The 30th July 1743 saw a new face in St Just, a visitor whose arrival was the start of great changes for the people of the parish. The visitor hadn't come far, only from Morvah, where he had stayed the night before, and he didn't stay long, just a few hours before he left for Sennen where he lodged for the evening. Next morning he walked to Land's End before riding back to St Just and addressing a gathering estimated at 2000 people, said to be mostly tinners.
Charles Wesley's visit to St Just on 30th July 1743 was the first of over 30 visits made by the Wesley brothers to St Just over the course of the next 40 years. Their early visits saw arrests, the reading of the Riot Act, large scale disturbances and trouble with the gentry but they were also welcomed by huge numbers of ordinary people who found little relevance in the established church. The first chapel in St Just was in use within a few years and was replaced in 1755 by a larger new building which John Wesley thought to be “the largest and most commodious in the county.” By 1833 another new chapel had been erected and within 20 years a major rebuilding enlarged it to its present size which frequently saw congregations in excess of 1000 according the Ecclesiastical Census of 1851. By 1876 the St Just circuit, which also included Morvah, Sennen, St Levan, Sancreed, St Buryan and the new parish of Pendeen, had no less than 17 chapels with a total capacity running to over 4000 seats. It's also worth noting that the transcript of the same Ecclesiastical Census gives a figure of 78.5% for the number of men in the parish of St Just working in the mining industry.
Methodists were not the first dissenters seen in St Just. In 1738 William Borlase, absentee rector of St Just, wrote to George Allanson, the Archdeacon of Cornwall in the Diocese of Exeter, to complain that a Quaker was keeping a school in the town and that at least 12 parents were sending their children to the school. Borlase considered a Quaker to be “one highly improper to be entrusted with the education of youth” but he had found that whatever he said merely led to an increase in the number of scholars at the school. He wanted to know how he might “best contribute to suppress what I am afraid is a growing evil….”
There was clearly an unmet need in St Just and Charles Wesley recognised the desire. “Here it is” he wrote “that I expect the largest harvest”, and over the years he was not disappointed. As early as 1744 there were already more than 200 people enrolled in Methodist Society classes. The population of St Just in the mid 18th century is uncertain but Kalmeter quotes a figure of 550 men and boys engaged in tin mining in 1724. In 1744 the return from St Just to Bishop Clagett's Articles was that the parish was “so very populous…..it is impossible to know the exact number..” but we can estimate that it was about 2000. The 1801 census gives a total population for the parish of 2779. By 1851 the population, including Pendeen, had expanded to 8759, an increase of over 300% in 50 years. At this point in time the eight chapels of St Just parish were regularly attended by over 1800 people on a Sunday evening, a substantial harvest indeed. St Just, like many mining and industrial towns of the industrial revolution had expanded rapidly, with little provision made for the needs of the population. In 1744 John Wesley wrote that “those of St Just were the chief of the whole county for hurling, fighting, drinking, and all manner of wickedness but many of the lions have become lambs…….”
The Wesleys brought profound change to West Cornwall and in the short term, partly because of the temporal coincidence with the Jacobite Rebellion, Methodism was regarded as a dangerous threat to the established order. But social revolution was no part of the Wesley ambition. John Wesley remained a member of the Anglican Church throughout his life, despite being barred from preaching in parish churches on numerous occasions. The Wesley message was essentially one of personal salvation through grace which would transform the life of the believer but there was a recognition that this personal transformation required the support of a community, hence the significance of the Methodist Societies and of the revivals.
The gory symbolism and the focus and sin and pain can make Wesleyanism unpalatable to many today but the organisation which accompanied the sacrifice and sustained the reformed sinner helped create an environment of self-improvement which has a direct path to trade unionism and social reform. It's no surprise that the miners of Levant Mine, St Just, are said to have sung Methodist hymns while ascending on the man engine from the depths of the mine while at the same time being quite prepared to take industrial action to protect and improve their conditions of work.
Largely based upon The Rev. John Wesley's Ministerial Itineraries in Cornwall, John Wesley and R. Symons, Truro 1879 (available as a facsimile from Gyan Books) and
The Wesley's in Cornwall 1743-1789, Samuel Rogal, McFarland, 2015
The Ecclesiatical Census of 1851 has been transcribed by J.C.C. Probert and can be consulted in the Morrab Library.