Joseph Cownley, Methodist Minister, 1723-1792

Early years

Joseph Cownley was born on 23 Jun 1723 in Leominster, Herefordshire, and baptised on 7 Jul 1723. His father was Edward Cownly of Leominster. Joseph received an education, although not classical, and was considered cautious and serious by his contemporaries. He sought opportunities to talk with leaders in the local Quaker and Baptist communities. Joseph entered the service of a Justice of the Peace performing the role of a travelling secretary. Business took him to Bath where he first heard of the Methodists. Following listening to Mr Williams and later John Wesley, Joseph had a conversion experience.

Joseph returned to Leominster in 1743 where he joined a society that had been formed by Mr Beaumont, a Welsh preacher, following the sentiments of Mr Whitefield. It was here that Joseph began to preach. There appear to have been many disagreements amongst the society, and in 1746, Joseph wrote to John Wesley for advice. Later that year, John Wesley invited Joseph to Bristol and he became an itinerant preacher. Joseph went to Staffordshire (Darlaston, Wednesbury and Walsall) and is reported to have frequently faced mobs and persecution. He went from there to Cornwall and on to Newcastle upon Tyne in March 1747.


In July 1748, Joseph was appointed to Dublin in Ireland. He went on to Cork in November 1748. Spring 1750 saw Joseph back in Newcastle upon Tyne. Autumn 1750 involved a further trip to Ireland via Bristol, but he was back in Newcastle in 1751. Around this time, Joseph’s health deteriorated and he suffered a series of fevers from this time onwards.

On 18 October 1755 at St Nicholas, Cork, Joseph married Martha Susannah Massiot, the daughter of John Massiot and Susannah de la Roche. Martha had been born in Bridgewater, Somerset and baptised on 23 Oct 1734.


In mid-1755, Joseph was involved with two sons of the Vicar of Shoreham and Thomas Walsh, all Methodist Preachers, in administering the Lord’s Supper. This caused great controversy and they were asked to cease by Conference. John Wesley was clear that whilst Lay Persons should be encouraged to preach, administration of the sacraments was the prerogative of the ordained. It was not until 1784 that Methodist preachers were ordained by John Wesley, initially for service in America.

Later years

Joseph moved to Dublin in 1756 and in October that year to Newcastle upon Tyne, where his ministry centred on the Orphan House. Health issues confined him to the north of England for some time.

Joseph’s biographer, John Gaulter, says that Joseph was admired, and he never affected popularity. “His disposition, had he lived in the austere ages of monkish superstition would have led him to the cloister”

Martha had a marriage settlement of £3000, which was held in trust. Unfortunately one trustee died and the other went to Jamaica. This left the family living on the poverty line for some time until the money could be released from the trust.

Joseph was an avid letter writer, corresponding with John and Charles Wesley, Christopher Hopper and George Whitefield.

Martha died in childbirth on 23 Mar 1774, whilst Joseph was travelling from Alnwick to Newcastle. Joseph was also saddened by the death of his eldest son in 1780.

The Methodist Conference of 1788 stationed Joseph in Edinburgh. He is known to have visited Glasgow, Dunbar and other Scottish towns at this time. In 1789 he returned to Newcastle with health problems. He preached his last sermon at the Orphan House of 23 Sep 1792 and died on 8 Oct 1792. He was buried on 12 Oct 1792 at Ballast Hills, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Joseph’s biographer writes that “Mr Wesley (John) did not hesitate to say, “He is one of the best preachers in England.” He goes on to say “His discourses, though generally plain, were distinct and argumentative; not daubed by the mere finery of phrase, nor ornamented by affected sublimity; he pleased more by the gravity and force of his sentiments, than by the elegance or graces of his style”.

John Gaulter wrote his biography in 1794. This was gathered by Thomas Jackson into a book ‘The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers‘ in 6 volumes in 1865. The Cownley chapter opens Volume 2.


Records identify that Joseph and Martha had seven children.

Joseph Massiot: Born abt 1756 in Dublin, Ireland. Joseph trained as an Army Surgeon. He was appointed in 1779 surgeon of the Queen’s Rangers, a regiment raised by Colonel Stanton. He died in 1780 as a result of a duel. The true nature of his death was kept from his father.

Martha Susannah: Born on 6 Jul 1757 in Newcastle upon Tyne. She married Jonathon Brumwell (1754 – 1829) on 13 Jul 1784. Martha died on 15 Feb 1799 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Jonathon and Martha had eight children. Many of their descendents were ministers or medical professionals.

Selina:   Born on 5 Mar 1760 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Selina married Abraham Sillick (1771 – 1842) on 28 Nov 1790 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Abraham married again in 1801. Selina and Abraham had a daughter Selina Cownley Sillick born abt 1801. It is likely that Selina died as a result of childbirth.

Duriah:    Born 16 Jan 1762 in Newcastle upon Tyne. She married William Shepherd (b abt 1760) on 2 Feb 1793 in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Elizabeth Ann: Born on 25 Nov 1763 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Elizabeth married Alexander Rutherford (b abt 1762) on 15 Sep 1790 in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Mary Margaret: Born on 20 Oct 1766 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Married Thomas Brown, born abt 1766 in Newcastle upon Tyne, on 31 Dec 1792 at St Andrews, Newcastle upon Tyne. Thomas was a millwright. They had nine children.

John Massiot: Born 11 Oct 1770 in Newcastle upon Tyne. John married Thomasin Sanderson on 28 Feb 1793 in Newcastle upon Tyne. John was apprenticed to John Reed a carpenter in 1785. John later served in the Royal Navy.

Note: Joseph was one of my 5x great grandfathers. I am descended through his daughter, Mary Margaret Cownley.

Comments about this page

  • My wife, Caroline LeBeau is also descended from Martha Sussana Cownley and she has a small reproduction of Martha’s painting.

    By Simon Clark (26/10/2023)
  • Wow what a little little gem of a page. Thanks Geoff

    By Dawn Brumwell (02/07/2022)
  • There is a painting out there of Martha Susanna Massiot but no longer in the family’s possession

    By Jacqui Kirk (08/07/2020)
  • I am a descendant of Martha Sussanah Cownley. Thanks for putting this history together. Is there a picture of Joseph Cownley or any family members?

    By Guy Wingate (12/03/2019)

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