Joseph Laurence was born in East Keswick, Wetherby, Yorkshire, England, in 1819. His father had operated a school in the area for some years, and after his father's death Joseph succeeded him as schoolmaster. He also conducted prayer meetings and bible study groups, and was very involved in the affairs of the local Methodist church. He eventually established a training centre for young men of limited means who wished to undertake Methodist missionary work. Some of these men went out to British colonies in India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, with Laurence often covering much of their expenses himself.
Many of the young men that Laurence trained were sent out to Newfoundland, where they served as missionary clergy and as schoolteachers. In Newfoundland Laurence was recognized as a generous benefactor of the Methodist cause. Beginning in 1875, the Newfoundland Methodist Conference annual minutes "express its great obligation to Joseph Laurence, Esq. of East Keswick, Yorkshire, England, for the many practical proofs he has afforded of his interest in the spiritual prosperity of this Colony, and especially for his painstaking exertion in procuring and forwarding to this country so many candidates for our Ministry." These votes of thanks continue yearly until 1887, when the Conference sent its sympathy to Laurence's family after learning of his death: "Our church in this colony owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Lawrence [sic] which can never be discharged."
In an attempt to demonstrate its gratitude in a tangible way, a year or so before Laurence's death the Conference arranged for the compilation of a large commemorative album of Newfoundland photographs which was presented to him. The cover bears the inscription: NEWFOUNDLAND SCENERY -:- presented to Joseph Laurence Esq. by the Members of the Newfoundland Conference. The large, leather-bound volume contains 168 black and white prints, in a variety of sizes.
Joseph Laurence died in East Keswick in October 1886 and was buried there. A new Methodist church was built in East Keswick shortly after Laurence's death. It opened on Easter Monday 1891 and was named Joseph Laurence Memorial Chapel. It retained that name until 1981 when it became East Keswick Methodist Church. A plaque in honor of Laurence was subsequently erected in the church bearing the inscription:
To the Glory of God, and in memory of JOSEPH LAURENCE (1819-1886). This church was built and opened in 1891. In this village Joseph Laurence founded a College for Teachers and Ministers many of whom served overseas notably in Newfoundland.
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