South-Western Counties (Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wilts)

John Wesley was summoned to Bristol by George Whitefield in the spring of 1739, and it quickly became a focal point of his itinerant ministry, second only to London. During his visits he frequently visited Bath (where the Countess of Huntingdon also built a chapel) and the woollen towns of west Wiltshire. So Methodism took root there early.

Family connections brought John Wesley to Salisbury early on, but the society formed at Fisherton faltered through the notoriety of Westley Hall. A Wiltshire Circuit, formed in 1758, was divided into North and South in 1768. Salisbury became the base from which Methodism spread slowly through Hampshire and Dorset, the Circuit (which still included Portsmouth) remaining undivided until 1790. Shaftesbury, the birthplace of John Haime and Charles Garrett, became head of a circuit in 1809.

Cornwall was a potent mixture of remoteness, a Celtic population and industrialization against a harsh but picturesque landscape. (Robert Currie noted that, as with the Isle of Man, pre-Christian religion survived in the county.) The diocesan bishop was far away in Exeter and the Church was failing to provide for the new mining settlements, especially in the far west. John Wesley arrived in the county in 1743, preceded by a few weeks by Charles Wesley. Both travelled the length of the county as far as St Ives. In 1756 John Wesley recorded 'about 34' societies in the county.

John Wesley travelled through Devon many times on his way to and from Cornwall. From 1750 on he preached in Tiverton (where his brother Samuel had been headmaster of Blundell's School from 1730 to 1739) and it became the centre of a widespread Devonshire circuit which included part of Somerset. Plymouth contained supporters of Whitefield (who first visited the town in 1744) under the leadership of Andrew Kinsman. So until 1766 John Wesley concentrated on the neighbouring Devonport, which became the strongest cause in the county. His visits to Exeter were infrequent until 1773, when Calvinistic influence had waned.At the beginning of the nineteenth century WM was concentrated in the more prosperous southern half of Devon, leaving the deeply rural north-west to be evangelized by the Bible Christians from their stronghold at Shebbear, though Plymouth eventually became the effective centre of the denomination, with Cornwall as its heartland. BC membership in Cornwall grew to 2,605 by 1826, with many country chapels. Rural West Somerset was the eastern limit of the BC heartland.

East of a line from Bridgwater to Yeovil, PM took over as the liberal alternative to WM, and there were only isolated BC circuits, e.g. on the Isle of Portland. In both Devon and Cornwall the BC presence hindered the spread of PM as a rival to WM, but after the mid-century it did establish itself in the ports and watering places of South Devon, probably through members retiring from the Midlands. To the east, a Wiltshire Mission launched by the Shrewsbury PM Circuit led to the formation of Brinkworth Circuit (1826) and Motcombe Circuit (1828). From there the work spread through rural Dorset, where it was particularly strong in the Shaftesbury area. The other branches of Methodism made little impact on Somerset and Wiltshire. In Devon, the UMFC was confined to the urban centres of Plymouth, Tavistock, Exeter and Newton Abbot. Only one chapel, Silverton, is known to have been taken over by the Reformers.

In 1851 the Religious Census recorded 1,757 Methodist places of worship in the South West Division, two thirds of them (1,029) being WM. Total Methodist attendances were 348,044 (19.3% of the population); evening services (usually the best attended) totalled 175,044 (9.7%). In Somerset the BCs and WR had overtaken PM as the main rival to WM, but in Wilts and Dorset PM was still its only serious rival. There was a marked contrast between the strength of Methodism in the two adjacent counties of Devon and Cornwall. WM attendances in Cornwall were three times the level of those in Devon, where the parish system was operating much more effectively. In Cornwall, Methodist places of worship outnumbered parish churches by 3 to 1; total Methodist attendances (WM 28% of the population; BC, 8.4%) far outstripped the Anglican ones, most notably in the evening.By 1989, even with Bristol included, the number of Methodist churches had dropped to 1,071, nearly one third of them in Cornwall. Attendances were recorded at 1.6% of the adult population in the south-west as a whole (4.5% in Cornwall). Membership stood at 52,000 (1.5%), the highest being in Cornwall (3.8%).

  • H. Miles Brown, 'Early Days of Cornish Methodism', in WHS Proceedings, 26 pp.49-56, 69-76, 89-96, 137-40
  • John Pearce, The Wesleys in Cornwall (Truro, 1964)
  • John C.C. Probert, Primitive Methodism in Cornwall (a history and sociology) (Redruth, [1966])
  • Thomas Shaw, A History of Cornish Methodism (Truro, 1967)
  • John C.C. Probert, The Sociology of Cornish Methodism to the present day (Cornish Methodist Historical Association, Redruth, 1971)
  • Roger F.S. Thorne, 'The Last Bible Christians: their Church in Devon in 1907', in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 107 (1975) pp.47-75
  • A.G. Pointon, Methodism in West Somerset ... 1790-1980 (Minehead, )
  • Michael J.L. Wickes, John Wesley in Devon (Bideford, 1985)
  • Barry J. Biggs, The Wesleys and the Early Dorset Methodists (Gillingham, 1987)
  • Sarah Foot (ed.), Methodist Celebration: A Cornish Contribution (Redruth, 1988)
  • Barry J. Biggs, 'Mission from Motcombe', in WHS Proceedings, 54 pp.39-45
  • Jeremy Lake, Jo Cox and Eric Berry, 'The Stronghold of Methodism: a survey of chapels in Cornwall', in Church Archaeology, vol. 1, March 1997, pp.26-34
  • Thomas Shaw, A Methodist Guide to Cornwall (2nd edn., edited by Colin C. Short, Peterborough, 2005)
  • Ian Haile, Cornish Methodism, the Next Chapter (2009)
  • John Vickers, 'The Rise of Methodism in Southern England', in Mervyn Davies (ed.), A Thankful Heart and a Discerning Mind (2010) pp.57-71