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Bramwell, William
1759-1818; e.m. 1785

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WM minister and evangelist, born in February 1759 at Elswick, near Preston, Lancs of devout Anglican parents. He became an apprentice currier and fellmonger in Preston. From an early age he showed great interest in religious matters. Drawn first to Catholicism and then to the established Church, he was (grudgingly) persuaded by a friend to hear a Methodist preacher, was converted on 28 April 1780 and joined the Methodist society. Introduced to John Wesley in 1781, he became a class leader and local preacher, a ministry he exercised over the next five years, gaining a reputation as a fervent evangelist, while continuing in his occupation as a currier. His call to the full-time ministry came after he had filled a brief vacancy in the Liverpool Circuit; at Thomas Coke's request he accepted an appointment at Canterbury (1785). Between then and his death he served in fourteen circuits, mostly in the north of England.

His ministry was born of his own Christian experience. His study of the Scriptures and his understanding of John Wesley's teaching led him to stress the supreme importance of 'entire sanctification' in the spiritual life. Believing himself to have received this, he regarded it his solemn duty to preach Scriptural Holiness to others. He held that spiritual revival in church and nation could only come through an experience of sanctification and that neglect of this teaching would inevitably lead to spiritual decline. Consequently, his sermons were carefully crafted as instruments of his evangelistic zeal. Each of his circuits witnessed considerable growth in membership during his time there. In 1791 he was appointed to the Dewsbury Circuit. By the following year, such were the effects of his preaching that a spiritual awakening began in the town and spread throughout West Yorkshire.

Although the general revival lasted only five years, he continued to win large numbers of converts in all his later circuits and, because of this became widely known as a popular 'revivalist' preacher, after the manner of the well-known American revivialist Charles Finney. Bramwell was a pastor as well as a preacher. He spent much of his time in house-to-house visitation, praying with people in their homes, takling with them about spiritual matters and showing great concern for their welfare. He also maintained a lively interest in the welfare of his colleagues and was very supportive of them in their work. He incurred the disapproval of the WM hierarchy by showing sympathy for rebels such as Alexander Kilham and James Sigston. He encouraged women to become preachers and (unsuccessfully) opposed the move in the Conferences of 1803 and 1804 to exclude them from this ministry. None of this, however, prevented him exercising Methodist discipline if the need arose; he set high standards for all within the Church and, if exhortation failed to bring offenders back to the Christian way of life, he didn't hesitate to remove them from membership. People accepted this discipline because of his own deeply Christian example. He was a humble, loving man whose life displayed the graces of a true follower of Christ. Prayer was the mainstay of that life and he spent several hours each day in his devotions; he undertook nothing and made no decision without first prayerfully seeking God's will. He wrote a life of one of his earliest converts, Ann Cutler (1796).

During his ministry Bramwell met with both enthusiastic support and considerable opposition. Though in the popular mind he was applauded as an outstanding minister of the gospel, the more traditional elements in the Methodist hierarchy looked askance at his revivalist leanings and, in the years following Wesley's death, questioned his loyalty to the Conference. It is true that he felt much sympathy for (and may have offered support to) Kilham and he had many friends among the revivalist groups which had broken away from circuits in the north of England and which would gladly have accepted him as their leader. In 1802, without warning or explanation, he left his Leeds circuit, went to Manchester and stayed there with one such group of revivalist friends. This defection might easily have led to his expulsion from Methodism; but the next year Conference re-admitted him to the ministry. In all probablility they recognized that his action stemmed from severe depression, brought on by sustained opposition to him from a small minority within his circuit; and he recognized that his ministry could be exercised more effectively within Methodism than outside it. At any rate, he continued as an outstanding WM minister and evangelist until his sudden death at the home of James Sigston in Leeds on 13 August 1818. A funeral sermon was preached in the grounds of Sigston's house by \'Billy\' Dawson.

William Bramwell's son John Bramwell (1794-1882), born in Birstall, became a local preacher in 1826. From 1815 to 1831 he was a partner of the Durham solicitor John Ward (1777-1857), specializing in land law, who in the 1820s joined the MNC. He then set up in practice on his own. An advanced Liberal, he was a member of the first reformed Durham council in 1835 and was five times mayor. He was appointed Recorder of Durham in 1860. His son W.H. Bramwell (d.1865) was also a solicitor and Registrar of Durham County Court.

Quotations

'He stood about five feet nine or ten inches; was naturally inclined to feed, but kept his body under... His complexion was dark - his hair black - his features, though not large, strong - the face inclined to round - a hard grip about the mouth, with a slight pout in the under lip - and an eye like a dagger, dark and searching…

'There was great sweetness, clearness, power, and flexibility in his voice; employing in public speaking, as in singiung, the counter, the tenor, and the base- alternately pouring into the ear the soft windings of the lute, and the roar of the lion; now evincing the melting, winning tenderness of the mother over her children, and then the fierceness of a West Indian tornado, sweeping all before it. It was exquisitely fitted to strains of serious earnestness, with amazing compass; and, in addition to softness, adapted to express scorn, indignation, - in short, all the passions; and of amazing pathos - free from all harshness and monotony.'

Wesleyan Takings (1840), pp. 36, 41

Sources

  • J. Sigston, A Memoir of the Life and Ministry of Mr. W. Bramwell (1820)
  • T. Harris, The Christian Minister in Ernest: memoirs of the Rev. William Bramwell (1846)
  • Methodist Recorder, Winter Number, 1907, p.40
  • N. Cunliffe, The Beckoning of the West: a Lancashire Odyssey (1992)
  • Herbert McGonigle in WHS Proceedings, 54 pp.219-36
  • Charles H. Goodwin, 'William Bramwell: the last of the ancient Methodists', in Asbury Theological Journal, 54:1 (Spring, 1999) pp.59-66
  • John Lenton, John Wesley's Preachers (2009), pp.46-7, 80-81, 415
  • Herbert B. McGonigle, A Burning and a Shining Light: the life and ministry of William Bramwell (Sheffield, 2009)

Entry written by: WDH
Category: Person

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