The first major revivals took place at St Just in Penwith in 1782 and St Austell in 1785, indicating that Methodism in those places had already reached the numbers necessary to support the phenomenon. The two ‘great’ revivals of 1799 and 1814 burned across the land in mid and west Cornwall as village after village succumbed to the excitement of revivalism. Thomas Langley, a Yorkshireman who was a Wesleyan Minister at Redruth, described the 1799 revival there:
Meetings continued long and very late, sometimes till midnight, or one, two, or three o’clock next morning before they broke up, sometimes great noises and much confusion, so that at times there appeared no serious devotion at all, some singing, some praying, some talking to, and exhorting, in different parts of the chapel, and at the same time, so that no regularity, or order were attended to.
Langley was distinctly unimpressed, as were the Wesleyan authorities. The Cornish took a different view. In 1814 the revival soon spread to Redruth. There, it was observed that:
the chapel doors were not shut till … seven nights after … at their first conviction the people dropped down as dead and became quite stiff, and after some time revived again, and the first words were ‘Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us’, and this repeated (in some cases) not only for hours, but for days, till the Lord on whom they called sent salvation in an answer of peace to their souls.
This account continued:
men crying with loud and bitter cries, till the anguish of their souls had opened every pore of the body, and produced a perspiration which fell from their face to the ground … Almost all business was at a stand, and the shops mostly shut up. When market day came there was scarce any buying or selling. The cries for mercy were not confined to the chapel, but extended to the streets, and men and women were seen … supported on each side from the chapel to their houses, for they could neither stand nor walk.
That report from an anonymous Methodist is corroborated by William Jenkin, who was a Quaker and consequently could remain more detached. Describing the 1814 revival, Jenkin reported that ‘for a few weeks’ there was ‘a great noise’, then:
the great current seemed to run westwards. It was not so very noisy or rapid about Truro and its vicinity, as it was in the parish of Gwennap. At Illogan and Camborne it was more violent, but at Hayle Copperhouse and the surrounding villages … the torrent bore down everything that stood in its way. Were I to attempt to describe it, I could not find words sufficient to draw it in colours strong enough.
Jenkin noted that ‘some were merely imitators [and] others were worked up by the force of their heated imaginations’, implying a form of mass hysteria.
From Chapter 6 (The Chapel) of The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820