The Consequences of Methodism for Cornish society

What effect did Methodism have on Cornish society? Traditionally, historians, especially Methodist historians, have viewed Methodism as triggering a moral regeneration, sweeping away the more hedonistic and barbarous pursuits of the eighteenth century and replacing them with a more sober, chapel-going society. This perspective was later echoed by social historians, who viewed Methodism as the key factor in the loss of pre-industrial cultural customs. Old pursuits such as hurling and wrestling disappeared along with cruel sports and animal-baiting. Later, people deserted the pubs for chapel culture, tea treats, brass bands and male voice choirs. Since the 1990s this perspective of the social effects of Methodism has been joined by another on its political outcomes. This stresses the construction of a new Liberal-Methodist ‘nexus’, radical and self-improving.

However, both these common interpretations have problems. For the first, the difficulties lie in explaining continuity; for the second chronology.

Clearly, the pattern of leisure everywhere in Britain underwent marked change during the nineteenth century as a more boisterous society gave way to the more ordered and regulated leisure time of bank holidays, mass spectator sports, museums, libraries and ‘rational’ recreation. But this change did not begin to consolidate itself until the mid-century decades. In Cornwall, citing Methodism as a key factor in the decline of ‘traditional’ Cornish society fails to explain why aspects that Wesley condemned – such as wrestling, food rioting or smuggling – took many decades to disappear.

Wrestling was arguably at its peak in the 1850s before mass emigration removed both competitors and spectators. Similarly, the last major food riot in Cornwall occurred in 1847, about a generation later than in England. And even smuggling boomed during the Napoleonic Wars, coinciding with a major growth in Methodist membership. Indeed, traditional popular culture seems to have survived the longest precisely where Methodism was the strongest – in the west and in mining communities. Admittedly, cruel sports and pre-industrial football (or hurling) did decline earlier, in the decades between the 1780s and 1830s. But this was a process common to all regions of the British Isles and one hardly limited to Methodist Cornwall.

Methodist attendance in 1851. Note the areas of strength in mid and north Cornwall.

Methodist attendance in 1851. Note the areas of strength in mid and north Cornwall.

While it served their own purposes for Methodist historians to over-emphasise the ‘barbarity’ of older traditional culture and the sobriety of the newer Methodist culture, it should hardly be surprising to discover a fit between Methodist allegiance and the older culture. If Methodism acted as a buttress for ‘tradition’ and an older cottage-based customary culture, as I’ve argued elsewhere, then popular Methodism was not necessarily so opposed to the everyday culture of that traditional society as its leaders and intellectuals liked to claim.

Some prefer to see Methodism not as an entirely new belief but as a bridge between the traditional and the modern world. Methodism’s simple folk theology was flexible enough to accommodate both formal and popular religion, to incorporate older beliefs in charms, ill-wishing, superstitions, ghosts and the devil within its world-view. Apparently, it could also incorporate wrestling, food riots and smuggling, as the career of John Carter, the prominent smuggler of Prussia cove, shows.

Similarly, we have to distinguish between Methodism’s buttressing of ‘independence’ and a validation of ‘individualism’. Providing spiritual legitimation for industrial and cottage life in the west was not the same as replacing traditional structures and imposing liberal or individualist ideas. While the connection between Liberal voting and Methodist attendance is clear from the 1870s it was by no means so obvious in the 1850s, a time when few working men and no women had the vote in any case. The idea of a clear and inevitable fit between Methodist religious practice and Liberal politics only grew in the last third of the nineteenth century.

The emergence of a so-called Liberal-Methodist ‘nexus’ in Cornwall actually accompanied the decline of indigenous Methodism and its channelling into more formal expressions of support for the three acres and a cow variety of Gladstonian Liberalism. Before this, Methodist culture either tended towards political conservatism, matching its social conservatism, as was the case for John Wesley himself. Or, while supporting the anti-slavery movement in the 1820s, it remained decidedly ambivalent about political radicalism, for example actively opposing the Chartists of the 1840s. It was only towards the end of that decade and the 1850s, with the growing influence of the Oxford Movement and High Church rituals in the Church of England, that Methodists were pushed firmly into the nonconformist camp, helping to provide the bedrock of support for the post-1859 Liberal Party.

To sum up, Methodism in Cornwall was a bridge between old and new, between tradition and modernity. Chameleon-like, it contained aspects of both. Before the 1860s, indigenous Methodism, particularly in the west, tended towards the former, acting as a community defence of custom and the cottage against the encroaching forces of modernity. For some, the centralised authority of the Methodist Connexion itself was part and parcel of that modernity. After the 1860s, Methodism in Cornwall converged with patterns elsewhere; its differences diminished even as its hold over the Cornish was maintained. (In terms of members as a proportion of the population its influence peaked in the generation from the 1880s).

It was in this last third of the nineteenth century too that a connection between Liberalism and Methodism was forged (although it was never anything like 100 per cent) and its social conservatism melded with a political radicalism. By that time individualism was supplanting independence and capitalist change was uprooting communities. The chapel continued to hold a cherished place in Cornish imagery but the dynamic Methodist culture of the century after 1760 was a thing of the past. Then, as the twentieth century proceeded, Methodism became increasingly an empty and ritualised part of everyday Cornish life. It became for most a focus for nostalgia and fond memories of a past Cornwall rather than the living, beating heart of Cornishness that it had been from the 1780s to the 1840s.