The Devil Hunt

In Chapter XVII Squire Moyle participates in a frenzied 'devil hunt'. This incident is probably based on a story related by R.S. Hawker, the Anglo-Catholic vicar of Morwenstow, a parish on the north Cornish coast above Perranzabuloe.

Hawker’s notorious story of the ‘devil hunt’, his antagonism to Wesleyanism in general and the Bible Christian movement in particular, and his Anglo-Catholic proclivities, are discussed in three books: The Bible Christians, 1815-1907 (1965) by the Rev. T. Shaw, until his death Cornwall’s leading Methodist historian; The Vicar of Morwenstow (1886) by S. Baring-Gould, possibly the work Q used and certainly one he would have known; Hawker of Morwenstow. Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric (1975) by P. Brendon.

Baring-Gould discusses at some length Hawker’s aversion to Nonconformity. Hawker saw the Bible Christian sect as a contemporary form of Antinomian sects, with grace and faith having freed it from moral law. These sects had disturbed the Early Church and reappeared at the Reformation with the Anabaptists. Baring-Gould believed the practice of ‘devil hunting’ to be actual fact. Interestingly, the Catholic Ronald A. Knox argues a similar case as regards revivalism in Enthusiasm (1950), devoting considerable space to ‘Wesley and the Religion of Experience’ and ‘Some Vagaries of Modern Revivalism’. Knox also discusses the conflict between Wesley and Whitfield, which lies behind the prologue of Ia. Knox associates Antinomianism with the Calvinism of Whitfield, rather than with Wesley. However, Wesley is roundly condemned. Hawker’s position is not without its own difficulties. As he condemned the Bible Christians for Antinomianism, they attacked the Anglicans for dry formalism and a refusal of reforming sufficiently at the Reformation, while the Catholics accused Anglicanism of being schismatic. On his deathbed Hawker was received into the Catholic Church.

Having discussed in detail Hawker’s aversion to Nonconformity in Morwenstow, Baring-Gould continues with a lengthy story relating to the vagaries of the Bible Christians, including the account of the ‘devil hunt’, which Hawker claimed to have heard from an unnamed Kilkhampton woman. How such an account could have been recorded in detail and what credence Baring-Gould gave to it is not stated. Nor is it clear whether Q is relating something which he believed to have some basis in fact, as against pure fiction, but embellishments appear to have been added at each retelling.

In Hawker of Morwenstow, Dr. Brendon discusses Hawker’s view of revivalism in some detail. The similarity of view between Hawker and Q becomes even clearer. According to Brendon, Hawker considered revivalism to be sexually motivated. Conversion was fundamentally a release of repressed sexual emotion. Hawker regarded the Bible Christians as especially lascivious, noting occasions when pregnant women presented themselves for church marriage. In The Ship of Stars, although Jacky Pascoe is a sexless male, sexual hysteria is what he invariably produces, in the Joll’s parlour and at the head of the ‘devil hunt’, with Lizzie Pezzack’s lascivious dancing as a feature of both. This makes a strange contrast to Q’s usual presentation of Nonconformity as guilt-ridden, legalistic and repressive. Dr. Brendon then confronts Hawker’s portrayal of the ‘devil hunt’, although the quotation he provides appears different from Baring-Gould’s. Brendon frankly declares it ‘exaggerated’. Finally Dr. Brendon explains how Hawker saw Nonconformity as asserting an independence from the squire and the parson, with the inevitable undermining of morality, orthodoxy and tradition. However, Hawker had no time for the industrialist or the exploitative landlord, looking back instead to the stability of yeoman agriculturalists. These themes chime exactly with Q’s autobiographical, political and fictional writings. It is not surprising that Hawker is called a ‘large-hearted man’ on Q’s dedication to The Ship of Stars. Be this as it may, Dr. Brendon does not view the Bible Christian satire as Hawker at his best.

In The Bible Christians the Rev. Thomas Shaw discusses Hawker’s work from the perspective of the sect. He concludes that the account did not rise above satirical fiction, and that while worship could at times be uninhibited, it was within a structure of order. Hawker’s account quickly became known to the church authorities, who made an immediate riposte, under the heading of ‘Clerical Slander’, in the Bible Christian magazine. Although Shaw does not mention The Ship of Stars, he possibly knew of it, for he counters its claim of the ‘Bryanites’ believing in ‘instantaneous conversion’, explaining instead that their theology consisted of repentance and faith, as with all Methodists. Shaw’s work establishes clearly that the Bible Christians differed not one whit from the theology of Jonathan Couch’s independent chapel in Polperro. It comes, therefore, as no surprise when we learn of the preacher who opened the chapel in 1838 as William O’Bryan, the founder of the ‘Bryanites’ or Bible Christians. Even in The Ship of Stars Q appears still to be haunted by the shadow of his remarkable grandfather.

The ‘devil hunt’, while it has a degree of impact, is not the most satisfying passage of the novel. Its descent from realism into phantasmagoria accords uneasily with the ‘true to more than fact’ of the introduction, while negating some of the impact implicit in the dramatic authenticity of the wreck scene and the cock-fight. The ‘devil hunt’ episode opens with the quiet simplicity of Mr. Raymond and Taffy reading prayers in the church. It concludes in a bizarre synthesis of Goethe’s Faust and ‘The Devil and his dandy dogs’ of Jonathan Couch’s History of Polperro. Squire Moyle, ‘who hears hell cracking behind him’, gallops up Tredinnis drive, is then flung over the graveyard wall and staggers through the tombstones to his death on the slate pavement of the chancel, with his horse and dogs baying and slavering behind. This final episode shows a transmogrification from person to fantasy and then to symbol – the final triumph of order, tradition and culture over schism, ignorance and anarchy. However, no sequence of vivid images or literary allusions camouflages the theological and psychological inadequacy of the chapter.