William Trotter 1818-1865

John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Category: History

Precious Seed

This year is the 150th anniversary of the death of William Trotter at the young age of 47. In that relatively short life, it was said that Trotter had done the work of three. It was NEATBY who wrote of him, ‘William Trotter . . . is more highly spoken of by every one that knew him than almost any other Plymouth brother; and his untimely death, while he was yet under fifty, was felt to be a heavy loss of the kind that Christians can least afford’.1

Born in 1818, William Trotter was converted at twelve years of age through the preaching of William Dawson, a Methodist preacher famous in the north of England as ‘Billy Dawson’. Soon after, at the age of fourteen, he began to preach and, later, was active in a revival at Halifax. This was one of the happiest periods of Trotter’s career. From Halifax, at the age of nineteen, he became an ordained minister at York. At that time York was an industrial centre and it became a place where his work was greatly used of God, and many souls were saved. According to Engle, ‘There he was surrounded by the eager young converts in York in 1841, when he received the shocking news that the conference had decided to transfer him south to work with a sickly congregation in London’.2 According to Pickering, ‘it was while being so signally used that the Conference . . . conceived the idea that it would be a good thing to transfer him to London, to a chapel which had gone down in popularity, and whose members were dwindling’.3

Along with others, Trotter resigned from the Methodist ministry. Pickering states his reasons as: ‘He saw what a terrible thing it was for a man, or a committee of men, to come between his work and God’. However, according to Grass, Trotter was expelled by the Methodist New Connections Conference because he was ‘suspected of Quaker sympathies because of . . . [his] biblical literalism’ and his opposition to the concept of a paid ministry. He adds, ‘Trotter criticised the ecclesiasticism and clericalism of the Connections Conference, and challenged the denomination’s accumulation of wealth used for purposes such as the provision of pensions for ministers’.4

It must be appreciated that Trotter was still a young man yet the strength of the convictions that he had formed was significant. He delivered two messages that were later published, and these demonstrate his personal devotedness and willingness to stand by his convictions. As Grass has indicated, one of these messages was of particular importance. In it Trotter argued that men of God who entrust their welfare to financial institutions will be tempted to allow their ministry to be affected. His fear was that, ‘To pass from being the Lord’s freeman to being man’s hireling is a step too easily taken’.5

Whether Trotter was pushed out, or whether he chose to leave, it was certainly a period known for the number who seceded from denominationalism to seek a more biblical form of gathering. Trotter’s departure also saw a number of congregations leave Methodism at the same time.

Engle and Grass estimate twenty-nine congregations, with a total of more than 4,300 members, withdrew their membership from the New Connections.

Whilst only twenty-three years old when he left the Methodist Conference, it was not until 1843 that he identified himself with the assemblies in West Yorkshire and their format of gathering. Grass cites various distinctive features of assembly gathering as appealing to Trotter in those formative times: the biblical simplicity of the breaking of bread and the Bible reading. There were others, such as George Brealey, William and Thomas Neatby in south Yorkshire, J. Hudson Taylor, and W. H. Dorman, who came out of Methodism and began to meet in a more scriptural way. During that period, Trotter also came into contact with J. N. Darby.

For a few years, Trotter edited the paper, The Christian Brethren’s Journal and Investigator. It was described as recording the ‘little companies of earnest men who began to meet in the early part of the nineteenth century in various parts of the country . . . the inception of this movement arising from a new illumination of the Personality of Jesus Christ, and of the essential unity of all who believe in Him, under whatever name they were differentiated’.6 He wrote with great vigour, particularly in regard to the troubles in 1848 when brethren split into ‘Open’ and ‘Exclusive’ fellowships, but he is best remembered for his works Eight Lectures on Prophecy and Plain Papers on Prophetic Subjects. One has said, ‘when we look at the whole of Trotter’s writings, perhaps he had found the secret of how to face off with an enemy and still keep his eye on Christ. His opponents so admired the man that their opposition sounded very hesitant’.7 Neatby, writing of G. V. Wigram, said, ’Perhaps no leading member of the community left behind him a higher reputation for personal sanctity, unless it were William Trotter’.8


1 W. Blair Neatby, A History of the Plymouth Brethren, Tentmaker Publications, 2001, pg. 140.

2 Ibid.

3 Henry Pickering, Chief Men Among The Brethren, Pickering and Inglis, 1931.

4 Tim Grass, Gathered to His Name, Paternoster, 2006, pp. 58-9.

5 Ken Engle, William Trotter, part of Online library of brethren writers, See: http://www.plymouthbrethren.org/user/304.

6 Henry Pickering, Chief Men Among The Brethren, Pickering and Inglis, 1931.

7 Ken Engle, part of Online library of brethren writers, See: http://www.plymouthbrethren.org/user/304.

8 W. Blair Neatby, A History of the Plymouth Brethren, Tentmaker Publications, 2001, pg. 251.

AUTHOR PROFILE: JOHN BENNETT is a member of the Precious Seed committee.

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