British Ancestry

THE CHURCH IN ENGLAND has developed from its earliest beginnings long before written documentation made records of value. To understand these developments and effects upon recording of vital events a little of their history seems to be essential. There were some settlements of other faiths brought into this country by trade, colonialism and conquest but these were hardly as significant before the 1840's as they have become in the 20th and 21st Centuries. I shall attempt to deal with them at a later date.

While individuals and communities would have kept records of the administration of their sacraments, little documentation has survived before the middle of the Sixteenth Century. It is, however, as well to know the historical origins and tenets of the Faith and the beliefs of the variations that tend to influence the content of records.

The Apostolic Church developed into the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and other groups, united in the same Christian Faith under distinct governments. The Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches became the most powerful and eventually recognised each others authenticity, within boundaries. The fragmentation was largely brought about by the horrors of the Crusades. They destroyed all the good will formerly established by pilgrims and builders and carers of hospices and hospitals before the dawn of Islam. Serious misunderstandings and military pride caused the massacre of the Greeks in Constantinople; and of Jews, Christians and Moslems in Jerusalem. The Catholic Church became based in Rome and reliant on the power of Roman Imperial Laws that infiltrated the teaching of the Christian message. This supremacy in the West had begun to bring Church judgements into every walk of life for ordinary people. With the translations of the Holy Scriptures and the books of the daily monastic offices for the benefit of laity led to interpretations of Scripture beginning to be questioned. The powers of the Church over the lives of Everyman were interrupted in the 15th and 16th centuries, heretical factions having grown out of the interpretation of the Gospels. This led to the burgeoning of the Protestant movements in various parts of Europe where scholars such as Swingli, Luther, Calvin, and other self-opinionated individuals raised their personal interpretations. Where political leaders supported them these were forcibly imposed, often by brutal force, with mutilation and capital punishments for dissenters.

After vigorously defending the Catholic Faith against these Protestant tendencies in England and Wales, Henry VIII imposed upon his kingdom the particular variation that he had adopted in defiance of Papal authority and moral law, as the Anglican Church. While essentially still Catholic for some time, it was soon influenced by the interpretations of the aforementioned reformers. Henry achieved his split with Papal authority by a brutal extermination of those who did not accord with him. While some measure of Catholicism, often as brutally imposed was temporarily restored under Mary, subsequent imposition of the Protestant religion was forcibly spread by violent persecution to the catholic enclaves of the West Country, the North and of Ireland. This new national Church has varied from strict adherence to Catholic interpretation of the Gospels to the introduction of the opinions of individuals with a wide variety of views. Therefore, Anglicanism has gone through the stages of orthodoxy, following the tenets of Catholic churchmanship, to broad churchmanship, to a somewhat motley association with puritanical influences, and these predominated.

Seventeenth century Anglicans, at first much influenced by the Puritanical movement and strict disciplines as a counter to the apparent laxity of Catholicism, tended to veer towards Presbyterianism. They returned to a more Catholic outlook towards the end of the century, and then to a middle churchmanship until the advent of the Oxford movement and the Anglo-Catholic influences of the 19th century. These have more than divided the Church of England. These sects within the Church have fragmented it to a serious degree, without completely splitting it into those fragments. Thanks are due to Archbishop Rowan Williams for his current diplomatic Christian mission to preserve the edifice; but it remains only an outward structure in name, strengthened by the wealth of properties stolen at the Reformation. The "type" of Anglicanism varies almost from church to church and has given rise to many other movements. By the beginning of the 20th century, these were conveniently summarised as low-church, middle-church and high-church, the last progressing to "bells and smells", often more Catholic than the Catholics, in outward appearance!

The main groups of nonconformists began in the middle of the 16th century. Attendance at Anglican parish churches was still compulsory and required for all except Quakers and Jews who were regarded as belonging to two separate societies, the former as a Society of Friends. Their records have largely survived. Other nonconformists met in a clandestine fashion and kept few records that have survived. The Civil War produced "Familiarists", "Familists," "Fifth Monarchy men," "Muggletonians," "Ranters," "Seekers," among others, including George Fox's followers, know as "the Quakers"

George Fox (1624-1691) founded a Society of Friends about 1650 as a reaction against Presbyterianism. It is characterised by there being an absence of any ministry, of sacraments, or of ritual. Meetings have no formal structure, but depend upon the spontaneous contributions of personal spiritual expression and thoughts from those attending, as the "inner light" moves them. Quaker, like the term Methodist, originated as a somewhat derogatory nickname.

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Toleration Act of 1689 led to more relaxed view on religious matters and the various groups, later developing into the United Reformed Church encapsulated several of these into independent congregations maintaining their own records. The various groups began to keep their records of their meetings until the 1837 General Registration Act advised non-Anglicans to surrender their registers to the Registrar General. Such records may still exist in private hands, as I have found from experience. is a helpful site as are those for the immigrant communities that brought their own religious practices to our islands and formed influential settlements keeping records of their meetings, as do Presbyterians and similar groups that developed from them. The Huguenots also maintained important collections, and, provides another important site for enquiry.

Methodism arose from the preaching in the period 1735-1780 of the Anglican clergyman, John Wesley who was inspired by the Lutheran reform movement that began in the Moravian provinces of Bohemia. He had support from his brother Charles and also from George Whitfield. Their purpose was to reform the largely dissolute Church of England by then chiefly governed by the hunting, shooting and fishing squirearchy of the period. The best sources for these clergy are the alumni of the universities and later clergy lists, Gentry, Law, Army and Navy lists usually catering for the rest of the sons!

Countess of Huntingdon's Connection was an intellectual Calvanist-Methodist Sect founded in 1749 by Celina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), a close associate with the Wesley brothers. Through Lady Huntingdon's social position and her policy of building chapels in fashionable towns, the connection was influential in spreading Methodism among the upper classes.

The New Jerusalem Church or New Church was founded in 1787 followed the revelational doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that he was the medium through which the New Jerusalem, foretold in the Book of Revelations, would be founded upon earth. Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher and politician (1688-1722) whose religious and mystical writings form the basis of the theology of this new church, often named after him.

Founded around 1828-1832 by Edward Irving (1792-1834), a Scottish Presbyterian preacher and theologian, expelled from his ministry for heresy in 1833, the Catholic Apostolic Church (Irvingites) relied for its foundation upon the charismatic personality and alleged apocalyptic visions of Irving himself. Initially, it appeared to be Pentecostal in character, but under Irving's dynamic leadership, the church was subverted into an elaborately ritualistic liturgy developed by his followers. It attracted wealthy industrialists and merchants whom the cynical ecclesiastical or social historian may view as belonging to a newly rich section of society that would wish to emulate the country squires and gentry with their own pews in churches labelled with engraved brass plates! Several magnificent cathedral-like edifices were erected. By the early twentieth century these became shared with and ultimately possessed by independent High Church Anglo-Catholics. Their registers are suitably inscribed in the finest calligraphic hands in similarly appropriate books!

The Fundamentalists - A Puritanical Sect founded in Ireland in the late 1820s by A.N. Groves and John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), and others, was established in England at Plymouth. It is often still referred to as Plymouth Brethren. It split up in 1847 into the Exclusive Brethren and the Open Brethren; both are fundamentally members of a group of English Protestants who regarded the reformation of the Church of England under Elizabeth as incomplete. Seeking to simplify and regulate the forms of worship, particularly the practice of an extreme strictness in religion and morals they were particularly scrupulous, severe and austere, and not unrelated to the great spiritual purity that the Medieval Sect, the Cathars sought to achieve.

The 1837, the General Registration Act strongly advised non-Anglicans to surrender their registers to the Registrar General, largely because there was Biblical objection to the national system and several sects would only admit adult Baptised. After that date it was (somewhat erroneously) assumed that all events of "hatch, match and despatch" would be recorded among the Public Records.

In similar mode to the preaching of Swedenborg and founded in the United States of America in 1844 by the followers of a Baptist preacher, William Miller, was the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Miller had claimed that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1843. Adventists who observe a Saturday Sabbath believe in the imminence of the literal Second Coming. While the date is continuing changing according to predictions disputed amongst their leadership, "errors" are not actually admitted! We have experienced half-a-dozen dates within the past seventy years.

On similar lines to the Anglo-Catholics, founded in London about 1908, the Liberal Catholic Church came into existence. It was highly ritualistic, combining elements of Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies. Theologically, it was distinct from these churches by eschewing the gloomy elements of conventional Christian eschatology. By contrast, the Christadelphians were a fundamental sect founded in the U.S. in the late 1840s by an Englishman, John Thomas (1805-1871). They were convinced that the world would end at the end of the century or the beginning of the 19th century. They had similar views at the end of the 20th century and have now virtually disappeared from the scene.

In the 1820's a novel was written based upon a supposition that Jesus Christ may have gone to America. In the publishing house where it had been left and ultimately for fear of its provocative contents, thrown in the waste bin, it was found by a cleaner, the mother of an imaginative young man. He, Joseph Smith, developed the idea and supported by Brigham Young, and others, founded a cult that became a religion based upon several Protestant faiths. It was established after the lynching of Joseph Smith and the escape of Brigham Young and his followers to the Salt Lake area of Utah in 1830. There they expanded the tale of their foundation. This cult depended for its wealth upon compulsory subscriptions for each progress through a quasi-apostolic hierarchy of pseudo-Free-Masonic origins. By the end of the Nineteenth century as the Church of Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons they had introduced the scheme of baptism of ancestors by proxy and the genealogical movement that ultimately established their magnificent library and collections of records was begun.

The "Christian Revival Association" was founded in Whitechapel, in 1865 by William Booth (1829-1912) and Mrs Katherine Booth (1829-1890). The name, "The Salvation Army", was adopted in 1878. This is a strong evangelical sect, deriving from Wesleyan Methodism. It is characterised by quasi-military rhetoric and style of dress, music, and so on, and by the indefatigable apostleisation of the working classes and by its excellent social work.

The Watch Tower Society - Throughout the 19th century, with rising education, an increasing number of organisations were established, usually as "one man bands", that is by individuals promoting their own cause. They published tracts depending upon enthusiastic pyramid selling of books of prophecies on a commission basis and persistent evangelical proselytising with promises and fears of the apocalyptic finale.

Founded in the United States of America, it was not until 1931 that followers of one such writer Charles Taze Russell and his alleged prophetic visions began to call their group Jehovah's Witnesses. Russell prophesied the end of the world at the end of the century. His followers became a strong evangelical millenarian sect. They invaded the middle class on seaside holidays between the two great wars of the 20th century. Promotion of the cults and distribution of Russell's books and more recently the publications of other followers was on a commission basis. It is not easy to obtain membership lists, but most householders in any election list would admit to having had callers and even succumbing to donating to a cause for a book they are never likely to read.

Of course, the increasing conflicts in which British forces became involved tended to augment individual reliance upon chaplains and preachers, prayer and association with religion. This was respected and became a criterion of data for recruitment into the armed forces. Regiments and national recruitment records are also valuable among the Public Records..

Also in the early 20th century, a movement originating in the U.S.A. combining biblical fundamentalism with belief in the "gift" of the Holy Ghost to individual members was designated Pentecostalism. It manifested itself in ecstatic and inspirational behaviour. The name, of course, refers to the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles at Pentecost, the Jewish harvest festival. It absorbs one of the ideas of Swedenborganism.

The Elim Pentecostal Church was one of the two main British Pentecostal churches founded in 1915, originally as the Elim Foursquare Gospel Alliance. Their "chapel movement", shared much with the Methodists, records being of a similar kind.

The Jezreelites was founded in the 1880's by James Rowland White (alias James Jershom Jezreel) from the Old House of Israel founded by John Wroe desceded from the Southcottians. An account of their origins and records appears in Kent Family History Society Journal Vol.12 No.3 pp.202-204 for June 2008. - 00 - 00 - 00 - 00 -

Above is a potted historical survey of the origins of influences upon the spiritual well being of our ancestors who tried to practise their lives according to their understanding of the Christian Faith. They were the influences that kept families together in past generations. Studying their records and tenets of belief objectively need not disturb the beliefs of any student of family history. They will simply provide an insight into what may have moulded the lives and behaviour of individual ancestors.

For the genealogist and family historian, the Catholic Church has left the care of registers of Baptism, Marriage and Burial to its clergy since the Council of Trent in the Sixteenth Century. and may be found helpful. A few years later in the 1538, the Church of England instituted the practice of keeping authorised register books for these sacraments. The collection of testamentary depositions and parish records by Dioceses, Archdeaconries and the rest of the complex medieval ecclesiastical structure have been absorbed into the records of the National Archives and of diocesan record offices with many copies of parish and probate records at the Society of Genealogists

There are several useful indexes also at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. and through The Genealogical Society of Utah.
13 July 2008

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