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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 ($).
Methodism era (1730s-1830s)
Many of the Nonconformist movements made great strides during the industrial revolution (1780s to mid-19th century), showing especial strength in the midlands, north, Wales, parts of East Anglia and the mining areas of Cornwall. The various groups descended from the 16th and 17th century dissenters, collectively known as the Old Descent, were joined by a new evangelical movement termed Methodism.
The Church of England had severe problems in the 18th century as their parish clergymen were underpaid and apt to neglect their duties, and bishops were largely political appointees who ignored their religious work, rather than good theologians who cared for their dioceses. Naturally the poor suffered most as poor relief was dependent upon the parish church. The Methodists took the opportunity to nurture this group and by 1815 they had over a quarter of a million converts.
The new Method preached by the Wesleys and Whitefield encouraged really living one’s religion, rather than simply occupying a comfortable pew on Sundays. Naturally this Evangelicalism disturbed upper-class High Anglicans, but was intensely popular amongst the middle and lower classes. Methodism had a far-reaching effect enlivening all branches of Nonconformist Christianity. Nonconformism was particularly powerful amongst urban small tradesmen, who had benefitted from the Industrial Revolution and whose icon was respectability—not always an attribute of the Anglican or Catholic aristocracy!
- Protestant Dissenters’ Registry 1742
This was formed in 1742 at Dr. Williams’ Library in Red Cross Street, City of London to register births of any nonconformists up to 1837 on payment of sixpence, later raised to two shillings. Two signed documents had to be produced from the local incumbent, midwife or witnesses to the birth. The registry was commenced to provide Nonconformists with legal evidence of age and parentage similar to that previously enjoyed only by Anglicans. There were few entries in the early years, but from 1759 large numbers were registered, largely for the more well-to-do of-course, who would need legal evidence for inheritance purposes.
Many are in family groups and the registrations took place long after the births they record, the earliest being 1716. The two PRO guides differ as to the numbers of entries recorded. Gandy (Pocket Guides to Family History: Tracing Nonconformist Ancestors. PRO Publications, 2001) quotes 29,865 births but Shorney (Protestant Nonconformity and Roman Catholicism. A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office. PRO Publications, 1996) almost 50,000 entries. The British Isles Vital Records Index includes 23,525 of them. They include many from outside London, some from abroad and even a few Anglicans. Entries have been indexed for some counties, for example Derbyshire, Essex, Gloucestershire, Kent and Shropshire. From 1826 paper certificates were issued giving the date and place of birth, and names of the child, its parents and the mother’s parents; witnesses and other details are also sometimes given. The chart below shows an example of a certificate issued from this Registry.
Chart: Certificate from the Protestant Dissenters’ Registry
| No 1981. These are to certify, That Francis Hews son of Francis Hews and Sarah his Wife, who was the Daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Palmer was Born at Dunstable in the Parish of Dunstable in the County of Bedford on the twenty third Day of March in the Year One thousand seven hundred and ninety one at whose birth we were present. Jno Winterfield surgeon|
The mark of Sarah Spencer X
Signed by the above named Sarah Spencer in the presence
of W.A. Southam [?], George Church [?]
I do certify the above named Francis is my son and was born at the time and place above mentioned. Sarah Hews
Up until 1753 marriages which took place in other venues than the parish church were termed irregular. There were several famous venues in London (Benton) and McLaughlin (Nonconformist Ancestors. Federation of Family History Societies, 1995) notes that ‘every county had small parishes where the extra income was welcome, and no awkward questions asked’. They were legally valid if conducted by someone who had been ordained in the Church of England, which many Nonconformists had been in early times. This meant that the man’s heir was his wife and children, rather than his brother or nephew. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753 ‘for the better prevention of clandestine marriages’ made it illegal for any except Quakers and Jews to marry anywhere other than in a Church of England building, after three successive readings of banns or the acquisition of a licence by oath. It took effect in 1754 and was not amended until 1837 so during this period in order for a wife to inherit and children be deemed legitimate Non-Anglicans had to marry in the Church of England. The few earlier marriage registers of Non-Anglicans therefore cease at 1753.
Clergy were reluctant to marry persons who had not been baptized in the Anglican church and an adult baptism may occur a little before marriage in this case.
During the period 1754-1837, those who were married in a dissident ceremony and who had property to leave were very careful to word their wills precisely so that their wife and children did receive their due. They could not call a wife a wife if they hadn’t had an Anglican marriage, and their children would similarly be considered illegitimate. So they used the correct terminology in their wills, such as that used by William Fane, a tanner of Flitwick, Bedfordshire whose will was written in 1806 and proved 1808. In it he says:
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.