time ministry, he became deeply convinced about his personal need of the blessing of entire sanctification. Referred to by Mr Wesley as Methodism’s ‘grand depositum,’ 3 and claimed by many of his Methodist people, it was widely understood to be the cleansing of the Christian’s heart from all inner sin and the filling of the heart with the love of God and man. In the two decades following Mr Wesley’s death, no Methodist preacher proclaimed this blessing of ‘love excluding sin’ more powerfully or passionately than Bramwell. He recorded that he had sought ‘the blessing,’ as it was commonly known, many times, but then the Lord showed him he was seeking it by works rather than by faith.

Being now convinced of my error, I sought it by faith only.... When in the house of a friend at Liverpool.... with my mind engaged in various meditations concerning my present affairs and future prospects, my heart now and then lifted up to God.... heaven came down to earth; it came to my soul. The Lord, for whom I had waited, came suddenly to the temple of my heart; and I had an immediate evidence that this was the blessing I had for some time been seeking. My soul was then all wonder, love and praise. It is now about twenty-six years ago; I have walked in this liberty ever since. 4

Bramwell went on to say that he was immediately tempted not to testify to what he had experienced for he would surely lose it. Later that night he walked to a preaching appointment and felt so filled with the sense of God’s presence that he knew he must tell the congregation of this great work of grace.

I walked fifteen miles that night and at every step I trod the temptation was repeated, ‘Do not profess sanctification, for thou wilt lose it.’ But in preaching the temptation was removed, and my soul was again filled with glory and with God. I then declared to the people what God had done for my soul; and I have done so on every proper occasion since that time, believing it to be a duty incumbent upon me. For God does not impart blessings to his children to be concealed in their own bosoms; but to be made known to all who fear him and desire the enjoyment of the same privileges. I think such a blessing cannot be retained, without professing it at every fit opportunity; for thus we glorify God, and ‘with the mouth make confession unto salvation.’ 5

In the past two centuries Methodism’s ‘grand depositum’ has had much written both for and against it. While this is not the place to debate the subject, two facts are beyond dispute as that doctrine related to William Bramwell’s life and ministry. First, all those who knew Bramwell personally during his lifetime saw in his purity of life, his humble walk with God, and his utter devotion to a soul-saving ministry, the evidences of a truly sanctified man. Bramwell was an unashamed preacher of John Wesley’s doctrine of Scriptural holiness, and even those fellow Methodists who later disagreed with his revivalist methods did not question that the doctrine found exemplary witness in the preacher’s own life. Second, Bramwell’s ministry cannot be fully evaluated without giving attention to the place this Methodist doctrine had in his creed. Bramwell was wholly dedicated to the purpose for which John Wesley had earlier asserted that the Methodist preachers were raised up; viz. ‘To reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’ 6 For Bramwell this teaching was an integral part of the gospel and he preached and enforced it throughout his ministry. It was particularly prominent in the revival ministry which Bramwell promoted. He was well aware that John Wesley had made the same connection.

Where Christian perfection is not strongly and explicitly preached there is seldom any remarkable blessing from God and consequently little addition to the Society and little life in the members of it. …Till you press the believers to expect full salvation now, you must not look for any revival. 7

Between the years 1788 and 1791 Bramwell served, successively, in the Blackburn and Colne circuits. He had married Ellen Byrom in July 1787 and their first son, George, was born in September the following year. William’s ministry in these two circuits set the pattern for the years to come. He organised early prayer meetings wherever possible, faithfully visited every home belonging to the circuit, preached incessantly in the chapels and out of doors and exercised everywhere a strict disciplinary oversight. The careless were warned, the scoffers were rebuked, the backsliders were implored to turn back to God, and any professing members who did not live according to the rules of the Methodist Societies were put on trial until they either altered their ways or left the Methodists. Needless to say this strict pastoral oversight did not meet with unanimous approval but William Bramwell was not a man to comprise his principles for fear of being unpopular. What could not be argued against was the increased Society membership and attendance that followed his labours. He rose early, prayed, studied, visited, preached, admonished and encouraged the faithful and such was his devotion to his people that in the far-flung Colne circuit he was often away from home five or six weeks at a time.

At the Conference of 1791, the year of John Wesley’s death, Bramwell was appointed to the Dewsbury circuit. It was in this West Yorkshire district that Bramwell witnessed the first stirrings of what was afterwards designated the Great Yorkshire Revival, and which also gave him the tag of being a ‘revivalist.’ Before Bramwell’s arrival, there had been a serious split in the Dewsbury Society. The main Wesleyan preaching house had been lost to John Wesley’s former Book Steward, John Atlay, who broke away from the Connexion, taking many of the people with him and setting up an independent congregation. The divisions had caused much bad feeling among former friends, the Methodist witness in Dewsbury was in disarray, and Bramwell was grieved to find the spiritual temperature at a very low level as a general atmosphere of apathy and suspicion prevailed everywhere. ‘I could not find a person,’ he wrote, ‘who experienced sanctification and but few were clear in pardon.’ He resolved not to have any conversation with anyone about the divisions or who was at fault. The loss of the preaching house was a small matter to him compared to the challenge of seeing the work revived in the circuit. Bramwell had much personal experience in the power of prevailing prayer and he gave himself to protracted intercession every morning at five o’clock. Some idea of the task facing Bramwell is conveyed by the impression given by another preacher, John Nelson, who came to Dewsbury in 1792.

Things were in a disagreeable situation, which gave me great concern. Such was the distance between Mr Atlay’s people and ours, as I had never witnessed among professors who retained any fear of God. Disputes, hard speeches, and I fear backbiting had soured the minds of many, and took the time that should have been in prayer for each other. I was exceedingly tried for the appearance of the people under the Word, and soon wished myself in some other place, so ignorant was I of God. 8

Bramwell invited Ann Cutler to come to Dewsbury and help him in the serious work of prayer and visitation. Morning after morning, week after week and month after month, Bramwell and Cutler, in their separate quarters, interceded for the cause of God in Dewsbury. With prayer went regular house-to-house teaching and instruction and strong preaching on the need of new birth and entire sanctification. Bramwell admitted that that first year was one of ‘hard labour and much grief,’ but finally the great spiritual break-through came. It began in a band meeting in November 1792 when four members professed to have received the grace of full salvation. Bramwell spoke of the assurance he had received from the Lord, saying he received ‘an answer from God in a particular way and had the revival discovered to me in its manner and effects.’ This seems to be the first time that Bramwell referred to the work in Dewsbury as a ‘revival’ but more controversial was the implication that the Lord had somehow shown him what was going to happen. Bramwell may have meant no more than that he had a strong impression that great blessing was coming on the work but it began to be suggested by some of his closest friends that he was gifted with something like ‘second sight.’ In subsequent years those who did not like his revivalist methods also criticised him for claiming he could discern spirits and that God sometimes revealed to him events that had not yet happened.

Now, however, in late 1792, the situation in Dewsbury began to change rapidly. Open confession of past sins and cries for mercy characterised many of the cottage and larger meetings and everywhere the spirit of prayer seemed to have been poured out upon the people. In a matter of weeks, Bramwell reported, some sixty members had claimed entire sanctification, many more were spiritually quickened and many conversions were reported. Love- feasts began to be crowded and when the news spread of what was happening, many people from neighbouring circuits began to visit Dewsbury to see for themselves.

Whatever is thought about revivals and however they are to be described and accounted for, what happened in Dewsbury under Bramwell’s ministry was not without precedent. When his account is compared with the Awakening in New England in the mid 1730s under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, or the Cambuslang Revival of the early 1740s during the preaching of George Whitefield, there are striking similarities. While the Dewsbury Revival could not be compared with either of the other two in terms of the numbers of people involved, yet all three of them saw the same emphases and techniques. Foremost was the overt soul-saving preaching, the faithful pastoral visitation and exhortation, the open confession of sin and cries for pardon by the penitents and the reports of many finding instantaneous answers to prayer in assurance of their sins forgiven. What was exclusive to the work in Dewsbury was the Wesleyan emphasis on Christians seeking the grace of entire sanctification, and Bramwell became convinced that this was a prerequisite for revival everywhere among the Methodist Societies. Neither should it be thought that what happened in Dewsbury in 1792 and 1793 was something new among Wesleyan Methodists. John Wesley himself carefully investigated what came to be known as the ‘Otley Revival,’ also in Yorkshire, in February 1760. Like the later awakening in Dewsbury, the work in Otley began with meetings for prayer for revival and a strong emphasis on the need for the entire sanctification among professing Christians. In his recent research into what he aptly names ‘The Methodist Pentecost,’ Dr Charles Goodwin speaks of the Otley movement as ‘the first Methodist holiness revival.’ Likewise the awakening at Dewsbury was a holiness revival 9 and Bramwell’s ministry would witness many such holiness/revivalist awakenings in the next ten years.

After the success in Dewsbury Bramwell was appointed to the neighbouring circuit of Birstal in 1793. He recorded that Ann Cutler had visited Birstal some time before and her work there was fruitful. Bramwell came to where revival had already begun under the leadership of the two preachers stationed there, Thomas Jackson and Robert Smith. During his two-year stay in Birstal, Bramwell preached and visited and exhorted and disciplined as he had done in Dewsbury, and in cottage meetings, love-feasts and Sunday services, there were many who claimed to have found their sins forgiven and even larger numbers testified to the blessing of ‘a clean heart.’ Mr Thomas Pearson of Gomersal was a class leader and he left an account of what happened when Bramwell came to the circuit.

Mr Bramwell came to us full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. His powerful preaching and fervent prayers were so mighty, through faith, that the stoutest hearted sinners trembled under him. Before that time we had a partial outpouring; but a mighty shower then descended and the truth and power of God wonderfully prevailed. My class soon increased to sixty members, and all ranks and degrees of men began to attend the preaching. Every place of worship in the neighbourhood was crowded. Young persons only ten years of age, were clearly awakened and savingly convinced; this had such an effect upon their parents that many of them were also awakened and brought to God. 10

Membership statistics for the Birstal circuit make interesting reading for the years 1790 to 1797. In 1790 the membership stood at 1266 and two years later it fell to 720. In 1793, the year Bramwell arrived in Birstal, the membership was 820 but one year later it had risen to 1300. The following year the figure was 1400 but by 1797 it had fallen again to 1070. This means that during Bramwell’s two-year ministry there had been a near 60% increase in membership. It can hardly be questioned that this significant membership increase was directly related to Bramwell’s revival ministry and the extensive pastoral oversight he conducted. Enthusiasm for this kind of ministry and its apparent dramatic results must, however, be tempered by the sobering fact that in the two years following Bramwell’s departure from Birstal, the circuit lost nearly one quarter of its members.

This Methodist Awakening in West Yorkshire was not confined to Dewsbury and Birstal. Using the analogy of fire to describe revival, as Charles Wesley had done some decades earlier, it can be said that while the first sparks were ignited in Dewsbury the resulting conflagration spread widely. There were similar scenes of spiritual awakening and revival phenomena experienced in the Bradford, Wakefield, Otley and Leeds circuits. One of the preachers stationed in Leeds, Joseph Entwisle, recorded vivid eyewitness accounts of the revival.

One meeting, held about a fortnight ago [at Woodhouse], was remarkable. A number of people were assembled in expectation of a prayer meeting. It happened, however, that none of the persons who exercise on such occasions attended. After they had sat in silence for a considerable time, a poor woman fell upon her knees, and with an extraordinary loud and bitter cry, pleaded for mercy. While she continued crying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ some of the company went out, and called upon one or two of the leaders, who came and held a meeting, in which several were brought into the liberty of the children of God. 11

Another account reads:

I preached at Woodhouse at noon. Here the Lord is pouring out His spirit in a very extraordinary manner. Almost all the inhabitants of the village appear to be under a religious concern. They have been praying night and day most of the week, generally continuing together from evening till morning. As far as we can judge, great numbers are flocking to Christ. 12

Entwisle recorded similar scenes at Scarcroft, Harwood, Chapletown and Bellisle, all in the Leeds circuit. But he had serious doubts about some of the happenings he witnessed in Bellisle.

Our warm friends from Woodhouse were there: they had gone beyond all bounds of decency, such screaming and bawling I never heard. Divided into small companies in different parts of the chapel, some singing, others praying, others praising, clapping of hands, etc. all was confusion and uproar. I was struck with amazement and consternation. What to do I could not tell. However, as there appeared to be no possibility of breaking up the meeting, I quietly withdrew. They continued thus until five o’clock in the morning. What shall I say to these things? I believe God is working very powerfully on the minds of many; but I think Satan, or, at least, the animal nature has a great hand in all this. 13

What had begun during Bramwell’s ministry in Dewsbury in 1792 had spread to most areas in West Yorkshire by 1795 and even farther afield into East Yorkshire. Alexander Mather, one of John Wesley’s most senior and respected preachers, was stationed at Hull, and he reported his experiences of the revival.

When we heard of the great outpourings of the Grace of God upon the circuits of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where hundreds, even thousands have lately been awakened and converted, a very earnest desire was kindled in the heart of the people, especially among the leaders, for a revival in our society. 14

The 1795 Conference appointed Bramwell to Sheffield where the chapels had experienced much blessing under the inspired leadership of Alexander Mather. From the very beginning of his time in Sheffield, Bramwell was to witness some of the greatest movements of the Spirit he saw anywhere in his entire ministry. Soon after his arrival he wrote to a friend.

On the day appointed for thanksgiving, the work broke out here in our chapel, at the evening meeting. Many souls had been previously set at liberty in the classes, and at the prayer meetings; but on that night there was a general outpouring of the Spirit. We desired all in distress to come into the vestry, when eight souls were delivered from the bondage of sin. Eight more received pardon on the Sunday. Monday was our love feast, and near the close of it the power of God came upon us. We concluded at the usual time, but begged of all in distress to stay, and before eight o’clock it appeared to many good men, that more than twenty souls were delivered: the work has gone forward every day since, less or more. In two classes more than twenty experienced salvation. I have had clear evidence, and, to speak within bounds, I am persuaded, of more than one hundred persons having found liberty, in three weeks. 15

From Baslow he wrote on November 19, 1795.

There is a revival in most places, and in some of them it is a great one. I preached here last night in a new chapel, for the first time, when five persons received the blessing of sanctification, and one rich man found mercy. Congregations are uncommonly large in almost every place. This revival, if attended to and cherished, crowds our chapels and houses wherever it takes place.... The last time I preached in Sheffield, I had the happiness of seeing the large chapel much crowded, and was told hundreds could not enter. This has lately been the case every Sunday morning. The good work still proceeds. 16

A particularly important part of Bramwell’s ministry was his interest in all his helpers, both itinerant preachers and local preachers and class leaders. Attention has already been drawn to his extraordinary pastoral concern for the people under his care. He was no less concerned to encourage and support all his colleagues in the work of God and under his example and support, the revival spread into every area where the Methodist preachers were employed. Bramwell’s letters show that his prayers and concerns spread far beyond his own circuit and while in Sheffield, he was rejoicing with his friends who were experiencing revival in their own ministries. Speaking of Bramwell’s work in Sheffield, his biographer, James Sigston, summarised a remarkable three-year ministry.

Mr Bramwell always employed the talents of the local preachers, leaders and others, in prayer; and they became important helpers to him in every place. The embers of love were kindled all around, and when he revisited the Societies, he found them ‘striving together for the furtherance of the gospel.’ Opposition was broken down, lukewarmness was destroyed, a holy union was maintained, and the work of God in the town and country broke out in a flame of life, and power and zeal. Itinerant and local preachers, with others, have come to Mr Bramwell more than fifty miles in search of the blessings of a clean heart.... Wherever he went, visible signs and wonders ere wrought in the name of Christ: and in the course of his first year in Sheffield, twelve hundred and fifty members were added to the Society! 17

It would be interesting to follow the progress of William Bramwell’s ministry as, for the next nineteen years, he served in the following circuits; Nottingham, Leeds, Wetherby, Hull, Sunderland, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birstal, London West, Newcastle upon Tyne, and, finally, Salford. Although the spreading fires of the revival largely died down by about 1797, yet in all the places Bramwell laboured his ministry was blessed with conversions, many members seeking entire sanctification and the general building up of the work. From Sheffield Bramwell moved to the Nottingham circuit and one of his colleagues wrote about his three-year ministry there.

In 1799 I was again called to labour with Mr Bramwell in the Nottingham circuit. Our chapel in Nottingham was taken from us by the separatists; in consequence of which, our preachers and people were under the necessity of meeting in a barn till another place of worship was erected in the town. Here many souls were awakened and brought to the knowledge of the truth.... Perhaps Mr Bramwell, in all his travels, never witnessed more glorious displays of the divine power, than in this circuit.... The societies were united and edified.... and their increase, during the two years I travelled with Mr Bramwell, was about one thousand persons. 18

As noted earlier, the Yorkshire Revival, though it was not confined to Yorkshire, began in 1793 and began to decline in about 1797. That coincided with the first major split in Wesleyan Methodism when Alexander Kilham and his followers siphoned off some 5000 sympathisers into the newly formed Methodist New Connexion. Undoubtedly the divisions and strong partisan feelings engendered by this split did not further the work of the revival but it is not easy to determine exactly why this movement began to wane in about 1797 and had generally disappeared by about 1800. It may be that such was the intensity of the emotions aroused by it that it was impossible for it to continue beyond four or five years.

A contemporary sociologist, Dr Julia Werner, has investigated the Yorkshire Revival and came to the following conclusions about its origin and nature. 19

  1. It flourished where Methodism was well established.
  2. It broke out in areas of economic distress
  3. It was promoted by a network of revivalist preachers like William Bramwell.
  4. There was a desire among the people for ‘the work of the Spirit.’
  5. There was a willingness to allow innovations in methods and ministry.
  6. There were the means of communicating the revival to other circuits.

It would be interesting to ask what William Bramwell might have thought about these six sociological suggestions. Almost certainly he would have argued that three very significant constituents of the revival, as he understood it, are missing from this assessment. First, the work of the sovereign Spirit of God. Second, the strong and clear preaching on justification and sanctification. Third, the prolonged and prevailing prayer that characterised the revival in every place where it caught fire. And a fourth might be added - the diligent and exemplary pastoral visitation, counselling and care that marked all William Bramwell’s ministry.

This re-appraisal has given quite a bit of attention to Bramwell’s leadership in the Yorkshire Revival and that is justified by the recognition that the years 1792 to 1800 were among the most important in his entire ministry. Assessing his thirty-three years as a Wesleyan Methodist itinerant preacher, what were the characteristics of Bramwell’s life and ministry?

First, his extraordinary life of private and public prayer. One of his biographers, C. W. Andrews, wrote:

There is something perfectly dumfounding about Bramwell’s praying.... Bramwell’s daily prayers occupied several hours. Under special circumstances, such as finding the circuit to which he had been appointed in a low spiritual condition me made colossal exertions in prayer. When in Leeds he used to go now and then to Harewood, staying with Mr Richard Leak. There was a wood adjoining Mr Leak’s house, and there Bramwell would bury himself in prayer, becoming entirely oblivious of he flight of time. Often he would pray on, in a loud voice, for four hours. 20

Throughout his entire ministry Bramwell’s prayer life, both private and public, was regular and impassioned. He encouraged his colleagues in prayer, he normally called for a season of prayer following the preaching where penitents were welcomed to confess their needs openly, and in every circuit he served he organised early morning prayer meetings and at other times as he believed the situation demanded.

Second, his faithful pastoral visitation. Some of the more recent evaluations of Bramwell’s ministry, usually drawing critical attention to his ‘revivalism,’ have failed to note the unwearied pastoral care he exercised for all his congregations. In all the circuits he served Bramwell set an example of diligent house-to-house ministry. These were never allowed to become occasions merely for social pleasantries, but in every home Bramwell encouraged the family to seek the Lord and always concluded with prayer. Historians of 19th century revivalism have suggested that Bramwell’s revivalist ministry anticipated that of Charles Finney in America a few decades later. This may account for the success that Sigston’s biography of Bramwell enjoyed in America, running to six editions in the first twenty years of publication. However, this comparison between the revivalist methods of Bramwell and Finney does not take account of Bramwell’s unceasing devotion to pastoral care and visitation which was not paralleled in Finney’s ministry.

Third, his forceful evangelistic preaching. First and foremost, William Bramwell was a preacher and it was not accidental that his only major publication was a translation of a French work on preaching which he entitled, The Salvation Preacher. He did not preach merely to confirm Christian doctrine or inform his hearers - he preached always for a verdict. Not only did he put much prayer into his sermon preparation, he also put in careful study of the Scriptures and related subjects where appropriate. With hard labour he acquired a very good working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek but seldom quoted other than the English text in the pulpit. His sentences were generally short, the exposition and the appeal were direct and forceful and his hearers were left in no doubt about their soul’s salvation.

Fourth, his life of daily personal discipline and the attention he gave to exhortation, warning and discipline throughout his ministry. Some of his contemporaries thought that Bramwell was too strict and too severe in his enforcement of discipline. Certainly Bramwell was fully committed to the regulations that John Wesley had drawn up for his Societies. He believed that the careless should be warned, the disobedient should be disciplined and that all Society members needed constant reminders to walk humbly with the Lord. Bramwell dealt very faithfully, lovingly and strictly with all those under his pastoral care. He made it clear that he believed this life is a preparation for eternity and that chastisement is necessary to enable Christians to be holy. Part of a letter he wrote to a fellow Methodist preacher in 1806 gives a sample of Bramwell’s plain dealing in spiritual matters.

This is the time for your improvement. Give yourself entirely to the work. Rise early. Continue in prayer, in earnest prayer. Keep all your life, all your zeal, yet never be wild…Go on your way. Speak evil of none. Never debate about the work. ‘Be a lamb dumb, open not your mouth.’ Live in entire sanctification – all your heart God’s throne. Never grieve Him, or cause Him to depart from you. Take care how you act toward women: keep your eyes, your heart, from wandering. Determine, if you need it, upon fasting. Keep your body under. Be a man of God. 21

Fifth, his emphasis on the doctrine of entire sanctification. On Bramwell’s arrival in a new circuit, he first enquired how many members professed the blessing of Christian holiness. He came to the conclusion that where this privilege was not constantly and strongly preached and encouraged, the whole work of God tended to fall into spiritual apathy. When the first sparks of the Yorkshire Revival were ignited, Bramwell identified them among a number who sought and testified to entire sanctification. He preached the blessing incessantly to all the Society members, for as far as he was concerned, it was not merely a Methodist doctrine, it was Scriptural teaching. Writing in December 1807 to his friend, and later biographer, James Sigston, he noted: ‘I am certain the Doctrine of Entire Sanctification is upon the decline, and, if not enforced, will produce a declension in the work amongst the people.’ 22 Bramwell’s own promulgation of this doctrine was enthusiastic and on going. From the pulpit, in class and band meetings, in counsel, conversation and letters, he promoted Scriptural holiness over the land.

At the 1817 Conference he was appointed to the Salford circuit. He attended the 1818 Conference that convened in Leeds, and ended on Wednesday evening, August 12. He stayed with his long-time friend, James Sigston, and on the Thursday afternoon he left Sigston’s house to catch the coach to Manchester. A few yards down Woodhouse Lane he collapsed with apoplexy and died almost immediately. He was fifty-nine years of age. With his passing, there passed also the greatest exemplar of revivalist holiness preaching in Wesleyan Methodism in the generation after John Wesley’s death. The Methodist Magazine for 1818 recorded:

Deep humility, ardent love to God and compassion for the souls of men perishing in sin appeared uniformly in his whole spirit and conduct. In every circuit where this holy man laboured, he had seals to his ministry. He was eminent for the possession of every Christian grace, and the practise of every Christian duty.... As a minister his talents were respectable, and his usefulness seldom equalled, perhaps never surpassed. Thousands of his spiritual children have, no doubt, hailed him on the blissful shore, and thousands are left behind to deplore the loss.

Neither among his contemporaries or subsequent biographers has Bramwell’s loyalty to Wesleyan Methodism been questioned in relation to theology and doctrinal conviction. William Bramwell was ardently a Wesleyan in his interpretation of the Christian faith and no preacher proclaimed and explained those doctrines more passionately than he did. In three other areas, however, serious questions were raised in his lifetime, and since, about his loyalty to the Wesleyans. These three areas of concern were:

  1. in relation to the Kilhamite secession in 1797
  2. his sudden departure from his Leeds circuit in 1803 and the time he spent with the Manchester ‘Band Room’ revivalists
  3. his alleged scheme to bring together the various revivalist groups under his leadership.

These three areas were linked in overlapping interests. Bramwell feared that the authority and influence of the Wesleyan Conference gave too much ecclesiastic power to the preachers at the expense of the lay people. Side by side with this was what he perceived to be a hardening of Wesleyan ecclesiology against revivalism and revivalists, and he was persuaded that this would result in a lessening of evangelistic effort in the circuits and therefore less soul winning. These concerns lay at the heart of the three disputes where some of his colleagues questioned his denominational loyalty.

The Kilhamite Secession:

When Bramwell was appointed to the Sheffield circuit in 1795 it was the centre of the agitation that eventually led to Alexander Kilham’s expulsion from the Wesleyan ministry by the 1796 Conference. There had been a furious pamphlet war for the previous two years when Kilham bombarded the circuits with publications that complained about the autocracy of the Conference and claiming that lay people had no voice or representation in Methodism’s ecclesiological structures. Although Bramwell was not overtly involved in either side of the conflict, there is no doubt that he had warm sympathies for Kilham. Part of the problem in assessing his response to this crisis is that, by his prior direction, all his papers were destroyed at his death. Kilham’s biographer, writing forty years later, was convinced that Kilham had every expectation that Bramwell, and some of his closest colleagues, would join him. 23 One of those colleagues was Henry Taylor, and in a letter to Kilham from Sheffield, dated 11 May 1797, he spoke in conspiratorial tones.

Mr Bramwell is now in the room with me, and what I now write you must consider as coming from both of us. We want to see you, and indeed we must see you here as soon as possible, and we intreat you, let every other plan give place to this. Your visit to us must be without any person, directly or indirectly, knowing anything about it; the nature of the business requires this secrecy… You must keep the matter from all your friends here, and from every one… When you have fixed on the night, send me a private letter, and meet us the next morning by four o’clock. Our business we think of such importance that we wish to see you before our district meeting at Leeds, the 24th instant. 24

Kilham read this letter as a promise of Bramwell and Taylor’s support and he left for Leeds to meet them. He recorded:

I met Mr Taylor and early the morning after I had a secret interview with him and Mr Bramwell. They both spoke freely on the necessity of a reform, and deemed determined to have this effected or leave the Connexion. I saw the paper they had written on Church government, and dictated some alterations which had their approbation. They both appeared timorous, but if their professions are deserving of credit, they are determined to have a reform at all events, or risk the consequences. I preached several times to large congregations with much satisfaction; many persons seem resolved to have a redress of grievances, and appear confident that their preachers at Sheffield would either see this effected or separate from the Conference. Nevertheless I found much reasoning in my own mind on the conduct of Messrs. Bramwell, Taylor and Emmet -–they appeared so exceedingly afraid of the higher powers. 25

In his biography of Joseph Benson, James MacDonald recounts what happened at Leeds when the Wesleyan preachers met. In his role as Superintendent, Benson recounted.

For a time they all seemed united in love to each other and determined to labour together in harmony. But upon the 25th it was found that Mr H.T. and Mr W.B. had determined that should the Conference not comply and adopt their Rules, they would separate from their brethren. Mr B. who, however erroneous in some of his views, was a man of eminent piety, said, ‘They had drawn up Rules for a separate Connexion; not having intended to unite with Mr Kilham on the one hand, or the Conference on the other; that they had communicated this to several Local Preachers and others, who had promised to stand by them, and that they had come to the District Meeting with a view to separate if we did not comply with, and adopt their Rules.’ 26

Benson went on to say that while he believed that Bramwell and Taylor had agreed with ‘the utmost sincerity’ to continue to work with the their Wesleyan colleagues, yet ‘the destructive fire of contention at Sheffield, which, if not kindled by them, they supplied with abundance of fuel.’ In his Memoir of the Rev. Charles Atmore, John Stamp maintained that Kilham was encouraged ‘in his divisive speculations’ by the preachers stationed at Sheffield, particular Bramwell and Taylor. 27 Kilham’s biographer notes that Bramwell and Taylor were chief among the preachers that Kilham had relied on to join him, following the support and encouragement they gave him.

Although the evidence that remains is not fully conclusive, there can be little doubt that William Bramwell had promised his support to Alexander Kilham. The Rules that Bramwell drew up were approved by Kilham and there is every reason to believe that Bramwell determined that if the Wesleyan Conference did not accede to these demands, then he would either join Kilham or set up his own connexion. So why, in the end, did Bramwell not go in either direction? It looks very much as if Bramwell, at the point of crisis, lost his nerve about leaving his own connexion. He was unsure about the future of Kilham’s dissidents and he lacked the courage to follow his conviction s and set up his own independent ministry. Perhaps the kindest construction that can be put on the whole episode is that when push came to shove, Bramwell concluded that he could effect more reform by staying in the ranks of the Wesleyan Methodists.

Bramwell and the Revivalists:

In the closing years of the 1790s, groups of revivalists began to form in various Wesleyan circuits, mostly in the north of England. These revivalists were members of their local Methodist societies but their enthusiastic revivalist conduct in prayer and worship and singing alienated many of their former friends. Many of these revivalists were Bramwell’s converts and soon he was being regarded as their leader. Two of the most prominent of these groups were found in Leeds and Manchester. What they had in common was some local charismatic lay leader, a love of noisy and extravagant prayer and worship and a growing independence from the rules that governed the Wesleyan Methodist Societies and particularly the ministry and authority of the appointed Preachers. The acknowledged leader in Leeds was a schoolmaster, James Sigston, a friend and firm supporter of Bramwell and later his biographer. Criticised for his refusal to adhere to Methodist rulers and disciplines, he left and Wesleyans, followed by some three hundred supporters. They met for worship in the Assembly Rooms in Kirkgate and their style of worship earned them the epithet, the Kirkgate Screamers. 28

In Manchester a draper, John Broadhurst, joined the Wesleyan congregation in Oldham Street. He supported revival prayer groups and evangelistic efforts that resulted in five new congregations being formed between 1795 and 1798. One of these, in North Street, was known as the ‘Band Room’ and it soon became a recognised centre of revivalism. Sigston wrote that its meetings were ‘eminently owned of God to the conversion of hundreds. The doors, however, were so wide as to admit all who wished to enter in; to this the preachers objected and their strenuous efforts to enforce discipline caused a division in the society in 1806.’ 29 A different estimate was given later by Jabez Bunting’s son. He described Broadhurst and his supporters as ‘more zealous than wise, and gathered round them a number of good but ignorant persons, who pursued the most unlikely means for promoting serious religion whether in their own or other hearts.’ 30 It is certainly ironic that Jabez Bunting, later so strongly opposed to Bramwell, Sigston and the whole revivalist movement, should have preached his trial sermon in Manchester’s Band Room, after having spent some years in Sigston’s academy in Leeds.

Bramwell was appointed to Leeds for a second time, in 1801, and quickly identified himself with the revivalist movement. Among his fellow preachers there were serious doubts about his loyalties. His near-defection to the Kilhamites four years earlier was not forgotten and this suspicion was reinforced by his close association with James Sigston and the Kirkgate Screamers. During his second year in Leeds, Bramwell was in deep distress of spirit as he believed there was a conspiracy against him in the circuit. One of his closest friends was accused of immorality and although Bramwell was convinced of his innocence, he was removed from the society. Bramwell wrote to a friend. ‘I am quite ignorant at the present why the Lord has kept me here. Things are low indeed in this circuit, and means must have been used to make them as they are… I must in a few weeks, if spared, strike home and leave the whole to God. I see hell will rise but our God is almighty.’ 31 Soon after this Bramwell left Leeds without any explanation and fled to his revivalist friends in Manchester. Two of the Leeds preachers came to Manchester in search of Bramwell but could not find him. In the July District Meeting Bramwell’s absence was discussed but lack of evidence meant that no action was taken and the situation was referred to the Conference, soon to meet in Manchester.

The Conference re-admitted Bramwell, much to the dismay of Bunting and the other preachers who distrusted him and his revivalist friends. He was appointed to Wetherby and continued as a Wesleyan preacher until his death in 1818. Bramwell’s flight to Manchester was probably occasioned by the depression he felt as he faced the opposition and distrust of some of the preachers and leaders in Leeds. In Manchester he was encouraged by John Broadhurst to become the leader of the revivalist groups in Manchester, Leeds and Macclesfield. Bramwell had much sympathy with these revivalists and they would certainly have welcomed him as their popular leader. But again Bramwell hesitated, just as he had done in relation to the Kilhamite division seven years earlier. His love of prayer, evangelism and revival methods attracted him to the Revivalists but he could not bring himself to make a formal separation from his own connection. The written evidence that survives suggests that his depressed spirit in Leeds drove him to find shelter and comfort and understanding among John Broadhurst’s Band Room Ranters.

When the depression passed, Bramwell returned to the Wesleyan ranks. When the 1803 Conference received him back, although a vocal minority strongly objected, it gave Bramwell the assurance he needed. We can only guess that deep down this good man felt assured that his remarkable pastoral and revival ministry was more likely to bear permanent fruit when exercised in the ranks of Wesleyan Methodism, rather than in the uncertain future of either the Kilhamite sessionists or the Revivalist Ranters. All in all, Bramwell’s life and ministry was a living demonstration of the Spirit of Christ indwelling a believer. The doctrines of grace that Bramwell preached so passionately, particularly the doctrine of entire sanctification, found living embodiment in the preacher’s life. What Jesus said about the life and ministry of John the Baptist is not out of place when applied to William Bramwell. ‘He was a burning and a shining light’ (John 5:35).

Revd Dr Herbert McGonigle
Senior Lecturer in Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Nazarene Theological College




1. Biographical details from J. Sigston, Memoir of the Life and Ministry of Mr William Bramwell (1846).
2. Op. cit. p.16.
3. J Wesley, Letters (1931) 8:238.
4. Sigston, p. 21.
5. Op. cit.
6. J Wesley, Works, 8:299.
7. J Wesley, Letters (1931) 4:321.
8. V. Ward, A Memoir of the Rev. John Nelson (1838) p. 27.
9. C Goodwin, Methodist Pentecost: The Wesleyan Holiness Revival of 1758-1763 1739-1818 (1996), p. 1.
10. J Baxter, ‘The Great Yorkshire Revival,’ A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 7 (1974), p. 52.
11. W . Entwistle, Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Entwistle, fifty-four years a Wesleyan minister (1848) p. 128.
12. Op. cit. p. 131.
13. Op. cit. p. 111.
14. J. Baxter, op. cit. p.53.
15. J. Sigston, op. cit. p. 68.
16. Op. cit., Vol. 2 p. 4.
17. Op. cit. pp. 55-56.
18. Op. cit. p. 83.
19. J S Werner, The Primitive Methodist Connexion Its Background and Early History (1984), p. 44.
20. C W Andrews, William Bramwell Revivalist (1909), pp. 47-52.
21. J Sigston, op. cit. p. 105.
22. J Sigston, op. cit. p. 117.
23. Life of the Rev. Alexander Kilham (1838), p. 317.
24. Op. cit. pp. 318-319.
25. Op. cit. p. 319.
26. J Macdonald, Memoirs of the Rev Joseph Benson (1822), p. 310.
27. WMM (1845), pp. 434-437.
28. C Dews, Methodism in Leeds from 1791 to 1861 (unpublished MPhil thesis, 2 Vols. 1984), 1:330-333.
29. J Sigston, A Brief Memoir of Joseph Woolstenholme (1846), p. 3.
30. T P Bunting, The Life of Jabez Bunting (1887), 1:96.
31. J Sigston, op. cit. p. 99.


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