A. Gordon James (b.1885): Education and Schooling – Writing Lives

A. Gordon James (b.1885): Education and Schooling

‘When I listen on my wireless set to the imaginative and yet factual lessons to schools given nowadays, I realise what a gulf there is between the teachings of elementary history and geography in my young days and that of today’ (10)

Wesleyan Sunday School in 19th-century Withernwick.

Apart from Alfred’s training to become a minister, he regards the earlier portion of his time in education as the most difficult time in his life in comparison to any other part of the manuscript. He dedicates far more paper to his time in Richmond Theological College and although it is not fully said, his ‘episodes’ of depression were largely because of and most frequent during his early schooldays.  As James ruminates on his childhood, he writes ‘I must now come back to my schooldays, which were most unpleasant’ and attributes this to his regular bouts of what he calls ‘biliousness’ that led him to move into a village school in Billinghurst, Sussex (8). He rarely writes of this excursion, only to mention that his teacher had ‘refused to believe that my name was James Gordon; he said I made a mistake and he entered me in his books as Gordon James’ (8).

After this, he moved back to London and was accepted at the Wandsworth Technical Institute, ‘which was co-educational’ (8). Alfred ‘took a foolish dislike’ to his chemistry teacher during this time, and deliberately attempted to fail or get low grades in his class.  He believes that ‘teaching depends far more upon the teacher than upon the nature of the subject taught’ (9). It could be suggested here that James was poorly treated in this class, although Alfred later states that because of his constant moving with his family he could ‘never benefit from a systematised form of study’ (9).

Scanned copy of a Wesleyan ‘Plan’, which dictated where ministers would have to move.

 Given that James would spend the rest of his life moving from county to county during his ministry, his earlier experiences of schooling may have made his way of life easier for him. In his later life he had many friendships, including his fellow founding-members of the Fellowship of the Kingdom conference, Arundel Chapman and Harry Tunnicliff. At school he was ‘too shy to make friends; I kept to myself; in short, I was a weedy bundle of misery’ (9).

            Ministerial education in the Wesleyan Methodist church was partly a hands-on education. One had to preach and take individual time out of their day before entering a college to learn the fundamentals, as Alfred writes that ‘once a week I went to the house of Rev. Alfred Vine, who with great kindness instructed me in the elements of theology’ (15). Jonathan Rose argues that working-class education was ‘unsystemised’ and the choice of books that working-class people would read was frequently done by recommendations or word of mouth (Journal of the History of Ideas, 1992, 56).

Richmond Theological College building, now the American International University.

 Unlike other denominations like the Church of England or Catholicism, there was less certainty at this time as to the difference between a lay clergyman and an ordained one. Alfred wrote that there were ‘stages of candidature’ and that one would be made an ‘offer’ based on the various performances exhibited during these stages (16). The purpose of these stages according to Dale A. Johnson, were to check the ‘essential criteria’, which were ‘purity of doctrine, purity of life and spiritual success’ (Church History, 1982, 306). Alfred writes about the fears during his education to become a minister through terms of employability; ‘It is not easy to find employment elsewhere; a theological training is no recommendation on the labour market’ (16). Alfred suggests that if a minister is not fully dedicated to what they are doing in a spiritual sense, they are ruined if they look elsewhere on the job-market. Johnson also writes about the difficult dynamic of candidates waiting to be tested in their Conference and normal, institutional education; ‘the traditional process of entrance into the Methodist ministry was not easily accommodated into the introduction of an educational institution’ (Church History, 2).

Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering: An Intimate Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Johnson, D. (1982). The Methodist Quest for an Educated Ministry. Church History, 51(3)

Rose, J. (1992) Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1, pp. 47-70.

Images Used:

Scanned copy of Circuit Plan found at: https://www.mywesleyanmethodists.org.uk/content/topics-2/circuit_plans/st_albans_circuit_plan_and_directory

Photograph of Wesleyan Sunday School: https://www.withernwickvillage.co.uk/sunday-school.htm

Photograph of Richmond Theological College: https://thepienews.com/news/richmond-partners-with-china-education-group/

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