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Poldark and Methodists

4th August 2017: WMC
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The 'Methodies' in Poldark Season 3

Poldark and Methodism

The Poldark books by Winston Graham and the current TV adaptation demonstrate that you cannot tell the story of mining in Cornwall in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, without the story of Methodism in Cornwall. But how much of the current popular TV adaptation or the books reflect the truth of Methodism in the 1790s?

The story rotates around the dramatic lives and loves of the fictitious old Cornish Poldark family – in particular, Captain Ross Poldark, and his wife (and former kitchen maid), Demelza Carne. In the latest season of the TV series, Demelza Poldark's brothers, Samuel and Drake Carne, have taken up their father's death-bed charge to save the souls of Cornwall. In earlier seasons of the TV series, unlike in the books, it was not made clear that their previously hard-drinking, violent father had not just become zealously religious, but had become a 'Methodie'. So far Samuel is proving the more committed preacher among the local miners, drawing together a religious society from among the working people and meeting in one of Ross's barns to sing and pray, as well as attending the local Anglican church ­- until they are barred.

It's a good story! But...

The most important factor is that the books are fiction and the TV series is designed as entertainment: one would look to neither for historical accuracy necessarily! In its earliest, enthusiastic phases, Methodism could be like the books and TV series depict them – but that was around the 1740s and at its worst. What is depicted in Poldark is a caricature of Methodism from 50 years before. Methodism in Cornwall by the late 1790s was not as the TV series depicts it.

Early Methodism in Cornwall

John, and occasionally Charles, Wesley, the most prominent of the founders of Methodism, began visiting Cornwall in 1743 and had made 32 visits by 1787. They were not welcomed initially as their rules and 'method' did not suit established eighteenth-century religious life. Religion was dominated by a Church of England controlled by the middle ranking gentry who wanted tenants to be passive, obedient to them and committed to providing them with labour. Methodist preachers were 'enthusiastic' and Methodism required commitment of heart, and time for prayer and 'class' meetings where faith was nurtured.

Minor gentry, as depicted in Poldark by the rival Poldarks and Warleggans, would have had responsibility for the church in their community and landowners could exert significant pressure and appoint or remove clergy – although landlords were often absent and priests were often 'second sons' themselves, supported by the income from their parish 'living', but sometimes then preferring life in town and employing curates of varying quality and concern for the 'cure of souls' in their stead.

Wesleyan Methodism flourished among the working classes. Its social concern had no interest in parish boundaries, unlike the limited welfare offered by the Anglican churches to their parishioners. Workers in independent rural industrial communities, and later those who moved beyond their rural parishes and homes to labour in the growing industrial centres, were beyond the reach of the established churches. Class meetings and travelling preachers suited these communities – the Wesleyans came to them. The salvation message was simple and direct and they could seek physical support, education and spiritual nurture from the Methodist societies, at a time when life could be precarious and short. Methodists often drank less and came to be considered as reliable men who were promoted and so local preachers became mine captains and rose in society.

Initially, the gentry and clergy felt threatened and were jealous of the Methodist movement's popularity, leading to disturbances being orchestrated (such as the Wednesbury riots of 1743/4) and preachers (even ordained priests like John Wesley) being barred from Anglican pulpits.

George Warleggan, Ross Poldark's unpleasant, controlling and scheming rival in the novels and TV series, reflects the feeling among many gentry of the 1740s when tells the vicar to bar these Methodists from "his" church, whose preaching of equality before God, singing and prayer meetings are disturbing the status quo- particularly given their leader/preacher is related by marriage to Ross, his sworn enemy since childhood!

So, what's wrong with this depiction?

The TV series are set at the end of the eighteenth century: Poldark Season 3 begins in 1795. The War of the First Coalition against France broke out in 1792. The implication in the present series of Poldark has been that that conflict had largely died down, but it had broken out again. This could be the War of the Second Coalition, actually 1798-1802; a novel is not required to follow the history exactly.

Methodism was considered radical – even revolutionary – by some. If the poor people were sufficiently loyal to the movement, surely they could be organised by its leaders to rebel against those in power? However, in reality the Republican movement in France had the effect of Methodists desiring to be shown as a religious community loyal to king and country, and definitely not Jacobin/Republican. Order, discipline, loyalty and deference were the rule of the day in late eighteenth century Methodism.

In Methodist chronology, Poldark Season 3 begins after John Wesley's death in 1791. By then Methodism was fairly well established and ordered, with 56,000 followers (which went on to peak at c1.5m in the nineteenth century). By the religious census of 1851, Cornwall was the most Methodist county in the country with 48% of worshippers in a Methodist church, and so out-numbering all the other denominations put together, including the Church of England (NB the next most Methodist county was Yorkshire, where 26% of worshippers were Methodist).

In Cornwall in 1798 there were five circuits (groups of Methodist meetings around which the ministers circulated) covering the county – Penzance, Redruth, St Austell, Plymouth and Launceston – with 19 ministers. There were 95 chapels, with two societies in their second chapel!

In the 1790s and with John Wesley dead, Wesleyan Superintendent ministers were establishing their powers and authorities. Circuit plans (indicating who was preaching where and when) were well established and often printed; preaching was ordered, and new societies and new preaching places could not be set up without the approval of the Superintendent. Classes (the sub-groups organised within a society to encourage accountability and nurture the faith of smaller numbers) were well-defined and ordered, and the issue of 'class tickets' (i.e., a membership card) firmly established – and in the hands of the Superintendent. It was a 'pre-sectional' era, and every minister other than the Superintendent – who would usually have the largest chapel and preach there most Sundays – served all the other chapels collectively. Outside the towns, local (lay) preachers took most of the Sunday services, but mid-week services would be taken by the circuit ministers – and sometimes the Superintendent would include himself in that. Leaders' meetings were usually attended by all the circuit ministers, with the Superintendent in the chair for all of them. The Quarterly Meeting was similarly ordered, with the Ministers often sitting in an array in front of the Quarterly Meeting members. If the Superintendent 'left the chair' the meeting was over; it was frequently a tactic used for stifling dissent!

By this period, relationships with the Church of England were nowhere as extreme as they had been. Active persecution had died out many years before. And although Methodism in John Wesley's eyes was a reforming movement within the Church, in Cornwall it was separated from the Church almost from its conception – Anglican churches just wouldn't have many of the Methodist converts – and the Methodists had a very low opinion of the largely absentee clergy who were their landlords! Cornwall was the place that showed how true was the comment, "Mr Wesley is like a skilled oarsman, rowing enthusiastically in one direction while looking steadfastly in the other." Samuel Walker, curate of Truro in the mid-1750s observed that the Wesleys' use of laymen as their itinerant preachers was de factoseparation from the Church of England. By and large the Anglicans were content that that should be so. It seems in fact that by 1798 the Anglican clergy of Cornwall had found attendances increasingas a result of Evangelical Revival. Methodism in Cornwall experienced further periodic surges and revivals of its own, for example in 1814, when a distinctive 'south-west kind of Methodism' evolved; the group known as the Bible Christians.

When the Cornish mining industry collapsed the miners sought work elsewhere and many emigrated, discovering that their skills in identifying metal-bearing ores would be highly prized in Australia, Canada and southern Africa. They took Methodism (and the Cornish pasty!) with them.

Methodism in Cornwall today

Cornwall is one of 31 modern Methodist 'districts' in Britain supporting and equipping 16 circuits of local churches of more than 6,000 people. Today, Historic England state that "Over 900 chapels are recorded on Cornwall's Historic Environment Record. The great majority (over 80%) are Methodist... The most active period of chapel building fell between the 1820s and 1860s, but most chapel interiors date from the 1860s. Many chapels were refronted and remodelled after the 1880s, reflecting the growing confidence and aspirations of their communities."

With thanks from the Connexional Engagement Team to the Revd Colin Short for his insights and advice about the history of Cornish Methodism

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