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.

Until the late 18th century, there were few non-Church of England religions. Members of other churches were denied privileges or were otherwise persecuted.

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

1534: Henry VIII recognized as head of the newly created Church of England. All ties with the Pope and the church in Rome are severed (First Act of Supremacy).

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

1554: The [First] Act of Supremacy was repealed in 1554 by Henry VIII's staunchly Catholic eldest daughter, Queen Mary I.

1559: The Act of Supremacy was reinstated by Elizabeth I. Part of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement (Second Act of Supremacy).

1563: Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion set out the position of the Church of England in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and dissident Protestants.

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.

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.

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

1620: A group of Independents sailed on the Mayflower to the New World.

1630: Puritans seeking Church reform left for New England.

1642–1660: The Commonwealth period during which civil war caused political and religious upheaval. Parish registers were poorly kept.

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.

1662: Act of Uniformity prescribed the form of public prayers, administration of sacraments, and other rites of the Established Church of England. Adherence to this was required in order to hold any office in government or the church. Those ministers and their followers who withdrew from the state Church became known as Nonconformists, though originally this term referred to refusal to use certain vestments and ceremonies of the Church of England, rather than separation from it.

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

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. i.e., Protestants who dissented from the Church of England such as Baptists and Congregationalists but not to Catholics. Nonconformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers, if they accepted certain oaths of allegiance.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

1837: The first missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began preaching in the Preston, Lancashire, area.

1850: Catholic Dioceses (replacing districts) were re-established.

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.

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 FamilySearch Catalog under:




  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.