Nonconformist records

Nonconformists can be defined as people who did not follow the established church. The history of nonconformity in England begins with the English Reformation and the establishment of the Act of Uniformity in 1559, which meant that any church other than the established Anglican Church was nonconformist.

This page only considers the records produced by non-Anglican, Protestant denominations of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, the United Reformed Church and Unitarians in Surrey. Please see separate sections for Roman Catholic and Jewish records in Surrey.

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.

Baptists

The distinguishing feature of Baptist belief is that the sacrament of baptism should only be given to adults. Baptists originated as independent congregations holding a range of Puritan beliefs. Early Baptists fell into roughly three main groupings:

  • General Baptists were formed c.1612 by Thomas Helwys in London. They adopted the Arminian theology of salvation for all, not just a predestined elect. General Baptists also believed in full religious freedom.
  • Particular Baptists were formed in the 1630s from groups who broke away from the Calvinist Separatist Church in London. They remained Calvinistic in theology, that is, holding the belief in salvation for a predestined elect, but were generally more independent.
  • Strict Baptists would only allow communion to those they had accepted into membership.

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 who are 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.

Congregationalists

The Congregationalist Church has its roots in the Puritan Movement of the European Reformation. The Congregationalists were originally called Independents, and a number of these independent self-governing congregations date back to 1662. The Congregationalist Church is defined by its belief that the power of the church lies with each individual congregation and not in the church hierarchy. Each individual church appoints its own minister and controls its own internal discipline. Apart from this the church has the Calvinist traditions of belief in the final authority of scripture and the salvation by faith alone.

  • 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.

In 1972, not all Congregationalists joined the union with the Presbyterians and some churches still remain independent of it.

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 connectional links like the Methodists.

Methodists

Methodism has its origin in an informal group of members of the University at Oxford between 1729 and 1735 under the leadership of John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788). The aim of the early Methodists was not to form a separate church but to reach out to sections of the population that the Church of England was neglecting. They encouraged churchgoers to live their religion rather than merely attend church services. However after a period of conflict with Anglicans they became a separate church with their own chapels licensed under the Toleration Act of 1800.

The Methodist Connexion is divided up into regional Districts, which often cover areas from several counties. Each District consists of a number of Circuits. The Circuits are made up of a number of individual churches. The ordained ministers within a Circuit may each have responsibility for several of the churches in the Circuit. There are also a number of lay preachers within each Circuit who lead worship at the churches when a minister is not present.

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 which 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.

Presbyterians

Presbyterianism was developed out of the European reformation in the 16th century. John Knox, a Scotsman brought the French reformer Calvin's teachings back to Scotland. In 1707 Presbyterianism was confirmed as the means of Church Government in Scotland. The church is structured in local, regional and national 'courts' or councils and these are governed by 'elders' who can be either elected laymen or paid ministers. The local council is known as the Kirk Session and consists of the minister and a number of 'elders'. The regional council is called a Presbytery and oversees all of the local churches in the area. The national council known as a General Assembly meets once a year and decides on the laws of the church and the priorities for each year.

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 six of which Reigate was the only one to function as far as we know (the Victoria County History of Surrey, volume 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.

Presbyterian records include records of the church meeting, elders and deacons, and can include pastoral matters as well as references to finance and property. In 1972, Presbyterians joined with Congregationalists in United Reformed Church. As the United Reformed Church, an organisational structure has been developed with connectional links on the model of the Methodists.

Quakers

The Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends. They were a group of radical Puritans founded by George Fox in the 1640s as a consequence of the turmoil of the Civil War. Quakers rejected formal services, ministers, and churches and stressed the equality of all. While they do not have any ministers or clergy, some are recognised as having particular gifts in ministry and are called ministering friends. Quakers expressed the incompatibility of God and warfare and many were conscientious objectors in times of war.

The administration of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers, was highly organised, and consisted of:

Records: national structure

  • Yearly meeting (at national level, at Friends House in London)
  • Quarterly meeting, later General Meeting (roughly a county division)
  • Monthly meeting (at district level, 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

Unitarians

The main Unitarian belief is that they see God as one entity rather than believing in the trinity. Due to the Toleration Act of 1689 the Unitarian Church did not become legal in England until 1813. Before this time the Unitarians were known as Rational Dissenters. The idea spread through both the Church of England and the non-conformists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Other non-conformists including Presbyterians and Anabaptists joined the church. In the 19th century James Martineau revolutionised traditional Unitarian thinking by shifting the focus from biblical texts to a new faith based on reason. It is one of the few churches that have accepted Darwin's theories. 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
  • Gandy, Michael. Tracing Nonconformist Ancestors. Public Record Office, 2001.
  • Himsworth, S. Nonconformist Records: a brief introduction. SRO Guide No 1. Surrey Record Office, 1987.
  • Mullett, M. Sources for the history of English Nonconformity, 1660-1830. Archives and the use No 8. British Records Association, 1991.
  • Palgrave-Moore, P, Understanding the History and Records of Nonconformity. Elvery Dowers, 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.
  • Steel, D.J. Sources for nonconformist genealogy and family history. Phillimore for the Society of Genealogists, 1973.
  • The Geneaologist website has digitised birth, marriage and death records from nonconformist archives, and is available to use free of charge at Surrey History Centre.

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