Writing shortly after the First World War, the Rev. R.J.E. Boggis described the condition of the Church of England in eighteenth century Devon and Cornwall as 'sad and depressing'. He outlined a series of shortcomings that combined to 'lower the standard of her efficiency, to lessen her work and influence, and to degrade her in public opinion'. The clergy were criticised for their 'slackness, their neglect of duty, and their servility', and the bishops of the period seen as 'but lightly esteemed, as being lovers of ease and seeming more ornamental than useful'.38 These comments follow Victorian criticisms of the Hanoverian Church wherein images of secular-minded bishops and foxhunting parsons loomed large.39 The eighteenth century Church is no longer viewed in such a negative light. A picture has developed of a church hierarchy and clergy committed to fulfilling their pastoral duties. The bishops of Exeter strove, 'with diligence, and not without a good measure of success, to discharge the spiritual administration of their office'.40 Whilst the clergy inevitably varied in the exercise of their duties, good levels of pastoral care were not unusual.41 Recent research on a number of other English counties has continued to rehabilitate the reputation of the Hanoverian Church. While historians vary in their assessments of the level of the achievements of the eighteenth century Church, even the less enthusiastic are inclined to rescue it from the most damning accusations of earlier generations.42
In the course of restoring the reputation of the Georgian Church, historians have found much evidence to support their arguments within the wealth of replies to visitation queries that survive in local record offices around the country.43 Many of these have now been published by local record societies. Before discussing what the 1744 and 1779 visitation replies can tell us about religion and society in eighteenth century Devon, some initial comments can be made about the nature of the returns as historical source material. As has been discussed, the queries addressed to the clergy in the diocese of Exeter related to general issues pertaining to the condition of the Church in the parishes and not to specific individuals. Therefore, persons named in the returns tend to be restricted to the incumbent and (where appropriate) his curate. Occasional references are also made to local men and women who left charitable bequests to the parish. A second general observation concerns the conditions under which the returns were made. It has been noted that the first bishops to address questionnaires to the clergy were at pains to stress that any information provided would not be prejudicial against the incumbent making the return. However, in spite of this impetous for the respondents to be candid in their replies, the clergy were understandably inclined to present their own activities in a positive light.
In parishes where there were underlying tensions between the incumbent and his congregation, this would be unlikely to be commented upon in the reply to a visitation questionnaire. For example, Thomas Swindale's replies for Parkham in 1779 record that he resided in his parsonage house, performed divine service twice on a Sunday with a sermon in the morning, administered the sacrament eight times a year, and regularly catechised the children in the summertime. No reference is made to complaints the previous year from a local gentleman named Mr Davie of Swindale's 'shameful and scandalous neglect' of the parish and having left it 'totally unprovided for near five months'.44 For his part, Swindale responded to the accusations in a letter addressed from Manchester requesting the opportunity to defend himself before the bishop.45 Similarly, the returns for the parish of Chagford make no reference to apparent ongoing controversies surrounding the behaviour of the local clergy. Taking the visitation returns at face value the parish was well served by successive members of the Hayter family, Joshua and John. In 1764 Joshua Hayter informed Bishop Keppel that he performed divine service twice on a Sunday, with sermons both parts of the day between Easter and October. He administered the sacrament six times a year, and catechised the youth between Christmas and Easter. Both Joshua and John resided in the parish and held no other living.46 However, both men were subject to complaints against their conduct during the second half of the eighteenth century. A series of allegations were made against Joshua between 1757 and 1764 for fathering an illegitimate child, drunkenness, swearing, and abusing members of the congregation. In 1783 John Hayter was also subject to complaint from his parishioners for brawling in the parish church.47
The contrast between the tensions identified within the parishes of Chagford and Parkham and the picture provided by the clergy's replies to bishop's queries draws into focus what the visitation returns can tell us about the religious life of the eighteenth century. The cases of local conflict noted here are known because they reached the ecclesiastical courts, or were communicated to the church hierarchy by members of the laity. Other parochial difficulties may have arisen that have not left any written record because they were resolved informally within the parish. In the visitation replies information was being requested by the bishop and not volunteered by the clergy. Thus they do not necessarily provide a comprehensive picture of the religious life of the parish. They have little to tell us about the attitudes of the laity towards religion or the extent to which they approved of the conduct of their minister. As discussed in the following sections, such evidence occasionally arises in the complaint of a clergyman of the failure of his parishioners to attend communion or send their children and servants to be catechised. However, to a large extent the responses to the questions were confined to providing the specific information requested by the bishops. For example, in answering questions about the provision of education the clergy mostly limited themselves to commenting on those types of school alluded to in the question, failing to mention those that were neither public nor free, or those regarded as unworthy of notice.48 When, after 1764, the questionnaires ceased to ask specifically after the numbers of nonconformists residing in a parish, the clergy felt under no obligation to provide the information.
The final general point to note on the replies is that whilst the questions asked were of a standard form, the responses vary widely in the level of detail provided. Some clergy simply provided the minimum amount of information requested. Others took the opportunity to get other issues off their chest or to attempt to ingratiate themselves with their diocesan. Notable in this last respect was the Reverend John Corpe, Vicar of Seaton and Beer in 1779. His answers were both exceptionally full and highly obsequious. Asked whether he resided upon his vicarage house he reported that he had done so for almost three years until 'Self preservation drove Me and my Family from the lugentes Campi or inhospitable Vale of Seaton'.49 Reporting that there were no Roman Catholics residing in the parish, he commented 'O' that the most inveterate Enemy of Evangelical Truth & Liberty was most strictly watched & cautiously attended to throughout every diocese in this Protestant Kingdom'. On the reverse of the printed questionnaire he added a paragraph of florid Latin, concluding with the sycophantic address, 'With you as my leader, with you as my protector, I shall never lose hope'. In his extremely detailed reply from 1744 the vicar of Dunsford, Thomas Byrdall, was not content to simply state the number of dissenters residing in his parish. In addition, he named the one nonconformist family as that of Thomas Gray, 'who a few years since came from Moreton-Hampstead' before writing at great length on the religious attendance of each member of the Gray family. Other incumbents were rather more terse in their responses, providing little more than the bare minimum information requested and giving just one or two word answers to most questions.50