While the use of visitation questionnaires was an eighteenth century innovation, there was nothing new about the collection of information concerning the strength of religious nonconformity. In 1676 the Compton Census had been designed to measure the strength of dissent and Catholicism, and was organised at a national level.61 In 1744 Nicholas Clagett asked a detailed series of questions concerning the number of dissenting families, their denomination, the presence of meeting houses and the identity of nonconformist ministers. The critical difference between this and the later formulation was the omission of the question asking for the number of nonconformist families. Surprisingly, the Clagett survey did not specifically request information about the number of Catholics in the diocese, although this was introduced to the revised questions. These distinctions are important in comparing the two sets of returns published here. In seeking to compare the distribution of dissent in 1744 with the situation thirty years later, the replies do not facilitate a direct comparison.
A good deal of work has already been carried out on the state of religious dissent in eighteenth century Devon from the visitation replies. An overall picture has emerged from the visitations and other evidence that from 1715 onwards nonconformity was declining in numbers, and becoming a largely urban movement.62 In 1744 the number of parishes with some dissenting presence stated was 175, with the number of registered meeting houses amounting to 80.63 By 1764 the number of meeting houses reported had fallen to 57, and the number of parishes reporting dissenters was just 60. The latter figure is almost certainly too low, since clergy were no longer obliged to make such detailed returns of nonconformist numbers.64 In 1779 a total of 78 dissenting places of worship are mentioned, with dissenting presence identified in 93 parishes.65 In part, the apparent upturn in dissenting presence between 1764 and 1779 is accounted for by the growing presence of Methodists in the county. Only eight parishes mentioned their existence in 1764, compared with 17 in 1779.66
Anecdotal evidence occasionally occurs of a decline in nonconformist strength during the eighteenth century. John Willcocks of Cullompton gave a detailed account of his survey of the parish conducted eight years prior to the 1744 visitation, through which he calculated a total of 728 dissenters: 508 Presbyterians; 133 Baptists and 87 Quakers. However, he stated that 'The number of Dissenters is since that Time somewhat Decreas’d', adding that he had baptised 32 adults who had been born Baptist or Quaker, and that some Presbyterians had also conformed. In 1744 John Silke of Okehampton reported 12 families of Presbyterians and two of Quakers among the 300 in his parish, with meeting houses for both denominations. By 1779 Thomas Pearce Hockill knew of no meeting houses in the town, although commented that Sir Harry Trelawney had recently visited and 'talks, I am told, of building'. According to the 1744 returns the most dissenting parish in Devon was Moretonhampstead where the terse replies of James Fynes stated that half of the 455 families were nonconformists. His successor, Thomas Clark made no mention of numbers, but reported that there were three meeting houses in the parish in 1779. The low esteem in which the Methodists were held by some clergy is indicated by his comment that, 'the 1st serv'd by Mr Rowland the 2d [Baptist] by Mr Collier the 3d [Methodist] by any Vagabond that pleases'.67 George Greenway of Halberton disdainfully identified the Methodist teacher in his parish as 'William Harward a farmer', and Richard Wilkins of St Marychurch was described as 'a carpenter'. At Chivelstone Thomas Rennell referred to 'Wm Eales a Blacksmith who pretends to instruct a very small Congregation' while at Tavistock the Methodists were served by 'some mean person of the Congregation'.
By the eighteenth century the Catholic population of Devon numbered little more than a few hundred. Returns of Papists made in 1767 give the total number living in the county as 235, with similar numbers identifiable in the 1779 visitation returns.68 Catholicism in Devon tended to be concentrated around a small number of prominent Catholic families. Thus in Chudleigh, home of the Clifford family at Ugbrooke, there were as many as 28 Catholics 'When Lord Clifford is resident'. Pockets of Catholicism also existed in Arlington, home of the Chichester family and around the Carys of Torre Abbey in the parish of Tormoham. Twenty to thirty Catholics were also reported at Axminster where Lord Petre had substantial property.69 These families formed a small network of residual Catholicism in the county, as indicated by the journal of the Rev. James Dominic Darbyshire, resident chaplain to the Cliffords from 1735 until his death in 1757.70 Darbyshire's brief notes record visits to Ugbrooke from members of the Courtenay, Rowe, Chichester and Cary families.71 He also made visits to Kingston in Staverton, seat of the Rowes and to Torre Abbey.72
The visitation returns probably provide a fairly good indication of the strength of dissent in Devon during the eighteenth century. However, the accuracy of the figures is likely to vary depending on how well attuned local clergy were to the religious life of their parish. For reasons already stated, the 1744 returns provide a far better guide to nonconformity than later series. By the mid-eighteenth century the legal entitlement to attend religious services outside of the Church of England was well established.73 However, this does not mean that the clergy necessarily welcomed their parishioners attending nonconformist meetings. In parishes with little or no dissenting presence the clergy occasionally responded with comments such as that of William Barter of St Edmunds on the Bridge, Exeter, who stated that of the 3-400 families in his parish 'I thank God, I have not more than five or six families of Dissenters'.74
The possibility that the clergy misrepresented the level of dissenting strength in their parishes is suggested by the returns for Burlescombe throughout the eighteenth century. In 1744 Thomas Clarke, vicar of the parish, stated that there were no dissenters among the 145 families under his care. His successor in 1779, Samuel Whitlocke, answered 'in the Negative to every Particular' the question about Catholic presence and nonconformist meeting houses. Other surviving visitation returns for the parish give similar answers.75 However, in 1723 seven men and women of Burlescombe subscribed their names to the Quaker affirmation of loyalty to George I rather than the normal run of oath rolls.76 Three successful applications for meeting house licences were made by nonconformists in the parish between 1806 and 1808, two by the same Baptist congregation and one for an unspecified denomination.77 In 1821 Thomas Tanner reported the presence of a Methodist congregation and a licensed meeting house.78 Thus all evidence from either side of the surviving eighteenth century visitation returns indicates that there were at least some nonconformist inhabitants in the parish. It is possible that that the Quakers of 1723 had either conformed or died out by 1744, and that nonconformity did not then reappear until the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, since the Rev. Clarke resided on his estate two miles outside of the parish, it is possible that he did not have a strong grasp of parochial affairs and was unaware of any Quaker presence. His successors in 1764, 1771, 1779 and 1798 were only obliged to report on the presence of meeting houses and not the number of dissenting families. Thus the case of Burlescombe suggests that the visitation replies provide at best a partial picture of dissenting numbers.
The extent to which the visitation replies can be regarded as an accurate measure of nonconformist views is further complicated by the fluidity with which people moved between the parish church and the meeting house in the eighteenth century.79 In the diocese of Canterbury the clergy complained that if a sermon was not preached in their church twice on a Sunday their parishioners were liable to attend the church on one part of the day and a nonconformist meeting on the other.80 William Hicks, vicar of Sheepwash in 1744, reported that three of the 61 families in his parish were Presbyterians. It is not clear whether this number included the family of John Bound, a local cordwainer who regularly attended a Presbyterian meeting at Hatherleigh as well as services in his own and other local parish churches.81 It cannot be determined how many people there were like the family of Thomas Gray of Dunsford whose religious practices were described in great detail by Thomas Byrdall in 1744. According to Byrdall, Gray
one while favours the Presbyterians most, at another Time the Quakers. His wife is a profess’d Presbyterian, and goes for the most Part to a Presbyterian Meeting-House. But both of them sometimes come to Church, not only at Funerals, but on Sundays tho' there be no Funeral. Their Children (two in number, a son and daughter) go to Church for the most Part, either their own, or some nigher Church; two or three Churches being nearer to them than their own Parish-Church.... On further Enquiry I find, that Thomas Gray’s Son and Daughter go as often to a Presbyterian Meeting-House as to Church.In 1744 John Stacy of Crediton informed Bishop Clagett that one sixth of the 1,200 families in his parish were Presbyterians. It cannot be known whether the figure of 200 nonconformist families includes both those who absented themselves entirely from the parish church and people who might be deemed occasional or partial conformists. However, there is evidence that relations between the Anglican Church and the nonconformist meeting in the town were relatively cordial. After the town burnt down in 1743 the petition for charitable relief was signed by both Stacy and the Presbyterian minister Micaiah Towgood, and ended with the comment that 'both Churchmen & Dissenters are happily and heartily united' in the cause.82