The landscape of my grandparents’ and parents’ youth was dominated by reminders of John Wesley’s evangelical reshaping of Cornish culture in the mid-eighteenth century. Nearly every village had its own chapel, numbering over nine hundred in the county as a whole.
My grandmother grew up in the parish of Gwennap, within walking distance of Gwennap Pit, the big amphitheatre
where Wesley had preached to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands—an event deemed by Wesley, in his Journal to be, “the most magnificent spectacle which is to be seen on this side heaven.”
My parents both lived their entire lives within a short walk of the village of Knave-Go-By— a village which supposedly took its name from an incident during one of Wesley’s over thirty missionary visits when a woman had leaned from her cottage window and shouted, “Let the knave go by.” A similarly improbable story was attached to the large forked tree that stood at the foot of the village until it was felled by the hurricane of 1987, and which Wesley was reputed to have used as an impromptu pulpit.
The austere Methodist culture which permeated the lives of my grandparents’ generation in Cornwall had its own stable of writers who purveyed evangelical fiction deemed suitable for Sunday reading. Several local writers were able to develop successful careers producing “pulp Methodism” in the form of novels regarded as suitable for Sunday reading or as Sunday School prizes. The Hocking brothers, Silas and Joseph, and their sister Salome, published a steady stream of best-sellers during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Silas (1850-1935), author of the 1890 best-seller, Her Benny, was still widely read into the following century and was noted with regret by Arnold Bennett in 1901 as “the most popular of living novelists.” Bennett observed that Hocking was virtually unknown to more sophisticated readers because “of a calculated design on his part to meet the taste of the Methodist million. He is the Methodist million made vocal.”
Another local writer, who was, like Silas Hocking, an ordained Methodist minister, Mark Guy Pearse (1842-1930) produced numerous volumes of stories which sold widely in evangelical circles. Both the Hockings and Pearse had celebrity status in the region. Pearse, though based in London, frequently returned to Cornwall, where he was immensely popular as a visiting preacher. His name was sufficiently well-known that it was even sought after as an endorsement of the efficacy of patent medicines. His testimonial for Allcock’s Porous Plasters even echoes something of the preacher’s rhetorical style, assuring the public that the product is “a very breast-plate against Cold and Coughs.” Pearse’s most widely read novel was Daniel Quorm and his Religious Notions (1874-5) which features a hero who, like my grandfather, was the village shoemaker, and who, like John Bastion, functions as a community leader, a “Methodist ‘class leader,’ and the ‘society steward.’” Shoemaking in Pearse’s tale stands in as a metaphor for social virtue,
“As hard-headed as the rounded lapstone on which he hammered all day long, as sharp and quick as his shining awl, as obstinate in holding his own as his seasoned shoe leather; yet withal, Brother Dan’el had a heart so kind, so wise, so true, that like the hammer it only beat to do good, and like his awl and thread it was always trying to strengthen some poor soul that had got worn in the rough ways of life.”
The shoemaker hero is chiefly notable for his devotion to reading although “the stock is limited, and the reading is a slow process.” His persistence in devotional reading is emphasized throughout the text whose frontispiece shows him with an open book beside his lapstone as he hammers the sole of a shoe. Quorm’s reading diet, predictably, consists mainly of John Wesley’s writings sometimes “relieved by smaller volumes of Methodist biography.
The Methodism of their early lives was all-pervasive, but also riven by sectarian squabbles. Wesleyan Methodism had long been challenged by Bible Christians and Primitive Methodists, both of which boasted rival chapels in the community. Chapel affiliations were firm and specific. My father’s older brother’s military enlistment papers for 1915 record his religion as “Wesleyan” rather than the more generic “Methodist”. My mother’s most lasting memory of the chapel-run annual “tea-treats” was of the children from the Primitive Methodist chapel hissing verbal insults and abuse at the parading Wesleyans, which the latter returned in kind. In adulthood she developed an absolute resistance to chapel attendance. She had spent her childhood, she said, terrified by the text that her parents had hung on her bedroom wall, a sampler with the message,
She remembered as even more terrifying the periodic missions of the Band of Hope urging children to sign the temperance pledge at the fervent prayer meetings in which pledge signatories were singled out to reaffirm their promise of total abstention.
By the time she was born, in 1905, the Band of Hope had existed for well over half a century and had established over 28,000 individual chapters throughout Britain with over three and a half million child members. Its temperance message targeting working class children was particularly welcomed by Methodists and the movement became deeply integrated into Cornish Sunday Schools where Band of Hope meetings were combined with the annual tea treats where children in their best clothes paraded to a large open-air picnic accompanied by a brass band.
Despite the terrors engendered by the intermittent crusading missions of the Band of Hope with its ritual 52 point catechism urging children to “dread and avoid” alcohol and warning of “death in the cup” my mother evidently enjoyed some aspects of the Sunday School experience. Like all regular attenders, she received book prizes. She fondly recalled the content of several of these later in life. A particular favourite was John Ploughman’s Pictures and More of His Talk, awarded to her as a Sunday School prize, as the bookplate proclaims, at “Troon Wesleyan Sunday School, Good Friday, 1913”. One of a handful of childhood books she kept for the rest of her life, this was a collection of individually illustrated moral tales by C. H. Spurgeon, an immensely popular and prolific Baptist preacher of the late Victorian period. The tales in the John Ploughman books generally use agricultural matters as a springboard to launch advocacy of a thrifty, hard-working and God-fearing life. At times Spurgeon is so preoccupied with issues of animal husbandry and crop management that the sermonizing seems a hasty afterthought. For example “Scant Feeding of Man or Horse is Small Profit and Sure Loss,” with its accompanying illustration of a famished-looking farm labourer and his bony horse, devotes four pages to expostulating on the wisdom of providing well for farm animals and workers, quoting at length from Thomas Tusser’s sixteenth century manual on good husbandry, before concluding with a couple of paragraphs advocating temperance for workers and urging that labourers with “close-fisted” masters should comfort themselves with the thought that “God is open-handed, and if the outward food be scant, the bread of heaven is plentiful.” It seems likely that my mother and other child readers of Spurgeon’s tales would have been charmed by the homespun advice and accompanying illustrations: “A looking glass is of no use to a blind man,” “A horse which carries its halter is soon caught,” “Where the plough shall fail to go, there the weeds will surely grow,” and so on, while ignoring Spurgeon’s tortuous twisting of these aphorisms into admonitions to piety. Spurgeon’s book was probably partly responsible for engendering the love of aphoristic sayings that continued to chequer her speech all her life. Some of these, especially those denouncing extravagance, could have been plucked directly from Spurgeon’s own pages. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” or the slightly more analytical, “Penny-wise and pound foolish,” were among several on this theme. Others had a somewhat more analytical tilt. “You have to live twice to know how to live once” was her most frequent response to minor domestic challenges.
My mother’s determined non-attendance of religious services does not seem to have been coupled with serious theological doubts. She was given to quoting Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem” –“Write me as one that loves his fellow men,” with its implied humanism conveniently combined with Christian notions of heaven. The language of Wesleyan Methodism was ingrained in her consciousness even though she adamantly rejected chapel attendance. We were frequently admonished with her own slightly abbreviated version of John Wesley’s “Rule”—“Do all the good you can . . .In all the ways you can . . .To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
Methodism shaped not only what my parents and grandparents read, but also how they read. My grandparents had grown up in households that forbade secular reading on Sundays as part of comprehensive Sabbatarian restrictions. My mother had shed these constraints in early adulthood, but my father continued to maintain the Sabbath limitations of his boyhood. The sketching or gardening had to be left untouched on Sundays. Sometimes he would spend half an hour studying a painting in progress, but would leave the brushes untouched and the colours unmixed. He would wander around the garden observing, but not pulling, weeds, and assessing which shrubs would, on another day, be pruned. Added to this list was a taboo on bill-paying, rationalized on the basis that a cheque dated on Sunday would be legally invalid—a widely-held, but erroneous belief. Circumventing this by dating the cheque for the previous or next day would have seemed mendacious to him, so cheques remained unwritten. The most painful taboos involved music and reading. The piano remained unopened and whatever novel by Scott or Trollope was current would stay firmly shut until the next day.
Although my father never enforced Sabbatarian constraints on his own children’s reading, he evidently felt obliged to provide us with religious reading material. Apparently many parents of that time shared the same impulse. At least seven different abridged editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress were published during the 1950s and advertised for their suitability for child readers. The one my father chose was one of the most extensively illustrated versions, edited by Ralph Kirby, a Methodist minister who had already produced a similarly formatted illustrated Bible for children. Despite the Reverend Kirby’s efforts, we read his adaptation of Bunyan, not as an allegory of Christian salvation, but as a simple adventure story. Apollyon seemed pretty much equivalent to the various giants of familiar fairy tales, an impression which was only strengthened by his fishy scales, dragon wings and fiery breath. We took the allegorical names, Faithful, Ignorance, Mr Worldly-Wiseman, and the rest as simple indicators of character, and Christian’s burden seemed no more than an awkwardly heavy backpack. This made the illustration of Christian’s burden falling from his back and rolling away when he kneels at the foot of the Cross vaguely disquieting, suggesting an unfortunate loss rather than liberation.
No doubt it pleased my father that E.R. Appleton’s Outline of Religion for Children (1933) was, for many months, in my ninth or tenth year my preferred bedtime reading. I was, I recall, particularly taken with the accounts of pre-Christian and non-Christian belief systems—a preference that would probably have pleased him rather less. In fact, my recollection of the book in adulthood was that it had been largely comprised of interesting accounts of non-Christian beliefs described in an even-handed manner. But when I recently examined the book itself I was startled to find that nearly every page devoted to non-Christian beliefs is full of dismissive and derogatory pronouncements. “Why did Islam spread so rapidly?” asks Appleton rhetorically, then provides the following answer: “ . . .the teaching of Mohammed was easy to understand and it gave the Arabs something definite to do. There was nothing profound about it.”
Elsewhere Appleton opines, “ We know that no race can be happy, or even survive, unless it puts into practice the teaching of the Christian Gospel.” Not only did the constant slagging of other faiths pass me by, but I remembered Appleton’s book as being predominantly about other-than-Christian faiths with only a small postscript about the New Testament. In fact Christian material accounts for over 500 of the book’s 787 pages. A reminder that the afterlives of books are shaped by memory’s relentless editing.