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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.

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.

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 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.