EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


8.

JOHN HOSKINS OF OLD PERLICAN, TRINITY BAY

John Hoskins can be classed among those Methodist immigrants to North America, who --like Robert Strawbridge in Maryland-- combined a profession with their lay preaching. He was born in the parish of Stoke Abbass, Dorset, the son of a farmer. At the age of 14 he had a religious experience, which he describes as having "tasted of the love of God, and felt the powers of the world to come." From that time on he felt a strong desire to dedicate his life to God. Taken out of school at the age of 15, he farmed with his father until he was 28. Upon the death of his father and a failing business, he left the home farm. He taught "Reading, Writing & Accompts" for many years and in different places, all along a professed member of the Church of England. His religious orientation became clearer when in 1746 he heard Methodist preaching in Bristol. "The word", Hoskins wrote later, "fell on my soul as dew on the tender herb." He joined a Methodist society, received within three weeks time "a clear sense of forgiveness; but soon fell into reasoning and doubting." He was assailed with "manifold temptations" for almost ten years, when he received certainty of his religious conviction and experienced an "abiding Witness." His religious conversion is less specific in a letter to the SPG, in which asks the Society to recommend him for ordination, but there he writes that at "about the age of Thirty six, by the Grace & mercy of God, I came to a greater degree of divine knowledge" and continued steadfastly.

At the time that the 54 year-old Hoskins entered the Newfoundland scene he was apparently a widower. He left London in March of 1774 with his 16 year-old son and went to Poole in hopes of finding employment in Newfoundland and earning enough money for his passage to New England, where he wanted to combine school teaching with missionary work. Hoskins arrived in Trinity, Newfoundland, then dominated by the merchant family of Lester from Poole. The resident Anglican clergyman and S.P.G. missionary James Balfour advised Hoskins to go to Old Perlican, where he might find employment as a school teacher. This he did and was welcomed by the ca. 50 families of the Trinity Bay outport. They also asked him to read prayers and preach a sermon on Sundays. Although nominally Anglican, the community had never had a minister and took some time to adjust to their new lay preacher. Hoskins writes to Wesley:

With his lay reader duties he combined an exposition of the BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, the 39 Articles, and what Hoskins called "the most essential parts of the religion of the heart", which according to him consisted of "repentance, remission of sins, and holiness." He also insisted upon conversion, a spiritual rebirth with a subsequent life of moral seriousness. When reading sermons Hoskins explained them in short expository comments.

But the religious climate improved only gradually. First it manifested itself by participation of a few in genuflection during prayer and singing. Then six or seven "were awakened, and had a real desire to flee from the wrath to come." Hoskins organized the converted into a class and met with them once a week on Sunday evenings. In due time that number increased to sixteen.

Arthur Thomey, Coughlan's convert and lay preacher in Carbonear, who visited Old Perlican on business, counselled Hoskins to preach EX TEMPORE. And a year later Thomey preached two or three times in the outport. At that time the society had grown to forty, although only eight are described as "believers", the rest "earnestly groaning for redemption."

It seems group solidarity and common witness strengthened the gathering. Hoskins repeatedly mentions conversions after the testimonial of an individual. The psychological manifestations range from kneeling and intense praying to "crying so loud, that it alarmed the neighbourhood." As in Coughlan's revival, there is also in Old Perlican a relationship between corporate experience and seasonality. Hoskins observes that during his absence in the winter of 1783, "about the middle of January, there was a very extraordinary out-pouring of the Spirit upon them, and it spread throughout the whole harbour." This revival resulted in thirty "believers" and twenty society members. The prayer meetings associated with this revival lasted sometimes four to five hours and occurred daily. It seems the pattern established for other revivals that young people and women predominated holds true for Old Perlican as well. Young people and children also became the agents of conversion for their parents. The strength of the new-found faith was often measured by Hoskins as with Coughlan by a happy death, and the deathbed sometimes became a place of new conversions.

And similar to Coughlan, news of the revival in one place resulted in a pilgrimage of the curious and the spread of the revival. The lack of mobility in outport-bound Newfoundland prohibited the free travel of the missionary and required instead a more active missionizing by the converted visitors.

In spite of repeated visits by Thomey, there is little indication that the remnants of Coughlan's work in Harbour Grace and Carbonear felt the effect of the revival in Trinity Bay. Geographical distance accounts for some of the discontinuity, but also the memory of Coughlan's heterodoxy continued and even echoes in the words of Hoskins when he writes to Wesley that, contrary to the divine work throughout several parts of the island, "in Harbour Grace and Carbonear, where Mr. Coughlan laboured, it is dwindled almost to nothing, chiefly by means of Calvinism and Antinomianism."

By now the Perlican evangelicals also had their enemies. There were threats by community leaders of closing the church, and merchants sought to remove Hoskins from Newfoundland. One young man, an under-agent of the merchant house of Lester, whose religious fervour some considered to be "delirious", was spirited away by his employer to England. During one preaching visit of Thomey, the convert from Roman Catholicism, a mob of Irish, armed with clubs, interrupted the proceedings and tried to strike the preacher. Bloodshed was narrowly avoided when the congregation drove off the attackers. On a missionary visit to Trinity, Hoskins himself was tarred by hostile sailors and narrowly escaped to Old Perlican. In October of 1784 Hoskins went to Bonavista and --upon a more friendly reception than in Trinity in the preceding year-- made plans to start a school there.

Shortly after the Trinity incident, Hoskins, recommended by the principal inhabitants of Old Perlican, who had pledged their support, asked the S.P.G. to recommend him for ordination to the bishop of London. When Bishop Lowth refused ordination, Wesley became engaged in one of the severest exchanges with the Anglican hierarchy, a dispute which contributed toward the eventual change in thinking among Methodists about the need of episcopally valid orders and subsequently resulted in a break with the Anglican Church. Hoskins at the time had not asked the S.P.G. for financial support but merely for a recommendation. The society did not recommend him, and Robert Lowth, the Bishop of London, refused him ordination. He did so on grounds similar to Wesley's, who in an earlier disapproval of Coughlan's ordination by the Greek bishop Erasmus had lamented Coughlan's lack of education. Now, however, Wesley responded to the bishop's refusal with the following words:

It seems that Hoskins plans to go to Bonavista did not materialize and that he stayed in Old Perlican. In the 1780s there are indications of a critical posture of Hoskins toward Stretton, which may have been motivated by theological differences, although the feeling was by no means mutual.

Wesley for one was willing to forgive Stretton the presumed taint he had acquired by his association with the apostate Coughlan. In 1788 he wrote to him: "I have a confused remembrance of some objections against you last year, made, I think, by John Hoskins. I hope, if there was once some foundation for them, it is now removed. We have need to take the utmost care that the good which is in us be not evil spoken of." To William Black, Wesley acknowledged Hoskins' criticisms of Stretton and recommended a charitable pastoral talk, if Hoskins concerns had any merits. But one year later Wesley wrote in a rather irritated tone to Stretton: "What concerns me is that I cannot find any union between you northern preachers. John Hoskins, John McGeary, and John Stretton I should imagine would have all acted in concert; on the contrary, each seems to be afraid of the other. How is this? What is the true ground of this shyness? What objections have you to John Hoskins or John McGeary? What objections have they to you? 'Tis a pity but you had all spoken freely to."

Black did not visit Old Perlican on his Newfoundland tour of 1791 for fear that such a trip might have resulted in him missing the boat for Halifax and an enforced stay in Newfoundland during the winter. What he did find out was that there was a society of ca. 30 members and that the church suffered from infrequent preaching. By then Hoskins must have returned to England, a disappointed man, not in his missionary endeavours, but because he had apparently been robbed by a British friend, with whom he corresponded, of a nautical invention that might have established his name in the scientific world.


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