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Bible Christians (Bryanites)


William O'Bryan (§ 1).

Early Organization and Growth (§ 2).

Dissension (§ 3).

Extension to America and Australia (§ 4).

Union with the Methodists in Canada (§ 5).

Union in Australia and England (§ 6).

Bible Christians or Bryanites are popular names of a body of Christians officially known as the Bible Christian Connection. The designation "Bryanites" is from their founder, William O'Bryan; that of "Bible Christians" was due to the persistent use of the Bible in private devotions and public services by a peasantry in general but scantily provided with the book, and to the consistent practise of its precepts by their early ministry. The sect has usually been classed with the Methodists and is now united with them.

1. William O'Bryan.

William O'Bryan, the founder, was born in Gunwen (near Lostwithiel, 23 m. w. of Plymouth), Cornwall, England, Feb. 6, 1778. He was the son of a yeoman, was possessed of a vigorous mind and retentive memory, and, having a good elementary education, was, intellectually, considerably above his class. His home influences were devoutly religious and resulted in his conversion at eighteen, when he began at once to exhort. He was licensed shortly after as a "local preacher" with the hope of entering the Wesleyan itinerancy; meanwhile he engaged in business.

Serious illness (1804) reawakened in him a profound conviction of his call, which delay and opposition had weakened for a time. For five years more he was content to work on the Bodmin circuit as a local preacher of the Wesleyans, while still in business. His fine presence, courteous manner, great magnetism, and above all his fervent godliness gave him much popularity as a preacher. In his keen hunting for souls, he grew restive under restraint, overstepped the boundary of the circuit and plunged into the "wild wastes of Cornwall and North Devon," where the voice of Methodism had never been heard.

This in the mind of the Wesleyan authorities was a "dangerous irregularity" of method, against which Mr. O'Bryan had been cautioned, and, when he appeared at the district meeting as a candidate for the itinerancy, caused his "first" rejection; the financial responsibility which would be incurred by accepting a married man, as he now was, was named as the "second" cause for his "final" rejection. He at once entered unoccupied fields in a new campaign. His unquestioned moral uprightness, indefatigable labors, and unsparing self-sacrifice made his evangelical message remarkably successful; and the generosity which prompted him to urge all his converts to enter the Church that had rejected him from its highest office of ministry compels admiration. A tendency to despotic rule, to which by nature and force of circumstances he was inclined (see below, § 3), led to a separation in 1829 from the Connection which he had founded, and in 1835 to his emigration to the United States with residence in New York City. He revisited his spiritual children more than once and was heartily welcomed. A generous pension was provided for his support by the body. He died in Brooklyn, Jan. 8, 1868, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

2. Early Organization and Growth.

The germ of the Bible Christian denomination consisted of twenty-two persons, converts of Mr. O'Bryan, who were organized into a society on Oct. 9, 1815, in the house of John Thorne, Shebbear, Devonshire, England. Within a year this number became eighteen ministers and 1,500 members; and at the sixth year seventy-eight ministers and 6,200 members. To carry forward a work extending so rapidly, Mr. O'Bryan adopted John Wesley's plan and "chose and appointed" both men and women as itinerants. The proportion of women was large in the early history of the Church, and their work was eminently successful; yet their number steadily declined and ultimately none remained in the itinerancy. With this working force evangelism was extended into Devonshire and Cornwall, the Scilly and Channel Islands, and later by emigration (1820–30) to America.

3. Dissension.

Organization into societies and circuits required meeting-places and chapels—at first preaching was mostly in the field, the village green, in hired halls, and in houses—and all property acquired for such purpose was held in Mr. O'Bryan's name. He also presided over the conference, the first being held at Launceston (1819), and composed of ministers only. To all this absolutism, there was serious objection, and an effort to secure an amended deed by which all property should be held in trust for the Connection was begun in 1826. A crisis was reached at the eleventh conference (1829), when opposition to Mr. O'Bryan's expressed intention "that if all the conference were opposed to his views, his single vote was to determine every case," resulted in his adjourning the conference, and withdrawing with comparatively few sympathizers. The conference refused to recognize his authority, elected Andrew Cory president in his stead, and proceeded with business. It was resolved "that the conference be the organ of government; its membership, ministers and laymen; and its next place of meeting annually fixed." The conference thus declared against an episcopacy, as it also decided against ecclesiasticism by admitting laymen to church government in equal numbers with clerical members. Eight years later these separatists negotiated terms of reunion, but Mr. O'Bryan never again united.

4. Extension to America and Australia.

Many members of the infant Church emigrated to the colonies and the United States. In 1831 the Missionary Society of the Bible Christians in England sent John Glass and Francis Metherall as missionaries to Canada West and Prince Edward Island respectively. They also organized missions (1846) in the States of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. In 1850 James Way and James Rowe were sent out to Australia, and later work was begun in New Zealand. For the next quarter of a century 85the Church enjoyed undisturbed prosperity, establishing three publishing houses, and a denominational college at Shebbear, Devonshire, England. In 1882, 300 ministers and 34,000 members were reported. This was the high-water mark numerically.

5. Union with the Methodists in Canada.

These years of extension had awakened, in a much divided Methodism, a sense of the advisability of "union," in both England and the colonies. The center of discussion was Canada, where five Methodist sects wasted their energy in vigorous, if not unseemly, rivalry. As early as 1866 the Bible Christians and Methodist New Connection approached the Methodist Protestants of the United States upon the question of union, but the overture ended in friendly expressions only. In 1870 the Methodist New Connection made overtures to the Bible Christians, and in 1874 the former were absorbed by the Wesleyan Methodists of Canada. The Bible Christians announced as their policy—a policy consistently held since organization—"That any basis of union to be acceptable to this Conference must secure to the laity their full share of privileges in the government of the Church." In 1882 a committee was appointed by the Bible Christians to meet with three other committees, representing the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists, and the Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada. This committee was explicitly instructed to reaffirm "That no union would be possible for their Church that did not provide for a representation of the laity in all church courts." A basis of union was provided acceptable to all parties, voted upon by every society, and in 1884 union was fully and legally perfected. The uniting churches chose as a name "The Methodist Church of Canada." The parent body graciously consented to the separation, which affected the work in Canada and the United States only.

6. Union in Australia and England.

The energy and resources of the English and Australian conferences were now devoted to an enlargement of home missions and in the establishment of a foreign mission in China, which has been successful. A union of the Australian conference with other Methodist sects in that colony left but the parent body bearing the name; and in Aug., 1906, this Church voted unanimously to unite with the Methodist New Connection and the United Methodists, the union to be formally and legally consummated in 1907. The name of "United Methodist Church" was chosen for the new organization. At the time of approving the union the Bible Christians had 638 chapels, 202 ministers, and 30,000 members.

Francis Metherall Whitlock.

Bibliography: J. Thorns, A Jubilee Memorial of the Rise and Progress of the Bible Christian Connexion, London, 1888; J. G. Hayman, A Hist. of the Methodist Revival of the Last Century in Relation to North Devon, ib. 1885; [John Thorne], James Thorne of Shebbear, a Memoir . . . from his Diary and Letters, by his Son, ib 1873; F. W. Bourne, The Centenary Life of James Thorne, ib. 1895; Brief Biographical Sketches of Bible Christians, Jersey, 1905; The Book of Discipline for the People Known as Bible Christians, London, the Bible Christian Book Room.

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