Cornwall:- Church History

The established church in Cornwall is that of the Church of England, which is also called Anglican. For most historical purposes all baptisms, marriages and burials occurred in the Anglican parish churches. From the 17th century, Jews and Quakers were the only other sects permitted to be independant. In the early 19th century, Non-Conformists were gradually permitted to handle these affairs. About the same time, civil registration was also permitted.
  • Anglican. The Truro Anglican Diocese was formed in 1876; before that time, Cornwall was part of the Diocese of Exeter. Information about the modern Truro Anglican Diocese is available.
    • Ecclesiastical Administration. The ecclesiastical heirarchy of the Anglican church, with qualification relating to Cornwall, is as follows:
      • Diocese. The district under the jurisdiction of a Bishop. Cornwall was, for much of its time, under the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Exeter. In 1876, the Diocease of Truro was created. The Diocese covers the whole of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and two little parishes in Devon on the other side of the river Tamar. In addition to the Bishop of Truro, there is also a Suffragan Bishop of St Germans within the Truro Diocese.
      • Archdeaconry. An archdeaconry is the office or jurisdiction of an archdeacon and forms part of a diocese. Historically, there was always an Archdeacon of Cornwall when the county was in the See of Exeter; he is now in the See of Truro. There is also an Archdeacon of Bodmin, also within the Truro Diocese.
      • Deanery. The district under the jurisdiction of a Dean. There are 13 Deaneries in the Truro Diocese: Penwith, Kerrier, West Wivelshire, Isles of Scilly, Powder, Stratton, Carnmarth South, Trigg Minor & Bodmin, Trigg Major, East Wivelshire, Pydar, St Austell and Carnmarth North.
      • Parish. There are two types of parishes:
        • An ecclesiastical parish. The district under the jurisdiction of a priest (incumbant). The GENUKI parish pages, including those for Cornwall, are all of this type of parish. The parishes were very stable for a good 300 years before 1832. Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) were established in 1931, to assist in the day-to-day running of church business; before that the appointment of incumbants was dependant on Patronage.
        • A civil parish. The smallest unit of local government. These only came into being after 1832. All the GENUKI parish pages relate to the situation before this date, and so do not include civil parishes as such. However modern statistical information (such as population figures), referred to on these GENUKI pages, invariably comes from civil parish data.
      • Peculiar. A Peculiar is a parish or church which is exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop in whose diocese it is located. There were several peculiars in Cornwall.
      • Chapelry. Literally, a Chapelry is the bounds or jurisdiction of a chapel. A parish may contain one or more chapelries, each of which may or may not have a licence to conduct Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. If the chapel did not have licence, then these ceremonies would be conducted at the parish church. Sometimes these are referred to as chapels-of-ease, since they were sited to help those who lived a long way from the parish church.
    • Parish Definition. The population of Cornwall originally lived in church parishes which were centred on the parish church. These ecclesiastical parishes were used both for administrative and well as religious purposes. In the first half of the 19th century, civil parishes were introduced as a unit of local government and many of the functions of church courts were taken over by the state. The ecclesiastical parishes still continue but purely for church organisational purposes. The civil parishes now have quite different boundaries and are controlled through the modern District Councils.
  • Non-Conformists. Non-Conformist traditions in Cornwall include: Independents, later known as Congregationalists (and now part of the United Reformed Church), Baptists, churches of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, and, in the twentieth century, Independent Methodists and Free Methodists (not normally having any link with older Methodist branches using these titles).
    • Methodism - General. The various branches of Methodism were slow to see themselves as Non-Conformists, and some Methodists are still uneasy with the epithet. The term Free Churches is better received in Methodism.
      Eighteenth century Methodism used just that name, but with the emergence of separated branches the mainstream movement began to call itself Wesleyan. The Methodist New Connexion emerged in 1797, but did not appear in Cornwall until 1834. Primitive Methodism began in 1811, and arrived at Redruth via a dissident Bible Christian in 1825. The Bible Christians were formed in 1815. The Protestant Methodists of 1827 were at Breage by 1830. In 1835 the Wesleyan Methodist Association separated from the Wesleyans, and soon appeared in Cornwall. They merged with the Protestant Methodists in 1836. The Wesleyan Reformers began in 1849, but were not immediately present in Cornwall. They merged with the Association in 1857 to form the United Methodist Free Churches, although a rump declined to do so and formed the Wesleyan Reform Union. In 1907 the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Free Churches united into the United Methodist Church (modern American Methodism has reused this title). Finally in 1932 the Wesleyans, the Primitive Methodists and the United Methodist Church formed the modern Methodist Church. Please note:
      • There was a Religious Census taken in 1851. Circuits evolved and developed, and 1851 lists are by no means final, nor are the lists given necessarily accurate. The Circuits current in any year may be found, with the ministers appointed to each one, in the annual Minutes of Conference of the relevant branch. Along the Devon border there were Cornish chapels in Devon Circuits; in 1851 there were Cornish Wesleyan Chapels still in the Holsworthy Circuit, in the Tavistock Circuit (before the Gunnislake Circuit was split-off), and the chapels of the Torpoint-Rame area were in the Devonport Circuit.
        In the case of the Wesleyan Reformers and the Wesleyan Reform Union the history given above needs to be clearly understood. The early narratives of the Wesleyan Reformers are not clear. The names of the Methodist Circuits which covered Cornwall in the 1851 Census are as follows:
        • The Wesleyan Methodist Circuits were: St Agnes, St Austell, Bodmin, Callington, Camborne, Camelford, St Columb, Gwennap, Falmouth, Hayle, Helston, St Ives, St Just, Kilkhampton, Launceston, Liskeard, Marazion, St Mawes, Penzance, Redruth, Isles of Scilly, Truro.
        • The Bible Christian Methodist Circuits were: St Austell, St Columb, Breage, St Ervan, Gwennap, Helston, Kilkhampton, Launceston, Liskeard, Looe, Luxillian (Luxulyan), Mevagissey, Michaelstow, Penzance, Porthleven, Redruth & Camborne, Isles of Scilly, Truro, Week St.Mary. (Callington was formed in 1851 but after the Census).
        • The Primitive Methodist Circuits were: St Austell, Falmouth, St Ives, Redruth.
        • Wesleyan Reformers Circuits were: St Austell, St Just, Liskeard, Truro. (Note: These may not have come into existence until after the 1851 Census).
        • The Wesleyan Methodist Association Circuits were: Camelford, Wadebridge & Bodmin, Helston, Launceston & Stratton; Penzance, Redruth.
        • The Methodist New Connexion Circuits were: St Ives, Truro.
        • The Wesleyan Reform Union Methodist Circuits (not formed until 1859) but were: St Just, Liskeard. (Liskeard merged with the Methodist Circuit in 1959)
        Those chapels that were called 'Independent' are actually Congregationalist and therefore not Methodist.
      • Nonconformist database on the Cornwall Opc site - The available records are listed alphabetically by Circuit & Denomination on this page. Some Circuits covered several Parishes of residence.

    • Bible Christians. The Bible Christians (BC) were an off-shoot of Methodism founded by William O'Bryan in 1815. The movement's origins were in the Week St.Mary, Shebbear area in mid-Devon, but very soon BC chapels began to emerge all over Cornwall and North Devon. Their growth was mainly due to the evangelical passion as expressed in an earlier generation by the original Wesleyans. One of their most famous members was Billy Bray, an alcoholic miner who experienced a dramatic conversion and went on to be a famous local preacher within the Duchy.
      The movement stretched along the south coast of England and into London, to the Channel Islands, through Somerset and south Gloucestershire into the Forest of Dean and south Wales as far west as Swansea. At the end of nineteenth century there were also missions in Birmingham, Bolton, Blackburn, Cumbria, Bradford (Yorks.), the Cleveland Hills of north Yorkshire, and Co.Durham. There had also been brief missions in Huntingdonshire, Chesterfield, Northumberland and Ayrshire in Scotland. Many, but not all, had followed Cornish and Devon migrants. Overseas missions followed migrants to Canada and the USA, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New Zealand, and a mission opened for one year in South Africa. At the end of the nineteenth century genuine foreign missionary work began in China.
      In 1907, the Bible Christians became part of the United Methodist Church; which in turn joined with Wesleyan Methodism and the Primitive Methodists in 1932 to form the Methodist Church as it is now.
      The standard reference work on the Bible Christians is:
      • Thomas Shaw (1965) The Bible Christians 1815-1907 London: Epworth Press.
      • Not superseding it, but complementary, is: Michael Wickes (1987) The Westcountry Preachers Hartland: private.
      • The life of William O'Bryan, the movements founder, is in: Thomas Shaw & Colin C.Short (2007) Feet of Clay Porthleven: private.
      There are older histories and biographies.

    When one is searching for Non-Conformist baptisms it is imperative to know which denomination was active in the area of search. The book published by the Cornwall Record Office: Sources for Cornish Family History (ISBN 0 9023 19922), gives a good summary of the various denominations which were active in Cornwall, plus maps which indicate the areas that were covered by each Circuit.
    The Sources book, however, does not give a listing of the individual Non-Established Churches, chapels or meeting houses, that were in existence. The earliest consolidated information list for Cornwall is contained in the 1851 Record of Establishments Licensed for Worship, which was compiled at the same time as the census. These records have filmed by the Public Record Office as Ecclesiastical Returns reference: HO 129, a copy of which is held at Cornwall Record Office under reference: FS/2/93-95.

    Paul Brewer and Gillian Thompson have compiled a list of some 800 Non-Conformist chapels that existed in Cornwall in 1851; GENUKI acknowledges their work which has been included into the GENUKI Church Database.
  • Quakers. The Quaker FHS provides details of available Cornwall Quaker records.
  • Plymouth Roman Catholic Diocese. Roman Catholic Churches in Cornwall are described and listed.

Present Day Churches in Cornwall. Many past churches in Cornwall, especially those built by Non-Conformists, have closed. There is a facility to find churches still extant in Cornwall. All churches remaining in Cornwall are reputed to be listed here.

Liturgical Calendar. A calendar of moveable and fixed feasts is available on-line.