Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Baptists of the United Kingdom and Their Records

While studying for my Archives Administration degree in Wales, I had to complete four miniature papers on various record types, which I figured I'd share here in order that the files could see the light of day again. 

The Baptists

The Baptist denomination developed in the seventeenth century in England and Holland from the separatist movement from the Church of England.  The separatists believed that the church needed to become pure, set apart from the state, and rule itself by the people to the church rather than the church to the people.

The Baptists were founded by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, with the first General Baptist church being founded in Holland in either 1608 or 1609. Helwys brought the General Baptists onto English soil, forming the first church in England in 1611. By 1650 there were around 47 Baptist churches in England. General Baptists and Particular Baptists merged in 1813, forming what later came to be known as the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Baptist Church and its various unions and branches were not centrally organized. Each church was considered independent, ruled by the Church Meeting, and as such, the survival rate of records is not uniform and the details of records are not as thorough as other denominations. The location of these records can vary as well, ranging from private hands, the individual churches, church historical societies, local archives, and the National Archives amongst others.

The following are Baptist records of particular interest:

Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths:
  • Baptisms/Births: Since Baptists by nature did not believe in infant baptism, births of children were not regularly recorded. However, needing proof of birth, scruples were often set aside and for convention’s sake infants were baptized within the Church of England. Some registers were kept in Baptist Churches, but this was not uniform nor did many survive.
  • Marriages: Hardwicke’s Marriage Act limited legal marriages to ones conducted by the established church. However, some clergy refused to marry Baptists as they had not been baptized as infants. Before this point, marriages conducted in Baptist Churches were seen as binding legal contracts. After 1837, Baptists were allowed to be married within their own churches but a civil registrar was required to be present for certification. Few Baptist marriages survive before 1688 and until 1837, finding the marriage in a Church of England register is still far more likely. 
  • Deaths/Burials: Burials could take place in the churchyard of the meetinghouse or, for ministers, under the altar, but Baptists could also be buried in the local parish churchyard. In cities such as London, there were non-conformist burial grounds, such as Bunhill Fields which has a register of burials from 1713-1854. The rise in population during the 19th century often meant that bodies had to be buried in Municipal burial grounds.

1851 Religious Census:
Every church, chapel, and religious meeting place had to fill out forms listing church attendance on 30 Mar 1851, when the church was founded, seating capacity of the church, and other miscellaneous remarks. This Census is at the National Archives.

Baptist Ministers:
Again, due to the independent nature of each chapel, records of individual ministers are not always available. If the church was part of a union or association, there may be lists compiled or biographies in the corresponding newsletter. (Example:  Index of Baptist Ministers’ Obituaries: Link)

Other Records
  • Minute Books: These will list the business operations of the Church Meeting, the ruling body of each church, and records various information about its members from services done for the church to misdemeanors committed by members. It should be noted that the minute books tend to reveal the more active members, and is not representative of the entire church membership.
  • Church Books: Membership lists are included in these books and are useful for maiden names if the woman joined the church as a single woman. Removals and entries from the church are listed with information on the conversion, why the person left, and any particular commendations. 
  • Foundation Documents: This includes the by-laws of the church and doctrinal beliefs and often includes the list of founding members.
Links and Resources:

Baptist Historical Society
Strict Baptist Historical Society
BBC. “Baptist Churches.” BBC Religions. Link (accessed 8 Feb 2010).
Breed, Geoffrey. My Ancestors Were Baptists. London: Society of Genealogists, 2002. (Note: This is in a series of books all titled My Ancestors Were...which I highly recommend.)
Traffanstedt, Chris. “A Primer on Baptist History.” The Reformed Reader. Link (accessed 6 Feb 2010).

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