Welcome, fellow genealogists! My blog will teach you about U.S. land records and United Kingdom research. My family has roots in Niagara County, New York; Norfolk, England; and northeast Germany.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wisdom Wednesday: Non-Conformists and Dissenters in the Family

I have Non-Anglicans in my UK family tree. Their religious records are especially clear after they immigrate to the United States and Australia. How can you tell that your ancestors might not have attended the Church of England (COE)?  In my search, I found an obit clipped from an unknown Niagara County, New York newspaper in a family bible:

BRETT. – In Cambria, March 11th, 1875, at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. Rachel Barker, Mr. Thomas Brett, aged 75 years and 3 months.
            Funeral Saturday, March 13th, at the Universalist church, Cambria, at 2 o’clock P.M. Friends are invited to attend

I found this very early while looking for documents my family already owned, but didn’t really think about its significance. Thomas Brett was baptized, married, and his wife was buried in the Church of England. All of his children were baptized in the COE. Did convenience enter into the decision to associate with a Universalist church? To some extent yes, I think. This crossroads in the county had three churches and a community cemetery. One Church was Roman Catholic; the second was ‘German” Lutheran still having services in German; and this Universalist congregation. Checking the 1878 History of Niagara County would give me an idea of how far away an Episcopal/Anglican Church was.
Did I only find records of Non-Anglican churches after they left England? That seems to be the case with one exception.

Thomas’ daughter, Susan, married Allen Griffin in the Particular Baptist Chapel, Swaffham, Norfolk in Mar 1854. The Griffins arrived in Geelong, Australia in June 1855, declaring themselves Baptists on the ship’s manifest. The baptisms of their many children are recorded in the Wesleyan and two Anglican churches. The ministers at Susan and Allen’s funerals were listed as Wesleyan and Methodist respectively.
Note: People who do not adhere to the Church of England are called non-conformists or dissenters. In the past, only Protestants were so labeled, but now Herber uses the terms to include everyone (Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews). Christensen uses the term Non-Anglican to cover all the groups. I will use all three terms to mean anyone not affiliated with the COE.

All birth, marriages and deaths were recorded by civil authorities after 1837 so the parish records are no longer as critical to genealogists.  Before Civil Registration, if you know that your family was Non-Anglican, you need to find out where the registers of their church are held. (I will discuss in a later post.)
If you can’t find them in the COE parish records and begin to suspect they might be non-conformist, you need to find out what denominations were active in their geographical area. The 1851 Religious Census that I introduced in my last post will be helpful here. If your ancestor flirted with a non-conformist sect for awhile, it might explain why eight of the ten known children are baptized in the COE records and two are missing.  

Many people have told me that the British could be baptized, marry and be buried from the Church of England and never step foot in the established church again in their lifetimes.*  How could this happen? Here are a few examples that suggest that it could:
Before Queen Victoria’s time, “no one could obtain a government post without producing proof of baptism in the Established Church.” (Hey, page 189.)  The COE was reluctant to marry people who had not been baptized in the church. (Christensen, page 69.) If you have an ancestor baptized in the COE records as a young adult, it might be for one of these reason. If people marry and have no children in the baptism records, it might be infertility or immigration, but look for children in the registers of other denominations.

Before 25 April 1754, marriage records can present a challenge, but from that date through 1837, marriages for all but Quakers and Jews had to conform to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 which required COE marriage for everyone. Non-Anglican and civil marriages began again in 1837, but for this 81 year period, all marriages should be able to be found in the COE records and sometimes a second time in a non-conformist chapel register. Herber explains:
     “Hardwicke’s Act required a marriage to be performed in the parish church of one of the spouses(or in certain designated chapels) by an Anglican clergyman, in the presence of at least two witnesses, and only after the publication of banns or by the authority of a valid marriage license.“ (Herber, page 124)

Of course, there were many holdouts who would only marry in their non-conformist religion. Christensen points out (page 30) that then a will might refer to a women as ‘my reputed wife who now lives with me’ or by her maiden name because a non-Anglican marriage confers no legal standing for the wife or subsequent children.
Burials in the parish cemetery might have been the only option available. Some COE clergy are said to have required a COE service before a burial could take place there. If the burial record uses the word ‘interred’, Hey says it might be a non-conformist without a service.  It was into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before non-conformist churches had their own burial grounds and that private, commercial cemeteries were established.  

After reading Christiansen’s three lists about how to spot Non-Anglican ancestors (pages 26-32); one each for protestant dissenters, Catholics and Jews, I think it still comes down to unusual things in the parish registers before 1837. Let’s for the moment only consider the signs that ancestors may be involved in other protestant sects. Baptism records seem to be the key. Some sects, like Quakers and Baptists, did not believe in infant baptism so there may be no entry in the COE parish records or an entry that reads more like a birth announcement only. From 1690, parishes were required to have records of everyone born there, but Non-Anglican children may be on a separate list or listed by gender and date only because the clergyman believed the child had not received a name through baptism.

Often you find several children in a family baptized on the same day which can be a sign of returning to the COE after a period with a non-conformist sect or just lazy parents. Another possibility is that the more non-conformist parent had died, and the other parent has hurried to get the children baptized into the COE. The parish council was in charge of poor relief, and they may have forced baptism on the poor, elderly or sick in order for them to receive benefits.

Non-conformity is related to social and professional standing. Few dissenters were in the army or navy, for example. These people were enthusiastic about new ideas, education and social reforms. They had a tendency to belong to certain political parties and movements. Because they were not eligible for government jobs, they concentrated on business and trade. Some were able to take full advantage of the industrial revolution and the shift of power from rural to urban locations.
It would be helpful to know when each non-conformist sect made its appearance in Britain. All three references below have the information, but the chart in Christensen, page 24, might be the easiest to use.

* England has a state church and religion. While it is not so hard to understand the particulars with a good reference book in hand, I still have some trouble embracing the concept. It is so far from the American experience.

Sources: Christensen, Dr. Penelope. Researching English Non-Anglican Records. Toronto, Canada: Heritage Productions 2003.

Herber, Mark. Ancestral Trails. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company 2006.
Hey, David. The Oxford Guide to Family History. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993.

©2012, Susan Lewis Well

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