St Just Wesleyan Chapel. © HES.
 

 

 
Methodism

Of approximately 700 chapels that survive in Cornwall today, over 80 per cent are Methodist in origin, many of which were built relatively early and then re-built in the nineteenth century (Lake et al, 2001). Charles and John Wesley’s arrival in Cornwall in 1743 was a part of a broader evangelical awakening that included widely separated ‘revivals’ in parts of Wales and the North American littoral in the 1730s and Scotland in the 1740s. Wesley’s message was keenly accepted by Cornish communities and by 1750, societies had been established in 30 of the mining communities in the west and there were four societies in north-east Cornwall. The widespread support for Methodism is exemplified, for by 1798, the membership figures for the Redruth and St Austell circuits were the 4th and 7th largest of those in British Methodism, containing over 5 per cent of the country’s Methodists. This represented a membership density higher than the 4 per cent peak reached in England in the 1840s. By 1851 Cornwall was the only county outside of north Wales where attendees at Methodist chapels were in the majority (Deacon, 2001). By the mid-nineteenth century the Vicar of Crowan was forced to concede that the Church of England had lost the people, "the religion of the mass is become Wesleyan Methodism" (Brown, 1946).

Methodism, initially a movement to invigorate the Church of England from within, eventually drifted apart from it mainly because the Church of England’s institutional rigidity did not allow it to respond to evangelism. Wesleyan Methodism was closest to the established church, but a series of schisms occurred, caused in part by lay members desire to govern their own societies. This resulted in numerous factions, including the Wesleyan Association and the Wesleyan Reformers, the Bible Christians (born in west Devon) and the Primitive Methodists. By 1856 non-Wesleyans comprised over 40 per cent of all Methodist members in Cornwall, a proportion retained for the remainder of the nineteenth century (Shaw, 1967).

How did Methodism come to dominate Cornish religious life? The Anglican Church has been held partially responsible for the remarkable growth of Methodism. Its inability to control large parishes, the burgeoning rural industrial settlements with occupations that gave them a sense of independence and freedom, were geographically isolated from the parish church; these factors were exacerbated by pluralism and absentee clergy (Rowe, 1993). But other forces were also responsible. In the early years class meetings in barns and cottages gave Methodism a popular accessibility ideally suited to the close-knit groups found in Cornish metal mining. These small groups of early Methodists were closely bound together by a network of gossip and rumour and the constant movements of itinerants and lay preachers who connected communities in ways denied to Anglican clergy tied to the church building itself. Huge crowds were drawn to open air meetings, Wesley preaching to hundreds at a time in places such as Gwennap Pit. Wesley therefore introduced a new itinerant ministry that had not previously existed in Cornish communities (Deacon, 2001).

And then there was the message of Methodism itself with its simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation. This important message brought comfort, hope and security to a population that faced daily dangers in the hazardous environment of metal mines and increasing uncertainty in a world being rapidly reshaped by industrialisation. The use of charismatic lay preachers, such as Billy Bray who preached to the people in the dialect they spoke, gave a sense of social inclusion. Methodism was very much a people’s faith; early meetings were held in cottages and barns, the domestic setting allowing a symbiosis of Methodist spirituality and rationality and pre-existing Cornish indigenous folk beliefs. Methodism translated such folk-beliefs into a religious idiom, acting as a bridge between old and new, ancient and modern (Luker, 1986, 1987).

Moreover, the outburst of cottage religion from the 1780s to the 1830s allowed women to actively aid the spread of the Methodist message at grass roots level, taking place as it did within the domestic sphere. Female preachers and itinerants - certainly among the Bible Christians and Primitive Methodists before 1840 - formed a sisterhood of reciprocity seeking solace in the message of the Gospel as the focus of work migrated from the domestic sphere to the public sphere of the mine (Schwartz, 1998). Over 56 per cent of the West Cornwall circuit were women in 1767, showing the significance of their early involvement in its spread in Cornish communities. Hugely popular, cottage religion was entrenched in Cornwall before its appearance in other rural parts of England and was responsible for the indigenisation of Cornish Methodism, particularly in west Cornwall, where local control, particularly by lay members, made connexional direction (centralised control) and circuit organisation more difficult. Methodism therefore spoke to the Cornish people in the language of the people and helped them to make sense of a rapidly changing world. These factors all served to make Cornish Methodism a religion that uniquely allied evangelism to popular culture by the 1840s (Deacon, 2001).

The growth of Methodism in Cornwall with its periodic surges was markedly different than that in England. The really distinct thing about Cornish Methodism was its revivals, periodic upsurges of religious fervour that swept through communities which saw chapels remain continually open for days. Revivals were the means by which all the Methodist chapels gained members, and the great revivals of 1799 and 1814 undoubtedly helped to make Methodism the popular established denomination in Cornwall as they had become part of local custom (Rule, 1998). Revivals remained a popular form of control within Cornish Methodism long after it had declined in other parts of England as Methodism became increasingly subject to connexional control. This marked Cornish Methodism as increasingly ‘divergent’ within England but more akin to that experienced in other ‘Celtic’ regions – Wales, Scotland and Ulster (Deacon, 2001).

The link between mining and Methodism was strengthened by the role played the newly emerging entrepreneurial and merchant class within communities where the influence of the Anglican Church was in decline. Numerous mine captains were also Methodist preachers who ministered to their communities the powerful message of respectability and self-improvement, thus helping to ensure that Methodism became the most relevant institution for labouring and working class communities. Due to the integration of Methodism into Cornwall’s regional identity, and what has been termed its "culture of conversion", the working class concentrated on religious issues and not secular issues for much of the nineteenth century. This resulted in demands for greater democracy in Methodism and the rejection or neglect of secular parliamentary agitation such as Chartism. Consequently, on the whole, Cornish people in the mining communities could be described as "radical Methodists", but "political moderates" (Milden, 2001).

Importantly, Cornish Methodism was also carried overseas, to areas such as South Australia, Canada and the American Upper Mid West, where Cornish communities flourished, their Methodism being seen as a badge of their unique cultural identity (McKinney, 1998). Many of the most well known names in Cornish Methodism were from mining backgrounds. These include political leaders such as Michael Foote, popular evangelist Bible Christian preacher Billy Bray, miner poet John Harris and organist and choirmaster, Thomas Merritt (Newman, 1994, Kent, 2001, McKinney, 2001). Merrit’s carols are not only performed in contemporary Cornwall, but carried to the gold fields of western America and the copper triangle of South Australia, are still performed in overseas communities today, a continuing reminder of the symbiosis of mining and Methodism.

Suggested further reading

Brown, H. Miles, 1946, ‘Methodism and the Church of England in Cornwall, 1738-1838’. Typescript held at the Cornwall County Library, Truro.

Deacon, B, 2001, ‘The reformation of territorial identity: Cornwall in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Unpublished PhD thesis, Open University.

Kent, A.M., 2002, Pulp Methodism, The Lives and Literature of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking, Three Cornish Novelists, St Austell.

Lake, J., et al, 2001, Diversity and Vitality: The Methodist and Nonconformist Chapels of Cornwall, Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Truro.

Luker, D., 1986, ‘Revivalism in Theory and Practice: The case of Cornish Methodism’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37, 603-619.

Luker, D., 1987, ‘Cornish Methodism, Revivalism, and Popular Belief, c. 1780-1870’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Oxford.

McKinney, G., 1997, A High and Holy Place: A Mining Camp Church at New Almaden, New Almaden.

McKinney, G., 2001, When Miners Sang: The Grass Valley Carol Choir, Grass Valley.

Milden, K., 2001, 'Culture of conversion': religion and politics in the Cornish mining communities, http://www.ex.ac.uk/chn/journal.htm

Newman, P. 1994 The Meads of Love: The Life & poetry of John Harris 1820-1884, Redruth.

Rowe, J, 1993, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, St Austell.

Rule, J., ‘Explaining Revivalism: The Case of Cornish Methodism’, Southern History 20, 168-88.

Schwartz, S.P., 1998, ‘In defence of customary rights: labouring women’s experience of industrialisation c1750-1870’, Cornish Studies 7, Exeter, 8-31.

Shaw, T., 1967, A History of Cornish Methodism, Truro.

WWW Links:

http://www.williamhaslam.org/ : William Haslam was an Anglican clergyman who became an evangelical preacher in 1851 while he was vicar of Baldhu. He is often known as "the parson who was converted by his own sermon".  He became a good friend of Billy Bray.

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