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He who lifted them from the pit

26 February 2016

To mark the anniversary of John Wesley’s death on 2 March 1791, Tony Langford visits one of Wesley’s favourite preaching places

Still they come: a congregation at Gwennap Pit in 1991

Still they come: a congregation at Gwennap Pit in 1991

“THE wind was so high at five that I could not stand in the usual place at Gwennap. But at a small distance was a hollow, capable of containing many thousand people. I stood on one side of this amphitheatre towards the top, with people beneath and on all sides, and enlarged on those words in the Gospel for the day (Luke 10.23-24), ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see, and hear the things which ye hear.’” So wrote John Wesley of his first visit to Gwennap Pit on Sunday, 5 September 1762.

Between 1762 and 1789, he paid 18 visits to the pit, and it became his favourite outdoor preaching place. From the first time he saw it, Wesley described the pit as a “natural amphitheatre, a round, green hollow, gently shelving down”. He was 59 on his first visit, and 86 when he preached there for the last time.

In 1806, Richard Michell, a mining engineer, and four mine captains remodelled the pit as a memorial to Wesley. They built a wall around it, and created the 12 rows of terraced seats that remain today. Located near the town of Redruth, in Cornwall, Gwennap Pit has become a place of pilgrimage for Methodists and aficionados of Wesley from around the world.

In Wesley’s day, Gwennap Pit was in one of the heartlands of the Cornish mining industry. The pit itself is a relic of the mining past, and it is thought that it was the site of many cock fights. It seems that a road once ran through it and was diverted when the remodelling took place in 1806.

 

WESLEY made his own preaching plan, and made sure that he was at Gwennap Pit at 5 p.m. on one Sunday during each visit to Cornwall. Of preaching to a large gathering at Gwennap, he wrote: “I think this is the most magnificent spectacle which is to be seen on this side of heaven. And no music is to be heard upon earth comparable to the sound of many thousand voices, when they are all harmoniously joined together singing praises to God and the Lamb.”

Michell, who organised the remodelling of the pit, remembers the preacher’s time in Cornwall, and how he “sought out and taught the vulgar to be sober, honest, and industrious, and to deal fairly with each other.”

Those attending the services would have come from the mining communities of mid and west Cornwall, especially from around Gwennap and Redruth. The Revd Thomas Shaw observed: “Many villages would have been denuded of half their inhabitants on the days when it was known Mr Wesley would be at the Pit.”

Shaw, however, has cast doubt on the estimates of numbers attending the services, stating that the highest estimate of 34,000 “would be impossible”, even allowing for Wesley’s observation that the congregation sometimes overflowed the boundary of the pit. Nevertheless, Shaw concluded that “we can certainly think in terms of thousands.”

Considering the sheer size of the congregations, one wonders how Wesley, especially in his later years, managed to be heard as well as he was. It was clearly something that Wesley himself was concerned about. Of one visit in 1768, he wrote: “I suppose no human voice could have commanded such an audience on plain ground; but the ground rising all round gave me such an advantage that I believe all could hear distinctly.”

Of his last visit, on 23 August 1789, he recorded: “I preached in the evening at the amphitheatre, I suppose, for the last time; for my voice cannot now command the still increasing multitude. It was supposed they were now more than five and twenty thousand. I think it scarce possible that all should hear.” Wesley died less than two years later, at his home in City Road, London, on 2 March 1791.

 

GWENNAP PIT has continued to be used for services ever since the death of Wesley. The first annual service was held on Whit Monday, 1807. A service in 1967, led by the Revd Hubert Luke, the then chairman of the Cornwall Methodist District, was filmed by the BBC, prompting Shaw to observe that it “had a much greater number of hearers throughout the country that day than ever Wesley himself could have imagined”. In 2011, the annual service was moved to Pentecost Sunday, and became an ecumenical event.

The Cornish writer Lady Clara Vyvyan was in the congregation at the 1936 service when rain and sleet fell heavily, but did not curtail proceedings. In her book Our Cornwall, she remembers the “sea of open umbrellas — the people all around were singing heartily in the rain, knowing the hymns so well that they hardly needed to use the soggy hymn sheets which drooped in their hands.”

To mark the 250th anniversary of John Wesley’s first visit to Gwennap Pit, a special service was held on 5 September 2012. The preacher was the superintendent of Wesley’s Chapel, London, the Revd Dr Leslie Griffiths. At 5 p.m. — the exact time that Wesley had addressed a large gathering of miners and their families 250 years earlier — the congregation rose to sing “Father of everlasting grace”.

“It is so good to be here on the same date and at the same time that John Wesley first preached here,” Dr Griffiths said. “And it is not difficult on a day like this to give thanks to God — the blue sky over Gwennap Pit is as much God’s place as any vaulted cathedral.”

The little Busveal Chapel was added alongside the pit in 1836, and the visitor centre was built in the 1980s. In 2006, Gwennap Pit became part of the Cornwall and West Devon World Heritage Site.

 

Tony Langford is a freelance writer specialising in wildlife and the countryside. A Cornishman, he is a lifelong Methodist.

 

Gwennap Pit is open every day throughout the year. The visitor centre and chapel are open from the Spring Bank Holiday to the end of September, Monday to Friday, 10 a.m.-4.30 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m.-1p.m; all year round by appointment. Tel: 01209 822770 or 07974 259806; email: jenny@gwennappit.co.uk

Supporters can join the Friends of Gwennap Pit and receive two newsletters a year. One-year subscription: £3/person; £5/couple; five-year subscription: £12/person; £20/couple. Cheques payable to “Gwennap Pit” and remitted to Paul Barker, 3 Sampson Gardens, Ponsanooth, Truro, Cornwall TR3 7RS.

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