What was different about Cornish Methodism?

A lot of the ‘differences’ of Cornish Methodism stem from its early growth and the form this took. Historians of Methodism have been at pains to point out how the usual pattern of the denomination’s growth in its early years involved the patient conversion of small groups in houses and barns. That may have been the case in England but not in Cornwall, where Methodism grew in fits and starts. Spectacular revivals led to booms in membership, only to be followed by ‘backsliding’ as some of those swept up in the enthusiasm of the revival had second thoughts and dropped out of membership.

The two 'great' revivals of 1799 and 1814 bracketed the transition of Methodism to become the majority community religious practice
The two ‘great’ revivals of 1799 and 1814 bracketed the transition of Methodism to the majority community religious practice

Revivals, with their emotional excesses, were frowned on by a Methodist leadership that, after John Wesley’s death in 1791, eagerly courted respectability. Yet their periodic occurrence in Cornwall from the 1780s onwards and their persistence into the early 1860s both made Cornwall significantly different and was proof of the strength of a popular indigenous folk religion which did not bend easily to pastoral direction. If revivalism was one side of the coin of Cornish Methodist difference the other was an indifference, if not occasional outright hostility, towards, the authority of the Methodist Connexion and the itinerant ministers it dispatched to its circuits across the British Isles.

Revivals were rooted in what Luker calls a high nominal affiliation to Methodism in Cornish communities. Attendance at Methodist chapels was always much higher than the actual Methodist membership. As each new generation came along, a mass revival would catch fire among that group who were regular attenders but not yet members. Collectively, justification was sought and salvation struggled with. In the more excitable outbursts work would cease for a week or so, shops would stop trading and the chapels would be open all hours as a stream of predominantly young penitents turned up to wrassle with the devil. For those not directly involved, the scenes produced must have been a welcome diversion from humdrum daily lives. This was community conversion on a large scale. Because Methodism had become the dominant religion, such generational episodes pulled in the majority of local people as periodic waves of religious enthusiasm accompanied the rites of passage of the community’s young adults.

The persistence of revivals in Cornwall and their intensity indicate the relative weakness of connexional authority and the administrative machinery of Methodism in Cornwall. The leaders of Methodism were unable to redirect popular revivalism into more respectable and stable paths, despite redoubling their efforts to do so in the 1840s. In fact, it was not until the later 1860s and 1870s that revivalism faded and pastoral authority was finally established. Previously, attempts to formalise the Wesleyan connexion merely triggered a spate of secessions and intra-Methodist controversies from 1791 to the 1850s. But, significantly, these too ceased after the 1860s.

Indigenous Methodism, buttressing a traditional way of life, providing an inner discipline to cope with unremitting social change, marked Cornwall as different and came to serve as a badge of regional identity. It was a key element of the classical industrialised identity with its heartland in the mining districts of the west that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. Methodism played this role because its precocious growth in west Cornwall predated the establishment of formal connexional structures in the 1790s. This meant that, to a degree, it retained an autonomy outside those structures until the 1860s.

Note the decline in membership in the 1840s and early 1850s, just at the point when indigenous Methodism began to come under attack (and when mass emigration set in)
Note the decline in membership in the 1840s and early 1850s, just at the point when indigenous Methodism began to come under attack (and when mass emigration set in)

However, while this made ‘Cornish’ Methodism different from Methodism in other places, it also created a, less often remarked, difference within Cornwall. It is noticeable that revivals tended to be restricted to mid and west Cornwall rather than the more agricultural east. Luker suggests this is because in east Cornwall the later mass participation in Methodism, coming mainly after the 1790s, produced a more orthodox denomination, where connexional priorities outweighed evangelism, the converse of what had occurred in the west.

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