Nonconformist records

The early Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterian congregations probably created few records, of which even fewer have survived. In Surrey it is only from the late 18th century that there is a significant survival of records of individual churches.

Surrey History Centre holds records deposited by various churches. Many other church records have not yet been deposited and remain in the churches. Some church records, together with records of central and regional church bodies, are held by church or other agencies.

Other records relating to nonconformity are held by Surrey History Centre amongst official records, such as those of the Surrey Court of Quarter Sessions, and amongst personal and other papers.

Early history of nonconformity

The early history of nonconformity will not be found in the records of nonconformist churches. Before the 18th century it is necessary to look in other records for example in Church of England parish registers for baptisms or in episcopal visitations for information about nonconformists in parishes. Buildings used for nonconformist worship had to be registered at Quarter Sessions and certificates of registered meeting houses can be found in the Quarter Sessions records.

From the 18th century the main source of information is the records of each church. Early nonconformity did not have the denominational headings in use today. The situation was much more fluid with movement between groups according to personal emphases, perhaps following a particular preacher as at the Baptist church in Eden Street, Kingston. Denominationalism became clearly established in the 19th century and was partly the result of theological differences between the Calvinist and Arminian strands of thought, the one believing in predestination and the other in redemption through faith.

There are few nonconformist records before the 18th century and few survive in Surrey before the late 18th century. An important surviving document is likely to be the first church meeting book, sometimes just called the church book, which often contains a statement on the founding of the church and lists of founder members. The different denominations often imitated each other's forms of church government which is reflected on the types of records created. Six main nonconformist churches developed. However, as many had groups which broke away, or more recently moved to unite as with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the picture is one of considerable complexity.


The distinguishing feature of Baptist beliefs is adult believers' baptism. Their church government origins were as independent congregations. They were not much concerned with ministers at first, often setting up one of their leaders to be pastor. The church secretary was also an important figure. However, training for ministers is now regarded as much more important.

Their early rejection of state interference in their affairs still influences their attitude to the deposit of records and even to their own groupings, all affiliations being voluntary. They often do not call themselves Baptist churches in their titles.

The mainstream churches are the Baptist Union churches. There are also Strict Baptists (only those who have received adult baptism are admitted as members and receive Communion). These in turn are divided into those who are affiliated to the three regional Associations of Strict Baptist chapels and the unaffiliated churches.

Baptist church records include minutes of the church meeting (pastoral matters) and the deacons' meeting (which acts as a kind of executive and deals mainly with property and finance), membership rolls, transfer and dimission forms for members moving between churches, registers (a few), records of dedication of infants, accounts and deeds (these may be held by the Baptist Union). There may also be records of other committees set up by the deacons' meeting. Records of Baptist Sunday Schools are significant as attendance was important for children and adults. There may also be records of a nondenominational organisation called Christian Endeavour which was important for prayer, adult education, library, social and sports events.

National records include those of the Baptist Union Assembly, headed by a President, and the Associations of Strict Baptist Chapels.


The Congregationalists were originally called Independents. A number of these independent self-governing congregations date back to 1662.

  • In 1797 the Surrey Mission was set up. It was undenominational, but developed into Congregational or Baptist churches.
  • In 1832 the Congregational Union was established nationally.
  • In 1863 the Surrey Congregational Union was set up.
  • In 1972 they united with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church.

Congregationalist records include records of the church meeting, elders and deacons, and can include pastoral matters as well as references to finance and property. As the United Reformed Church an organisational structure has been developed with connexional links like the Methodists.


Methodists are probably the most bureaucratic of the nonconformist churches, reflecting the control originally exerted by John Wesley, which also led to the creation of a lot of records. They are also strongly centralised, with churches grouped in circuits and districts and with an annual conference. The first conference was in 1744. The division into districts occurred at the end of the 18th century. There are now 32, each with its district synod. They are heavily dependent on ordained ministers, but there is also lay involvement at all levels.

Early groups were called Societies. They did not wish to leave the Church of England but were eventually forced to by the steps taken by John Wesley to ordain new ministers. The Societies were organised in circuits (sometimes called Rounds in the early years). Ministers are appointed to a circuit, not to a particular church.

County Record Offices have records from individual churches, from circuits or from the District. Both circuits and districts have various committees. The position is complicated by the various splits and reforms that the church has gone through at various times. The records of the Methodist Connexion (the annual conference records) are held by John Rylands library in Manchester. Circuits in the Primitive Methodist Church were called stations. Circuit plans are important in Methodist Church records. The information they give includes lists of churches, officials and names of local (= lay) preachers.

Locally held records include those of the Circuits (Quarterly meetings, since 1974 called Circuit Meetings)and of local churches, including Leaders meetings and Trustees meetings for dealing with pastoral and property matters. They have been united since 1974 and are called Church Councils. There may be a range of other committees including Family and Neighbourhood, Pastoral, World Service, Property, Finance and Mission.

Methodist people who appear in the archives include ministers and laity. They might be Chairmen of Districts, Superintendent ministers of circuits (who also have their own churches), Circuit ministers serving individual churches, usually more than one, Circuit stewards and Church stewards.

  • Founder John Wesley, 1703-1791
  • The break with the Church of England occurred in 1795
  • Various groups broke away at different times from the Wesleyan Methodist church: The Methodist New Connexion in 1797, Bible Christians in 1815 and other breakaway groups which formed the United Methodist Free Church in 1875. These three groups formed the United Methodist Church in 1907.
  • The Primitive Methodist Church broke away in 1811


Presbyterians were Puritans opposed to the Elizabethan church settlement and its organisation, in particular bishops.

Ministers and leaders/elders of congregations were grouped in Presbyteries each with a Moderator elected annually. Elders are ordained to pastoral care therefore continue for life. This system was set up in Scotland in the 17th century but was never really established in England. An attempt was made to do so in the 1640s by the Westminster Assembly which established the articles of faith known as the Westminster Confession, a sort of nonconformist 39 Articles. Counties were divided into classes. In Surrey there were 6 of which Reigate was the only one to function as far as we know (the Victoria County History of Surrey, vol II has a section on church government in Surrey which provides further information). With the ascendancy of Cromwell, who was an Independent, the attempt broke down. Churches survived independently, which emphasised the importance of ministers and their authority.

  • 1836 Presbyterian Church established
  • 1876 Presbyterian Church of England established
  • 1972 Presbyterians joined with Congregationalists in United Reformed Church

Presbyterian records include records of the church meeting, elders and deacons, and can include pastoral matters as well as references to finance and property. As the United Reformed Church an organisational structure has been developed with connexional links like the Methodists.


The Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers being a nickname that they have adopted. They were a group of radical Puritans founded by George Fox (d.1691). They refused to acknowledge any claims of the state, declining to pay church rates or tithes or to serve in the militia because of their pacifist beliefs.

As a result they got into a lot of trouble They do not have any ministers or clergy, but some are recognised as having particular gifts in ministry and are called ministering friends. They are the most highly organised nonconformist group and careful about their records.

Records: national structure

  • Yearly meeting (at Friends House in London)
  • Quarterly meeting, later General Meeting (roughly a county division)
  • Monthly meeting (a smaller unit comprising groups of congregationalists)
  • Preparative meeting (individual congregations)

Records: individual Congregations

  • Monthly meeting minutes (early on men's and women's held separately)
  • Ministering friends and elders minutes
  • Preparative meeting minutes
  • Sufferings book, a record of the sufferings of Friends at the hands of the law
  • Membership lists
  • Copies of national records, such as circulars from yearly and quarterly meetings
  • Guildford Quaker records include a book with copy minutes of the yearly meeting 1827-1832


The Unitarian Church arose out of a controversy about the doctrine of the Trinity in the early 18th century, and had adherents from other churches such as the Baptists and Congregationalists. Sometimes a congregation followed the pastor's persuasion and became Unitarian and those who disagreed left. A General Assembly of Unitarian churches was set up in 1928.

Surrey History Centre holds the records of Meadrow Unitarian Church (formerly Baptist Chapel), Godalming and of Ward Street Unitarian Church, Guildford. The records for Meadrow include a minute book 1699-1841, and annual reports 1891 - 1928.

Sources for further information on nonconformity

  • My Methodist History website
  • Mullett, M. Sources for the history of English Nonconformity, 1660-1830. Archives and the use No 8. British Records Association, 1991.
  • Himsworth, S. Nonconformist Records: a brief introduction. SRO Guide No 1. Surrey Record Office, 1987.
  • Robinson, D. Pastors, parishes and people in Surrey. Phillimore for Surrey Local History Council, 1989.
  • Milligan, E. and Thomas, M. My ancestors were Quakers. Society of Genealogists, 1983.
  • Breed, G. My ancestors were Baptists. Society of Genealogists, 2002.
  • Leary, W. My ancestor was a Methodist. Society of Genealogists, 1990.
  • Webb, C. National index of parish registers, vol 4 part 1, Surrey. Society of Genealogists, 1990.
  • A particularly useful book, especially for family historians, this provides a guide to Anglican, Roman Catholic and nonconformist registers and lists all the churches and chapels of the various religious denominations known to have existed in each parish, with dates of building or when flourishing, if known, and also details of surviving registers.
  • Steel, D.J. Sources for nonconformist genealogy and family history. Phillimore for the Society of Genealogists, 1973.

Some useful addresses

  • Dr William's Library, 14 Gordon Square, London WC1H OAG has much general material on the history of English Protestant nonconformity and especially for the Presbyterian and Congregational churches.
  • Regents' Park College, Angus Library, Pusey Street, Oxford OX1 2LB has material relating to Baptist history including record and papers of the Baptist Union Library.
  • Methodist Archives and Research Centre, John Rylands University Library, Deansgate, Manchester M3 3EH has much material relating to John and Charles Wesley and national and district Methodist records.
  • United Reformed Church History Society, 86 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT.
  • Library of the Religious Society of Friends, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ.
  • Manchester College, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TD has extensive Unitarian history collections.