Village raffles and the Cornish Methodists

Until recently, I believed that if you got more than three people together in Cornwall, and possibly anywhere in Britain, you had to hold a raffle. It wasn’t required by law, I’d have said, but by custom, which is much more powerful.

This wasn’t some random belief snatched from the dreamfluff in my mind. At every event we went to, from the village theater group’s performances to the Christmas craft sales, from fundraising lunches to anything else you can think of, there was a raffle. As soon as you went in the door, someone sold you a strip of tickets.

So we assumed raffles had been around from the time of the Druids.

Yes, the Druids. You know why they held the oak tree sacred? Because they used the bark to make raffle tickets.


Irrelevant photo: A rare bit of snow on the whatsit shrub in February.

I’m giving you a link here. Not because it proves the Druids made raffle tickets from oak bark but because it says they held the oak sacred, proving that I didn’t make that part up. I’ve gotten cautious since a web site picked up my riff about Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout and repeated it as—may the universe forgive me, especially for still half-thinking it’s funny—verifiable truth.

So in the name of caution, please remember that there’s a difference between saying the oak was sacred and proving it. I can’t tell you, from my own knowledge, whether it’s true. But that Druid/oak stuff happened a long time ago, and how many of us really care? It’s a side issue.

Were there Druids in Cornwall? The best Lord Google could give me was a bunch of uproar about modern self-proclaimed Druids. So I’ll give you a definite maybe on that. Cornwall has its own history, and it’s not your standard-issue English history.

But we were talking about raffles.

I found out a few weeks back that raffles haven’t been in the village since the Druids (if they were ever in the village). They’re an import. Some Cornish villages don’t hold them at all.

Why not? Because of the Methodists.

The Methodists are not to be confused with the Druids. If you’ll forgive a generalization, Methodists 1) don’t paint (or possibly tattoo) themselves blue and 2) don’t consider the oak sacred. They also don’t drink or gamble. Or at least the early Methodists didn’t. More recently, the church has taken the position that “total abstinence [that’s from alcohol] is a matter for individual choice. It is not a condition of membership. Methodists are recommended to make a personal commitment either to total abstinence or to responsible drinking.”

Communion wine is nonalcoholic.

They’ve also eased up on minor-league gambling, although they do say that just because they’ve loosened of the rules that doesn’t mean chapels should think they can open up a new revenue stream.

Methodism is an important part of Cornish history, and we’ll get to that in a bit. In the meantime, what you need to know is that the great historical divide in the village is between church, which is to say the Church of England, and chapel, which is to say the Methodists.

“Historical,” in this context, means before the flood of incomers guaranteed that the larger divide would be between the old village and the new.

It was the incomers who introduced raffles.

Since I’m neither church nor chapel, I’m not the best person to sum up the differences, but I’ll tell you a story about them:

I was part of a village committee a few years ago and the topic of church and chapel came up. For some reason, it struck me as a good place to ask one of the really important questions that was bothering me: Why is it that chapels have toilets but churches don’t?

“Keeps the sermons short,” someone told me.

I haven’t heard of any village Methodists getting into a huff about the raffles that incomers imported, but I have heard of one who’ll donate a pound to whatever cause the raffle is raising money for but refuse his strip of tickets. I’ve also heard of a nearby village where you wouldn’t dare hold a raffle. There are various strands to the Methodist Church, and in that village they’re old school Methodists.

How did Cornwall become so heavily Methodist?

According to Bernard Deacon’s Cornish studies resources, “On [John Wesley’s] very first visits [to Cornwall] large numbers of people turned out to hear him preach in the open air. Even the opposition stirred up by some local gentry during the politically sensitive time of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 could not prevent a growing interest in what the Methodists were saying. It wasn’t long before chapels began to appear, especially after the 1760s. By 1785 over 30% of Cornish parishes contained an active Methodist society. Growth then really accelerated and by 1815 the vast majority of parishes (83%) possessed a Methodist presence. By the time of the Religious Census of 1851 a higher proportion of Cornwall’s church-going population attended a Methodist chapel than anywhere else in the British Isles.”

He goes on to say that “the Church of England was failing in Cornwall by the 1770s. Numbers of communicants in that decade were very low in some parishes…. Formerly, the finger of blame for this state of affairs was pointed at its non-resident and distinctly unsaintly clergy. They subcontracted out the business of caring for parishioners to underpaid and incompetent vicars, while preferring to spend their time eating, drinking, chasing after foxes and in general hobnobbing with the landed gentry (to whom many of them were closely related in any case). Yet, research indicates no connection between attendance at Anglican communion in the late eighteenth century and non-residence. Furthermore, energetic and evangelical churchmen were not unknown in Cornwall…. Although the Anglican church in eighteenth century Cornwall…does not appear much worse than anywhere else.”

He suggests several reasons for Methodism’s appeal here. Cornish parishes (meaning Church of England parishes) were larger than they were in England, loosening the church’s control. And industrialization increased this by creating new population centers that were far from the churchtowns established in the medieval period.

I can’t find a definition of churchtown, but our parish has one. It consists of the church and a small handful of houses. Our village doesn’t really have a center, but the churchtown is very much off on its own and most people would’ve had a hike to get there on a Sunday.

The Cornish gentry were also scarcer than the English, “to some extent squeezed out by the Duchy of Cornwall’s manors,” and by a tradition of people making a living as combined smallholder and tinners, which left a tradition of social independence. “The influence of squire and parson” could never be taken for granted, and with the rise of new money, neither could social deference.

At the same time, industrialization—which in Cornwall mostly meant mining and which Deacon points out was rural, not urban—meant that people’s livelihoods weren’t secure. Their jobs and incomes were tied to global fluctuations, and an increased population meant that a smaller percentage of people had smallholdings to fall back on in hard times.

“Traditional life may have looked familiar in the mid and late eighteenth century [but] it was steadily being hollowed out.”

All of this created fertile ground for Wesley’s message, which “assured people that redemption was open to all and anyone with sufficient faith could be saved. This was the news that was energetically propagated by charismatic preachers, many of them local men and some at first women, who spoke the Cornu-English dialect of the people and arose from the people. Moreover, a flexible, adaptable organisational framework of classes and bands, grouped into societies, soon created a vigorous Methodist community that paralleled that of the Church of England, but one that was both bottom-up and much more participatory.”

Historians argue about whether Methodism was a conservative force or a radical one. My best guess is that the argument goes on because it contained elements of both. On the one hand, “it imposed quietist values of self-discipline and patience in the face of suffering in the expectation of the joys to come in the next world, values that dissolved class antagonisms.” On the other hand, it gave a voice to women, to miners, to the disenfranchised. “It legitimated the morality and structures of ‘traditional’ Cornish society. It upheld and validated the cottage as a socio-economic unit in the face of the changes being wreaked by an external modernity.”

For a bit of period detail, let’s quote from The Cornwall guide, which adds that “On one of [Wesley’s] very early visits…the gruelling six day journey from London was made even more difficult by heavy snow on Bodmin Moor. With no road yet built and fearing to get lost as night fell, Wesley sent his two companions ahead to look for refreshment. They arrived at Trewint Cottage, near Altarnun, and asked for food. The owner of the cottage, Digory Isbell, a stonemason, was out, but his wife Elizabeth offered them ‘bread, butter and milk and good hay for the horse’ and refused payment. To her amazement, before they left they knelt on the floor and ‘prayed without a book.’ A few weeks later they returned, this time with John Wesley himself, who had already achieved a modicum of fame. Three hundred neighbours came to hear him preach and Digory was inspired by a passage from the Bible to build an extension onto his house, for the use of John Wesley and his preachers whenever they came to Cornwall.

“Cornwall took to Methodism like no other county in England

“Wesley’s practice of preaching outdoors and in barns and cottages suited Cornwall’s geography; the rural population was huge and many villages were isolated from the parish church. Huge crowds of up to twenty thousand people were drawn to open-air meetings in places such as Gwennap Pit, where Wesley preached eighteen times.

“For a community of miners, facing danger at work every day, farmers and fishermen, threatened by creeping industrialisation, Wesley’s simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation offered comfort, security and hope. John Wesley also set up health and literacy facilities in order to help the impoverished improve their lot, thus making Methodism the religion of the people in contrast to Anglicanism, which had always been the preserve of the rich.… Originally a movement designed to invigorate the Church of England from within, Methodism, certainly in Cornwall, began to drift apart from it.”

So here we are, more than two hundred and fifty years on, and in any village enterprise, attention to the church has to be balance with attention to the chapel and vice versa, even though if you mixed the two congregations together and put them on one side of an old-fashioned set of scales and then compressed the rest of the village on the other, the rest-of-the side would thunk down heavily, lifting the congregation side high in the air. Which can either be a metaphor for being closer to heaven or for losing touch with the ground. Take your pick.

65 thoughts on “Village raffles and the Cornish Methodists

  1. That’s the best explanation of the appeal of Methodism I’ve ever read and it was fun and, at times, funny too. Apropos of not much this Californian is sitting in a hotel on Grays Inn Road happily watching the busyness of London flow by. Last night went to the Wellcome Collection Museum and learned that the interesting Mr Wellcome migrated here from the American Midwest, Minnesota I think. You two and him form almost a stampede from there to England. Despite the Brexit controversy, London seems to be thriving, especially around Kings Cross and the new/old mix of Granary Square. Time to wander off to Covent Garden and the Transport Museum.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Y’know, in an odd way, I envy you seeing it as all with the fresh eyes of a vistor. Not that I regret living here, but sometimes I do want to recapture that. I didn’t know about Wellcome. I’ll have to see what I can find out about him. Those Minnesota winters drive people to do all sorts of extreme things, like leave the country.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Now that I’ve been back home for a few weeks it is still the Wellcome Museum (plus my solitary walks near and on Hadrian’s Wall at Cawfields) that pops up for my personal rerun videos in my brain. Makes me smile and even laugh while also presenting serious information. Even here at home I try to keep that appreciation of the newbie whether it is walking through the Audubon preserve across the street, watching our cute otter population or wondering about the Hearst zebra herd that startles tourists passing by on Highway One. I don’t want to be naive but I love observing and trying to figure out what life is like in other places. When I like a place I want to live there for a year. I’m too old and too poor to do that but I’m already trying to figure out how I can go again soon carrying even less in my backpack. Maybe WOW airlines. Long ago I was happily rooted in a community just west of Santa Barbara. I allowed myself to be pulled up and transplanted just east of Sacramento. I did not belong there but I learned to be a budget wanderer always looking at places and people and how they fit together. Just read about Gothenburg, Sweden. Looks interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think I know what you mean. Now that I live here, I find myself wanting to return to the outsider’s eye–the one that says, “I’d love to live here for a year” and “wouldn’t it be great to need something from that hardware store.” Sometimes I can manage it.


  2. Wonderful piece! And the funny thing is that in Maine, and I think the United States in general, Methodists are now considered one of the more moderate and, at times, liberal churches.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Recovering among Methodists–lovely thought. Recovering *from* Methodists–unfortunately easy to imagine!

        Databits: In my twenties my mother was an (unpaid) Seventh-Day Adventist “Health & Temperance Minister” and I dated the son of a (likewise unpaid) Methodist H&TM. I didn’t attend that church enough to know how everyone voted but remember that my prospective mother-in-law was left-wing all right. She claimed (in public) to be, according to somebody’s working definition, a Secular Humanist. (May she rest in peace. I don’t think she ever found inner peace while living. She was one of those simpering-backstabbing church ladies people love to hate.)

        As a denomination, Methodists have been criticized by Religious Right type for supporting too many leftist-leaning global charities…and although it’s changed during our lifetimes, there was a time when both Methodists and SDAs were subject to criticism even for (exploiting) women as H&TM. Women were supposed to be silent in the churches, “sheep-stealing” preachers fulminated.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Churchgoers are flocks. Preachers who try to recruit people to go to their church instead of another one can be accused of sheep-stealing.

            (Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. I think the tab’s been open all month but I’ve been hack-writing instead of reading.)

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Wales was a hotbed of Methodism too, I think. You often see isolated chapels in rural parts of Wales, when the nearest church (Church of Wales, not Church of England) is miles away.

    I think the observation that Methodism offered a practical way to make ordinary people’s lives better, as opposed to The C of E, which in many places was at best incompetent, and at worse corrupt, is a good one. It’s certainly true that in the 18th century, rural clergy benefited from the “living” of of the parish – that is the tithes and other goodies that the residents of the parish were required by law to give to the church.

    It was also indeed common practice for second and third sons of aristocrats (who of course wouldn’t inherit the family lands and wealth) to either be given a commission in the army, or to be (nominally) trained as a C of E priest and be given a living. It’s hardly surprising that many of the clergy who came from that background weren’t really interested in God, the church or their parishioners, merely in what they could get out of the parish to sustain the lifestyle to which they felt they were accustomed. This unhappy state of affairs occurred all over England, and Cornwall would have been no exception. But at least the Cornish had their Methodism to compensate!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I looked it up on Wikpedia (where else?) and it seems to be a bit more complicated than that. I even got the name wrong: it’s The Church in Wales.
        “The Church in Wales (Welsh: Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru) is the Anglican church in Wales, composed of six dioceses…..
        As a province of the Anglican Communion, the Church in Wales recognises the Archbishop of Canterbury as a focus of unity but without any formal authority in the Church in Wales…”
        And the Church in Wales isn’t an established church (that is, it’s not the official church of Wales, unlike the C of E which is the official church of England).
        As ever, the reasons for the differences wrt to the C of E are all an accident of history.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s comforting to know that I’m the only one who gets lost in all this. When I first moved here, half the people I knew seemed to wasnt to ask about some bit of legality in the U.S. (the drinking age, for example), and the answer was always, “It depends what state you’re in.” I was left with the impression that the U.S. was more complicated in this way than the U.K. Ha. I hadn’t a clue.


  4. In my old Texas stomping grounds the Methodists were fairly lenient regarding drinking and gambling. I was raised southern Baptist and was so envious of
    my Methodist friends. Now I’m just a heathen. I drink and gamble.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I was a child on holiday in Sennen, the Methodist chapel made a big impression on me. It was (and still is for all I know) on a bend on the A30. Suddenly you would see a narrow building which looked like a mournful face. It was very creepy when seen in the twilight, at least for a child.

    Liked by 2 people

    • They do–either all or most of them–have a somber look that I could see striking a child as creepy. A fair number of them have been sold off and converted to houses, and I can’t help thinking it must take a lot of work to de-somber them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mmm… I think I’ll leave the discussion of Methodism et al, to others… but raffles… urgh. I try to avoid them. Though recalling what other half (him, not another half of me) said some years ago to my “I hate raffles, I never win anything” which was “that’s because you never buy any” … he had a point.

    An idea: how about a post on ice cream? Cornwall does very nice ice cream. I bet bits of America do, too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll give that some thought. American ice cream is different than British, but I don’t know that I can figure out how–or understand the difference if I find any information on the ingredients. As for raffles: I went to a folk club on Thursday night and–of course–they held a raffle. After the first two prizes were claimed, I was grateful not to win. I mean, what do you do with some of the stuff that turns up as prizes?

      Liked by 1 person

        • That doesn’t make it sound appealing. I’m guessing you’re talking about American ice cream, although I’m not sure. Some American ice cream is fabulous, though. I’m afraid to ask what it’s made of. Dick Gregory used to say that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Er… senior moment there, Ellen? (Or is it me? I get ’em too…) I meant the usual sort of prize won at a raffle! Not had bath oil ice cream… (well, not yet… ;-) The only American icecream I’ve had is Ben and Jerry’s (or is it Tom and Jerry’s? Cat and mouse ice cream… ) and I found it a bit… odd in texture. There’s a lot of variation in British ice creams, to me the best is Losely, but not easy to find. Separate(ish) from this, I was wondering how cafes and restaurants compare in your bit of the UK compared to your bit of America?

            Liked by 1 person

            • I did think it was an odd way to describe the taste, but y’know how it is when people write about synthetic flavorings: They can get a bit colorful in their descriptions. So I just–yeah. Maybe I should shut up now, before I get any stranger than I already have.

              If you’re going to try one American ice cream, I’d got for Haagen Dazs. As I remember it, it can be pretty spectacular, but maybe that’s just euphoric recall. It doesn’t taste at all like bath oil.

              Cafes and restaurants. It’s not a fair comparison, because I’d be comparing a multicultural city to a monocultural village, but from what I’ve seen in cities, one difference seems to be that the U.S. has more informal, inexpensive restaurants/cafes. Some are chains–a place like Noodles offers quick, fairly cheap, relatively healthy pasta-based dishes that are pretty damn good for the price. Others are small businesses and usually ethnic, but again fairly inexpensive and often very good. Where we lived, we were in walking distance of Mexican, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese food. Not to mention American burgers, and not much further from pizza and Thai food. And so on. A lot of the ethic places I’ve seen in, say, Exeter, seem to be aimed at the white-tablecloth trade. Does that seem to be true?

              Want some bath oil?


              • I didn’t know Haagen Dazs was American. My dad was very fond of that. It’s years since I had any and can’t recall it very well.

                Has the American economy lost any of the small food shops and cafes like ours has, here? I’d imagine that they must have hard competition from the big stores in the large cities. (Maybe not so much outside towns). I was talking to someone a few days ago about the death of small shops, particularly, since supermarkets seem to have taken over.
                There are restaurant and supermarket food chains in the nearest small town to us, they seem to swamp out everything.
                Here the ‘white tablecloth trade’ is mostly Indian restaurants, very little of anything else.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Any report I can give you on the chains vs. the small shops in the U.S. is wildly out of date, but I’m pretty sure that, at least as far as supermarkets go, it started earlier in the U.S. I can remember the first supermarkets in our neighborhood–they were small by modern standards–squeezing the small shops as early as the 1950s, and the suburbans malls and strip malls squeezing the downtown stores from the 1960s onward. When I left the U.S., eleven years ago, I knew enough people working in or running coffee shops to be aware of the pressure the chains put on the independents. And the bookstore chains just about killed independent bookstores before Amazon, in turn, caused a lot of them to collapse. (One of the chains would deliberately open a store near a successful independent.)

                With that said, when we left a fair number of small, informal restaurants, mostly ethnic (what a bizarre way to use that word, but it’s a useful shorthand) places, run by immigrants, had opened in our neighborhood, where the rent was fairly cheap.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I suppose the main thing is that when there’s an influx of immigrants, there’s more scope for new restaurants, shops, etc. It’s just a crying shame that eventually the chains, etc (and the wretched Amazon) push them out.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Good luck with that. Other half is addicted to the site and when I find myself on it (to buy him stuff in exchange for things he gets me… sort of alternative currency, here: a few packets of shortbread for a DVD) I find myself getting something else… which annoys me as I loathe the site…

                Liked by 1 person

              • They still exist. The Take Out (Away) is not so vast except in large cities and most Take Out double as a seated restaurant or cafe. We are after all the land of the “diner”
                ( ) although they were across the country most serving hearty breakfasts (American) and good greasy burgers.

                Liked by 2 people

              • It is not only American it is a fabricated brand name. The ice cream is okay but cannot compare to other American brands like Breyer’s and Blue Bell and of course the crazy Ben and Jerry ice cream.

                Liked by 2 people

      • well I love the Cornish cream here. My experience so far with that I get in the grocery is that it tends to be of the soft-serve variety rather than the heavier rock hard types we have.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, and I don’t think so. A flora dance (or furry dance) at this time of year, maybe, but I haven’t heard anything about mumming. Or mummering. Or, well, as you see, I can’t even manage to use the word right.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Now this was a very heavy think for me. I am not of a faith system, but I worked with the United Methodist Church here in the states for some years. It made me wonder, how close are the two forms of Methodism after this much time? Would they even recognize the same faith from different sides of the chapel, as it were? Sadly, I cannot inform you much. But I can marvel that you tackled such a weighty topic and did not topple and fall in the process. I have to wonder, what brought you to the subject beyond, perhaps, a raffle ticket fancy?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m tempted to say I won the topic in a raffle and had to do something with it, but really it’s that Methodism is such a strong influence in Cornwall, even though the chapels are emptying out as surely as the churches are, that I thought I should learn a bit about it myself. And why let the work go to waste? Although the immediate reason was learning that Methodists–at least strict ones–oppose raffles.

      Your question about how much the various strands of Methodism have diverged is an interesting one, but not one I can answer. I’d guess quite a bit, but that’s nothing more than a guess.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh My! I do enjoy your writing and this post is a delight. Having escaped from a long line of Southern Methodists (and Baptists) I find your explanation most interesting. Of course, the Methodists in the USA vary across the country and even across any given town especially with the affluence of the membership. O.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s amazing that any organized religions have survived at all. Any true Christian would question the authenticity of an organization which has shed so much blood in the name of someone who taught “to love your neighbor as yourself” and brotherhood. The Zealots rejected Jesus because they believe the Messiah would be an armed revolutionary.

    Liked by 1 person

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