Methodist societies have gained more popularity amongst the Cornish than in most other parts of Britain, but what has led to this history of Methodism in Cornwall?
Methodism has only existed since the 18th century but has risen to become the most popular religious denomination in Cornwall. For the most part, this was driven by the charisma and organisational skills of one man, John Wesley. We take a look at the remarkable journey this man took to create an organisation which won the hearts and minds of communities across the county.
The Origins of Methodism
John Wesley, the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley were bought up in Epworth, Lincolnshire. His father was the Anglican Rector at Epworth and the family lived in the rectory until Samuel’s death in 1735. John was born in 1703 and narrowly escaped death when a fire took hold of the rectory in 1709, the small boy was rescued from the fire which destroyed the building.
John’s mother, Susanna, taught all her children, which numbered at least 19, to take a methodical approach to learning. This foundation would show up later in John’s life with his attitude to religion.
John was educated in London and Oxford, becoming ordained in 1725 as an Anglican deacon then a priest in 1728. He went on to become a Fellow of Lincoln College and tutored there. This is where he would join up with friends in a so-called ‘holy club’. The group was known for their restrained devoutness and were mockingly called Methodist by others.
Following the completion of some unsuccessful missionary work in America which he carried out with his younger brother, Charles, he had a spiritual discovery. He became convinced that he could find salvation through his faith in Jesus and started to preach that anyone could find their salvation this way.
The brothers are believed to have met with German ‘Pietists’ on their American adventure, and these preachers were part of a Methodist like movement which began in the 17th century. This meeting may have directed the thoughts of John and Charles to a different direction.
He was invited by a friend from Lincoln College, George Whitefield, to begin open-air preaching at Hanham Mount in Bristol in 1739. The first Methodist building was constructed there for teaching, preaching and to provide accommodation for the increasing numbers of preachers.
John Wesley is the best-known early pioneer of Methodism, but in Wales, Howell Harris was preaching in the 1730s. Welsh Methodist tend towards a Calvinistic approach to the religion, stressing the power God has over who can be saved. Wesley’s Methodism take the approach that it is up to the individual to choose to respond to God, allowing anyone to be saved.
The Early History of Methodism in Cornwall
The history of Methodism in Cornwall begins with the Reverend George Thomson, a vicar from St Gennys. He came to the view that one’s faith alone could bring them salvation. This was a view held by both John and Charles Wesley becoming a central message of Methodism. The brothers and George would become good friends later on.
Charles Wesley first visited the county in 1743. He came to meet with a small group which shared the same religious views and to spread the movement. Vicars from the Church of England got wind of this and encouraged people to rally against his message. Charles came under attack in St Ives, Pool and the village of Towednack. Despite this or perhaps because of it, Charles’ brother John would make the first of his many trips to Cornwall just three weeks after his brother’s arrival.
John Wesley was immediately encouraged by the numbers of people who would attend his open-air preaching. His message seemed to resonate with the Cornish. Many of whom faced the dangers of working in the mines and would have been comforted by the belief of instant salvation.
Disaster was narrowly avoided on one of these early visits to Cornwall. John was accompanied by two other Methodists on the journey from London. The six-day trip was particularly difficult as they only had one horse between the three of them.
When they encountered a snowstorm near Bodmin Moor, John took the decision to send the others ahead to find shelter. There wasn’t a road to follow and the chances of becoming lost on the moor seemed high. The two preachers found their way to the small hamlet of Trewint and the cottage of Digory Isbell. Digory was a stonemason who was out at the time of the visit. Isbell’s wife Elizabeth offered them food for both themselves and the horse.
Elizabeth wouldn’t accept payment for the hospitality and was surprised by her guests kneeling and praying before leaving. When they returned a few weeks later, they bought John with them. By this time, John Wesley had achieved some notoriety, and around three hundred people from the surrounding area came to hear him preach.
This inspired Digory, and he built rooms on to his cottage for the use of John Wesley and other Methodist preachers when they came to the area. This cottage was restored in 1950 becoming the centre of the Methodist Society in Cornwall. Today Isbell’s extension is open to the public, and the narrow lane it sits on has been renamed Wesley Way.
Converts to Methodism were formed into local societies and led by community leaders. This wasn’t seen as a good thing by some, with the belief that these societies were part of preparation for an expected invasion by the French. Mob violence took place as a result, with Methodist meetings being disrupted between 1743 and 1745. John was himself almost set upon by an angry mob in Falmouth in 1745.
With the threat of a French invasion subsiding and the increase in mining with steam power, more miners fuelled the growth of the Methodist societies. The popularity of these societies does seem to rise and fall with a pattern of revivals taking place every decade or two.
The brother’s practice of preaching in the open as well as in cottages and barns suited the rural communities which were otherwise distanced from the local churches.
One location which John and his brother returned to many times was Gwennap Pit. The pit was said to be a natural phenomenon but it seems more likely the depression is the result of a local mine shaft collapse. Wesley described Gwennap as being around 50 feet in depth and two hundred feet by three hundred feet at the top.
Today, the pit isn’t quite as large as this, being nearer 120 feet across with tiered grass seating around the centre. Local miners formed the 12 banks of seating between 1803 and 1806, the amphitheatre still being used for religious meetings to this day.
It is claimed that some 2,000 people could be accommodated to listen to the visiting preacher. In 1773, Wesley preached to his largest audience ever, with a claimed 32,000 people in attendance at the pit.
The pit was first used for preaching by John himself in 1762. Unable to preach at his usual spot in the village of Gwennap because of high winds, he was directed to the pit a short distance away. So impressed with the pit as a venue, he returned a further 17 times.
Growing Cornish Popularity
John Wesley established programs to improve literacy and health to the poor who were otherwise largely ignored. The Anglican religion was seen more as focusing on the rich, Wesley’s Methodism was more of the people and attracted more adherents because of it.
Lay preachers came forward from the local population, giving their sermons in the Cornish dialect. This gave people a newfound faith where they had previously been disenchanted by the Church of England.
Methodist societies began to spring up across western Cornish mining communities as well as in northeastern Cornwall. John Wesley died in 1791, but his work continued to increase in popularity throughout Cornwall. Attendance at Methodist churches had outstripped other denominations by 1851, the only other area where that had happened was in northern Wales.
The popularity of Methodism resulted in the almost extinction of Catholicism in the region. With only a few notable families following the Catholic teachings after the establishment of Methodist societies in Cornwall. The Catholic church has since tried to re-establish itself in the county at Bodmin, and there has been some immigration which has bought more Catholics to the area.
After John’s death, most followers would consider themselves part of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, but different factions began to split away. In 1797, the Methodist New Connexion was created, then followed the Independent Methodists, Primitive Methodist Connexion, Bible Christians, Protestant Methodists, Arminian Methodists and the Wesleyan Reformers. Most of these societies became reunited in 1932 to become the Methodist Church in Britain.
Methodism in Cornwall Today
Methodist churches in Cornwall have seen greater attendance in recent years, with numbers being three times higher than in the rest of England. Some statistics from 2012 show that Methodist attendance is actually on the rise in Cornwall, but it isn’t completely clear if this popularity is really on the increase or not, with some contradictory research.
There are currently nearly 700 chapels across Cornwall with the vast majority being Methodist. This makes up part of the believed 75 million adherents to Methodism across the world. The history of Methodism in Cornwall has helped its worldwide spread, thanks to people from Cornwall emigrating to the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.