From the mid-18th century, Methodism began to grow in popularity in Cornwall – particularly amongst the mining communities, who took great comfort in its messages of self-improvement and salvation.
Methodism is a branch of Christianity which was founded by John Wesley and his brother Charles in the mid-18th century. It was initially their intention to invigorate the Church of England from within, however the Wesleys eventually broke away, mainly because the Church of England found it difficult to incorporate evangelism. Methodism spoke to the Cornish people in a language they could understand and helped them to make sense of a rapidly changing world. Chapels became the hub of the community in most Cornish mining towns and villages, bringing people together for social events as well as services. Music also had an important role to play. Charles Wesley wrote many of the early Methodist hymns, several of which are still sung today. The development of male voice choirs also stemmed from this period.
John and Charles Wesley
John and Charles Wesley’s arrival in Cornwall in 1743 was a part of a broader evangelical awakening that included widely separated ‘revivals’ in parts of Wales and the North America in the 1730s and Scotland in the 1740s. John Wesley’s message was enthusiastically accepted by Cornish communities and by 1750 Methodist societies had been established in 30 of the mining communities in the west, with four societies in north-east Cornwall
Methodism: the people’s faith
Methodism was very much a community faith; meetings were held in cottages and barns which made services easily accessible and ideally suited to the close-knit societies that were formed around Cornish metal mining. The domestic setting helped integrate spirituality and rationality with Cornish indigenous folk beliefs.
Charismatic lay preachers like Billy Bray preached to people in the dialect they spoke.
These small groups of early Methodists were closely bound together by a word-of-mouth network and the constant movements of itinerants and lay preachers, who were able to travel and interact with different communities in ways that would have been near impossible for the Anglican clergy, who were tied to the church building itself. The use of charismatic lay preachers, like Billy Bray, who preached to the people in the dialect they spoke, gave people sense of social inclusion. Huge crowds were drawn to open-air meetings, and Wesley preached to hundreds at a time in places such as Gwennap Pit.
And then there was the message of Methodism itself, with its simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation. This important message brought comfort, hope and security to a population that faced daily dangers in the hazardous environment of metal mines and increasing uncertainty in a world being rapidly reshaped by industrialisation.
Women and Methodism
The outburst of ‘cottage religion’ from the 1780s to the 1830s allowed women to actively aid the spread of the Methodist message at grass roots level. Over 56% per cent of the West Cornwall circuit (groups of congregations) were women in 1767, showing the significance of their early involvement in its spread in Cornish communities.
Methodist revivals in Cornwall
The most distinctive thing about Cornish Methodism was its revivals (periodic upsurges of religious fervour that swept through communities), which saw chapels remain continually open for days. Revivals were the means by which all the Methodist chapels gained members, and the great revivals of 1799 and 1814 helped to firmly establish Methodism in Cornwall.
Methodism was very much a people’s faith and became the most relevant institution for labouring and working class communities.
The link between mining and Methodism was strengthened by the role played by the newly emerging entrepreneurial and merchant class, which was becoming particularly conspicuous where the influence of the Anglican Church was already in decline. Numerous mine captains were also Methodist preachers who communicated to their communities the powerful messages of respectability and self-improvement, thus helping to ensure that Methodism became the most relevant religious institution for labourers and the working class.
Methodist chapels remain a highly visible manifestation of 19th-century industrial society and both their character and distribution are often closely related to the development of mining in the region. The 19th century also saw the building of new Church of England churches in the mining areas, such as those at Charlestown and St Day, the latter probably as a direct response to the perceived dominance of Methodism in the area.
Cornish Methodism abroad
Cornish Methodism was also carried overseas to areas such as South Australia, Canada and the American Upper Mid West, where Cornish communities flourished. Many of the most well known names in Cornish Methodism were from mining backgrounds. These include political leaders such as Michael Foot, popular evangelist Bible Christian preacher Billy Bray, miner poet John Harris and organist and choirmaster, Thomas Merritt. Merritt’s carols are not only performed in contemporary Cornwall, but also carried to the gold fields of western America and the copper triangle of South Australia. They are still performed in overseas communities today; a continuing reminder of the symbiosis of mining and Methodism.