The earliest surviving visitation questionnaires for the diocese of Exeter are the 1744-45 replies to queries circulated by Nicholas Clagett (see Appendix 1). Given that the preceding visitation to that of Clagett was begun by Stephen Weston some eighteen years previously, it is likely that this was the first occasion on which the clergy of Devon and Cornwall were expected to furnish their diocesan with information about their parish in this form. In preparing his queries, Clagett drew heavily on the questions circulated by Wake and Gibson in the diocese of Lincoln. He issued a total of 31 questions divided into groups numbered from one to eleven. Nine of the eleven sets of questions either reproduced or slightly reworked those asked by William Wake prior to his visitation at Lincoln in 1712.27 These dealt with the population of the parish and the strength of nonconformity, the provision of education and charitable relief, whether the incumbent resided upon his cure and whether he employed a Curate, the frequency of divine service, communion and the catechism of children and servants, and the number of communicants. An enquiry asking whether the respondent performed divine service at any church besides his own had no equivalent in Wake's enquiries, nor did the final questions concerning the presence of chapels in the parish.
The omission of three groups of questions from Wake's 1712 questionnaire is worth noting. Number VII from Wake enquired about the number of parishioners who had not been baptised or confirmed, and significantly requested a 'particular account and list of them'. Wake also asked a series of more detailed questions concerning the administration of the sacrament, including whether it had been refused to anyone and 'how has the Person so refused, behav’d himself since that Time'. Finally, he asked about public penances performed in the church since his last visitation:
Do you know of any Commutations of penance made by any of your Parish within the same Time? By whom was it done? For what Money? How has that Money been imploy’d?28Whilst the queries omitted by Clagett from Wake's 1712 questionnaire deal with general issues concerning the administration of the sacrament and the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline, they also requested specific information about the behaviour of individual parishioners. A principal innovation of the questionnaires sent to the clergy during the eighteenth century was that they were concerned more with general issues of pastoral concern and less with specific breaches of church law.29 This development in the visitation process is reflected in the differences between Clagett's 1744 questionnaire and that circulated by Wake in 1712, with the omission of those enquiries that requested specific information regarding violations of ecclesiastical discipline. Clagett also opted to omit a common feature of visitation enquiries, namely the invitation to the clergy to furnish him with any additional information that they might deem appropriate to share with him.30 The survey was concluded with a request that the respondent provide the dates of his institution or collation to his living, and of his ordination to the priesthood.
As well as moving away from a focus on the behaviour of individual members of the laity, Clagett was at pains to stress to his clergy that the purpose of his survey was to obtain 'a proper Knowledge of the present State of my Diocese', and that he was not seeking to collect information that could be used against individual members of the clergy.31 In his prefatory letter he acknowledged that such information was reliant upon 'the Assistance of my Reverend Brethren' in answering the questions set out on the printed form. He continued to stress that,
... because it is possible that some Man's Answer in this Matter may be construed an Accusation of himself, I promise that no such Answer shall be used as Evidence against any Person subscribing.32As has already been noted, Clagett was the first bishop of Exeter to conduct this type of exercise at his visitation. Thus, with the exception of those clergy who had previously held benefices in a different diocese, or who held them jointly with their living in Devon and Cornwall, this would have been the first time that they had encountered this type of enterprise. Clagett was a seasoned cleric who had conducted regular visitations in his previous diocese of St David's, and his insistence on the private nature of the clergy's communication with him may have stemmed from previous experience.33 Moreover, his prefatory letter emphasised that the replies from the clergy did not form part of the normal administrative business of the diocese.34
Once instituted by Clagett, the issuing of pre-visitation questionnaires by the bishops of Exeter became a regular practice. No evidence survives as to whether his successor, George Lavington, circulated queries in advance of his primary visitation, but on subsequent occasions he issued an identical set of enquiries to those introduced by Clagett.35 The formula initiated in Exeter by Clagett was also employed outside of the diocese. When John Ewer conducted his primary visitation at Llandaff in 1763 the questions asked were identical to those circulated in Exeter during the 1740s and 50s.36 Following the death of Lavington and the appointment of Frederick Keppel to the see of Exeter in 1762 the form of queries addressed to the Devon and Cornwall clergy was revised. The new wording reflects the development of the visitation procedure during the eighteenth century. As a newly instituted process became established practice so the information sought became standardised and the manner in which it was requested less cautious. By the time Bishop Keppel began his primary visitation the prefatory epistle preceding the questions had become a simple request that the clergy answer the questions 'plainly and distinctly' and return them directly to Keppel in London or to the registry at Exeter by 25 March 1764. The information requested from the clergy in the diocese would then remain the same for the remainder of the eighteenth century, including the 1779 primary visitation of John Ross, the replies of which form part of the online transcripts.37
The questions asked from 1764 onwards sought much the same information as the 1744 survey, with a few amendments and additional queries (see Appendix 2). Most notable is the change in the layout of the printed forms which seems to have been designed to encourage brevity on the part of the clergy. Whilst earlier questionnaires presented questions under 11 headings spread over four pages, from 1764 onwards the questions were divided into 13 spread across three pages. The result of this was that the amount of space available for incumbents to make their returns was substantially reduced to the point that some found it difficult to provide full answers within the space provided (see Figure 1). The new format began by asking a series of questions regarding the residence of the incumbent upon his cure and in his parsonage house, and about the employment of a curate. The most significant addition to the earlier formula was a specific question asking whether the respondent held more than one benefice. There followed a series of questions concerning the provision of divine service, the administration of the sacrament, and the catechism of the youth of the parish. Greater concern was shown for the fabric of the church and parish property, with queries VII and VIII enquiring whether the church and chancel were in good repair, and if there was a terrier of the glebe lands. The number of families residing continued to be a matter of interest, as did the existence of a chapel, and the provision of education and charitable relief. Information concerning the number of Roman Catholics and protestant nonconformists continued to be sought. However, crucially for the historian of dissent, the wording differed slightly from previous versions, asking only for the number of dissenting congregations and not the number of nonconformist families. Finally, Keppel and his successors concluded by requesting a statement of dates of priest's orders and institution or collation to their living. The transcripts of the 1779 returns also reflect a request in the prefatory letter asking respondents to state the postal address at which they might most easily be contacted.