Introduction: Research Areas

Religious Observance in Eighteenth Century Devon: Divine Service

Visitation returns contain a wealth of information from which to base an assessment of the condition of the Church of England during the eighteenth century. Historians of a number of dioceses have analysed the frequency of divine service as an important measure of the diligence of the eighteenth century clergy. Under the Canons of 1604 the clergy were required to hold two services in their parish church on a Sunday. They were also generally expected to preach a sermon on at least one of these occasions.83 How far this expectation was achieved in practice varied from one part of the country to another. In the mid-1740s only 28% of the clergy in Lincolnshire were fulfilling the requirement for double duty on a Sunday. In Staffordshire in 1772 the figure was 68%, in Oxfordshire in 1783 67% of parishes had services twice on a Sunday, and in the Archdeaconry of Derby 83.3% achieved the benchmark in 1751.84 In the diocese of Canterbury figures varied throughout the century from 30.3% in 1716, to 43.4% in 1758 and 35.0% in 1806.85 Frequency of divine service also varied between different types of parishes, particularly between town and country. Churches in market towns or other parishes with over 1,000 inhabitants usually held two services on a Sunday, whilst rural parishes were more likely to have only a single service.86

The proportion of Devon parishes with two services performed on a Sunday compares favourably with other areas that have been studied.87 In 1744, at least 301 (70.2%) parishes had two services on a Sunday and only 73 (17%) were served once. A handful of returns (20, 4.7%) record a lower frequency than this, although in most cases provision was made in an adjoining parish.88 The remaining 35 returns do not explicitly state whether services were held once or twice a day. The overall picture in 1779 is broadly similar to that from 35 years earlier. Two hundred and ninety six parishes (68.8%) had two services for all or most of the year, with 110 (25.6%) reporting at least one service on a Sunday. Fewer incumbents were reporting conducting services less than once a week, with the number falling to just 12 (2.8%). The frequency of divine service is unclear or not stated on 12 of the returns. These figures suggest that the Devon clergy were relatively diligent in making provision for divine worship in their parishes.

In places where only one service was conducted on a Sunday, this cannot usually be attributed to clerical negligence. The parishes of Devon varied widely in their size and population, and it was often in poorly endowed small livings where the provision of service fell below the canonical requirements. John Freke, the Rector of Clannaborough in 1744, conducted services every other Sunday. This apparent neglect is explained by the fact that the parish contained just eight families, two of which were Presbyterians. Thus the numbers attending the parish church were sometimes as low as six or seven, besides Freke's own family. However, by 1779 John's successor Richard Freke had increased the number of services to once a week, in spite of the continued low population. Some of the churches in which services were conducted less than twice a week were chapelries tied to a mother church with more frequent provision. Thus, Revelstoke had only one service a month in 1744, and one every three weeks in 1779. However, the mother church of Yealmpton was served twice every Sunday, except on those days when a service was held at Revelstoke. Similarly, in 1744 the parish church of Marystowe was served once in the morning with a service in the afternoon at the chapelry of Thrushelton. By 1779 there were two services on the first Sunday of the month at Marystowe and none at Thrushelton. For the rest of the month a service was held in the morning at Marystowe, and in the afternoon at Thrushelton.

Taking the number of weekly services as a measure of religious observance within a given parish also overlooks the fact that eighteenth century Devonians did not necessarily restrict attendance to their own church. In 1744 Stowford, a parish containing 42 families, regularly had two services on a Sunday. However, in 1779 this was reduced to one with the incumbent noting that 'The quarter part of the Inhabitants being situated much nearer to Lyfton have for many years resorted to that Church in the afternoon'. In the early eighteenth century John Bound of Sheepwash was attending services in his own parish church, at Black Torrington, Hatherleigh, and Highhampton as well as his regular attendance at the Hatherleigh Presbyterian meeting.89 Other factors could prohibit the regular provision of two services on a Sunday. The united parishes of Lynton and Countisbury were served by the same perpetual curate. In 1744 they were held by Thomas Steed who resided on his living at Barnstaple, employing Edward Nicholas as his curate at Lynton and Countisbury. The returns for both parishes state that it was impractical to hold services more than once a day on account of the treacherous state of the roads that made the journey between the two churches impossible more than once a day.

The performance of divine service on days other than Sunday was in decline by the mid-eighteenth century, particularly in rural areas. In the deanery of Holsworthy only Holsworthy itself had regular Wednesday and Friday services in 1744, with five other parishes occasionally holding services on Holy Days.90 In this respect Devon fitted in with a wider national picture wherein only larger urban parishes tended to offer regular weekday services.91 For example, Wednesday and Friday services were still being held in Crediton in 1779, while at St George's church in Tiverton a service was held every day. In 1744 most parishes in the city of Exeter held regular weekday services, on varying days of the week. Only five city parishes were still reporting weekday services in 1779: Holy Trinity, St Edmund, St Mary Steps, St Mary Arches and St Mary Major. However, this apparent decline may also be attributable to a slight change in the wording of the question being asked. In 1744 it was specifically asked 'On what Days is Divine Service perform’d in your Church?', whereas by 1779 this had become 'How often is Divine Service performed in your Church? If not twice on the Lord's Day, with a Sermon in the Morning, for what Reason?' leaving more scope for interpretation as to whether the clergy commented upon services other than those on Sunday. The usual explanation offered in rural parishes for the lack of services on weekdays or Holy Days was the lack of a congregation. For example, in 1744 the incumbents of Hennock and Huxham reported holding services on Holy Days when they could get a congregation.

Continue to next section|Return to previous

  1. Beckett et al, Visitation Returns from the Archdeaconry of Derby, xxiii; Mary Ransome (ed.), Witshire Returns to the Bishop's Visitation Queries 1783, Wiltshire Record Society, vol. xxvii (Devizes, 1972), 5. [back]
  2. F.C. Mather, 'Georgian Churchmanship Reconsidered: Some Variations in Anglican Public Worship 1714-1830', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 36 (1985), 267; Beckett et al, Visitation Returns from the Archdeaconry of Derby, xxiii. [back]
  3. Gregory, Restoration, Reformation, and Reform, 263. [back]
  4. Mather, 'Georgian Churchmanshire Reconsidered', 266. [back]
  5. The figures presented here are intended to provide an overall impression of the frequency of divine service on Sundays in Devon. In particular, some parishes had two services on a Sunday for only part of the year, with this reduced to one during the winter. Parishes where services were conducted twice on a Sunday for the majority of the year have been included with those that had double duty all year round. Those with two services twice a day for only half the year or less are counted with those with single duty. [back]
  6. This was the case for several Exeter parishes. For example, the inhabitants of All Hallows on the Walls were expected to attend services at St John, Exeter, their own church having been demolished (1744 returns). [back]
  7. Dixon, 'Drunkenness and Devotion' (forthcoming). [back]
  8. Warne, Church and Society, 43-44. Arthur Warne, 'Church and Society in Eighteenth Century Devon' (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 1963), 66. [back]
  9. Mather, 'Georgian Churchmanship Reconsidered', 275-277. [back]