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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
In the 17th century Puritans who could afford to would be more likely to erect a memorial plaque inside the church than to mark a burial spot with a gravestone. This attitude ameliorated with time and when the middle classes started having gravestones then all Nonconformists except Quakers did so.
Parish Chest Records
All of the other parochial records kept in the parish chest will refer to all inhabitants since the Anglican parish collected civil taxes and paid benefits to all who were in need until the New Poor Law of 1834. Non-Anglicans took their turn as parish officials and did so with no note of their religious preference. They received relief as necessary likewise, but very few Nonconformists were so destitute as to qualify for poor relief, although many immigrant Irish Catholics were. That having been said, it does occasionally happen that a person’s religious affiliation is mentioned in miscellaneous parochial records so they cannot be ignored. Thus, the 12d fines for recusancy occasioned by the Act of Uniformity 1559 was collected by the church wardens for relief of the poor until 1581 and will appear in parish records if they go back that far.
Ecclesiastical Court Records
Two of the most used genealogical documents emanating from diocesan or higher levels are the various probate records and marriage licences. They applied to everyone regardless of religious adherence until 1837 (marriages) and 1858 (probate) when these came under civil administration.
Wills can provide important clues to religious affiliation by:
- Particular words and phrases used; but be careful not to misread the intent of standard preambles which may have only reflected the lawyer’s or court’s viewpoint, not that of the testator.
- Burial requested in a Catholic or Nonconformist burial ground. Thus, a request by Mary Dashwood in her will dated 1771, to be buried in Rev. Wallin’s Burying Ground led me to find out from a local archives that he was the pastor of the Maze Pond Particular Baptist Chapel in Southwark, Surrey from 1740-1782.
- Bequests to a religious charity, school or minister.
- Bequests of named books or articles that only someone of a certain religion would possess.
- Oaths presented in lieu of standard Anglican records. For example a dissenter who had not been christened in the Church of England needed to prove his relationship to the deceased to inherit, see below.
Chart: Oaths at Sutton Bonnington, Nottinghamshire regarding Parentage of Thomas Palmer — Found in Miscellaneous Parish Documents on film 1,517,777
| Slip of Paper|
We hereby certify that Thomas Palmer is the only son of Thos Palmer, the others died in their infancy.
1837 May 5th John Bramley, Thomas Dalby
Mr Thomas Bramley’s Declaration in support of Mr Thomas Palmer’s Pedigree
Ever since the mid-16th century teachers and midwives had to be Anglicans in good standing licensed by a bishop. This applied at first only to Catholics, but later when Nonconformists left the Established Church they were discriminated against too. The rule about midwives’ licences died out but that for teachers continued into the 18th century, when only parish school teachers had to be Anglican. Nonconformists could set up private schools.
Those who held ‘wrong’ beliefs were brought before ecclesiastical courts before 1642 and trouble-making Puritans and those accused of heresy could be excommunicated in severe cases. However Puritans were not prevented from preaching or writing about their views. From 1642 to 1660 the ecclesiastical courts were abolished in favour of civil ones, and after the restoration they had diminished powers.
Bishops’ Visitations to the parishes in their dioceses took place regularly and the Anglican incumbents were required to report on the spiritual state of their parishioners. Records contain lists of numbers of papists and dissidents and sometimes names as well. However it also has to be born in mind that the laws were not applied equally strictly from place to place. Thus, Rendel states that up until the end of the 18th century one quarter of the Anglican livings in the Wirral area of Cheshire (south of Liverpool) were held by Catholic squires. Naturally, sympathetic very High Anglican ministers would be chosen and the church would attract Catholics.
The marriage details of those who were married illegally by their own priest or minister, especially Catholics, are often referred to in ecclesiastical court records when they were presented for fornication if they had omitted to be legally married in the Anglican church as well.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.