Glimpses of Rural Newfoundland Past

From the files of The Gazette April 23, 1998.

First-hand accounts of life in rural Newfoundland during the first quarter of the 19th century are not common. In fact, there are very few first-hand accounts of life in rural Newfoundland for any century. Many that do exist are often the journals and diaries of missionaries or clergy.

Their accounts can range from observations on the weather and the number of converts in a particular community to detailed descriptions of dangerous journeys by land and by sea and careful records of births, marriages and deaths not found elsewhere. John Lewis's journals provide such detail about several rural communities between 1814 and 1819.

John Lewis was born in Holyhead, Wales, on April 23, 1788, the son of John and Jane Lewis. Lewis senior was a farmer. Little is known of Lewis junior's education. It can be assumed that he did receive a rudimentary education, as he could read and write, albeit, as his journals prove, he was a quite a creative speller. His early labors are also unknown; he probably worked on his father's farm, and passed his spare time, what little of it there was, drinking and carousing. At least there is implication of such activities, as he acknowledges that up to the age of 21 he had led a rather sinful life.

In 1809, during his 21st year, Lewis attended a Methodist class meeting and was converted. Five years later he was accepted as a candidate for the Methodist ministry and sent to Newfoundland as a missionary. Newfoundland had Methodist missionaries as early as 1765, when Rev. Laurence Coughlan arrived in Harbour Grace. Coughlan considered himself to be a Methodist and a follower of the teachings of John Wesley, even though he was an ordained Church of England clergyman; he is recognized by many historians and church officials as the founder of Methodism in Newfoundland.

From Coughlan's time there had been a small number of Methodist missionaries who served in Newfoundland, but seldom enough at any one time to minister outside Conception Bay. Lewis arrived at a time when Methodism in Newfoundland was at a turning point. The year after his arrival, the Newfoundland mission was created a district of the Methodist Church in England, with a locally appointed chairman responsible for its work within the colony.

Lewis spent six years in Newfoundland as an itinerant missionary, stationed in a settlement but with responsibility for a number of other communities in the surrounding area. He was first assigned to Lower Island Cove and Old Perlican at the top of the peninsula separating Conception and Trinity Bays, then to Hant's Harbour on the Trinity Bay side, and later to Port de Grave at the head of Conception Bay, spending approximately one year in each place.

He was then assigned to a new charge based at Burin, the furthest west a missionary had been sent. It was an area that had seldom seen a clergyman, and it was reported to be an area of much lawlessness and temptation. Lewis spent over two years ministering to the residents of the Burin area and to the people living on the islands (Flat Islands, Oderin, Sound Island) and along the western side of Placentia Bay. He oversaw the construction of the first chapel in Burin and left many converts and a number of capable lay readers when he ended his missionary work in 1820 and returned to England.

Back in England he was assigned to a number of rural parishes, including Brough, in Cumbria where he met Mary Benson, the daughter of bondsman William Benson of Great Salkeld. They were married on April 9, 1822 at Great Salkeld but soon moved to Garstang, in Lancashire, where their first child was born in 1823.

Later that year Lewis became the first married minister appointed to the Methodist mission in the Shetland Islands off the northern tip of Scotland. It has been reported that Lewis had expressed a desire to do more mission work and to travel to Australia to spread Wesley's message, but Mary Benson's mother would not agree to her daughter's marriage unless Lewis promised not to leave the British Isles. It is possible the Shetland Islands was a substitute for overseas missionary work.

The Lewises arrived at Lerwick, in the Shetlands, in June 1823. They were to spend the next five years there, serving at Yell (one year), Walls (two years) and Lerwick (two years). While there, Lewis was a very popular and respected preacher, who travelled hundreds of miles to visit the scattered members and communities of his charges. He oversaw the building of the first chapel at Lerwick and was not beyond begging for materials to finish it. In a letter to Dr. Adam Clarke, Sept. 2, 1823, Lewis pointed out, "Permit me, sir, to suggest that linen or calico for the preacher's house and also cutlery will be wanted. A few dozen of hinges for the chapel with screws and nails, candlesticks for the pulpit and gallery and an old chandelier which may have been thrown aside in any English chapel on the introduction of gas would be of use in Lerwick."

He also served four years as chairman of the district, responsible for the supervision of the other ministers and the work of the Methodist Church in the Shetland Islands. When he left Lerwick in 1828, it was with the great sorrow as well as the good wishes of the people of the Shetlands, who had come to hold him in the highest regard.

After leaving Lerwick, Lewis was appointed to a number of charges in England, including Leighton-Buzzard, Shepton-Mallet, Bramley, Bingley, Richmond, Wolsingham, Malton and Kendal, spending an average of two years in each place. He was superannuated in 1855 at the age of 67, becoming assistant to the minister as Barnard-Castle for six years and then at Nottingham, where he died on Oct. 22, 1866.

John Lewis's journals were acquired from the Perth Antiquarian, a dealer in rare books and manuscripts, Ringwood, Hampshire, England, in June 1990. There are contained in eight small volumes, the largest measuring 6.5 x 8.5 inches, and they cover the period from April 1, 1814, when he left England to come to Newfoundland to Sept. 20, 1819, when he was at Burin. They contain very detailed accounts of his life and ministry in Newfoundland: he meets many people; has many exciting and many more mundane experiences; records many interesting things.

They are sometimes difficult to read as Lewis seems to have created or developed his own system of spelling words, often phonetically, but once into the rhythm of his writing, the reader soon comes to understand Lewis's idiosyncrasies and settles into an enjoyable and spirited account of the life of a Methodist missionary in early 19th century Newfoundland.

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