England Church History

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Effective research in church records requires some understanding of your ancestor’s religion and the events that led to the creation of church records.

During the 16th Century the Church of England became separated from the Roman Catholic Church. This separation was initially prompted by a dispute over the annulment of the first marriage of King Henry VIII. The Church of England, which is also known as the Established, Anglican, or Episcopal Church, continues to be the state religion today.

Individual church units, called parishes, were also used as civil parishes to help the government control poor relief, military conscription, some law enforcement, and taxation.[1] Parishes were grouped together in rural deaneries which in turn were part of a diocese.

Summary[edit | edit source]

From the early Middle Ages onwards England has been predominantly Christian. Until the Reformation England was Catholic, but in 1534 the Church in England (the Anglican Church) was made independent and eventually adopted a moderate Protestant theology. The Church of England was the state church with the Monarch as it's Supreme Governor and thus became the majority religion. Catholics were severely persecuted. Other religions, collectively referred to as "Non-conformists" were also not tolerated. Not until 1829 did official persecution against Christian groups end.

The 1851 census of religion gives a useful overview of the religious scene at that time. It reported the following number of worshippers for each religion in England and Wales- population 17.9 million.

Religion Worshippers[2]
Church of England 5,292,551
Wesleyan Methodists (total) 2,417,353
Independents 1,214,059
Baptists (total) 930,190
Roman Catholics 383,630
Calvinist Methodists (total) 308,754
Presbyterians (total) 80,510
Latter Day Saints 35,626
Society of Friends 22,478
Jews 6,030
Other Christians 204,885

Anglicans[edit | edit source]

The Church of England was created in 1534 by Henry VIII, in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, but with a primary motivation being to be able to annul his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon. The advisers of his son Edward VI (1547-1553) introduced changes that made the Church Calvinist, but this was reversed by Henry's Catholic daughter Mary who reigned 1553-1558. Her sister and successor Elizabeth I recreated a separate Church of England, but with moderate Protestant theology and doctrines, set out in the 1563 Thirty Nine Articles that sought a middle path between Catholicism and Protestantism. During the Interregnum period following the defeat of Charles I in the English Civil War, the Anglican church was made into a Presbyterian church and non-attendance at Anglican church services was no longer a crime. This was reversed following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

The Anglican church continues to be the state church, and with other religions being persecuted until the early 19th century, became the majority religion. In 1851, when attendance at church services were recorded alongside the census, Anglicans had the most worshipers, with 30% of the population.

Catholics[edit | edit source]

Catholics, the only legal religion until 1534, suffered severe persecution over the next three centuries. Despite this, they survived in low numbers, especially in the north of England. In 1829 all persecution against Catholics ended. In 1851 about 2% of the population were Catholic churchgoers. Between the mid nineteenth century and mid twentieth century the number of Catholics increased due to Irish immigration and conversions from Anglicanism.

Non-Conformists[edit | edit source]

Traditionally, any Protestant religion in England that is not Anglican is referred to as non-conformist. These include Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists. Protestant dissent against Anglicanism began in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and these dissenters sought a more "pure" Protestantism, thus the name "Puritan". Puritans were strongly linked to the side of Parliament in the English Civil War. Following the restoration of the Monarchy, the 1662 Act of Uniformity clarified Anglican doctrine and persecuted those who did not adhere to it. Persecution was relaxed in 1689. Methodism was started later, by John Wesley (1703-1791). By 1851, there were 4.5 million non-Conformist churchgoers, compared to 5.2 million Anglicans.

Timeline[edit | edit source]

1568: Some Puritans ordained their own ministers and tried unsuccessfully to separate from the Church of England. The Puritan movement split in two: the Presbyterians and the Separatists.

1580: Robert Browne, a separatist, and his followers became known as Independents or Congregationalists.

1611:The first General Baptist Church in England was organised by Thomas Hewlys, in Spitalfields, London

1642-1649: The English Civil War. Many Puritans backed Parliament, which defeated and executed Charles I

1649-1660: The Interregnum, during which non-Anglican churches thrived.

1662: Act of Uniformity leads to ejection of "non-conformist" Anglican clergy and the persecution of their followers

1677: The first Greek Orthodox Church erected in Soho, London.

1685: England witnesses a considerable increase in the immigration of Huguenot refugees mainly from France.

1689: Act of Toleration allowed freedom of worship to Nonconformists. Nonconformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers, if they accepted certain oaths of allegiance.

1716: A parish of the Russian Orthodox Church formed for the chapel of the Russian Embassy.

1735: The Wesleyan Methodist group was started by John Wesley and others.

1795: As a result of persecution, Methodists take the first step towards separation from the Church of England

1831: First meeting in England of a conservative, Evangelical Christian movement that had begun in Dublin around 1827, held in Plymouth, Devon. The movement becomes known as the Plymouth Brethren.

1837-1851: The first missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began preaching in the Preston, Lancashire, area. By 1851, there were just under 50,000 converts throughout the country.

1865: The Salvation Army founded by one-time Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine as the East London Christian Mission.

1891: The Baptist Union of Great Britain was formed when the General Baptists and Particular Baptists came together.

1924: The Pentecostal fellowship, British Assemblies of God came into being in Birmingham.

1972: About three quarters of English Congregational churches merged with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church (URC). However, about 600 Congregational churches have continued in their historic independent tradition.

Presbyterians, Baptists and Independents[edit | edit source]

These religions evolved from 16th century Puritanism. The records of these religions are similar to those of the Church of England. The Baptists, however, practiced adult baptism and recorded births in birth registers, not baptism registers. The Independent Church is also known as the Congregational Church.

Methodists[edit | edit source]

The Methodist denominations are a break-away movement from Anglicanism, founded by John Wesley (hence the name "Wesleyan") in 1735.

Latter Day Saints[edit | edit source]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restorative Christian religion founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. His claims include a personal visitation by both God The Father and His Son, Jesus Christ in the spring of 1820, and subsequent angelic visitations with instructions which led directly to the discovery of a set or book of (metal) plates which contains ancient "Reformed Egyptian" handwriting. As instructed, he translated these ancient scriptural writings into a book, called the Book of Mormon. The Church was organized in and commences from 6 April 1830 at Palmyra, in upper New York State, United States.

The Prophet Joseph Smith, and the early converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States faced severe opposition and subsequent persecution. In the midst of this oppressive early period, Smith sent missionaries to various parts of the world including Britain. It was within the same month as the commencement of England's Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths, that the first missionaries landed on England's soil. They first appeared in the Preston, ("Priest-town' as it was anciently called), Lancashire region and met considerable success, these missionaries journeyed throughout the realm from there. Thousands flocked to its ranks. About 14 years later, by the time the 1851 Religious Census was taken, there were just over 50,000 "sittings" in approximately 250 different congregations spread throughout the countries of England and Wales. Many of these awaited emigration to "Zion", which was located high in the Rocky Mountain's Great Basin (Utah Territory), in the Western United States. By the time of the 1860 U.S. Federal census, nearly 1 person in 4 that walked the valleys of Utah, spoke in the England/Welsh/Scottish baroque, due to the many converts who had arrived from Great Britain. The Church's doctrinal views resonated well with many among England's mostly working class.

By the liberal use of "resources", the Church has been and currently is a major player and contributor to the world's genealogical community, by sharing its vast genealogical treasures. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sponsors the FamilySearch website.

Huguenots[edit | edit source]

Walloons[edit | edit source]

The first wave of many thousands of French-speaking Protestants were Walloon refugees who arrived in England from the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium and the Netherlands) in 1567, having been forced to flee the suppression of Protestantism by King Philip of Spain’s forces lead by the Duke of Alva. This group had been in England for over a century before the true Huguenots came and the two groups settled in London and the same south-eastern towns.

Huguenots[edit | edit source]

The Huguenots, (Protestants from France), first came in 1572 after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in Paris, and they were largely from the northern provinces of Brittany, Normandy and Picardy and mostly settled in south-eastern areas of England where the French-speaking Walloon communities had already been established. Although there was support for their religious freedom during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, during that of Charles I and particularly during Archbishop Laud’s tenure prior to the Civil War only those born abroad and now living in Canterbury were officially allowed to practise their religion, whilst their children were to attend Anglican services. In response, some moved to to Netherlands, and the majority to the USA, taking their craft skills with them. Far more Huguenots arrived after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which had given toleration to French Protestants in 1598. About 60,000 came at this time, with two-thirds of these settling in London. Most of the others went to towns in SE England and some to Bristol, Plymouth and nearby Stonehouse in the south west.

The history of the Huguenots throughout the English-speaking world can be found in Currer-Briggs and Gambier (Huguenot Ancestry. Phillimore, 1985). The Huguenots were not of any particular social level. They comprised mainly craftsmen with some nobility and some peasants. In London the upper class families and those who worked in the luxury trades such as goldsmiths, silversmiths, lapidaries, diamond cutters, jewellers, bucklemakers, clock- and watch-makers settled in London’s west end around Soho and nearby Westminster parishes. The poorer weavers, and associated tradesmen such as silk throwsters, dyers, thread- and lace makers settled in the east end in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

The communities were close-knit and some maintained the French language into the 19th century. Sociological studies show that it takes three generations for immigrants to totally assimilate, and most families had joined the Anglican Church or other Nonconformist groups by at least 1800.

It must also be born in mind that there was a further wave of French refugees, known as the emigrés, mainly upper class and Catholic, entering England from 1789-1814 at and after the French Revolution (circa 1789-1795). Lists of the groups of these that came, but with no union index of names, are on FHL fiche 6035980(1). The Hampshire Record Office have recently acquired a series of their letters giving graphic details of their escape and struggles.

Flemish[edit | edit source]

The Protestant immigrants from Flanders and Brabant spoke Flemish, a Dutch dialect, and can thus easily be confused with Dutch settlers. Edward III (1327-1377) encouraged the Flemish to settle in England, as he valued their silk and other textile skills. Other waves came in 1551 and 1567 fleeing the occupying Catholic Spaniards, as did the Walloons.

They settled primarily in south eastern England, particularly in London, Norwich and Canterbury and were employed especially in silk weaving, the New Draperies and market gardening. In the 17th century more Flemish immigrants arrived with the Dutch to drain the fens of East Anglia (Beharrell).[3]

Society of Friends (Quakers)[edit | edit source]

The Religious Society of Friends (colloquially Friends or Quakers) is a puritanical group founded by George Fox in 1647 and had its chief strength in north west England. The group did not believe in formal services, buildings or paid ministers and thus did not pay tithes to support them, hence their particular antipathy towards the imposition of tithes on every inhabitant for the benefit of the Anglican Church. Quakers believed that all were equal, that God’s word was given to each one individually, and opposed violence including armed service. The Bible was viewed as interesting but certainly not binding. These views frequently brought them in conflict with the law and they were much persecuted until William III’s Act of Toleration in 1689. Starting in 1682, William Penn lead 23,000 Quakers to North America where they established the colony of Pennsylvania. This severely depleted Quaker strength in England and numbers were down to 40,000 by 1700 and declined drastically by the mid-18th century, aided by their forbidding of marriage to outsiders and to first cousins. Some joined other Protestant groups, and others, who perhaps had gained more prominence in society, felt that the Anglican church was a better choice. They have remained a small and separate group ever since, but have been extremely influential in social reform. Nowadays there are about 18,000 Quakers in Britain.

Timeline[edit | edit source]

The following major events affected church history and the records. England History mentions other specific events.

1538: Thomas Cromwell ordered all parish ministers to keep a record of christenings, marriages, and burials. This record became known as the "parish register."

1598: Parish registers were required to be kept on parchment and previous registers copied onto parchment. Ministers were required to send copies of their parish registers to the bishop of the diocese. These became known as "bishops’ transcripts."

1606: A law required Roman Catholics to be baptized and married by Church of England clergy and to be buried in the churchyard. A fine was imposed for not complying. Many people obeyed regarding burials, but baptisms and marriages continued in secret.

1644: Presbyterian and Independent records began, but many of these early records no longer exist.

1653–1660: During this time, records of birth, marriage, or death were kept by a registrar or preacher appointed by the government or sometimes by the regular minister.

1656: Society of Friends (Quakers) records began. These records are unique among English religious records because they are so detailed.

1673: The Test Act excluded Roman Catholics from governmental offices and fined them for not attending Church of England services.

1695–1706: A tax was assessed on parish register entries. To avoid the tax, some people did not register events.

1698: Popery Act strengthened existing anti-Catholic laws. In effect, it placed a bounty on Catholic priests.

1733: English replaced Latin in many registers.

1735: The Wesleyan Methodist group was started by John Wesley and others.

1752: The first day of the year changed from March 25 (Lady’s Day) to January 1.

1754: Lord Hardwicke’s Act outlawed marriage outside the Church of England (except for Quakers and Jews) and required that separate registers for marriages be kept. Common law marriages were also outlawed.

1778: Papists Act, the first act for Catholic Relief. Some laws against Roman Catholics were repealed, including those related to taking and prosecuting priests. Catholics were also enabled to inherit and purchase land. Many priests started to keep records.

1780: Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest against the Papists Act 1778

1812: The George Rose Act required Church of England christening, marriage, and burial records to be kept in separate registers starting 1 January 1813. Printed forms were used.

1829: Roman Catholic Relief Act passed permitting members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster.

1837: Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths began. However, religious events were still recorded in parish registers. Bishops’ transcripts were kept less frequently.

Wikipedia has more about this subject: Religion in England

The Family History Library has several histories about various religious groups. Look in the Place Search of the Introduction to the FamilySearch Catalog under:



References[edit | edit source]

  1. John Southerden Burn, Registrum Ecclesiae Parochialis. The History of the Parish Registers of England, Also of the Registers of Scotland, Ireland, the East and West Indies, the Dissenters, and the Episcopal Chapters in and about London. 2nd ed. London: John Russell Smith, 1842. Digital version at Google Books.
  2. https://archive.org/details/censusofgreatbri00grea/page/110/mode/2up Supplement II to Table A, page 110
  3. Christensen, Penelope. "England History of Huguenots, Walloons, Flemish Religions (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_History_of_Huguenots,_Walloons,_Flemish_Religions_%28National_Institute%29.