150 Years of the Methodist Recorder
by John Singleton
An entry in a young British Methodist preacher's diary for April 4, 1861, reads as follows:
There is a new penny Wesleyan paper started called the Methodist Recorder. I received a specimen number today. It is Wesleyan, but does not appear to be in the least degree sanctioned by Conference authority. We shall see how it will get on.
One hundred and fifty years later, and still not sanctioned by Conference authority, the Methodist Recorder appears to have "got on" very well since that first note of cautious welcome.
When the first edition of the weekly Methodist Recorder and General Christian Chronicle appeared in 1861, Queen Victoria was on the British throne, railway mania was in full swing, Charles Dickens was writing Great Expectations, and Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President of the United States.
London's Fleet Street, where the Methodist Recorder was published for 122 years, was already well established as a center of British newspaper activity. This was mainly because the nearby (much resented) stamp tax office had to put a tax stamp on each copy of every paper published between 1711 and 1855.
A Methodist People's Paper
The penny Methodist Recorder was primarily intended for the ordinary Wesleyan Methodist in the pew. It was said to have been widely acclaimed when published--so much so that a guarantee fund of £2,000 was never drawn upon. While continuing to serve the church, the paper has remained a viable commercial enterprise ever since.
The original aim, declared in the first edition, was to produce an "able, attractive, and at the same time, cheap paper, accessible to all by its price, and commanding confidence by the soundness of its principles." A motto--"The truth in love"--was carried below the masthead each week.
The only Methodist competition at the time was the rather esoteric Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser. It commenced in 1835 and, at five pence, was very much a "top people's" paper. It was later said that, whereas the Watchman was read mainly by "elderly ministers and well-to-do laymen," the Methodist Recorder was read by the "common people." The Watchman ceased publication in 1883.
After only a month, the page-size of the Methodist Recorder was enlarged and the quality of the newsprint improved. This growing confidence perhaps enabled the following announcement to be made: "Some of our correspondents, and amongst them a respected minister, have scolded us rather severely for curtailing their circuit reports. We are sorry to have grieved them, but the operation, though an unpleasant one, was necessary."
Advances in Publishing
A technical landmark was reached on March 10, 1865, with the first publication of an illustration in the news pages of the Methodist Recorder--an engraving of the "new Wesleyan chapel" in the Peckham area of south London. The first photographs were not published until April 30, 1896. That milestone passed virtually without comment.
The "illustrated descriptive article," introduced in the early 1900s, became a strong feature of the paper. It was associated with the Rev. Nehemiah Curnock, a distinguished Wesleyan scholar who was editor from 1886 to 1906. He once explained how it came about.
It happened that one day I was walking with the Rev. J. Earnest Clapham, then secretary of the Home Mission Fund. He told me with regret of the number of disused Wesleyan chapels in East Anglia. 'Cannot you secure some photographs of these places and publish them in the Recorder?' he asked. I did not see that this was possible, but he suggested that I should take the photographs myself. At length I agreed to do my best, though I had not attempted photography before.... The views, of course, were somewhat crude, but they revealed a condition of things unappreciated by Methodists as a whole. From that time I journeyed to all parts of England and Scotland with my camera for the purpose of our special illustrated articles.
New Year's Day 1885 saw the appearance of the Methodist Recorder's first and only serious rival, the Methodist Times. It was published initially as a radical and campaigning vehicle for the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes of the West London Mission. In 1905, it was followed by the Primitive Methodist Leader and several years later by the United Methodist.
When British Methodist Union came in 1932, the reverberations were reflected in the Methodist media. The Methodist Recorder absorbed the United Methodist, and the Methodist Times merged with the Primitive Methodist Leader. The final act of the drama was played out in 1937 when the Methodist Recorder took over the Methodist Times.
On June 11, 1903, a special supplement was published commemorating the bicentennial of John Wesley's birth. The 44-page edition was in such great demand that there were several reprints before the publishers were forced to call a halt.
The 20th Century
The Methodist Recorder gave great impetus to the Twentieth Century Fund, which set out to raise a million guineas for Methodism's advance, including the building of Methodist Central Hall opposite Westminster Abbey. Methodist Central Hall is known throughout World Methodism and beyond.
In 1939, when the existing premises of the Methodist Recorder were due for demolition, a move was made to another Fleet Street address. This new location was meant to be a temporary home until new premises could be obtained. But upon the outbreak of World War II, the editorial operation was evacuated to the home of the then editor, F. D. Wiseman, in St. Albans, Hertfordshire.
The roof of the Fleet Street building was used for air raid warden duties, and a number of staff members were called to serve in the Armed Forces. Even so, the paper continued to be published weekly throughout the war from its dual Fleet Street and St. Albans addresses. In 1956, the Methodist Recorder moved to its third and final Fleet Street address, and the next 26 years were remarkable in its continuing evolution.
On April 6, 1961, a 40-page paper celebrated the newspaper's centennial, on which it received greetings from Queen Elizabeth II, the Rev. Edward Rogers (then President of the Conference), and other notables.
In 1969, one of the biggest technical changes to affect the production of the paper was the switch from rotary printing to web offset, starting with the issue of June 5. This allowed for great flexibility in the use of color, including a color masthead for the first time. November 30, 1972, marked the 6,000th edition of the Methodist Recorder. And, in 1978, the reopening of Wesley's Chapel to celebrate the chapel's bicentennial was commemorated with a widely acclaimed pull-out supplement.
In 1981-82, the newspaper was involved in the run-up to publication of the new British Methodist hymn-book, Hymns and Psalms. Several drafts of the list of proposed hymns to be included were published by the Methodist Recorder as supplements for consultation. This enabled a wide cross section of the church to scrutinize the hymns and thereby contribute to the book's final contents.
The Methodist Recorder finally left London's Fleet Street on November 5, 1983, when it moved to its present address at 122 Golden Lane, not far from Wesley's Chapel. A supplement on November 10 marked this "new chapter in the life of the paper" after 122 years in Fleet Street.
In 1986, the Methodist Recorder's 125th anniversary was celebrated with a special edition on March 27. In it, British Methodist leader, the late Rev. Edward Rogers, looked back at 1861, noting the paper's first-ever coverage of an annual Methodist Conference. Allowing for what he termed "the majestic rotundity of Victorian prose," he found that the Methodist Recorder had done an "excellent" job.
Computerization of the Methodist Recorder's weekly production began in 1997, a process which--apart from the printing--was gradually brought fully in-house over the next few years. Changes in the design and overall look of the newspaper have evolved over the last decade. In 2010, a redesign saw the introduction of full color on every page, new "signposting" of pages, and some subtle changes in font.
Into the 21st Century
Under the leadership of the Managing Editor, Moira Sleight, a small team continues to produce the Methodist Recorder weekly. Thus today, this independent newspaper continues to fulfill the essential task with which it has been entrusted for the last 150 years: to be a journal of record; to open a window on church life and witness, both locally and worldwide; and to enable Methodists and other people of faith to share their insights and resources. It is a recipe that has brought us readers from around the globe--from Germany to Gambia and from the United States to Australia. We look forward to the next 150 years.
John Singleton is a writer for the Methodist Recorder, published in London, England.
Date posted: Feb 08, 2011