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.