Tracing nonconformists in England and Wales
Nonconformists did not worship in a parish church, preferring a chapel or
meeting house, meaning you will not be able to find them in parish registers. Originally, these chapels were private buildings put to religious use. They did not have burial grounds so the dead had to be buried in local churchyards. This changed with the implementation of the Toleration Act of 1691, which meant nonconformists could set up burial grounds.
Most congregations kept books of births and marriages, and after 1691,
burials. These registers were either kept by ministers who went round to each
chapel, or by the individual chapel. They were not considered admissible by a
court, so you may find the baptisms of the children of your nonconformist
ancestors in a local parish church. Baptists opposed infant baptism, so you
may find this is not the case if you have Baptists in your family.
Nearly 50,000 baptisms were registered in the General Register of Births of
Children of Protestant Dissenters at Dr William's Library in Red Cross Street,
It is possible to search records of birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial taken from non parish sources by using http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk, which is the Official Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial BMDs Service.
Different branches of nonconformists
The original Anabaptists came from Germany and then established themselves
in London. The forerunners of the Baptist churches, Anabaptists believed in
Presbyterianism became the official national creed of Scotland after the
Reformation, but remained a nonconformist sect in England. Presbyterians
believe a church should not be governed by an imposed hierarchy, but by
its own elders.
'The priesthood of all believers' was part of the creed of Congregationalists,
and they worshipped in complete equality. They were also governed by elders
that had been elected and in 1972, in conjunction with the Presbyterians, they
became the United Reformed Church.
Baptists believe in adult baptism and that everybody can obtain salvation.
Baptists have especially deep roots in Wales, but have spread throughout the
British Isles. Baptists split into different groups, but all groups are now
brought together as the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Unitarians see God as a single entity, and denied the doctrine that He is a
trinity. They also do not believe you are eternally punished for any sins
you may have committed in this life. Unitarians split into several groups, but
have now merged into a single body called the General Assembly of
Unitarian and Free Churches.
1650 Quakers (Society of Friends)
Quakers believe any sort of planned service is unnecessary, and that it
is possible to have an informal service anywhere. The records of Quakers are
usually more detailed than that of their Anglican counterparts, sometimes
including information regarding family members. Quakers kept their own
registers and indexes up to 1837 when Civil Registration
came into force.
Methodism was founded by John Wesley, and later divided into those with
Arminian and those with Calvinistic beliefs. Arminians were stronger in the
North and West of England, while those with calvinistic beliefs were stronger
1827 Plymouth Brethren
This was a small group of followers of a former Anglican named J N Darby and
spread from Plymouth to become a national congregation. They rejected the
concept of formal ministry and believed in the autonomy of every local church.
They had a strict social and religious outlook and were marred by disagreement.
They split into two groups in 1849, the groups being 'Open Brethren' and
1837 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
The Mormon Church was founded in New York in 1830, and the first British
chapel was opened in Preston in 1837. Mormons believe in the baptism of the
dead - salvation for those who made no religious commitments in their lifetime.
It is possible to search through some Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers on-line.