Birth-Baptism Intervals for Family Historians

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By Stuart Basten
Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure
Department of Geography
University of Cambridge

English parish registers as a general rule record baptisms rather than births. Although birth dates were entered during a brief period during the Commonwealth and, in certain northern dioceses in the later eighteenth-century, these were the exceptions rather the rule. In the sixteenth-century, the Anglican Church ordered parents to baptize soon after birth. For example, in the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, it was written that ‘The pastors and curates shall oft admonish the people that they defer not the Baptisme of Infants any longer than the Sunday, or other Holy day next after the child be borne, unless upon a great and reasonable cause declared to the Curate.’ Similarly, in the early seventeenth-century, William Gouge wrote that ‘it is not meet for Christians to defer the baptizing of their children beyond eight days.’ However, both Gouge and the later seventeenth-century Prayer Books allow for a short period of rest for mother and child.

Despite not being required by law, the recording of birth dates was often an important benefit to contemporaries, particularly regarding legitimacy and property. As an anonymous observer wrote in 1828, because of the lack of birth data in conjunction with increasing intervals between birth and baptism, ‘it has often resulted that, in fact, people have actually attained twenty-one, and exercised most important acts, when by the only known official record and evidence of their legal status, they were under age.’ For Dissenters, meanwhile, the inclusion of birth data gave further weight to their arguments for their registers to have legal parity with Anglican registers. Furthermore, the Baptists and other denominations who believed in the primacy of adult baptism played an important role in the attempt to define birth date as the legally binding evidence. Despite this, however, birth date was never specified in pre-civil registration law as a requirement in English parish registers and, in 1833, it was definitively ruled that any birth dates could not be used in court.

Usefully a number of Anglican and Nonconformist clerics and ministers decided to record dates of birth as well as baptism either by choice or by order. For example, the so-called ‘Dade’ Registers (Diocese of York, 1777-1812) and the ‘Barrington’ Registers (Diocese of Durham, 1798-1812) both regularly record birth and baptism dates. Furthermore, a significant number of Nonconformist registers, particularly in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at least partially record birth and baptism dates. As such, it has been possible for historians and demographers to analyze the changing intervals between birth and baptism over time.

Evidence strongly suggests that during the sixteenth- and much of the seventeenth-centuries, parents did indeed baptize in haste. As such, family historians working on the early modern period can usually assume that any date they uncover either in a parish register or on the International Genealogical Index (IGI) which specifies baptism will normally be no more than a week after birth. However, studies have shown than from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards the interval between birth and baptism became longer and longer. In one study, for example, in the period 1650-1700 it took 14 days before 75% of children in the register were baptized, while between 1771-89 and 1791-1812 the corresponding period was 38 and 64 days respectively. Just as importantly, the same figures for the parishes which saw the longest intervals for these three periods are 27, 155 and 444 days. A further complicating factor is the growing appearance of ‘baptism parties’ or ‘family baptisms’ in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. In these instances parents waited to baptize all of their children in one go. An example of this, taken from Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s St. Nicholas Parish Register illustrate this problem well.

Taylor Gibson, Druggist, Newcastle St. Nicholas'

Baptism 'Party' - 24/8/1810

Children, Date of Birth and Birth-Baptism Interval:

George, 28/8/1801, 3283 days

Benjamin, 1/5/1803, 2672 days

Joseph, 23/5/1804, 2284 days

John, 15/5/1805, 1927 days

Frances, 2/9/1806, 1452 days

William, 2/2/1808, 934 days

Isobel, 12/8/1809, 377 days

This is of course highly significant for genealogists attempting to trace their lineage in the period between roughly 1700 and the beginning of Civil Registration in 1837. For example, if one was attempting to use the age data in the 1851 Census or in cemetery or burial records to track back to a birth, if the register only gave baptismal dates, the birth could potentially be some years before the date given in the register. A second potential difficulty relates baptisms being missed altogether.1 During periods and in communities where the intervals between birth and baptism are longer, the likelihood of babies and children dying before they are baptized is greater.

There are, however, methods to work around this problem (to a certain extent!)

1. Check the Denomination[edit | edit source]

When searching in the IGI, look closely at the type of church which has returned. A recent study has found there to be significant differences in the time taken to baptize between denominations and areas. Roman Catholics, for example, tend to baptize very quickly. Evidence from the north of England also suggests that Nonconformists tended to baptize generally in the later eighteenth-century, and ways to get around it somewhat quicker than Anglican. Some denominations, such as Baptists and some branches of the Swedenborgian (New Jerusalem) churches practice adult baptisms which can seriously confuse! Finally, when a denomination opens a congregation in a new town, sometimes mass baptisms can occur. Again, these can often mean both children and adults either being baptized very late or even baptized twice.

2. Check for baptism parties[edit | edit source]

Are there more than two or three children baptized on the same day who have the same surname? As a rule of thumb, the more children there are in the party, the longer the potential intervals will be. If there are five baptisms, for example, it is likely that the oldest of these children would have been born between five and ten years before the baptism.

3. Track back from the burial register[edit | edit source]

If you cannot find the baptism you need, try searching through the burial registers for roughly the same period. If the age of death is given and a positive identification can be made, it is possible to calculate the date of birth by counting back from the date of burial. One drawback to this method is that burials are rarely found in the IGI. As such a good starting point would be to use the National Burial Index published by the FFHS. This gives date of burial and, where present, age of death. This should, however, be checked against the original burial register where more information will be found, enabling confirmation of the link.

4. Reconstruct families[edit | edit source]

If you have found a burial and tracked back to where the baptism should be in the register but found nothing, then there is one more trick available. Try to find as many brothers and sisters for the ‘missing’ child, making a note of their date of baptism and, of given, date of birth. On average, one would expect to find the interval between births to be roughly between a year and eighteen months during the eighteenth-century. As such, if a gap of two or three years appears between births or baptisms, and there is no evidence of a ‘baptism party’ then it is likely that a child might have died un-baptized. If the date that you have calculated from the burial register falls within this period, then you can more or less guarantee that this happened, giving you a birth date and the chance to fill in a hole in your family history by some clever detective work!