Introduction: Research Areas

Religious Observance in Eighteenth Century Devon: Holy Communion

Canon 21 directed that Holy Communion should be celebrated at least three times a year.92 However, during the eighteenth century it was normal practice for most parishes to have at least four communions a year.93 The Reverend Boggis regarded such sporadic administration of the sacrament as further evidence of the slackness of the eighteenth century clergy.94 However, modern commentators have revised this view and suggested that the very fact that the Eucharist was celebrated so infrequently may simply have served to highlight its importance.95 In Devon, most churches had at least four yearly communions by 1744. By 1779 the health of the church in this regard is reflected by the fact that there were 41 (8.8%) churches with twelve or more celebrations of the Eucharist, 111 (23.8%) with five to eleven, 303 (65%) with four and only 11 (2.4%) with three.96 This is comparable with other areas of England. For example, in the diocese of Canterbury the eighteenth century witnessed a decline in the number of parishes with fewer than four celebrations a year, from 20.8% in 1716 to just 2.6% in 1806. The most common figure was four per year, as in 72% of parishes in 1758 and 67% in 1806.97 Similarly, in Wiltshire in 1783 73% of parishes had four or more celebrations.98

As with the frequency of divine service, the number of annual communions tended to be greater in urban areas than in rural parishes. In both 1744 and 1779 most Exeter parishes were reporting holding monthly communions, while in Plymouth both Charles and St Andrew's parishes had nine to ten celebrations a year in 1744, rising to monthly by 1779. Eighteen other Devon towns had estimated populations in excess of 1,000 by the mid-eighteenth century.99 Frequency of communion is stated for 15 of these in 1744, with just under half reporting 12 or more celebrations of the Eucharist. By 1779 inhabitants of nine urban parishes were being offered the opportunity to receive the sacrament on a monthly basis, with six still holding four celebrations or fewer.100 Even in a relatively small town such as North Tawton, with 220 families in 1779, regular monthly communions were being held towards the end of the century. This echoes the picture drawn in other areas of the country, where many small towns have been found to have celebrated the Eucharist considerably more frequently than the minimum requirement of three times a year.101

The numbers of communicants recorded in the visitation returns from Devon parishes were low throughout the eighteenth century, although numbers varied between parishes. The questionable accuracy of the figures provided and the general lack of precision of the returns make any detailed analysis difficult.102 In particular, clergy varied in how they interpreted the term 'communicant', some counting only those who actually attended communion and others including all those eligible to do so.103

The low number of communicants is reflected in the 1744 returns for Tavistock, where William Brown reported that there were usually between 60 and 70 who received the sacrament among the 900 or more families in the parish. In Crediton, the situation was slightly healthier. Despite the high numbers of Presbyterians among the 1,200 families residing in the town, there were usually around 300 who received the monthly sacrament, with as many as 5-600 at Easter. Occasionally there is evidence that the clergy were actively seeking to improve the situation. Richard Nichols, the Rector of Inwardleigh in 1744 had 200 eligible communicants in his parish of 60 families. About half of these usually received the sacrament during the year. While this number compares favourably with other parishes, Nichols was still far from impressed, informing his diocesan that:

some (for want of confirmation) think themselves too young, some have not cloaths enough and some have excuses, I tell them publickly & privately but all will not do.
Nichols' successor was evidently rather less diligent, reporting that just 30 were regular communicants by 1779.

The complaints of Richard Nichols touch upon a more general issue connected to the administration of the holy sacrament during the eighteenth century.[s1] The lower orders were frequently reluctant to attend communion, although this is not necessarily evidence of low commitment to the church. The ceremony was held in awe, and many believed that receiving the sacrament constituted a promise to repent past offences and commit no more. Failure to fulfil this promise could lead to eternal damnation.104 In 1741 Archbishop of Canterbury Secker commented that:

Some imagine that the sacrament belongs only to persons of advanced years, or great leisure, or high attainment in religion and it is a very dangerous thing for common people to venture on.105
In 1779 Owen Meyrick, rector of Holsworthy and curate of Hollacombe complained of the latter that, 'Communicants not above three or four - My most earnest and painful exhortations & explanations from time to time, have hitherto prov'd ineffectual to procure more'.106 A similar complaint was made in 1744 by William Keate, the verbose incumbent of Seaton and Beer, who recounted that there were 300 in the parish aged 16 or over who 'would be thought willing to be called members of our Church'. However, despite 'my earnest Endeavors to bring them to that Duty' he was seldom able to bring more than a quarter of them to communion, with fewer than 25 having received at Easter 1744.

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  1. Warne, Church and Society, 45. [back]
  2. Mather, 'Georgian Churchmanship Reconsidered', 271; Gregory, Restoration, Reformation, and Reform, 263. [back]
  3. Boggis, History of the Diocese of Exeter, 448. [back]
  4. Gregory, Restoration, Reformation, and Reform, 262. [back]
  5. Warne, 'Church and Society', 68. [back]
  6. Gregory, Restoration, Reformation, and Reform, 263. [back]
  7. Ransome, Witshire Returns, 6. [back]
  8. Based on Barry, 'Towns and Processes of Urbanization', 417. [back]
  9. The towns identified as containing over 1,000 inhabitants are: Tiverton, Barnstaple, Dartmouth, Brixham, Crediton, Tavistock, Totnes, Bideford, South Molton, Honiton, Ashburton, Cullompton, Topsham, Great Torrington, Ottery St Mary, Chudleigh, Colyton, Moretonhampstead and Bradninch. [back]
  10. Gregory, Restoration, Reformation and Reform, 262. [back]
  11. Warne, Church and Society, 45. [back]
  12. Warne, 'Church and Society', 69. [back]
  13. Spaeth, Church in an Age of Danger, 182-184. [back]
  14. Quoted in Spaeth, Church in an Age of Danger, 184. [back]
  15. Warne, Church and Society, 46. [back]