Cornwall

Revival came to the county initially through the work of the north Cornwall Anglican evangelicals, notably George Thomson, vicar of St. Gennys and his friend, John Bennet of Laneast. Both preached beyond their own parishes and established Religious Societies in parishes other than their own. James Hervey, curate at Bideford, composed the eighteenth century devotional classic, Meditations among the Tombs, in Kilkhampton Both men were friends of George Whitefield who made several preaching visits to the area , as well as other parts of Cornwall. The Wesleyan society at St.Austell may owe its origin to Whitefield’s preaching nearby. Samuel Walker was curate at Truro from 1746. During his lifetime John Wesley never trespassed into his parish. On several matters, notably the separation of the Methodists from the Church of England, John corresponded with him. Thomas Haweis, a Redruth man was Walker’s protégé. As an Anglican priest he became one of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chaplains, a Trustee of her Connexion in her will and one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. He never held benefice in Cornwall, but took occasional ‘residence for duty’ breaks in the county.

At Bristol in 1743 John Wesleyl heard from a sea captain of a Religious Society in St Ives, and asked Charles to travel down from Newcastle upon Tyne to meet with it. Charles arrived in July and John in August. St. Ives became one of Mr. Wesley’s Societies, although ‘They took us into their Society rather than we them into ours.’ St. Ives became the western base for the Cornish mission, which to a great extent spread from the west.

One centre in the east was Trewint on the eastern edge of Bodmin Moor. John Nelson and John Downes, accompanying John Wesley in 1743, preceded him on the journey over the Moor from Launceston. At Trewint, finding there was no inn there, they called at the house of Digory and Elizabeth Isbel, opened their house to the travelling preachers. Soon Trewint Cottage became a small centre for the spread of Methodism in east Cornwall.

Methodism spread rapidly. Wesley made 32 visits to the county between 1743 and 1789d, travelling in laterr years by chaise. The open-air audiences he recorded at first were working class, notably miners and agricultural labourers, although a few property-owning people were attracted into the Societies. However, initially there was opposition and persecution. Instrumental in this in west Cornwall was the Rev. Walter Borlase of Madron (the parish then embracing Penzance. Wesley appointed many Assistants to advance the work in Cornwall. Their achievement remains largely unsung, although many larger Societies, including St.Austell, were not founded by the Wesleys themselves.

In 1756 Wesley recorded 'about 34' societies in the county. By 1767 the membership had risen to 2,160. By 1798 Cornwall was served by five Circuits, with nineteen ministers and 95 Chapels. Periodic revivals between 1782 and 1821 and the rapid population increase, saw the membership reach 9,405 in 1813, 12,891 in 1821, and a peak of 26,227 in 1840. The 'Great Revival' of 1814 had added 5,000 members, many of whom became the next generation of Methodist leaders.

When after John Wesley’s death Methodism began to fragment, Cornwall was little effected at first.

In 1815 the Bible Christians arose, the only major branch to come into being because of a Cornishman William O'Bryan (then called Bryant), who was a layman working with the Wesleyan Stratton Mission in north Cornwall and on the Devon border. On 1 October that year he separated; the first Society to align with him was at Week St Mary. O'Bryan was a flawed character, but the movement he founded survived his separation from it in 1829 and became the ‘second force’ in Cornish Methodism. They were the smallest component of the United Methodist Church in 1907.

The Primitive Methodists arrived in 1825 on the back of a Bible Christian dissident at Redruth. They never really found the space to compete with the similar Bible Christians, and unlike across most of Methodism, in Cornwall never rose above fourth place in numerical terms

The exact emergence of the Protestant Methodists in Cornwall remains hazy, but they had a Truro Circuit in 1830, stretching to Breage and onto the Lizard. They seem to have either joined the Methodist New Connexion after it reached Truro, or later became part of the Wesleyan Methodist Association.

The Methodist New Connexion had arrived in Truro in 1834, a dispute in the Wesleyans leading to the separatists inviting the MNC to join them. Later they acquired a small group of Societies in the west, but were always very small in Cornwall.

The Wesleyan Methodist Association presence grew out of the emergence of a ‘middle class’ in Cornwall, and the ‘age of reform’, with a strong lay-led reforming movement causing a significant separation at Camelford in 1835. With a rapid growth of the Association. It became a significant urban presence in the county, and no small rural presence in several places: the ‘third force’ of Cornish Methodism.

With the rise of teetotalism, and the Wesleyan rejection of its principles, a dispute at St. Ives gave rise to the Teetotal Methodists in 1841. Several Societies emerged in west Cornwall, but the failure to attract ministers into their ranks caused slow decline. By 1860 their remaining Chapels and Societies had fallen in with either the Methodist New Connexion or the United Methodist Free Churches. Bedford Road Chapel in St. Ives is their surviving heir, via the Methodist New Connexion.

The final schism in Methodism, that of the Wesleyan Reformers, was never very large in Cornwall asnd centred mainly at St.Austell and Liskeard with a small group in the St. Just area. In Cornwall they were undoubtedly encouraged by the presence of the Mevagissey-born minister Samuel Dunn one of the ‘Three Expelled’ in the Fly Sheets controversy.

When in 1857 the Association and the Reformers united to form the United Methodist Free Churches many Cornish Reformers were hesitant. St.Austell only joined after two years whilst the Liskeard and St. Just Circuits remained outside the UMFC, both becoming members of the Wesleyan Reform Union. The Liskeard group joined the Methodist Circuit in 1959, but the St. Just group is still WRU, albeit now just the Chapel at St. Just.

When the three smallest Merthodist branches united in 1907 they had forty one Circuits in the county – three MNC, fifteen UMFC and twenty eight BC (the Wesleyans had twenty seven). The 15,656 members in 1906 were 2.5% MNC, 32.7% UMFC and 64.7% BC (the Wesleyan membership was 21,110). Twenty five years of life together saw the United Methodist Church Circuits dwindle to 30, although there were still three separate Circuits in Penzance.

In 1932 the Wesleyans contributed the greatest number of members, although only 54% of the Cornwall total of 26,633. 42% were United Methodists and a mere 4% Primitive Methodists. There were initially 63 Circuits – and now five in Penzance

Sources
  • 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)
  • Sarah Foot (ed.), Methodist Celebration: A Cornish Contribution (Redruth, 1988)
  • 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)