County of ‘saints’, Celtic crosses, ‘holy wells’ and oratories. There is reason to believe that Cornwall received the gospel in the first century AD. The Cornish language became virtually extinct when Coverdale’s Bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book in English replaced the Latin liturgy and mass.
In 1661 and 1662, the Church of England in Cornwall was severely weakened when 50 devout Puritan ministers were ejected from their ministries, but the Independents and Baptists were strengthened by them.
When King James II put five bishops in the Tower of London for refusing to have his indulgence to Roman Catholics and Nonconformists declared in their dioceses, the Cornish marched in rebellion (Trelawny’s army) to London to have their bishop liberated.
This effectively put an end to the king’s endeavour to establish Roman Catholicism in England and James subsequently fled to France. The Cornish formed the rearguard for the Protestant William of Orange when, having landed in Devon, he went to London to be crowned as King William III.
The eighteenth century’s Evangelical Awakening in Cornwall was heralded by two centres of evangelical Anglican ministry: one in the north east (George Thompson at St Gennys, John Bennett at Tresmeer and John Turner at Week St Mary); the other in the Truro area, with the remarkable Calvinistic ministry of Samuel Walker and his clerical club.
From 1743 George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley impacted the Cornish people with the gospel. Following three rousing visits by Charles Wesley, John made 31 extensive and intensive evangelistic tours in Cornwall until 1789.
Methodist membership in Cornwall at his death was 4,000, with about as many adherents. It was a firm foundation for an astounding work of God, called the ‘Forgotten Revival’, which followed from 1790-1850.
Joseph Benson was just one of a large contingent of Methodist ministers, local preachers and evangelists whose tireless and arduous proclamation of the gospel met with such evident blessing that the 1851 census recorded 113,520 attendant at Cornish Methodist chapels out of a total population of 365,641.
William Carvosso, itinerant lay evangelist; William O’Bryan, founder of the Bible Christian movement; Billy Bray, the ‘King’s son’; and William Haslam, high church minister converted in his own pulpit while preaching on Matthew 22:44, were among many notable characters who fearlessly declared the glad tidings.
Sinners were so humbled that they cried out for mercy, received grace and forgiveness, and exulted in Christ with unspeakable joy. Such was the revival’s intensity that a social climate of serious regard for holy living prevailed. Church and chapel congregations swelled, while public houses and worldly pursuits diminished. There was a widespread desire to know the Scriptures and worship God.
Methodism maintained its strength, and the building of chapels went on into the latter part of the nineteenth century in every town and village. Often, several chapels of different Methodist connection coexisted in the same community. Many chapels were huge; one opened in Redruth in 1865 could hold 1600 persons.
Concern for education led to the founding of Methodists schools, including Truro School in 1880 and West Cornwall Girls’ School in 1884 and Dunheved College, Launceston, founded by the Bible Christians.
Of many nineteenth century pioneer missionaries, more than 50 were from Cornwall. Henry Martyn ministered in India and Persia from 1806-1816. He was an outstanding scholar and linguist, who translated the New Testament into Hindustani, Sanskrit and Persian.
George Grenfell was in Cameroon and Congo from 1875-1906. He had a steam-boat prefabricated under his direction in England and reconstructed it in Africa. He pioneered the establishment of mission stations along a 1,000 mile stretch of the River Congo. Bible Christian Samuel Pollard was in China from 1864-1915, labouring among the Miao people and resulting in more than 10,000 baptised believers by 1915.
In 1860 the Salvation Army extended its ministry into Cornwall. William Booth’s evangelistic meetings were attended by revival: ‘Excitement ran along the hills and moors like fire; crowds greeted him, filling the chapels to suffocation — conviction and conversion spread in all directions’.
Before the end of the century, the Caravan Mission to Village Children had been launched by William Howlett. It had an enthusiastic reception wherever its caravan and marquee went. Willie Sleep took this over into the twentieth century and their labours met with conversions among adults and youth.
Camps and beach missions conducted by the Children’s Special Service Mission resulted in lasting conversions. Throughout the county there was an openness to evangelical preaching and Bible instruction.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, saw decline. Scientific humanism, liberal theology, two world wars, and permissive and materialistic philosophies eroded the spiritual climate of Cornwall.
Family devotions have gone, school assemblies and religious education have been pluralised and secularised. Church attendance has been largely replaced by leisure and pleasure pursuits. Methodist Church membership has been declining by an estimated 300 per year. The closure of its chapels has continued to the present.
The situation has been exacerbated by the exodus from Cornwall of young people for further education and employment. Mining has ceased, and china clay extraction, farming and fishing are no longer labour intensive. The holiday industry is the biggest employer.
Fast-food shops and superstores, entertainment, leisure and sports facilities are legally licensed to open on Sundays, which adds up to desecration of the Lord’s Day.
An influx of many people on retirement from ‘up country’, who have not joined or attended the local church or chapel, has replaced local Cornish families and depleted village congregations.
A typical example is the delightful village of Lerryn, where the writer’s family once lived. As a lad in the 1940s and 50s, I had eight homes of relatives and friends to visit. The families attended the chapel regularly. None of them or their descendants live there now. Their homes are occupied by wealthy, retired folk, or as second homes and holiday lets.
The chapel closed in the 1970s. This beautiful rural place now has a sophisticated population and has lost its rustic and former interconnected Cornish social and community spirit, centred on the chapel and domestic local traditions.
Today’s population of Cornwall is just over 500,000. Over two thirds live in the narrowest, western area, and one third in the widest, eastern part. In the latter area and on the Lizard and Land’s End peninsulas towns are smaller and villages further apart, due to the granite moors. The county is 100 miles long by road from the River Tamar to Land’s End. All these factors affect travel to church and chapel when a local place of worship closes.
Ecumenism has been resorted to, as a solution to diminishing congregations and costly chapel maintenance, but the result has weakened the ministry, through theologically liberal ‘pulpit fillers’. Many denominational ministers have had a liberal theological training, with little appreciation of Cornwall’s Christian evangelical heritage.
Many churches now have one service on a Sunday and no week-night meetings. Entertainment and user-friendly initiatives have been introduced to attract the young and be ‘contemporary’, but there seems to be a tragic absence of scriptural understanding.
But all is not doom and gloom. There are some commendable ministries and encouraging developments in Cornwall. There are still a few serious, devout and dedicated evangelical ministers and lay preachers. The Peninsular Gospel Partnership (PGP) is a network of evangelical Christians and churches in Devon and Cornwall, who long to see a Christ-centred, Bible teaching, people-loving church available to every community. They meet to encourage each other, share resources and deliver biblical training. They organise quality events and promote gospel mission.
Since 2009, a number of ‘Light and Life’ fellowships have come into being in the county. They derive from a Free Methodist church, which began in Helston in 1985 and grew rapidly under the ministry of John Townley. In the last six years, churches have been planted in eight towns, with congregations of 50-150.
Their stated aims are to be faithful to the original principles of Wesleyan Methodism, to see the message of scriptural holiness restored and New Testament doctrine and practice revived, enforced and defended.
There are Brethren, Baptist Union, United Reformed Church, various Pentecostal and other independent congregations in the major towns. These are mainly Arminian and with contemporary worship styles.
The Reformed constituency comprises five Reformed Baptist churches and four evangelical churches affiliated to the FIEC. Most have confessional statements of faith, two services each Lord’s Day with expository Bible preaching, and weeknight prayer and Bible study meetings.
There are also distinctly evangelical para-church ministries worthy of mention, including the Gideons, Bible Society, Christian Rendezvous (a monthly Bible teaching ministry) and annual visits from United Beach Mission and Open Air Campaigners. There are five Christian bookshops.
Today, Cornwall is no more a Christian county than England is a Christian country. But we have a sovereign God, and church history teaches us that the light of the gospel has not been extinguished, nor will it be.
Peter Isaac has written A history of Evangelical Christianity in Cornwall, 357 pages, 1999, ASIN: B002DUQAVI. He thanks Roy Mitchel for his invaluable help in the preparation of this article.