Church and Chapel in a Cornish Mining Parish 1743 to the Death of John Wesley

Posted on 27 March 2008

The fourth study in the Ferndale Studies in Cornish Christian History by John Dray and explores the relationship between Church and Chapel in Gwennap for the years 1743-1791.

This study was originally presented as an BA dissertation, written by John Dray as part of a BA History at the University of Exeter. Reproduced with permission.

Church and Chapel in a Cornish Mining Parish 1743 to the Death of John Wesley


This study examines the validity of the thesis that argues that before the arrival of John Wesley Cornish Christianity was weak and that Methodism brought dramatic ‘revival’ to Cornwall by 1791. Support for this thesis is often made by appealing to both the supposed corrupt condition of the Anglican Church and the perceived appeal of a distinctive Methodist evangelical message to the poor and marginalized members of society. The legitimacy of these interpretations and assumptions will be assessed through the examination of local source material: including bishops’ visitation returns, wills, private letters, contemporary journals and memoirs and membership lists. This is in contrast to most studies of the Cornish Established Church and Cornish Methodism that have made little use of such sources or have used them in a manner where selection was made with insufficient methodological rigour.

In order to avoid such pitfalls and in order to undertake a more thorough examination of existing sources, it was decided to study one parish. The choice of parish was not indiscriminately undertaken. Rather choice was made of the (ancient) parish of Gwennap since it is often seen as an (or even the) archetypal example of sort of Cornish ‘mining parish’ that was highly receptive to Methodism and its message: indeed reference to Gwennap, and its famous preaching ‘Pit’ appears in many national Methodist histories. Further, since discussion of Anglicanism and Methodism has largely been undertaken in isolation the one from the other, the present study seeks to examine their interrelationships.

The result of the study leads to some controversial conclusions and such challenge some aspects of the historiography of Cornish eighteenth century Christianity and society.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The period from 1743 to the death of John Wesley in 1791 has often been called one of ‘revival’ in Cornwall owing to the perceived impact of Methodism on the religious and social life within the county. It has often been argued that before Wesley’s arrival, Christianity was at a ‘low ebb’1 but the arrival of Methodism brought dramatic transformation. This study examines the validity of this thesis by examining the character of eighteenth-century Anglicanism and the evidence for the impact of the arrival of Methodism in Cornwall. Further, since very little historical work has been undertaken on both Methodism and Anglicanism, this study will particularly explore the relationship between them.

Extensive data is available on the social and religious life of Cornwall during the period. Thus, in order to be as exhaustive as possible, this study will examine just one parish, Gwennap;2 the ancient parish being chosen for a number of reasons. Firstly, it provides a good example of the sort of ‘mining parish’ whose culture has often been seen as especially receptive to Methodism. Secondly, with its famous Pit, it has become a symbol of the supposed Methodist evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. Stories and tales about the Pit are contained in the majority of national Methodist histories, perhaps because the Pit is considered an archetypal example of the work of the Wesleyans (it is still known to Methodists worldwide, and many of the leading figures of the movement have preached at one or other of its famous services).3 Thus, if conclusions drawn from Gwennap do not follow traditional interpretations, by implication, such may need to be reconsidered both in Cornwall and perhaps even within the rest of England. More generally and thirdly, relatively little historical work concerning Methodism and Anglicanism in eighteenth century Cornwall has been undertaken at a local level. Thus, although Thomas Shaw undertook considerable local research in Gwennap (as did Charles Thomas in Gwithian) their works did not clearly engage with more general historiography of Methodism whilst omitting almost completely reference to Anglicanism. 4 By choosing one parish, detailed small-scale research has been possible.

The study will use the starting date of 1743, as it was in this year that the Wesleys first visited the parish.5 It concludes in 1791, the year of John Wesley’s death. This event is significant since John Wesley maintained, throughout his life, control over the Methodist movement, his death prompting some radical changes, including Methodism’s formal split from Anglicanism.

Chapter 2: The Anglican Church in Gwennap

Before the arrival of Methodism, the Anglican Church was the only outlet of organised religion within the parish. Independency was known at Falmouth and Truro6 and Quakers met at nearby Come-to-Good (although its membership declined during the eighteenth century so that in 1795 it was merged with Perranwharf),7 Further, Presbyterianism had gained some foothold in Grampound and ‘Joshua Spargo, Comfort in Gwennap’ was among the members of Falmouth Baptist church in 1722.8 However, most were in decline (that of the last is recorded in the minute book: until revived under the impetus of the Hornblower family in the 1770’s (who had also started a work in Chasewater in 1769).9 Possibly the parlous state of contemporary non-conformity helps explain the fact, that, in 1745, the vicar of Gwennap, Henry Phillips, informed the Bishop that, excluding Methodists, he knew of no non-conformists.10 Indeed, the only formal Christian institutions active within Gwennap during the period 1743-1791 appear to have been the Anglican Church and the Methodist Society. (Less formal religious activity did exist: belief in underground mine spirits known as ‘Knackers’, the spirits of Jews who had worked there since Roman times, were common amongst Cornish miners)11

Few surviving records relate to Gwennap Church between 1743 and 1791. The main remaining sources are a few letters associated with Phillips12 and four ‘Bishop’s Returns’: answers to list of questions sent to a parish in preparation of a visit by the Bishop or archdeacon.13 Unlike Methodist sources, almost no personal accounts or names of the congregation members remain. Nevertheless, inferences can also be drawn from the known relationship between Phillips and the better documented ministry of Samuel Walker of Truro and other Cornish evangelicals.14 Moreover, much has been written about the Anglican Church at both national and county level during this period and these can be drawn upon to further ‘fill out’ the picture.

Since Victorian times, the historiography of the eighteenth-century Church15 has often had a strongly judgemental slant, especially for its supposed rejection of Methodism. Ryle comments that churches existed but ‘they could hardly be said to have lived. They did nothing; they were sound asleep.‘16 Whiteley refers to the church being ‘cursed by traffics in livings and by absenteeism… the rapacity, avarice, pride and luxury of some of its leaders were notorious’.17 Norman, too, can refer to the secularisation of the clergy.18 Indeed, the era is often still viewed as one of ‘lethargy rather than activity, of worldliness rather than spirituality’.19 During the twentieth century some attempts were made to rehabilitate it. Lovegrove is representative of those who are more circumspect. He comments, ‘Visitation returns show clearly that many clergymen, even if technically non-resident, approached their parish duties with diligence and a sense of responsibility.‘20 The debate between these two perspectives still dominates the historiography of the eighteenth century Church.

However, in Cornwall the ‘pessimists’ have predominated. Myles Brown is typical when he describes the general state of the Church as ‘in deep slumber’ and in a ‘crippled condition’.21 Similarly, Hamilton-Jenkin claims that, ‘religious life had grown very slack’ and that the clergy felt no ‘particular call to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ nor to minister to the poor’.22 Boggis concludes that the Church in the west was ‘suffering largely from suspended animation’.23

The present examination of the Church in Gwennap will begin by looking at attendance levels at services. The Bishop’s Returns suggest that attendance at Holy Communion was low, declining significantly between 1743 and 1791; reflecting the general countywide trend. The number of the recorded communicants decreases from an estimated one hundred and sixty in 1745, to seventy in 1765 and then only forty in 1779.24 Although all of these figures are only estimates Phillips, made them all. This low level of attendance at communion is still more notable when one considers the large and growing population of the parish.

Unfortunately, there are no precise population figures. Phillips consistently describes there being around ‘four hundred families in the parish’.25 However, this is clearly an estimated figure and can be challenged by examining data from the marriage register which suggests a significant rise in population between 1743 and 1791. Between 1740 and 1749, one hundred and forty-three marriages were recorded. This figure rises consistently so that between 1780 and 1789 two hundred and eighty-eight marriages took place, roughly a two fold increase. Blewett notes that by 1801 the parish population was a recorded 4594. In the period five years each side of this date there was an average of 26 marriages per annum, equating one marriage to each 176 persons in the total population.26 By the same ratio of 1:176 he estimates the population in 1746 to be 2,640.27 If Blewett’s ratio is accepted this suggests that only about 6% of Gwennap residents attended the ‘administration of the Lord’s Supper’ in 1745, falling to less than 1% by 1779.

Blewett’s statistical methodology is suspect and takes no account of what was probably an increasingly youthful population occasioned by migration. Moreover, the reliability of using communicant figures to calculate church attendance and the strength of parish Christian belief has undergone a general challenge in recent years. For example, Spaeth examined the slightly earlier period from 1660 to 1740, arguing that lay attitudes to communion were complex so that ‘the frequency of lay attitudes to communion cannot be used as an index of religiosity’.28 He suggests that there could be a range of reasons why parishioners would decide not to partake of communion including ignorance of the catechism or because they did not feel they owned adequate apparel. In Gwennap, large congregations (rather than large numbers of communicants) may be inferred from the fact that in 1752 Hugh Rogers built a gallery in the Church; presumably to meet a perceived need.29 A record of the installation of bells at the church further demonstrates activity in the church. In 1746 the number of church bells was increased from three to five. In 1786 all the bells were replaced with six brand new bells.30 Nonetheless, while taking these factors into account, church attendance does appear to have declined both numerically and proportionally; even if starting at a fairly high level.

Hamilton-Jenkin, Brown and Boggis are not alone in attributing the decline in attendance at churches in Cornwall to the state of the Church.31 This is commonly blamed on the personal shortcomings of the clergy, against whom numerous allegations are directed: plurality, lack of conviction and non-residence (all exemplified in the Victorian historiographers’ stereotype of the ‘traditional drinking and fox-hunting parson’).32 Undoubtedly, there is some truth in such allegations in Cornwall: for example, Thomas Wills of Wendron was said never to have entered his church for service, and lived as a farmer and huntsman.33

However, Phillips, certainly does not fit this stereotype. The Bishop’s Returns suggest that he was resident in his parish for most of his time as vicar. Even when he is recorded as convalescing in Harberton, Devon in 1765, his duties appear to have been (temporarily) carried out by a resident curate.34 The remaining three Returns all record Phillips as resident. (His successor Arundel Radford, was also resident until he died on 30th October 1805: but little is known of him.)35 Nor does it seem that Phillips lacked ‘religious conviction’. The Truro Evangelical Samuel Walker appears to have held him in very high regard. Walker became curate in Truro in 1746 where his enthusiastic ‘devotion and sincerity made a deep impression’.36 A ‘revival’ in Truro has often been attributed to Walker’s efforts.37 Significantly, a letter written to Thomas Mitchell at Veryan in May 1754, demonstrates Walker’s high opinion of Phillips following a trip to Gwennap. He wrote that, ‘I was tempted to wish myself an assistant to my dear friend there… He seems singularly fitted for his important trust by more than ordinary measure of natural endowments which he is possessed of’.38 Several other of Walker’s letters, written to Phillips, have also survived. The correspondence contains much spiritual advice, and certainly implies that Walker was assured of a similarity of outlook in Phillips. For example, on the 22nd of May 1754, Walker wrote a letter, which included ‘two or three hints about directing persons, who enquire what they must do to be saved’.39 Phillips may even have been a member of Walker’s Clerical Club, formed in 1750, which met monthly to discuss religious questions. The Club met at one another’s homes every Tuesday from 10am to 6pm with the purpose of encouraging one another in the faith and promoting the work of God in West Cornwall.40 Thus, Phillips was clearly not guilty of the two main charges levelled at Cornish Anglican clergy, lack of conviction and non-residence.

It is also interesting to note that Walker describes the spiritual vibrancy of the Gwennap congregation. In the letter to Thomas Mitchell he states, ‘Let me tell you that I was, as proposed, at Gwennap, and surely I have never preached to a congregation where so many expressed an experience of the power of the Word’.41 Although these comments should be treated with some caution and Walker recorded a rather rosy view, written to encourage an acquaintance, they do offer a challenge to the view that Gwennap church was ‘in deep slumber’.42 They also further challenge the assumption that the vibrancy of the church equated to the number of people attending the quarterly Holy Communion.

Clearly, therefore, there must be more complex reasons to account for why attendance declined despite the work of Philips and the seemingly ‘vibrant’ congregation. Here it will be suggested that one reason was that the Church was unable to establish itself at the centre of community life; a position Methodism was later more readily able to achieve. There are many reasons for why this happened in Gwennap, the first being the archaic character of the Cornish parochial system.

The parish network in Cornwall was established during the twelfth century and changed little thereafter. Churches were inconveniently located at sites adopted by pioneering missionaries and were often very large. Thus, unlike the many rural English villages, nucleated around the church, Gwennap church was not the geographical focal point of the community having been built at the site of a monastery dating from 500 AD.43 Located in a tiny ‘Churchtown’ it was at a distance from the main concentrations of settlement such as Carharrack and St Day. Further, many lived at significant distances from the church and attendance would have been difficult and time consuming. Indeed, the northern tip of the parish at Scorrier is around 5 kilometres away from the parish church.44 Unsurprisingly, Luker has demonstrated that it was in the largest Cornish parishes that lowest ‘communicant densities’ were found.45 Further, the size of the parish would have made it very difficult for Phillips to effectively oversee it and pastoral visits might have been miles apart. Thus, the weaknesses of the Church in Gwennap were probably not the result of ‘clerical neglect’46, but rather the inadequacy of the parochial system.

It has sometimes been argued that the rituals and practices of the Church were unsuited to developing communal religious life. The services have been labelled as inelastic, infrequent and too formal, offering ‘nothing in the way of real fellowship’.47 However, there is little way of proving this hypothesis in Gwennap. Further, even if the Anglican service did suffer from these weaknesses, this argument ignores the possible existence of other opportunities for fellowship outside of the church service. Although there are no recorded weekly Anglican groups or ‘societies’ for Gwennap, the lack of record does not prove that they did not exist. Indeed, the fact that Walker did institute such meetings in Truro might suggest the likelihood of the same in Gwennap.48 Other social events and gatherings associated with the church also probably took place outside the Sunday service, although they do not appear to have been the large-scale spectacular community-based occasions organised by the Methodists. For example, in 1801, a bell-ringing contest is recorded to have taken place at Gwennap church (the winners being from Camborne, their prize, six silver laced hats). Although this is the first recorded such event at the church, it seems fair to assume that such occasions took place before 1801.49

Perhaps one might suggest another factor for the decline in Anglicanism in Gwennap. Phillips may have lacked the ‘common touch’; unlike his charismatic acquaintance Walker, of whom it was said during a service that, ‘you might fire a cannon down every street in Truro without a chance of killing a single human being’,50 Further, as such a long serving Vicar, Phillips may have found it increasingly challenging to relate to younger generations or have lacked the energy to do so.

Lastly, although Methodism officially attempted to supplement rather than to replace the Church (Wesley is well known encouraged Methodists to attend their local Church), declining attendance may reflect the increasing ‘competition’ from Methodism. There is, indeed, some evidence that some Christian families in Gwennap moved from Anglicanism to Methodism. For example, one of the signatories to the 1727 ‘Terrier of the Glebe’, a document, which enquired into the financial and material state of Gwennap Church, was F. Quick who is described as a sidesman.51 A 1767 list of Gwennap Society members records a Francis Quick, almost certainly his grandson. Thus, whereas his grandfather had close links with the Anglican Church, this Francis Quick was strongly tied to the Gwennap Methodists. Indeed, in his will dated 28th January 1798, he bequeaths the Society ‘21 shillings yearly for permitting the Methodist people to assemble together to worship God as they now do and did here before.‘ He makes no mention of the Anglican Church in his will.52 Another of the sidesmen in the Terrier was Thomas Williams. He is possibly the Thomas Williams who was grandfather to another of the leading 1767 Society members, Richard Williams, the Society steward and later a travelling preacher. The names Trewartha and Bray similarly appear in both contexts and further research might reveal the family relationships.53

While there are limitations as to the evidence for Anglican life in the period under consideration, what evidence does exist provides a challenge to previous overly ‘pessimistic’ scholarship on the eighteenth century Church. Attendance in the 1740s to the 1750s was probably considerable and led to the extension of the church building in 1756. Although attendance does seem to have subsequently declined, this occurred despite a seemingly dedicated vicar and an enthusiastic congregation. Furthermore, since the wider impact of Gwennap church is impossible to quantify, it may have had a significant influence over people’s lives, even those who did not regularly attend communion.

Thus, to start to explain why attendance at the Church in Gwennap was never spectacular and eventually fell significantly, one needs to look further than the deficiencies of its clergy and consider the Church’s relationship with the surrounding community. It appears that the Church in Gwennap was unable to place itself at the very centre of community life and increasing ‘competition’ for parishioners from Methodism may have drawn ‘religious’ families away from the church to the chapel.

Chapter 3: The Relationship between Methodism and Anglicanism

Before examining specifically the Methodist Society in Gwennap, the question of to what extent the two institutions were separate must be considered. Officially of course, the Methodist movement was not separate from the Church of England until after the death of John Wesley when Methodism became a separate denomination.54 However, even before Wesley’s death, the question of separation regularly came before the Methodist conferences, although each time it was firmly resisted by John Wesley.55 Indeed, in 1758 John Wesley felt it necessary to publish a list of Reasons Against a Separation from the Church of England.56 Wesley encouraged Methodists to attend their local Anglican church on a Sunday and discouraged the organisation of Methodist services at the same time. He saw Methodism as supplementary to rather than a substitute for the Church. For their part, the Anglican authorities never officially legitimised Methodism, perhaps because this official recognition could have only come about on Wesley’s terms and because many Methodists had a very negative view of the Church.57

Despite Wesley’s claims that Methodism was not non-conformist, in Gwennap Methodism and Anglicanism appear to have remained largely separate from the outset and it appears that Methodism was viewed as a form of religious rebellion. Thus, in 1745 Henry Phillips, consistently describes the Methodists in his Parish as a ‘dissenting congregation’ demonstrating that in his mind, the Methodists were non-conformists.58 Such was the divide that, in 1765, the Curate was unable to name any of the Methodist preachers.59 In 1768 the Methodist Society built an archetypal Wesleyan preaching house, which was octagonal in shape (this shape attempted to reinforce the notion that it was a preaching house and not a church).60 Officially, it had to be licensed as a preaching house by the bishop before it could be used but the Anglican authorities appear to have resisted this move, which did not formally take place until after 1791 forcing Methodists to meet there illegally.61 Even Wesley, who encouraged interaction between Church and Chapel, makes no mention of the Church in Gwennap in his journal and certainly does not appear to have ever preached there.62

The reasons for the separateness of Methodism and Anglicanism in Gwennap can be examined indirectly through the correspondence between Walker and Wesley. The two men wrote extensively to one another about the relationship between Methodism and the established Church. Wesley had a high opinion of Walker and sought his advice on numerous occasions. Indeed, Wesley wrote to his brother that ‘if possible you should see Mr Walker, Vicar of Truro. He is absolutely a Scot in his opinions, but of excellent spirit.‘63

Undoubtedly, Wesley and Walker shared many theological convictions. Wesley noted that ‘in the great points I can not observe any difference between us’. However, they did differ on the role of the Methodist itinerant preachers. Walker believed that Wesley’s travelling preachers should either be ordained or be ‘fixed to certain societies, not as preachers, but as readers and inspectors.‘64 Wesley disagreed stating that ‘so great a blessing has from the beginning attended the labours of the itinerants, that we have been more an more convinced every year of the more than lawfulness of this proceeding… a great majority have all along behaved as becometh the gospel of Christ,‘65 Wesley was also wary his Societies come under the jurisdiction of local parish clergy because in his opinion the doctrine taught by some were ‘not only wrong but fundamentally so, and subversive of the whole gospel.‘66 These difficulties were never overcome and if Henry Phillips is understood to be a ‘disciple’ of Henry Walker, this may help explain the absence of relationship between the Church and Society.

In this respect, Gwennap appears to differ significantly from some other Cornish parishes, such as neighbouring Redruth or the coastal parish Gwithian.67 In Redruth, the Church was split in its attitude to Methodism. The curate, Thomas Vivian, was a Methodist supporter and wrote a letter to the Bishop of Exeter in 1747 which demonstrated his approval of the converted Methodists in his parish. He writes, ‘what God had done for their souls, that he let them see the sinful state that they were in and recovered them out of darkness into his marvellous light’.68 However, the rector, John Collins was less enthusiastic and wrote in 1749 another letter to the Bishop (following Vivian’s departure to become Vicar of Cornwood, Devon). He wrote that ‘with a regard to this sect, they decline apace… and John Wesley, so far as I can find, [is] growing more indifferent towards them’.69 However, despite his coolness towards Methodism Collins did save John Wesley from arrest on one occasion. On the 4th July 1745 the Church wardens at Wendron had obtained a warrant from the Helston justices for Wesley’s arrest. Collins claimed to have been ‘accidentally’ passing on this occasion so that, as Wesley writes in his diary, ‘upon accosting me, and saying he knew me at Oxford, my first antagonist was silent.70

Gwithian parish, where John Curnow lived, provides another example of the differing relationship between Methodism and Anglicanism. Curnow, a devout Anglican, had made his fortune from merchant shipping. For many years he was the Churchwarden at Phillack and in 1764 held the role of Overseer of the Poor. However, he was also the benefactor of the Methodist Society. 71 Thus, it appears that in the eighteenth century, the relationship between Methodism and Anglicanism could vary significantly from parish to parish and such should discourage over-generalised interpretations of the relationship between the two.

The relationship can be further examined through the accounts of the early persecution of the Methodists. Persecution was not unique to Gwennap; indeed, John Wesley complained that ‘In Cornwall, the war against the Methodists was carried on with far more vigour than that against the Spaniards.‘72 However, Gwennap seems to have had more than its fair share of violence. Several accounts of persecution by a ‘mob’ in Gwennap exist and make interesting reading. Henry Millard, an eyewitness who recorded what he saw in a letter written to John Wesley, described what happened in September 1744: ‘On the Wednesday afternoon after he [Westell, a travelling preacher] came home, he went to Gwennap: while he was preaching, the mob rushed into the [preaching] house, beat the candles out, and then came up to the desk; but being dark they could find no way into it. At last, when they had broken it down, they found a little boy in it instead of the preacher: they gave him two or three blows, and let him go. Brother Westell stood by them for some time in the dark, with an old woman’s hat upon his head, till some of our friends at the window took him out.‘ Millard describes the mob as being of considerable size and estimated that there were ‘betwixt three and four hundred… horsemen and housemen.‘73 Another account of violence is found in a ‘Short Account of the Death of Thomas Hitchens’, by James Hitchens.74 He writes that, ‘while the mob were pulling down the house in which they used to meet, he (Thomas) stood at a small distance all the time being nothing terrified… All the windows and doors were dashed in pieces; but none of the family hurt at all, notwithstanding the vast quantities of stones, which had fallen on the sides of them. One very large stone they found in the cradle close by a little child. But the child was not hurt, so that in things they saw the hand of God was over them for good.‘75

Many histories have associated the violent persecution of the early Methodists with the Anglican clergy and the Church. For example, Church argues that ‘the miserable and petty persecution of the first Methodists in Cornwall was largely the work of reactionary clergy like the bigoted Dr Borlase of Penzance.‘76 Others have been less condemning but have still associated persecution of Methodists with the Church of England. For example Warne argues that, ‘the resentment is understandable’ since ‘the Methodist preacher came to the Anglican parish… with the language of a missionary going to the most ignorant heathens’.77 Indeed, in 1743 Charles Wesley wrote that, ‘I rode to Gwennap, and with many words exhorted them to save themselves from this untoward generation’.78

However, none of the accounts of ‘the mob’ in Gwennap mention Henry Phillips, the Anglican Church or any other clergymen (although, at the same time, it does not seem that the Anglican Church were swift to help their Christian brothers and sisters). Indeed, none of the accounts actually explain who the participants in the ‘mob’ actually were or why they were so angered by the Methodists: the only ‘blame’ in James Hitchens account is attributed to the devil. Rather, the violence may have been caused by the perception that the Methodists were ‘non-conformists’; and therefore fair game. As there appears to have been little interaction between the local Methodist and Anglican communities at this stage, this perception would have been understandable. Such rebellion against the constitutionally approved Church may have been understood also to be disloyalty to the state. This would explain why an attempt was made in Gwennap to seize Wesley as a solider in 1745. Wesley noted in his journal that, ‘After a few hours we rode to Gwennap… I was reading my text when a man came, raging as if he just broken out of the tombs… (He) cried out with all his might, ‘Seize him seize him. I say, seize the preacher for his Majesty’s service.‘79 Indeed, such was Wesley’s assumed disloyalty to the state that he was often thought to be a Jacobite. For instance, after the Collins incident, one of the riders who had threatened to arrest him said, ‘all the gentlemen of these parts say that you have been a long time in France you have been a long time in France and Spain and are now sent hither by the Pretender; and that these societies are to join him’.80

Indeed, the violence against the Methodists in Gwennap appears have been part of a wider culture of violence. Holidays were often marked by fights and battles between miners of different pits or between neighbouring parishes.81 This included infamous ‘St Day Fight’ which took place during the early 18th century between Gwennap and Redruth. In the ensuing brawl (the reason behind which is unknown) a man of Redruth called Dr Cook lost his life.82

Thus, while the evidence is scanty, and there is no evidence that the Church was active in opposing Methodism, it does appear that the former viewed the latter suspiciously as non-conformist rather than as spiritual brethren and it is not unlikely that some of the views reflected above were shared by both Church and community.

Chapter 4: The establishment and development of the Methodist Society

Far more source material exists relating to Methodism in eighteenth century Gwennap than to Anglicanism. There are personal accounts (of which a fair number survive, including those by John Wesley himself) and material concerning named individuals of the Gwennap Methodist Society (including wills). Thus, the nature of the Methodism in Gwennap can be examined in far more depth than can be done with the Church.

John and Charles Wesley first visited the parish of Gwennap in 1743 and a Methodist society was established by 1745 where it is first mentioned in the Bishop’s Returns when Henry Phillips describes the establishment of ‘a certain sect usually distinguished by the name of Methodists [who] came among us of which sort there may be about 40-50 persons that follow them. They have a meeting house in my parish, but not licensed in which there is a constant succession of teachers that run up and down the country.‘83 He writes that three residents of the parish, namely James Hitchens, Samuel Hitchens and Henry Gowen had become public teachers. In the following years the society grew further with a list of the Gwennap Society in 1767 naming the sixty-three members and providing some individual information about them.84 After this year, there is no further membership information until Christmas 1774 from when the West Cornwall Circuit book provides quarterly data concerning the membership of the society.85 In 1774, 145 members are recorded. Following this, membership fell steadily and significantly so that in Midsummer 1783 only 98 members are recorded. Recovery followed, membership reaching 128 in Christmas 1791.86

Changes in total number of members of the society are generally fairly steady and take place over large numbers of years. However, there are two quarters in which significant rises in membership are recorded. The largest increase took place between Michaelmas 1783 and Midsummer 1784 when it rose from 89 to 122. Another large increase took place at this time of year in 1787. What was exceptional about these two quarters and so led to large increases in membership is difficult to assess. The largest increase in 1783 may have been the consequence of a new (apparently non-Evangelical) vicar, Arundel Radford, being installed at Gwennap Church.87 Since Henry Phillips had apparently been Evangelical, they may now have found more in common with the Methodist society that the new vicar.

Nevertheless, considering the large population of Gwennap (an estimated 2600 in 1745 rising to over 5300 by 1791)88 the membership numbers for the Methodist Society are relatively low. In fact, they are not significantly more than the communicant figures of the Anglican Church. Indeed, until the mid 1760s there appear to have been more communicants at the Church than members of the Methodist Society. One could perhaps even talk of a ‘decline’ in the importance of the Methodist society between 1774 and 1791 when, proportionately to the population, there was a fall since during this time population rose by an estimated 1000.

However, as is the case with communicant numbers, the number of Society members does not necessarily equate to the number of people attending the chapel or those who had some involvement with Methodism. Indeed, the Circuit Book implies that conversion and membership of the Society were two very different things, providing separate columns for the recording of each.89 This demonstrates how one could be a converted Methodist but not be a Society member. There were probably several reasons for this difference, not least the high demands that Membership entailed. Thus, Society membership involved entering an enclosed and outwardly different order with an almost monastic level of conduct. Those who accepted membership were given a signed ‘on trial’ ticket and enrolled in a weekly class. When they became full members their ticket was thereafter renewed each quarter by the travelling preacher if the requirements for membership had been met. For the rest of the quarter the members met week-by-week with the class leader.90 Members were obliged to wear plain and sober dress, attend preaching services and a weekly class meeting. The young women who joined the society were obliged to cut off their curls whilst the young men had to conform to a short-hair-with-fringe-over-the-forehead style. Furthermore, membership involved a renunciation of the ‘pleasures of this world’, which were generally defined as sports, singing idle-songs, card-playing and dancing.91

Unsurprisingly, many people were unwilling to submit to this strict regime or felt that they would not be able to live up to its high standards. For example, a man from a nearby parish, Paul Burrall, noted that he was a staunch Methodist in the 1760’s, but had no aspiration to undertake to Society membership. He writes that for ‘8 years, I folied the preaching and Meetings of the Methides, and cep up privat prayr’ but he did not take formal membership ‘for fear I went Astray, for fear I should bring a bad name on a good coase’.92 Many others, like Burrall, probably never became actual ‘inner circle’ Methodist members but may have considered themselves as ‘converts’, remained within the outer circle of the Methodist community or were in some way influenced by Methodism. Further, due to the size of the parish, the time required to travel to the various obligatory Methodist meetings would have made membership an even larger commitment. Although class meetings may have taken place across the parish, the original Methodist preaching house is thought to have been in Busveal in the west of the parish.93 This might explain why a greater concentration of members came from the west of the parish.94

Indeed, and much later, the figures for the national ‘Census Sunday’ in 1851 showed that there were over two million Methodist churchgoers but only 340,000 Methodist members.95 This is despite the fact that, by the nineteenth century, the membership requirements of the early Methodists had become far less strict and so the differential between members and non-members lessened. Thus, the membership figures mentioned in the Circuit Book almost certainly offer an underestimate of the far wider impact of Methodism in Gwennap.

This conclusion is further backed up by the reports of massive attendances at open-air Methodist services, including those at Gwennap Pit. Although there are no precise figures for attendance at the open-air services, many estimates exist. For example, in 1787 William Fonthill wrote that, ‘Wesley came apostolling in Cornwall a few years ago [and] preached at this spot to above 7000 followers.‘96 George Whitefield spoke of preaching to ‘many thousands’,97 Thomas Wills claimed to preach before ‘not less than ten thousand’ on July 1st 178198 and a ‘large multitude… from almost all the towns and most of the principle parishes within thirty miles of the western part of Cornwall’ three weeks later.99 Later, Joseph Benson, refers to a crowd of 20,000.100 However, the by far the highest estimates are offered by John Wesley himself who several times suggests that over 30,000 people were present at the Pit to hear him preach. For example, on 22nd August 1773 Wesley wrote in his journal after preaching at Gwennap Pit that, perhaps it had been, ‘the first time that a man of seventy had been heard by thirty thousand persons at once!‘101 If true, a quarter of the population of the county was present and it would seem unlikely that the site, even before it was remodelled, could accommodate such number; nevertheless, thousands clearly attended.

However, one must be careful in equating the massive attendance at these services to the number of ‘Methodists’ in Gwennap. Wesley’s audience was a mixed gathering of people. Although many of them may have been Society members or preaching house attendees, others undoubtedly had varying degrees of commitment to Christianity and the Methodist way of life. For instance, persons that would otherwise be best described as ‘Anglican’ may have attended them. These outdoor events were spectacular occasions and their size and the inevitable atmosphere of excitement that they created may have attracted large numbers of people, indifferent towards Methodism, and who came ‘for the fun of it’.102 Indeed, Wesley himself wondered whether or not everyone was able to hear. After leaving the Pit for the last time at the age of eighty-six he accepted that ‘I think it scarce possible that all should hear’.103 Perhaps this suggests that many went as much to see the famed Wesley as to hear him preach.104 Furthermore, there is evidence that services at the Pit were deliberately organised on the same day as other local social gatherings. For example, it was traditional for large numbers of people to gather on Whit-Monday to watch local sports. In response, the local Methodist preachers erected a platform from which people were addressed and hymns sung.105 Thus, those actually more interested in local sports than Methodist spirituality may have, nevertheless, swelled attendance figures.

Thus, it is very difficult to quantify the popularity and impact of Methodism by using membership numbers or by the attendances at outdoor services. However, it has been frequently suggested that one other way of assessing the wider impact of Methodism is by examining the impact it had on Cornish culture. Indeed, much has been written on the supposed ‘transformation’ in culture and society in Cornwall due to effect of Methodism.106 To make their point, most writers have emphasised change rather than continuity in Cornish culture during the period in question. Rule offers a fairly symptomatic interpretation of the ‘dramatic’ changes in Cornish culture brought by Methodism. He suggests that ‘In its social life the village came to be dominated by the chapels… not that Methodism monopolised society but its counter-cultural values and behaviours were inescapably thrust into the centre of community consciousness’.107 He specifically claims that Methodism led to changing patterns of recreation with wrestling, hurling and debauched festivals rapidly became nearly extinct. He states that where Anglican clergy preached against excess, Methodism was opposed to sport as sinful, leading to its eradication from Cornish life. 108

Unfortunately, there is little available evidence to assess such ‘cultural’ effects in Gwennap. However, what evidence does exist suggests that the cultural changes between 1743 and 1791 have been over emphasised. For example, William Beckford’s account from 1799, suggests that Cornish sports were still taking place in Gwennap, and attracting large crowds to witness them, eight years after the death of Wesley. He wrote that,‘ It had long been a custom for two or three thousand people to assemble, every Whit-Monday, on Gwennap-Green, to witness a variety of athletic sports’ leading to the local Methodist leaders to ‘unite their efforts directing the attention of the multitude to better enjoyments.‘109 This supports the suggestion that Methodism had a very negative view towards Cornish sports but indicates that they were still taking place regardless. Thus, although Cornish sports may later have declined due to Methodist protests and cultural changes, in Gwennap this did not take place until after the eighteenth century. Such, apparently, contradicts Rule’s hypothesis, at least in Gwennap.

Thus, much historiography appears to have both underestimated the popularity and impact of the Anglican Church and over-estimated the popularity and impact of Methodism (certainly as far as Gwennap is concerned). Further, Methodism itself does not appear to have brought about the oft-mentioned ‘cultural transformation’ between 1743 and 1791. Having said this, Methodism in Gwennap did establish itself rapidly, especially considering that Methodism only came to Gwennap in 1743.

Chapter 5: The Members of the Methodist Society

The question of how Methodism was able to quickly attract a core of followers whilst the Anglican Church appeared to be slowly losing its congregation has preoccupied much of the study of eighteenth century Christianity. Some historians have attributed the development of Methodism in Cornwall and Gwennap to the lack of religion before the 1740s. For example, Shaw claims that before Methodism, religion in Gwennap was ‘generally at a low ebb’110 whilst Isaac describes Methodism as ‘spreading through the mining districts like fire over dry furze on Cornish moor lands’.111 However, as shown above, Methodism did not enter a religious vacuum in Gwennap and so did not simply fill a ‘spiritual gap’ in an un-churched land: a significant number of people attended the Church during the 1740s. Moreover, even if ‘professionalized’ Christianity was in decline in Gwennap before the arrival of Methodism (which, actually, does not appear to have been the case), it still does not necessarily indicate that religion itself was ‘in decline’. There was, for example, a fall in the number of professional pastors and priests of the traditional Christian type in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, but the missing professionals were amply replaced by other kinds of carer, spiritual advisor and wonderworker.112
One of the most common ways of accounting for the growth and popularity of Methodism in Cornwall has been linked to ideas about the ‘quality of life’ of Cornish miners. It has been argued that life in Gwennap was miserable and so ‘most men and women unable to endure the terrors and pains of life without spiritual support.‘113 For example, Nicholson suggests that the expanding mining areas like Gwennap were places full of ‘social problems, over-crowding and poverty’.114 Rule argues along similar lines proposing that the mining people of Gwennap were constantly faced with two fears; ‘the fear that its mineral resources would run out and it would cease to be the provider and the fear constantly present that menfolk would be brought home injured or dead.‘115 He goes on to say that violent deaths were commonplace and that with reference to Wendron that ‘from 1796-1806 at least one male inhabitant killed in a mine accident every year’.116 Thus, these conditions, it is said, provided Methodism with a ‘fertile ground in which to plant their ideas’117 since Methodist teaching had a pre-occupation with the ‘next world’ and so had a ‘fatalistic acceptance of worldly suffering’.118 Methodism, it is argued offered an effective ‘antidote to despair’119 helping alleviate the terrible despair of the Cornish miners who were ‘finding their personal existence unbearable’.120 To back up their arguments, these historians of Methodism have thus generally concentrated almost solely on the negative aspects of life in mining areas.

Tin mining was indeed the dominant profession of the men of Gwennap, although many people were not miners. Thus, from 1702-1706, out of 51 bridegrooms, 31 indicated that they were tinners. By 1776 this figure rose to 80%.121 Further, in the 1767 Gwennap Society list, ‘tinning’ is the dominant recorded profession. Including women, of 22 recoded occupations, 15 are described as tinners.122

Some evidence does, additionally, link mining with inevitable and terrible suffering. ‘Mineralogia Cornubiensis’, written in 1778 by the doctor William Pryce, documents the working conditions of miners, mining injuries and their response. For example, he describes an occasion when he was ‘called to a person supposed to have a compound fracture of the leg by a fall of 20 fathoms’. Although the patient’s injuries in this case were not as bad as first feared, he then goes on to describe how ‘The patient was then conveyed 6-7 miles to his own hut full of naked children, but destitute of all conveniences and almost of all necessities. The whole, indeed, is a scene of such complicated wretchedness and distress as no words have power to describe.‘123 However, although Pryce undoubtedly witnessed some truly horrific injuries, he did have a vested interest in projecting an unduly negative image of the working conditions of the miners. Pryce wanted a miners’ hospital to be established near to Redruth so that ‘the same trouble that removes him from the mine to his wretched hovel, brings him to the place built and furnished for his peculiar benefit.‘ Even Rule accepts that, like Pryce, contemporary reports ‘often exaggerated’ the poor condition of miners in the eighteenth century.

In fact, there were some positive aspects to the Cornish miners’ working life. For example, they retained regular ‘special’ holidays throughout the majority of the eighteenth century. These were only reduced toward the end of the eighteenth century as technological change promoted shift-work and the development of a specialised workforce. However, there does not appear to have been any opposition to the introduction of shift-work and conversely it may have been welcomed. Shift-work was in some respects highly beneficial since it gave miners free daylight hours at regular intervals so that they could work on their smallholdings.124 As the custom in the eighteenth century, most miners would have held ‘dual occupancy’ dividing their efforts between the field and the mine. For example, James Hitchens, a prominent member of the Society appears to have divided his working time between in mining, blacksmithing and farming.125

Furthermore, one must be careful not to be anachronistic about the nature of mining during the eighteenth century. Mining was dangerous throughout the eighteenth century and this may reflected in the number of widows recorded in the Gwennap Methodist Society list of 1767:126 of 44 women, 14 were widows. However, only towards the end of the century was deep mining made possible by advances in steam technology. This allowed mines to be driven to previously unprecedented depths and working conditions became more difficult. Ventilation became worse, and miners would often have to endure high temperatures (110 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in Wendron in 1864).127 However, it was only in the 1770s that steam pumps engines were built at Wheal Busy and Ting Tang.128 Watt engines came even later, the first one being installed in Cornwall in 1780.129 Thus, Pryce’s account in ‘Mineralogia Cornubiensis’ reflects the changing nature of mining in Gwennap as new mining techniques threw up new issues of safety. Before this time mining had been undertaken close to the surface and did not conform to later images of the mine represented in John Harris’ poem, ‘The Mine’.130

Furthermore, the general wage levels of miners were also fairly good. Wage levels in Gwennap were around 20-27s per month by 1730 and they were reportedly as well paid as any labourers in the whole country.131 Beckford wrote a letter dated 7th March 1787 in which he expresses his surprise at the working conditions of the miners of Gwennap. He states that ‘their actual estate is not so much to be lamented and that notwithstanding their pale looks and tattered raiment they are far from being poor or unhealthy.‘ Furthermore, many miners were able to work their way up through the system and earn much more. Beckford continues to write that ‘many a common miner has been known to gain œ100 in a month or two’.132 Many wills written during the eighteenth century in Gwennap back up Beckford’s observation about the relatively wealthy nature of some miners in the parish. For example, in his will of 1746, John Wasley (I) left the considerable sum of œ100 and land to each of his three daughters. To his two sons John (II) and George Wasley he also left sums of money in addition to various mining rights and estates in Gwennap.133

In fact, Methodism appears to have attracted many of these successful and comfortably off workers, many of who had done very well out of mining. Probert comments that this generally took place, especially, ‘after the first few years’.134 In Gwennap, however, this seems to have characterised the movement from the beginning. For instance, John Walsley (II), like his father, was a successful man, his total estate amounted to the substantial figure of œ325 4-9d. Yet, in his will of 1751 he bequeathed the Methodist preachers in Cornwall the ‘sum of twelve pounds yearly by quarterly payments’.135 Other sources further demonstrate the relative wealth and education of other of Methodism’s early adherents in Gwennap. For example, Richard Williams worked his way up to become the Captain of Carnmarth mine. He was an active Methodist and became the Society Steward in Gwennap He also was a local preacher,136 often entertained John Wesley when he came to visit, was a regular correspondent with him137 and was wealthy enough to be able to supply Wesley with money to allow him to get back to Bristol on occasion.138

Further, the suggestion that Methodism’s primary attraction in Gwennap (and elsewhere) was that it helped distract the follower from current earthly sufferings makes the assumption that Methodist message was fundamentally different from that being expounded in the Church. However, Phillips’ link with Walker, suggests that this should be seriously reconsidered if not rejected entirely. Thus, from the letters of Walker it seems that Phillips preached a message of salvation and the hope of a better future life. In a letter of 22nd May 1754, written to Phillips, Walker wrote about ‘eternal salvation’and of Christ, ‘inviting you into his bosom in heaven!‘ Moreover, when Walker became seriously ill in July 1761 he again demonstrated a similar focus on the next life when he said, ‘why trouble yourselves and weep? I am going to heaven.‘139 As for the ‘unique’ Methodist ‘fatalistic acceptance of worldly suffering’, Walker goes further writing ‘how good was He to make you at all’.140 Further on 20th November 1755 Wesley wrote a letter to Walker in which he stated, ‘in the great points I can not observe any difference between us’.141 Thus, it seems unlikely that the message of comfort to suffering people offered at Gwennap Church was fundamentally different to that offered by the Methodists.

Generalisations about the social standing of the Methodists have also been made. For example, Armstrong writes that ‘Gentlemen, of course, were not receptive to his (Wesley’s) message’142 whilst Boggis claimed that ‘the attitude of the gentry was at first one of haughty superiority’.143 Indeed, the social standing of Methodists has been used to account for its popularity. For instance, Kent suggests that ‘It is evident from the start that his [Wesley’s] approach appealed to numbers of people who were dissatisfied with their personal or social lives.‘144 However, as Probert points out, although many of Wesley’s followers were poor, that the more prosperous also get frequent mention.145 For instance, in 1743 when Charles Wesley preached at Gwennap he noted that ‘most of the gentry from Redruth were just before me, and so hemmed in that they could not escape’.146 Indeed, the Gwennap Society list of 1767 contains some members of significant social standing.147 For example, Ann Trewartha is described in the parish register as being the daughter of a Mr Joseph Ralph. To describe a person as ‘Mr’ during this time was rare and indicated a person of significant standing. Frances Roskrow was the widow of Richard Roskrow. Richard’s father, John, is described as a ‘gent’ in the parish records, again an indicator of social standing.148 Furthermore, although the society list mentions many persons described as ‘tinners’ this does not necessarily indicate low social standing. This was a very broad description and could refer to many people from rock face workers to mining entrepreneurs. For instance, James Hitchens describes himself as a tinner in both the accounts of the death of his sons, Thomas and Samuel Hitchens.149 The same was true of Richard Williams who was a mine captain.150

Just as many historians have made assumptions about the poverty-stricken nature of those who were attracted to Methodism and about their social standing, they have also made judgements about their lack of sophistication and education. For example, Plumb wrote that, ‘Everywhere in early Methodism one meets the prejudices of the uneducated, which always seem to be hardened by success. There was an anti-intellectual, philistine quality, which attracted the dispossessed but was dangerous for society.‘151 He continued to write that Methodism was ‘worst in its attitude to education’ and that Methodists regarded ‘their overworked children with a complacent heart.‘152 Armstrong agreed and states that, ‘the crowds that appear in Wesley’s own descriptions were ignorant, and credulous.‘153 More recently, Payton supported this idea writing that the ‘relative simplicity of its theology’ attracted the uneducated Cornish to Methodism.154

However, evidence from wills demonstrates that many Methodists were well-educated, fully able to read and write. For instance John Wasley (II)‘s will records in its inventory ‘one writing desk and books’ suggesting that he was a regular reader and writer.155 Furthermore, several other wills of members of the Society recorded in the 1767 list of members are signed with a name rather than simply a mark as are entries made by Society members in the parish marriage register.156 Thomas Mitchell, a prominent Society member, clearly demonstrated his high standard of literacy when he appraised the will of Grace Trebilcock ‘of Cararack’.157 Another Society member, Rebecca Trewartha signed her name when she witnessed the will of Charles Mitchell.158 Of course, a signature does not necessarily indicate literacy since an individual may have only learnt how to write their name and nothing else. Having said this, not being able to sign does not prove that an individual could not read since many people were able to read but not write. However, the large amount of signatures surely indicates that a not inconsiderable number of the Society members were literate. Indeed, John Wesley himself was a passionate believer in the importance of education. He wrote and abridged a huge amount of literature for his preachers and his people to read. One of his great aims was to produce inexpensive literature that would not be beyond the means of ordinary people.159

Thus, the available evidence does not support the theory that the growth of Methodism in Gwennap was largely caused by its ability to act as an antidote to despair or its ability to attract the ignorant rather those of higher social status. Anglicanism in Gwennap could also supply an ‘antidote to despair’, since the teaching of the church on heaven and earthly sufferings did not differ greatly from the Methodist view. Furthermore, the working lives of the people of Gwennap were arguably not always terrible. Despite constant dangers, undoubtedly many of Gwennap’s population enjoyed their work, their regular holidays, their levels of pay and the community involvement that mining work entailed. Moreover, although some members of the Society were poor, many of the Methodists in the parish amassed large sums of money from the mines whilst others were members of families of high social standing. Therefore, if the development and growth of Methodism is to be understood, focusing unduly upon the factors considered above is not sufficient. Other reasons must be advanced.

Firstly, the early development of Methodism in Gwennap appears to have been due, in part, to the efforts of its early members. Gwennap was exceptional since it was home to several of the early pioneering Methodist preachers. As noted before, Henry Phillips mentions that there were already three ‘public teachers’ in his parish by 1745, James Hitchens, Samuel Hitchens and Henry Gowen. Moreover, to this list another of the Hitchens family, William, can be added. Phillips may not have recorded him at that time because he had left home to join a band of Wesley’s travelling preachers160 or because he had not yet taken up the ministry.161 However, like Wesley, William travelled across England to preach.162 The work of Hitchens family especially may help explain why Methodism in the parish so quickly took root and was able to attract a core of supporters. Thus, the Hitchens family appear to have put much of their time, money and energy into the establishment and support of the Methodist society in Gwennap. James Byron, a preacher who married into the family, writes, that ‘Mr Hitchens, and his family were some of the first fruits of our Rev. Father Mr Wesley preaching in that county, more than sixty years ago. Mr Hitchens had four sons… who were all brought to the saving knowledge of God, and preached the death by which they lived. They erected a large chapel where the inhabitants of that populous county might hear the word of Life, and that it became the House of God and the Gate of Heaven for many souls… They supported it with their property, they faithfully and acceptably preached it and they suffered a severe season of the most brutal persecution for it.‘163

Finally, one of the seemingly most significant factors in the development of Methodism seems to have been almost completely ignored by most other studies. This factor is kinship. Already, this study has mentioned ‘Methodist families’ such as the Hitchens and the Wasley families. By examining the 1767 Society List and other sources these family links can be explored further. For example, James Hitchens’ widow Julian is mentioned in the Society List, as are her children, Ebenezer, Mary (Skews) and Sarah (Wats) along with her husband William.164 Furthermore, examination of the Parish records demonstrates that Grace Hitchens, Alice Hitchens, Frances Roskrow and Robert Dennis were also close relations. Julian Hitchens’ maiden name was Magor, so it seems likely that Society members John and Grace Magor were related as well. Other members of the 1767 Society were also closely related. For example, Richard Williams was the circuit steward. His close family appear to have all been Methodist Society members including his wife, Elizabeth Williams and his mother Loveday Williams. Furthermore, Richard William’s wife’s maiden name was Wasley. She was in fact the sister of John Wasley (II). Other surnames such as Trewartha, Bray and Francis feature on the list several times and it is likely that further study of parish records and wills would highlight more family relationships.

Chapter 6: Conclusions

This study has revealed much about change and continuity in the religious life of Gwennap, and examined in detail the nature of Church and Chapel for the period 1743-1791. In the early years Church appears to have been relatively well-attended, growing and spiritually vibrant, despite the structural weaknesses of the parish system and the remoteness of the church from the main areas of occupation. In addition to more general factors, subsequent decline may be explained by the death of Henry Phillips and/or the growing competition provided by the Methodists.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Methodism and the Church appears to have been one of mutual suspicion (unlike some other parishes) and, despite the rhetoric of Wesley, the Society was regarded as sectarian. There is, however, no evidence of active hostility and persecution by the Church. The Society quickly attracted a group of members in the 1740s. However, the level of membership of the Society was never spectacular and does not appear to have brought sudden cultural change and, although it became an important part of religious and social life, it had not become a dominant influence by 1791.

Explanations for such growth cannot be wholly explained by the Methodist teaching of the ‘after life’. Church and Chapel, both held broadly evangelical views and adopted similar teachings on themes often assumed to be distinctively Methodist. Further, class-based explanations fail. While some of the members of the Society were, doubtless, poor and uneducated, the evidence indicates this was not universal. More probably significant in the Society’s growth were the efforts its early members and family links. Such have not been significantly highlighted before and could provide the basis for further investigation and offer hope of more nuanced interpretation.

Considered in the context of much historiography of 18th century Cornish Christianity, the findings of this study are controversial. Although the Church suffered from structural weaknesses it does not fit the image often presented (especially before the 1770s). Furthermore, the suggestion that Methodism’s success lay it its unique ability to act as ‘an antidote to despair’ is untrue. Indeed, many anachronistic assumptions about the nature of mining in eighteenth century Gwennap have been shown to have been made: mining often brought rewards with some miners becoming very economically successful. The study has also demonstrated the benefit of using local sources such as wills and membership lists. Indeed, since the experience of Methodism appears to have differed significantly from parish to parish, examinations of local sources may help safeguard over-generalisation.


Figure 1: Location and boundaries of the Ancient Parish of Gwennap
Figure 2: Map of the Ancient Parish of Gwennap

Ilustration1: First Page of a list of the Gwennap Society, July 12th 1767


Andrew Worley for his assistance in the transcription sources at the Devon Studies Library.
Dissertation supervisor Dr J Barry for his general guidance.
Stephen and Anne Dray for their help finding and transcribing records in the RIC, CSL and CRO.