The early and rapid growth of Methodism in Cornwall has traditionally been explained as a result of the varying combination of two factors. The first was a spiritually dormant and corrupt Anglican church. The second was industrial and social change. Sometimes, reinforcing the first factor, it’s suggested that the latent Celticity of the Cornish caused them to turn away from the English church at the first opportunity that presented itself, their collective memory still smarting from the Church’s role in the disastrous Prayer Book Rising of 1549.
Unfortunately, those keen on this explanation also have to explain the support for that same alien institution during the century between the sixteenth and the eighteenth. Then, thousands of Cornishmen fought, and died, in defence of an Anglo-Scots monarch and the Church of England in the British wars of the 1640s. Moreover, there had been an opportunity to join nonconformist sects in the 1650s and afterwards but, while Cornish support for old dissent (Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists) was not inconsiderable in the 1680s, it had faded away by the early 1700s.
Nonetheless, both old religious torpor and new industrial energy can explain the rise of Methodism in Cornwall. But to them we must also add the specific appeal of Wesley’s message.
The Church of England was failing in Cornwall by the 1770s. Numbers of communicants in that decade were very low in some parishes and this decline did not bottom out until the 1820s. Formerly, the finger of blame for this state of affairs was pointed at its non-resident and distinctly unsaintly clergy. They subcontracted out the business of caring for parishioners to underpaid and incompetent vicars, while preferring to spend their time eating, drinking, chasing after foxes and in general hobnobbing with the landed gentry (to whom many of them were closely related in any case). Yet, research indicates no connection between attendance at Anglican communion in the late eighteenth century and non-residence. Furthermore, energetic and evangelical churchmen were not unknown in Cornwall. Thomson and Bennet in north east Cornwall and Samuel Walker at Truro were examples. Although the Anglican church in eighteenth century Cornwall remains under-researched, it does not appear much worse than anywhere else. Instead of the personal failings of its clergy, we should perhaps look to longer-term structural factors and the impact of social change on the Anglican Church for the reasons it failed to compete with Methodism.
Parishes in Cornwall were large, much larger than the norm in lowland England. This, plus the dispersed settlement pattern, had produced the lonely rural churchtown with a handful of cottages typical of many Cornish parishes. As investment in deep copper mining began to transform the landscape in the 1730s new villages sprang up to house the labour force. Very often, these were well away from the parish church and exacerbated that remoteness from the habitations of the people first created in medieval times. Think of Four Lanes and Wendron, or St Day and Gwennap, Perranporth and Perranzabuloe, Leedstown or Praze and Crowan, Chacewater and Kea/Kenwyn. Even when a substantial churchtown existed, as at St Just in Penwith, industrialisation reshaped the population geography, adding villages like Pendeen and Boscaswell, a long walk from the church.
These new mining villages meant the parish clergy found it even more difficult to exercise moral oversight and control over their parishioners. In addition, gentry were relatively thin on the ground in Cornwall, to some extent squeezed out by the Duchy of Cornwall’s manors. Moreover, relatively secure tenancies and the ‘independent’ smallholder-tinner had produced a tradition of social independence that countered the influence of squire and parson, especially in west and mid Cornwall, even before the 1740s. After that date, the rise of new money and families like the Lemons, Williamses and Bolithos, continued to unsettle the social hierarchy and ensured that social deference could never be taken for granted.
Industrialisation added another tension to this mix. On the one hand, as we have seen, it made it even more difficult for the Church of England to exert control over strong-willed local communities. But at the same time, it also eroded the ‘independence’ of those same communities. Mining districts felt this process first. The more intensively capitalised copper mining was of necessity locked into global markets. As a consequence, external events could cause sudden and inexplicable price changes and lead to unpredictable economic times. At the same time the mines’ demand for labour encouraged early marriage and large families. But this in turn meant population growth began in the mid-eighteenth century to increase competition for smallholdings. As a result more families had to rely on the more uncertain source of income from their labour at the mines.
In short, economic structures in Cornwall were being externalised, reacting to decisions made outwith the community. Yet industrialisation remained rural. The structures of the mining industry retained some aspects that echoed former times (for example its payment system, subcontracting, family work-groups). Moreover, everyday life in mining villages, its cottage basis and the customs of community life, seemed little changed. Early, rural industrialisation had avoided the more traumatic change associated with the later growth of the textile and coal mining industries in other regions. However, although traditional life may have looked familiar in the mid and late eighteenth century it was steadily being hollowed out.
It was in this context that Wesley’s message arrived and found fertile ground. His message was simple. It assured people that redemption was open to all and anyone with sufficient faith could be saved. This was the news that was energetically propagated by charismatic preachers, many of them local men and some at first women, who spoke the Cornu-English dialect of the people and arose from the people. Moreover, a flexible, adaptable organisational framework of classes and bands, grouped into societies, soon created a vigorous Methodist community that paralleled that of the Church of England, but one that was both bottom-up and much more participatory.
Cornish historians such as John Rowe and John Rule saw Methodism as functioning to smooth the onset of industrialisation. It did this either by providing a dynamic new faith more suited to the entrepreneurial spirit of the times and to mine captains, investors and inventors. Or it imposed quietist values of self-discipline and patience in the face of suffering in the expectation of the joys to come in the next world, values that dissolved class antagonisms. There is something in this. But other historians of Cornish Methodism, notably David Luker, point out how this underestimates Methodism’s popular appeal, particularly in the eighteenth century.
According to Luker, for the poor Methodism did not principally legitimate ‘respectable’ or middle class values; it legitimated the morality and structures of ‘traditional’ Cornish society. It upheld and validated the cottage as a socio-economic unit in the face of the changes being wreaked by an external modernity. This role is perhaps underlined by the fact that the majority of those who joined early Methodist societies in Cornwall were women. Overall, Methodism appealed to a conservatism of the commons, seemingly justifying a way of life increasingly under pressure from economic change, just as the rituals of the Anglican church appealed to the conservatism of the propertied classes. This is why Methodism grew earliest and fastest in those districts where mining was present, in large parishes, in areas of dispersed settlement out of the reach of a socially enfeebled gentry, and in ‘unimproved’ agricultural districts.