It is not commonly understood or appreciated that the Cornish had their own Celtic form of Christianity before the English. It was a primitive Christianity heavily laced with pagan rites and superstitions. (1) In a later period no other individual refined this ancient Christian heritage or left his imprint on Cornwall like John Wesley. Fresh in the Methodist revival he travelled from Bristol in l743 and hit Cornwall like a tornado upsetting values, scattering the supposed faithful, shocking parsons and disturbing landowners.
‘If something of the spontaneity and naivety of the old ways were lost, it is said that much that was buried was brutal and depraved and did not deserve to survive. Wesley was preaching to people who, for all their wildness and debasement, were by temperament and tradition passionately religious.’ (2)
The established Church of England was often dominated by wealthy land-owners and this left many common folk disenchanted. The simple Cornish folk were sympathetic to Methodism because it sought out the neglected and under-privileged. Wesley preached from Gwennap Pit to the miners at Lands End. Thousands of Cornish people were converted, re-born in attitude and life and this led to the miracle of Methodism in Cornwall. This miracle is said to have saved England from a bloody revolution like that which occurred in France. God had become an intrusive reality impinging in on people’s lives. Wesley’s message struck, and the apathy, drunkenness and lawlessness of many was conquered.
Methodist chapels mushroomed up over most of Cornwall, however large numbers of the labouring class were still pagan in outlook. Few could read or write and most were extremely superstitious even into the 1850s. Wesley’s last appearance came in 1789 and as his message lost its earlier vigour it grew stale and sharp divisions between Ministers and laymen became obvious. This led to the fragmenting of Methodism into the Wesleyan, Primitive Methodist, Methodist New Connexion and Bible Christian Churches, to name a few.
The effects of Methodism certainly touched the lives of thousands of people across all of Cornwall.
One of the many causes for division has been described as. ‘the desire on the one hand of some to keep to the old forms of ritual associated with the Book of Common Prayer and, on the other hand, of those who preferred the form of extempore prayer and a greater freedom from set forms of ritual in order to emphasise the evangelistic nature of their faith. To the latter, set forms and ritual were a hindrance to the experiences of religious zeal manifested in the prayer meeting situation.’ (3)
The Bible Christians of Cornwall
William O’Bryan was born at Gunwen Farm, Luxulyan, Cornwall, in 1778. He in turn gave birth to the Bible Christian Church in 1815 at Shebbear in Devon. O’Bryan, a Wesleyan lay-preacher, was concerned for miners and farmers in the outlying districts who had no non-conformist Methodist church in their vicinity. His church became strong in western and rural Cornwall. It had a closer contact with the ordinary people. It provided lay leadership experience and like Wesley they emphasised the authority of the scripture above repressive church tradition.
Unlike the orderly decorum of the Wesleyans, the Bible Christian Methodists were largely a ‘home grown’ Cornish, charismatic people, known for their fine, lucid preachers, uninhibited fervour, joy and expressions of an evangelical faith
Three-quarters of a century after Wesley, the convened tin miner, Billy Bray, from Twelveheads made his own sort of impact on the Cornish people. Billy Bray joined the Bible Christian Church and while the church was always very missionary minded, Billy’s own eccentric style of preaching made it even more so. (4) Billy was known as ‘The King‘s Son’ and he became a folk hero to Cornish Methodist miners. Many of the emigrating Cornish people, the diaspora, took memories of robust Christian revivals with them and they were ready to relate this part of their Cornish past across the world to their new homes. (5) (See Bible Christian Methodists in South Australia 1850 -1900. Edwin A. Curnow 2015)
Our Heritage Identified
A feature of Cornish culture shows a large number were devout Methodists. They were effective in pioneering situations and demonstrated an enthusiasm that was nothing less than amazing, they left an imprint on early Australia.
A newspaper report in 1899 recorded that Moonta had no less than 16 large, comfortable church buildings. With the exception of the Salvation Army, Methodists and their various churches were the only significant denomination represented at the mines. (6)
South Australia particularly attracted a high percentage of people from dissenting, non- conformist churches, free settlers with strong religious convictions resembling the Puritans. George Fife Angas was one of many who shared a special vision for South Australia that led him to say in 1844. “South Australia will become the headquarters for the diffusion of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere.’
Angas made tours throughout Cornwall on horseback advertising the South Australian Colonisation Scheme and he influenced many pious Cornish people to bring their skills and rich traditions of faith to the new colony. Even today South Australians benefit from the fruits of this vision and share an open, tolerant spirit sometime less common in the eastern States. This is, without a doubt, an important part of our Cornish heritage. (7)
(1) Superstitions: Anthea Hurst of Falmouth writes on 26 November 1991. “my granny was religious and yet she would not wear green—she said it was unlucky and you would be stealing the fairies colour.” The lives of our ancient ancestors were intertwined with mythology, folklore. geomancy, the psychic and occult world. Today Christians renounce any interest in these areas and affirm loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord of life. Exodus 20:3 John 14.6.
(2) Claude Barry Portrait of Cornwall, p. 140.
(3) The Life and Times of Dr William G. Torr, SA Methodist Historical Society, 1972, p. 5.
(4) Cyril Davey, The Glory Man, Hodder and Stoughton. Pub. 1979. See pp. 115-117,145 and 150.
(5) The first Bible Christian Revival in South Australia took place at the top of Yorke Peninsula and was reported in August 1874.
(6) Oswald Pryor. Australia’s Little Cornwall, Seal Rigby. 1962. p 99.
(7) Arnold Hunt, The Bible Christians in South Australia, Pub. Uniting Church Historical Society (South Australia), 1983, also provides a helpful overview,
E.A.(Ted) Curnow Jan 2018 www.tedcurnow.wordpress.com