Bible Christian Preacher
Mary Toms Warder (1795-1850)

Mary Toms lived in an era when few women achieved leadership roles in any phase of society.  She became a preacher and evangelist in the Bible Christian church (an offshoot of English Methodism) in the 1820's, long before it was considered proper for women to take such a role.

Relatively little is known about Mary's ancestry, especially on the Toms side.  She was born November 24, 1795 at Tintagel, Cornwall, in the southwestern part of England.  Tintagel is a small village on the northwest coast of Cornwall and, according to some sources, was the birth place of the legendary King Arthur.  Her parents, Charles Toms and Mary Kernick had been married on February 8, 1795 at the nearby town of St. Teath. (Note 1)

Charles Toms rented a small farm in the area and also worked in the local slate quarry.  He and his wife had only two children -- Mary and her brother Charles who was about eight and a half years younger. (Note 2)  As the oldest, and for quite a few years an only child, Mary was spoiled and allowed to have her own way.

At age 16, Mary was strong, vigorous, and active.  She even worked with her father's reapers in the harvest fields.  Reportedly she "feared and cared for nothing."  Mary was one of the best dressed girls in the village.  One of her main reasons for going to church was to show off her finery and also to see the dresses of others and any new style which she could imitate.  She soon persuaded her father to apprentice her to a stay and dress maker at Tintagel.

Mary was still only 16 when she went on one of her periodic visits to an aunt who ran a hotel in Plymouth.  To get there, she had to travel across Cornwall to the south coast of England and on into the neighboring county of Devonshire.  Often she would make this trip in the company of a Huckster (a dealer in butter, eggs, poultry, etc.), stay for several weeks, and return by the same conveyance.  During this visit to Plymouth, Mary chanced to hear a Methodist preacher.  This experience made her feel very sinful, so she returned to her aunt's hotel and cut off all of the frills and trimmings on her clothes and even her own curly hair and threw them into the fire.

On returning to Tintagel, Mary met with a very poor reception due to her altered appearance (and probably also because of her new religious beliefs).  Her father beat her and put her out of doors, but this did not alter her determination and her family soon became reconciled to her new ways.  Mary stopped attending Church of England services and regularly walked two or three miles alone in the roughest of weather and the darkest of nights to worship with the Methodists.

To put Mary's religious work into context, an understanding of the early history of English Methodism is necessary.  In 1729, a small group of Oxford University students led by John and Charles Wesley spent so much time in methodical prayer and Bible reading that they were ridiculed by others as "Bible bigots," the "Holy Club" and "Methodists."  Both Wesley brothers had transforming religious experiences in May 1738 and in subsequent years led a lively renewal movement within the Church of England.  This was part of the great evangelical revival which changed the face of popular religion in both Britain and North America.

One of the most important, and controversial, developments in early Methodism was the decision to allow female preaching.  By the 1760s, Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet-Fletcher had, with John Wesley's reluctant approval, made the transition from "exhorting" to preaching the gospel.

Although the Methodist movement began as an attempt to reform the Church of England, in the closing years of the 18th century the Methodists broke away and formed a separate church.  Rapid growth marked the early history of this new church, but also frequent conflicts between some of the more autocratic ministers and the ardent and democratic spirits within the church.  This led to a series of schisms, with the New Methodist Connexion breaking off in 1797, the Primitive Methodists in 1811, and the Bible Christians in 1815.  By the time of these schisms, the main group of Methodists had enacted restrictions on the role of women in the church.  The Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians, however, continued to make extensive use of the novelty value of female evangelists in expanding into new areas.

One of the early Bible Christian evangelists was William O'Bryan.  Soon after his conversion, at eighteen years of age, O'Bryan began to preach to his friends and neighbors and exhort them to repent and turn to God.  He sacrificed home, comforts, business, and worldly prospects to encounter hardship, difficulty, and danger as an evangelist in Devon and Cornwall.  Like the earliest leaders of Methodism, the Bible Christians emphasized work with the poor and working-class citizens.  According to one writer, the Bible Christian Connexion was born of Divine Power -- "The hand of God was upon the leaders, and they heard His voice, and saw visions of Him."

Around the age of 22, Mary Toms was attracted to the Bible Christian church.  According to one source, she went to hear Mr. O'Bryan preach while on a visit to Plymouth.  Through this service Mary "came into the possession of a great spiritual blessing, accompanied by the conviction that God had a work for her to do among the Bible Christians."

Another source tells the story differently.  It says that the Bible Christians came near Tintagel to hold meetings and everyone was at liberty to give a word of encouragement to the rest.  Mary spoke and and her preaching impressed Mr. O'Bryan.  Upon hearing of the good things she did in her neighborhood, Mr. O'Bryan went to her father's house and invited Mary to leave home and assist in the work of the Bible Christians.  In spite of the opposition of her parents, she did so.  At the second church Conference after Mary left home, her name was put on the minutes of the Conference and she was appointed to a mission or circuit.

Mary began her work as a preacher in the Luxulyan circuit in 1820.  Luxulyan is in central Cornwall three miles northeast of St. Austell and was known primarily for its granite quarries.  Mary did not spend all of her time in Luxulyan.  Like many early Methodist preachers she traveled from town to town throughout the local circuit.  Life was not always easy for a woman preacher.  When invited to a house to preach, she would often find the wife opposed to her, and she would have trouble finding food and a place to rest for the night.

Soon Mary turned her attention to the Isle of Wight, which is located along the south coast of England near Southampton.  She had never visited there (it was a hundred miles or more to the east of Cornwall).  Reportedly she had never even heard of it before one day when she heard several persons talking about the island and "at that moment there entered into her heart such a feeling as she could not possibly express in words."

Mary applied to the Conference for leave to visit the Isle of Wight, but in 1821 they appointed her to serve in the Scilly Isles, which are located out in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Land's End.  According to one source she served at this time in the small town of Morvah, on the north coast of the southwest "toe" of Cornwall, but that may have just been the site of the headquarters for the circuit serving the Scilly Isles.  Mary encountered many difficulties in the Scilly Isles and felt that she was not in the right place according to the "Will of God."  She would stay a fortnight on one island and then move to another, no matter what the state of the weather, and several times "fully expected a watery grave."

While in the Scilly Isles, Mary was introduced to Captain John Caws from the Isle of Wight, who was a pious Methodist.  She told him that she felt it to be her duty to go to the island to preach the gospel.  After hearing Mary preach, Captain Caws strongly encouraged her to do so.  Unfortunately no one was available to fill her place at this time, so the Conference in 1822 sent her back to the Luxulyan circuit.


Map of Cornwall showing the towns in which Mary Toms lived and worked

Writing later about her call to the Isle of Wight, Mary reported that:

In 1823, the Bible Christians held their annual conference at Mill Pleasant, Stoke Damarel.  As soon as the conference closed, she departed for the Isle of Wight.  Friends helped her with the cost of the trip.  This was eight shillings because she was not a cabin passenger, but sat on the deck all night.  Samuel Thorn gave her some books to sell if she needed money for food or lodgings.  The twenty-seven year old Mary set off by herself to convert the sinners of the Isle of Wight. On August 8, she wrote a letter to Mr. O'Bryan from Cowes, Isle of Wight, reporting the following: One of the reasons that Mary had difficulty in finding a place to sleep that first night because the town was full of visitors for regatta week  Mrs. Pooke, a Wesleyan and the wife of a local shoemaker, finally took her in. Concerning Mary's first open air preaching at East Cowes, one writer later wrote that "there was commenced in that service a great and widespread religious awakening and converting power that thousands are blessing and praising God for today."

At East Cowes, Mary soon established regular preaching, having a home there with a person named Hunt, a carpenter whose wife was attached to Mary with strong affection.  From Cowes she was invited to Newport and preached in the street.  Two of the local Wesleyan preachers soon joined Mary and, together with others, helped to lead the worship and enable Mary to travel further afield.

Soon Mary was overwhelmed with invitations to preach in other parts of the Island.  She began moving from town to town conducting open air services and helping to organize local Bible Christian societies.  She preached in Gunville, Gatcombe, Rookley, Godshill, Merstone, Wootton-Bridge, Littleton, Wroxall, Nettlecombe, and Ventnor.  After Mary had been on the island about six weeks, the Bible Christian Connexion sent Mrs. O'Bryan and Eliza Jew to the Isle of Wight to help her.  They had great difficulty catching up with Mary.  They walked from town to town, each time finding that she had moved on to yet another location.

Early in October 1823, Mary Toms and Mrs. O'Bryan began preaching at Sandown.  One of the people who came to hear Mary preach on the Sabbath was a man named King, whose father lived in Sandown.  King himself lived at Brading and worked for a shoemaker there by the name of William Warder.  Warder was thirty years old and descended from several generations of shoemakers from the nearby town of Shanklin.  King reported to Mr. Warder about Mary's preaching and urged him to go and hear her.  When Warder learned that Mary soon would speak at the Wesleyan Chapel at St. Helen's, he went to listen.  The following Sunday he went to Sandown and invited her to speak at Brading that afternoon.  She came and stood on a chair out of doors and, according to Warder "spoke the simple truths of the Gospel."

The next evening William Warder again went to St. Helen's to hear Mary speak.  Later he went to Sandown again, spoke to Mary, and they knelt in prayer together.  When Mary awoke the next morning, she had it fixed in her mind that Warder would become her husband.  She wept much and prayed against this, telling the Lord that if he did not remove this from her mind she could not preach.  She continued her work, but the impression that Willaim Warder would become her husband kept coming back.  Warder continued to attend her services and reports that while Mary Toms was praying during another meeting at St. Helen's, "...it seems as though my old obdurate heart was split asunder and I came home in the dark, rejoicing.  From that time I regularly attended the Bible Christian worship."   In November of 1823, Mary aided in the founding of a Bible Christian Society at Brading.

Mary continued traveling about the island preaching until she was worn out and, at times, fainted by the way.  When it appeared that she might have to go back to Cornwall to recover her health, William Warder asked her to remain on the island and marry him.  They were married on January 5, 1824 at Brading.

When they were newly married, Mary's throat was still sore from so much speaking that the food she swallowed gave her pain and at times she lost her voice. When Mary recovered, she still did a little preaching.  In April of 1824, she held the first Bible Christian service in the town of Ryde.  William also became active in Bible Christian circles.  He served as a circuit steward for the first quarterly meeting which was held at his house in Brading on April 12, 1824.

Late in 1824, William and Mary had their first child, so she gave up her travels about the countryside.  Mary continued to preach in the local sphere, however, and helped to carry forward the work which she had commenced.  Many of William Warder's relatives joined the Bible Christian church and William and Mary built the chapel at Brading.  Mary lived the rest of her life at Brading and died there on August 3, 1850.

The Bible Christians on the Isle of Wight always recognized Mary as one of their most important early leaders.  Years later, during the construction of a new chapel in East Cowes, they incorporated a stone to the memory of Mary in a conspicuous position in the front part of the building.  It reads "Laid in memory of Mary Toms by Mr. R. Bullen, J.P."  Mary's daughter and namesake Mary Toms Warder Harvey, who had left the Island to settle in Andover, Hampshire, sent five pounds toward the building fund for the new chapel.

The Bible Christians remained a separate church until 1907 when they combined with two other churches to form the United Methodist Church.  In 1932, the United Methodists united with the Wesleyan Methodists and Primitive Methodists to once again form a unified Methodist Church.


Note on Sources

At some point before his death, Mary's husband William Warder wrote out twenty-four pages of notes on her life up to the time of their marriage.  The originals of these notes are in the possession of their descendant Jean Burberry of Brading.  She has typed an edited version of the notes and shared them with family members.  An important supplement to these notes is Rev. J. Woolcock's book  A History of the Bible Christian Churches on the Isle of Wight (1897).  Information on Mary Toms appears on  pp. 17-25 and in the separate sections on the societies at Brading, Ryde, and East Cowes.

A little information on Mary appears in A.C. Canner's study  The Parish of Tintagel: Some Historical Notes.  Dates of her service in specific Cornwall villages are from a February 23, 1999 e-mail message received from Dr. Peter Nockles of the Methodist Archives and Research Centre of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, England. Dates of  baptism, marriage, and burial of specific family members are from church records on file at the Isle of Wight Records Office at Newport.  A card index to these records is available on microfilm under the title Isle of Wight Consolidated Parish Records Index through Family History Centers run by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church).


End Notes

1. See the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for Great Britain.  Records included in the IGI show the date both as Feb. 8, 1795 and Feb. 8, 1796.  St. Teath is about five miles or so from Tintagel. Return to the text.

2. Charles' age here is based on the assumption that he is the same Charles Toms who was christened at St. Teath on May 20, 1804 -- see the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for Great Britain. Return to the text.

3. Another source quotes the hymn in more detail:


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