Historians are inviting people to dig up stories about radical, dissenting Methodists in their family tree and share them on a new heritage website.
'My Primitive Methodist Ancestors' provides a space where people can share information about every aspect of Primitive Methodism. The easily-searchable site is part of a community archive network, supported by the Methodist Church and Englesea Brook Museum, and developed by volunteers.
Many early trade union pioneers were drawn from the ranks of Primitive Methodist preachers, and a basic 'welfare state' used to operate among chapel-goers.
Jill Barber, Project Director for the Englesea Brook Museum, said: "We get hundreds of enquiries every year, from all over the world, from people tracing their family history. Many have no experience of church, but are fascinated to find out more about the faith of their ancestors. Some discover their ancestors were put in prison for preaching in the open air, others became Chartists or trade union leaders, and transformed the lives of working people."
My Primitive Methodist Ancestors is already proving popular. People have begun sending in stories, memories, photos, research and comments about people, places and topics related to Methodism. Anyone can upload photos directly into the virtual archive after registering to the site, which is free to use. A message board enables people to ask for help and share research interests.
The site is growing by the day, and by the end of October had reached over 15,000 page views, and nearly 2,000 visits from over 30 different countries.
Jo Hibbard, Methodist Heritage Officer, expects this to be the first in a network of Methodist community history websites, where people can share their stories, research and images.
"We expect the sites to be particularly popular with family history researchers, but I would encourage all enthusiasts for Methodism’s heritage across the world to browse, contribute and comment," she said.
"The potential of these websites to reach out beyond the pew is enormous. We already have contact with people from around the world who were previously unaware of their spiritual roots and certainly did not expect to find such committed faith and ministry in their family tree," added Ms Hibbard.
Primitive Methodism was about returning to the roots of the early church. Its theology was inspired by John Wesley’s open air preaching in the mid 18th century. In 1932 Primitive Methodism united with other branches to form the Methodist Church of today. The Primitive Methodist Church still exists in the United States.
In its early years from 1807 onwards there was tension or even antagonism between Primitive Methodists and the Weslyans. Early leaders Hugh Bourne and William Clowes were expelled from the Wesleyan Connexion.
Jospeh Ritson's classic 1909 book The Romance of Primitive Methodism saw the Primitive Methodist denomination as an independent growth, rather than as an offshoot of mainstream Methodism. Later histories have emphasised convergence.
In recent years many mainstream Methodists have rediscovered and celebrated the radical and dissenting element of their Christian tradition, including the one-time Alliance of Radical Methodists (ARM), the Rev David Haslam (who has become well known for anti-racism and pro-Dalit activism in recent years), and former Methodist president the Rev Dr John Vincent, founder of the Urban Theology Unit and other initiatives.
* More on My Primitive Methodist Ancestors: http://www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk/index.aspx