The Presbyterian Church in Devon
10 Feb 1999
Protestant non-conformist views have always tended to be strong in Devon, although until the mid C17 puritans in the county generally stayed within the established Church of England. During the Commonwealth, Presbyterianism became the official form of worship in the parish churches with Anglican clergy either conforming or being replaced by puritan ministers. However, with the Restoration of Charles II, the Anglican church was also restored and non-conformist puritan ministers were ejected from the parish churches.
Despite official persecution, some ejected ministers almost immediately set up their own congregations - there was strong local support in Exeter and Plymouth in particular. The first Presbyterian congregations in Devon therefore effectively date from 1662. Plymouth was also an important staging-point for non-conformists emigrating to the American colonies, who joined local congregations whilst waiting for a ship.
Nationally, the Presbyterians were the strongest non-conformist group in England in the early C18, with 637 congregations and some 180,000 members (3.3% of the population).
It has to be said that identifying a particular congregation as "Presbyterian" is not always certain. In Scotland, the Presbyterian church established a federal structure: each congregation appointed its own minister, who would meet with the other local ministers in district synods, which in turn would send delegates to the central governing body of the church. This system was not maintained in England after 1660, and individual congregations could use the term Presbyterian without necessarily being part of a national church with consistent theology and regulations. Presbyterians also had fairly close links with the Independents (Congregationalists), with whom they shared a common Calvinist theology, and the two churches came close to union in the 1690's; even after this failed, there was often a degree of local co-operation, and some Presbyterian congregations later became Independent.
During the C18, Presbyterianism was certainly in decline, perhaps losing members to other - more Evangelical - denominations such as the Baptists and later the Methodists. To add to the confusion, a substantial number of Presbyterian ministers and congregations went over to a Unitarian theology, though many still called themselves "Presbyterian" into the 19th C.
These factors led to the virtual demise of the English Presbyterian church. However, at the same time the Scottish Presbyterian church had been establishing a presence in England, particularly where there were immigrant Scots; most of the surviving (non-Unitarian) English Presbyterian congregations joined with these Scottish congregations in 1836, with other chapels joining in 1876 to form the "Presbyterian Church of England". This merged with the Congregational church in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church.
The religious census of 1851 identified 202 Unitarian congregations in England, nearly all the descendents of Presbyterian meetings, and 142 Presbyterian congregations, most of them founded by immigrant Scots; together these claimed 84,000 members, 0.5% of the population (at a time when roughly one-third of the population attended a non-conformist church, one-third the Church of England, and one-third no church at all).
In Devon, over 80 Presbyterian congregations were established in the 1660's and 70's, though more than half of these ceased within a few years, and others died out during the C18. Some became Independents, and several of the survivors became Unitarian. Only a handful continued as Presbyterian to 1837. Some examples, including the surviving Presbyterian congregations:
Ashburton: started as Presbyterian 1665, became Independent
Bideford: Presbyterian meeting broke away 1693, rejoined Independent meeting 1760
Bovey Tracey: founded as Presbyterian before 1715, closed 1760's, reopened as Baptist by 1773
Bow: Presbyterian meeting founded c.1700, but declined and members joined Crediton late C18.
Buckerell: Presbyterian meeting existed before 1672, ceased by 1772
Chudleigh: founded as Presbyterian 1662, lapsed 'for want of a minister' but revived 1710; became Independent late C18.
Colyton: founded as Presbyterian 1662, new Meeting House 1745, split over Unitarian issue in 1770's.
Crediton: founded as Presbyterian 1668, absorbed congregation from Bow; later became Unitarian.
Cullompton: founded before 1672, meeting house built 1695, continuous thereafter (baptism records from 1698)
Dartmouth: founded 1662, continuous thereafter (baptism records from 1726)
Exeter: Presbyterian meeting probably existed from 1656, but formally established 1687, functioned for a long period from 1688 as "United Dissenters" with Independents, with a joint burial ground from 1748. Later separated as Presbyterian. (Baptism records from 1687, burial from 1748)
Great Torrington: Howe Chapel licenced 1672, continuous thereafter.
Honiton: Presbyterian meeting founded 1662, split in 1771 on doctrinal grounds, the Presbyterian meeting ceasing by 1788; the seceding members became Independents (baptism records from 1697)
Kingsbridge: Presbyterian meeting founded before 1672, later became Independent; moved to new Ebenezer Chapel in 1793
Luppitt: Presbyterian meeting founded before 1672, but ceased by 1776, the few members left going to Honiton
Moretonhampstead: Cross Meeting established 1662, continuous thereafter (baptism records from 1672)
Ottery St Mary: Presbyterian meeting founded 1662, later became Independent.
Plymouth: Norley Street meeting founded 1662, became Unitarian before 1832 (baptism records from 1662, some early marriage and burial records)
Plymouth: Batter Street meeting founded as Presbyterian, but became Independent after 1762
Sidmouth: Presbyterian meeting founded 1662, Meeting House built 1710, became Unitarian in late C18
Tavistock: Abbey Chapel founded as Independent, but became Presbyterian by 1715 (baptism records from 1692)
Thorverton: Presbyterian meeting founded about 1715, but declined by 1800, and building sold to Baptists 1831
Topsham: Presbyterian meeting founded 1662, later became Unitarian Woodbury: Presbyterian meeting founded 1662, building 1689; later became Unitarian
NOTE: The information on specific Presbyterian meetings in Devon is derived from Hugh Peskett's "Guide to the Parochial and Non-parochial Registers of Devon and Cornwall". (D&CRS, 1979)