Presidential Address, delivered by Rev. John Watson
to the Annual Conference of the Primitive Methodist Church
held at Edinburgh, June 1895

Dear Brethren, — In the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, we send you greeting. At this, the first Methodist Conference that has ever assembled in Scotland, we rejoice greatly in the warm welcome we have received from all the churches. They have recognised in us, not opponents, but members with them of the household of faith, and fellow-labourers whose names are also written in the Book of Life. Representatives from the high courts of the various evangelical denominations have come to us bidding us God-speed in our work, and our delegates have been invited, and have gladly responded to the invitation, to occupy their pulpits, including Edinburgh Cathedral. Our hearts have been touched by the catholic spirit of our brethren in Scotland, and we have felt grateful for these tokens of a growing spirit of unity and love among the different sections of the church of God.

Gathered in the Assembly Hall of the Free Church of Scotland, and reminded thereby of the sacrifices and struggles of the Founders of that great community, we have never forgotten the faith and patience and work of our own people. For the grace God has bestowed upon you, and the work He has done by you in saving men, we have offered joyful thanksgiving, and have prayed that this grace might be more fully revealed in the churches of our Israel. Throughout our deliberations this has been the ultimate end contemplated. A spirit of confidence and of earnestness has characterised all the meetings of our annual assembly. In the business sessions, questions have been under consideration regarding which opinion has been divided, and some new departures of an important kind have been made. But there have been clear indications in every discussion, and in all the decisions at which the Conference has arrived, of the conviction that as a religious community, we have gained a position which must give permanence to our work, and that we are destined to exercise a large influence in the country and the world in the coming time. The same note of confidence and hopefulness has distinguished the speakers at the religious services. The fact of our Divine call still acts as a spell upon our leaders, and, we trust, on our people as a whole ; and the prospect of yet greater usefulness in the cause of God and man, appears to have left no room for fear and doubt. Such a spirit is quite compatible with true humility. It is the boldness of men who, conscious that they are among the least in the kingdom of heaven, know also that God uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, and the foolish things of the world to Confound the wise. But whilst confident regarding the future, and willing to toil hard to give proof of our Divine calling, there have been signs not a few in the Conference, that the dew of youth is on our brow. The visions of triumphs in store for us, and the promises of coming prosperity that have been vouchsafed, have bred a certain ardour of mind, and we have felt eager for the conflict. It is our prayer and hope that this spirit of confidence and of eagerness may inspire the hearts of our people throughout the Connexion.

As in other years, we have had to mourn over our dead. More than three thousand are reported as having fallen from our ranks, struck down by the hand of death. Of these, eighteen were ministers, all of whom had reached a ripe age, and been permitted to serve the church for a lengthened period. Faithful servants of Jesus Christ, they had been loyal to the cause in times when loyalty meant heroism, and only men of great courage and strong faith were able to endure. The most distinguished among them, Thomas Guttery, has entered into rest since the Conference assembled. In his death the Connexion has suffered a great loss. Reference will be made elsewhere to his remarkable gifts ; here it seems desirable only to say, that he had hoped to do a great work in the immediate future, for the trust property of his circuit. It would have involved much self-sacrifice, but enfeebled as he was in bodily health, he was prepared to undertake the duty. Truly we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses whose example should induce in us a spirit of complete consecration to the work of God.

Never in our history have we had a difficulty in obtaining fresh recruits for our ministry. Were this to happen we should regard it as an evidence of declining vitality. No doubt the work is hard, and to young men of ability other careers are open which from a worldly point of view are more inviting; but the love of Christ that constrained Saul of Tarsus to consecrate his life to the work of preaching the gospel, still enthralls the hearts of our young disciples. This year the number of those who have sought to enter our ministry is even larger than usual, and it was a cause of sorrow to many, that young men, capable of becoming useful in this department of Christian service, and willing to give their life and strength to the work, had to be told that we could not find a sphere for them. All is not right with a Church that cannot put those who are willing to serve into suitable fields of labour. We speak to the Churches in love, but our words must also be faithful and direct. In other days — days that we have pleasure in recalling to memory, because of the glory that there was upon us, and the success we were granted in saving men, the circuits were not crippled to the same extent as now by a calculating spirit. A stronger faith adopted a bolder policy, and stations counting their members by several hundreds, were not content to have a single minister. Larger increases are greatly desired, and we are convinced they might be obtained, if some of the stations were not starved in the matter of ministerial oversight, and if others were bold enough to engage additional ministers for the purpose of establishing new causes on ground hitherto unoccupied by us, and where there are indications that we could do good.

Arrangements have been made this year, which when completed, will provide for the special training of a sufficient number of young men for our ministry to meet all requirements for a long time to come. Through the munificence of our friend, Mr. W. P. Hartley, J.P., who has undertaken to bear the whole of the cost, a new wing will shortly be added to the Manchester College. Provision will thus be made for accommodating sixty students, all of whom must remain two years, and those who desire it will have the opportunity of continuing a third year. The young men that are at present coming out of this institution are full of promise — godly, studious, and thoroughly devoted. In time they will by their character and work confer honour on the Connexion, and help greatly in extending its borders. Too long has the question of collegiate training been regarded as of secondary importance. In this particular, our very success in early times has been a cause of weakness in these latter days. Having done our work with pleasing results through self-educated ministers, we have been accustomed to think that all that was needed by them was the imbuement of the Holy Ghost. Wisdom is coming to us now, and we are learning that the greatest piety is compatible with scholarship, and that both are needed to constitute a man an able minister of the New Testament.

The reports from the Districts are encouraging. There is an increase in the membership, though it must be admitted that it is sadly too small. Six thousand added to the roll every year, would not be too much to expect from the work that is done in a great community like ours; and when, instead of these thousands, we are able to speak of only as many hundreds, we must regard the result with somewhat mixed feelings. That we report increases at all is proof that the victory is with us, and not with the powers of sin, against whom we are fighting; but our satisfaction would be more abounding were the triumph more signal and complete. Circumstances, by no means of a displeasing character, will in part account for our increases being smaller than formerly. Time was when we might claim to be the only distinctly evangelistic Church within these realms, and when the working-classes were to a large extent left to our care. Now, almost all the Churches have their evangelistic agencies, and some of them are worked with a zeal and effectiveness that awaken our admiration. In their increased ardour and the broader view they have taken of their mission in the world we rejoice, and thank God for the success they have realised.

And yet we are convinced that the successes of former days may be repeated by our own Church. We have now a better organisation than we have had at any former period. At more than 5000 chapels and preaching-rooms, congregations assemble every Sabbath, to hear our ministers and local preachers declare the word of life. Many of these sanctuaries are large, and they are increasing in number and in value. We are not without hope that the "leakage," which has been one of our chief defects, may by this means be to some extent removed. Families are more inclined to settle permanently as worshippers, in good, commodious, and well-situated buildings, than in small, ill-arranged, and badly-situated chapels. Year by year we are erecting new chapels, some of them magnificent and even sumptuous in their appointments. During the last twelve months, we have added to the number at the rate of more than one per week. Men of God learn to love these earthly temples, and if they have cost them thought and money, they will love them ardently, and not be prepared to allow trifles to sever them from places where they have enjoyed some of their most exalted and precious spiritual experiences. The change in this respect that is rapidly being brought about, will not of itself bring down the leakage from which we have suffered so terribly, to a reasonable rate, but it will probably lessen it to some extent.

In the Sunday School department of our work, barring one disappointing feature, there is little that is not pleasing. Considerable increases in the number of schools, of teachers, and of scholars, of adult and juvenile abstainers, serve to show that this work is being prosecuted with vigour and success. After reading the report, only one question will occur calculated to cause sorrow. The number of our Sunday School children approaches half-a-million, and there are 98,036 over fourteen years of age. This last is a number just about equal to half the membership in the Connexion. What becomes of these young people? The figures suggest that, from our schools alone, members should be drafted that would ensure an annual increase of many thousands.

To help in the accomplishment of this end, may we commend to the school authorities and to the officials and members of the societies, the proposals of the General Sunday School Union relative to Guilds of Christian Endeavour? Like almost the whole of the legislation sent up from the lower courts, these proposals unfortunately could not, on account of the lack of time, be properly considered, and consequently they have not yet been placed upon the statute book. Next year, in all probability, this will be done. But in the interval the work should be begun. From various circuits where Guilds of Christian Endeavour have been established, reports are coming to hand of good results that have been realised; and it appears not unlikely that if this new machinery were set in motion, we might retain to the Church the larger number of the 30,000 children that annually leave our Sunday Schools.

There are other comparatively new features in the work, that can only receive a passing notice in this address, but which should not be overlooked by our people. No one who has watched our Connexion during the past ten years, will entertain the slightest fear concerning the missionary cause, for no department of our work is dearer to the heart of our people. The Providence of God has guided the missionary authorities in a remarkable manner, more especially in the choice of agents, with the result that they have not only succeeded to a marvellous degree in Christianising the heathen, but have shown a fertility of initiative, and a power of adaptation to new circumstances, that few would have expected to find in them. In the island of Fernando Po, they are establishing colonies of industrious cocoa-planters; at Aliwal North and the stations connected with it, they are not only training mechanics, and establishing elementary day-schools, but founding colleges for higher education, and the training of native teachers and ministers. This is work that is new to us, but in no instance have the missionaries learned to succeed by failure — they have succeeded from the first. And coming to the home field, it is impossible to read of the social work carried on at the Clapton and Southwark missions, without feeling that these bands of missionaries deserve the most liberal support that it is possible for the Church to extend to them. At Aldershot so much good has been done, that it would be evidently going against Providence to decline to avail ourselves of the new opening that is offered ; and the Van mission in the rural districts of East Anglia has proved an unqualified success. These are new phases in the work, which prove that the Spirit of God, working by His people, is not bound by precedent, but by divers manners according to the gifts of His servants and the needs of the times accomplishes His benevolent purposes.

Bookroom affairs have occupied the serious attention of the Conference. Our great publishing establishment has been stated, on the highest authority, to be "the wonder and the envy" of other denominational bookrooms. Notwithstanding the keen competition that prevails in the publishing trade, the turn-over of our Bookroom continues to increase, and last year the issues, in one form and another, reached close upon two and three-quarter millions, yielding a profit to the Connexion of £4,000, New premises have been obtained in Aldersgate Street. They are a fine block of buildings, in a central situation, and are better adapted for our purposes than the old warehouses in Sutton Street. Recognising that nothing human is perfect, and that despite the fine record our publishing house has made in the past, it may be possible to effect improvements, some changes have been made in the management. But besides this, a spirit of loyalty is needed on the part of our Churches and Sunday Schools in relation to our publications. As Connexional Magazines, ours easily take the first place in the country; and every Primitive Methodist should be proud to have all the seven on his table. Next to the pulpit and the Sunday School, there is no agency probably so powerful for extending the kingdom of God as healthy religious literature, and we are convinced that an increased circulation of our magazines among Primitive Methodist families would contribute not a little to the moral preservation of our young people.

Distinguished for many things, it is possible that in the future, the Conference of 1895 will be remembered not the least because it took a distinct step towards union between ourselves and one of the other Methodist bodies. The Bible Christians sent the venerable F. W. Bourne as a deputation to speak on the report of the United Committee of the two bodies that sat during the year for the purpose of suggesting methods for the accomplishment of the union. The question has been discussed with perfect frankness, and at the same time with Christian courtesy, and resolutions in favour of union have been adopted almost unanimously. Steps have been taken to approach the other minor Methodist bodies, to ascertain their views on the subject of a general union. How far these last may be successful, or otherwise, it is premature to say. But we feel confident that at no distant date, the Bible Christians and the Primitive Methodists will be one denomination. This is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Its moral effect upon the other Methodist Churches, and indeed upon all the Christian communities in the country, would be great and exceedingly beneficial, and it might hasten the union of other Churches, the reasons for whose separate existence have long since ceased to be. Could this be done, what a glorious harvest might the Churches reap. Never before were the fields so ready for the sickle. The scepticism, which twenty years ago was boastfully threatening to overthrow the power of religion by revealing it to be no more than a myth, is now covered with shame, and modestly hides its face. Every form of unbelief in recent years has lost ground, and it remains only for the Church of God to rise to her privileges, in order that large territories may be added to the Master's kingdom. The very unrest of the times that often causes deep anxiety to Christian men, is itself a splendid opportunity for the Church. For has she not in her possession the gospel of peace and of rest, and is she not alone able, among all the institutions that are abroad, to meet this crying need?

In this great work the Primitive Methodist Church must do her part; and if she were to lead the van, she would be doing no more than her duty. The Conference has been impressed with the wisdom and truth of words addressed to it regarding the crisis in our history we have reached: — "We stand on a dividing range, between a past with which we cannot stay if we would, and a future in many ways uncertain." To do our work we must be true to the faith of our fathers, to the cardinal doctrines of the religion of Jesus Christ, keeping an open mind to receive the new light that is ever breaking forth from the Word of Revelation, from the researches of science and philosophy, and from the general experience of man, allowing ourselves to be led into all truth by the Spirit of Light. Only thus shall we find equipment for the work that lies before us. To close our minds against the light is to resist the Spirit of God, and to make ourselves impotent in working for the truth's sake against the evil and error of the age. Only by opening them to the light, will our minds become charged with a divine message — a message old, and yet new, a message as old as Christ and His apostles, but conceived in terms that will give it a bearing on the forms of sin and sorrow that are peculiar to our own day.

But we need more than this message, divinely true though it is. We have always, as a Church, had our message. Not always have we succeeded as we ought. The men who in past ages have rendered signal service to the cause of God, have in every case spoken their message with voices clicking with emotion, with breaking hearts, with eyes overflowing with tears. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, among the old Hebrew prophets, and John and Paul among the apostles, carried on their hearts the burden of their people's sorrow, on their consciences the weight of their people's sin. They felt the sorrow and the sin as though it had been their own; it was their own, for, as of the Servant of the Lord, it could be said of them, that the iniquity of others was laid upon them. The Son of Man is reminding us, that as He laid down His life, we must lay down our life for the brethren. There is a redeeming force, a saving power in vicarious suffering, for the lack of which nothing will atone. Long since we learned to work for men, to live to save them; but not till we reach the highest stage of all, and like the Master, bear their griefs and carry their sorrows, shall the pleasure of the Lord prosper in our hands.

Signed by order and on behalf of the Conference held at Edinburgh,

JOHN WATSON, President.
RICHARD S. BLAIR, Secretary.

June 20th, 1895.

see "Conference Chronicle" for the report of John Watson's election

Source: The Primitive Methodist Magazine, Vol. II / LXXVI, 1895