Saturday, 17 August 2013

My ancestors were... Nonconformists

Low Mill Wesleyan Chapel, Knott Lane, Rawdon
My grandmother was born here, as her father was the caretaker

A nonconformist was a person or group of people who did "not conform to" the state religion which was the Anglican church (otherwise known as the Church of England) or Roman Catholicism.

My family history is full of nonconformist ancestors, mostly Methodists or Baptists, but I also have a few Salvationists (Salvation Army followers) as well.

There are many nonconformist groups or denominations, some of the common ones in the UK are:

  • Baptists - believe in the "believer's baptism"(baptism after professing one's faith) rather than infant baptism. It is commonly performed with full immersion. The denomination was started in the early 1600s by John Smyth. (Wikipedia - Baptists)
  • Methodists - came out of the Church of England in the mid 18th century, from a small group who methodically studied the Bible. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles were a part of this small group which travelled the country preaching the Gospel. (Wikipedia - Methodism)
  • Congregationalists - believe in each congregation independently running their own affairs. The whole congregation would be involved in teaching, they believe there is no need for a priest to intercede between them and God. They believe to be the most like the early church and the movement began in the late 1500s. (Wikipedia - Congregational Church)
  • Presbyterians - the roots lie in the European Reformation of the 16th century influenced by the theologian John Calvin. They were against the hierarchy system of the state church and are governed by individual courts of church elders. (Wikipedia - Presbyterianism)
  • Quakers - separated from the Church of England in the mid-17th century and they believe that "Christ has come to teach his people himself". They are well known for silent worship, teetotalism, conscientious objectors and plain dress. (Wikipedia - Quaker)
  • Unitarians - encourage their followers to find their own Spiritual path rather than follow a religion. They believe in one God and that Jesus was a prophet rather than God itself. (Wikipedia - Unitarianism)
  • Salvation Army - sought to bring salvation to the poor, destitute & hungry. Founded by Catherine & William Booth (a Methodist minister) in 1865. (Wikipedia - Salvationist)

My great, great Uncle Ted in the Salvation Army Band c1901

How does knowing whether our ancestors were nonconformists help in the research we do?

Our nonconformist ancestors may not have been baptised, married or buried at their local parish church, but instead at their own place of worship. It is more common for parish records to be kept in full and still be available for us to view today. Nonconformist denominations often kept records also but perhaps not as fully as the Parish Church and if a church has shut down the records in the past may have become lost of even destroyed.


The different denominations have different views about baptism, which can mean that your ancestor was not baptised always as an infant. Some believed in the "believer's baptism" which meant that your ancestor would not be baptised until they felt ready to profess their faith, often in their adult lives.


Marriages before 1754 could take place in any place of worship but there were many "clandestine" (secret and illegal) marriages taking place.

In 1754, Lord Hardwick's Marriage Act was introduced to do away with "clandestine" marriages. For nearly 100 years all marriages had to take place in the Parish church by an Anglican vicar with the exception of Jews and Quakers.

In 1837 with the introduction of Civil Registration, it all changed again and Nonconformist places of worship could apply to become registered as a marriage venue, but the local Superintendent Registrar would have to be present to authorise the marriages until 1898. After this the church would have had an Appointed Person who would be responsible for maintaining an official marriage register.

Hedon Road Cemetery, Hull
If your nonconformist ancestor attended a non-registered place of worship they would have to have the legal marriage at a Registry Office followed by a religious ceremony at their place of worship.


Some nonconformist churches have their own burial grounds, but not all. By the Victorian era there were often local council cemeteries so some nonconformists may have been buried in them or even in the local Parish church burial grounds if there were no other options available.

Some useful websites to take a look at for nonconformists records are:

Other places to look for records:

  • Ask minister in charge of church if church still open
  • Local record offices
  • The National Archives
  • Some churches have their own record depositories

Some information for this blog post came from:
YOUR FAMILY TREE magazine 127
Wikipedia - Nonconformist Register
Wikipedia - Nonconformism

Copyright © 2013 Ruth Hogan

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels:
    "Back to the Homeplace" and "The Homeplace Revisited"
    The Heritage Tourist at In-Depth Genealogist: