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Unitarian/Presbyterian Records & Registers (Nonconformist)

Nature of Source

Records and registers from the Unitarian church. The church originated in the 16th century in Poland and Transylvania and evolved in Britain from dissenting Protestant congregations such as the English Presbyterianism and to a lesser extent Baptist theology. Scottish Presbyterianism followed a distinctly different path to that of its English counterpart.

The first congregation in Britain was established by John Biddle (1615-1662) and later in the 1774 Theophilus Lindsey opened the first Unitarian chapel in Essex Street London. The prominent scientist Joseph Priestley advanced the cause of Unitarianism but fled Britain for America in 1774 where he established the first Unitarian Church in America.

The distinguishing feature of Unitarianism is the belief in one God as apposed to the conventional Christian belief of three Gods represented by the trinity. This denial of the trinity was a criminal offence until the passing of the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813. The church was active in most areas of the country but were most concentrated Lancashire, Yorkshire and Wales.

Before the early 1640s, no nonconformist sects kept registers as most strived to change the workings of the Anglican church from within. Some nonconformists were also concerned for their own safety. The Declaration of Indulgence, 1672 allowed the issue of licences for dissenter meetings and preachers. In 1688 the Dutch William of Orange seized the Crown from the Catholic James II in the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’. One of the first acts of the new monarch, now William III of England, was to pass the Toleration Act in 1689. The Act, for the first time, guaranteed freedom of worship for the dissenting groups and granted these groups the right to establish their own licensed places of worship (attendance at Anglican church services was compulsory up until the Act). Although nonconformists were forced to accept the 39 Anglican articles of faith and remained barred from public office, Protestant congregations grew in numbers along with and a growth of separate registers. Many nonconformists also recorded vital events within the established church to ensure the legality of the event so no separate registers exist.

Most registers survive after 1780 when the authorities decreed that nonconformist congregations should keep registers. Most complied with the ruling and these registers form the bulk of those handed in to the Registrar General in 1837. Collectively these registers are known as the Non-Parochial Registers and are held at The National Archives with copies available at various record offices. Most of the registers handed over to the Registrar General in 1837 were designated as English Presbyterian. Burial records of nonconformist sects are rare as many chapels could not afford the necessary ground. Furthermore, some sects did not believe in infant baptism at all whilst others saw no necessity for recording baptisms, marriages and burials. As child baptism was shunned, the baptism date is not necessarily a clue to the birth date.

Some congregations kept their own birth (not baptism) books as well as burial registers. Burial grounds were often attached to chapels and some transcriptions of Unitarian Monumental Inscriptions have been produced. Registers of burials can be found in the records of Bunhill Fields which was established in response to the 1662 Act of Uniformity which led to a general refusal by Anglican priests to bury in church ground those who would not recognise the religious supremacy of the monarch. Located in Islington just north of the city of London, over 12,000 nonconformist burials took place at the site between 1665 and 1853.

For help in finding places of worship and names of ministers consult the 'Evans List' of Dissenting Congregations and Ministers compiled in 1715 and updated in 1730, the similar 1773 Josiah Thompson List and the Surman Index of dissenting ministers compiled by Charles Surman covering the period from the mid-seventeenth century to 1972. The Surman Index is available online and the other indexes are available at Dr Williams Library.

The Hardwicke Act of 1753 ended the near anarchy of marriage ceremonies taking place outside of official jurisdiction. The Act compelled all marriages (except for Quakers and Jews) to take place in a licensed Anglican church before an Anglican minister and only after the publication of banns. After the introduction of the Act, nonconformist marriages are found in parish registers and before the act within the records of dissenting churches or the various unauthorised places of marriage. After the introduction of civil registration in 1837, all religious denominations were free to hold legal marriage ceremonies and were free to keep their own registers. Post 1837 nonconformist registers contain similar information to the Church of England parish registers. Consult directories or the Ecclesiastical Census of 1851 for the location of individual chapels.

In 1825 the British & Foreign Unitarian Association was set up as a coordinating body representing Unitarianism. A breakaway group was formed in 1881 called the National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations. The Association and the National Conference merged in 1928 to form the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

A useful resource for researching Presbyterians is the Protestant Dissenters Registry which contains records of birth registered at the Dissenters Library (Doctor William's Library). The registry allowed Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians to register the birth of a child. The register, officially known as the General Register of Protestant Dissenters, was only open to those living within twelve miles of London, however later the registry opened up to all regardless of distance and denomination. The registry began when a committee representing Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists, known as the Dissenting Deputies, arranged with the library to keep an official register of births. After a slow start the registry grew in popularity and for the years in operation from 1742 to 1837, there are 29, 865 entries. Some retrospective entries date back to 1716. The officials at the registry produced two copies of the birth certificate, one was handed to the parents and the other kept at the library. The entries were then entered into the register kept at the library. The registers and certificates were handed to the Registrar General in 1837 and are now housed at The National Archives. A typical entry should show the name of child, date and place of birth, parent's name, mother's maiden name, occasionally the names of the mother's parents and the father's occupation. The collection is available at Dr William's Library and at The National Archives in series RG 4, Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857 and in RG 5, Birth Certificates from the Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist Registry. Copies can be found at LDS FamilySearch Centers. The register is available online at www.bmdregisters.co.uk and at www.familysearch.org.

Also see
Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy
Protestant Dissenters Registry/Dr. Williams Library
Protestation Oath Returns/Oath of Allegiance
Sacrament Certificates

Where Found

The National Archives (RG 4, General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857. Also the registers of the Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist registry at Dr Williams' Library and the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry, with indexes; RG 8, General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non Parochial Registers Commission of 1857. Also records of dissenters burial grounds such as Bunhill Fields, irregular marriage records and licences issued for dissenter meetings and preachers. RG 5: General Register Office: Original birth certificates from the Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist Registry at Dr Williams' Library and from the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry)
The Harris Manchester College Archives (The library houses the Dissenting Collection which includes a major collection of books and pamphlets relating to the history of the Dissenting and Unitarian movements in England. It holds the works of famous Unitarians including James Martineau and Joseph Priestley. There is also a large collection of Dissenting periodicals and ephemera such as chapel histories, hymn books and Sunday school literature The Johnston Obituary Index is held at the library which is a collection of obituaries extracted from periodicals such as The Inquirer)
John Rylands University Library (Manuscript papers, printed books and pamphlets, periodical relating to the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers, Moravians and the Christian Brethren)
County Record Offices (Non-parochial registers; extant Unitarian church records; Church books and membership rolls)
Society of Genealogists (Copies of nonconformist registers and other nonconformist material)
National Records of Scotland (The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland [NAS] and General Register Office for Scotland [GROS])
Glasgow City Archives (Records of Baptist, Congregationalist, Evangelical, Methodist and Unitarian churches)
Dr Williams Library (Nonconformity literature and various finding aids and indexes)
LDS FamilySearch Centers (Non-parochial registers)
Lambeth Palace Library
Individual chapels

Period Covered

1774 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Baptism
Full name, address, date of baptism, possibly date of birth, name of parents, father’s occupation, name of minister
Marriage
Full name of bride and groom, address, name of bride’s father
Burial
Name date of burial, address
Other Records
Names, addresses, occupations of practicing Unitarians. Location and description of chapels and meeting houses.

Further References

Chryssides, George. The Elements of Unitarianism: Element Books, 1998

 

Gandy, Michael. Basic Facts About English Nonconformity for Family Historians: Federation of Family History Societies, 1998

 

McLaughlin, Eve. Nonconformist Ancestors: Varneys Press, 1995

 

Ruston, Alad (ed). Obituaries and Marriages of Dissenting Ministers in the Gentleman's Magazine in the 18th Century: Rushton, 1996

 

Palgrave-Moore, Patrick. Understanding the History & Records of Nonconformity, Elvery Dowers, 1994

 

Ruston, Alan. My Ancestors were English Presbyterians or Unitarians: Society of Genealogists, 2001

 

Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England and America: Harvard University Press,1952 (Available online at Pacific Unitarian Universalist)

 

National Index of Parish Registers: Society of Genealogists (A list of the parish registers with dates of available registers and where they are kept, includes nonconformist registers)

 


TNA Research Guide: Nonconformists

The EurekA Partnership
: Various titles containing transcriptions of Presbyterian Church records and registers covering Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Worcestershire

Websites

www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/unitarianism (BBC Guide to religions: Unitarianism)
www.unitarian.org.uk (The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches)
www.unitarian.org.uk/pages/history (Unitarian History)
www.ukunitarians.org.uk (Unitarians in the UK & Ireland)
www.unitarianhistory.org.uk (Unitarian Historical Society. Resources include a location list of the records and archives of most Unitarian congregations in Great Britain and an Index and Synopsis of Obituaries of Unitarian Ministers)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/unitarianism.html (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Unitarianism)
www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRunitarian.htm (History of Unitarianism)
www.search.com/reference/Unitarianism (Unitarian theology and history)
www.chapelssociety.org.uk
(The Chapels Society: The Society seeks to foster public interest in the architectural and historical importance of all nonconformist places of worship including churches, chapels and meeting houses throughout the United Kingdom)
www.thegenealogist.co.uk/researchguide/?cid=1&p=100 (The Genealogist Research Guide: Non-Conformist & Non-Parochial Records)
www.archives.wyjs.org.uk/documents/archives/Collections%20Guide%202.pdf
(West Yorkshire Archive Service: Collections Guide 2 Nonconformist Registers)
Victoria County History (Description and location of chapels and meeting houses county by county with some volumes online at British History Online. The Victoria County History series of county histories is an ongoing project recording county by county England's places and people from earliest times to the present day)
www.swheritage.org.uk/da-ls-research-guides (North Devon Record Office Information Leaflet: Nonconformist Records)
www.swheritage.org.uk/da-ls-research-guides (Devon Heritage Centre Information Leaflet Non-Conformist Records)
www.mundus.ac.uk/links.html (Links to missionary collections)
www.english.qmul.ac.uk/drwilliams (The Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies)
www.english.qmul.ac.uk/drwilliams/academies.html (The Dissenting Academies Project: The site has historical information and a timeline on the dissenting academies and Protestant dissent in the British Isles with as well as an Encyclopedia and Virtual Library System)
www.buildinghistory.org/buildings/chapels.shtml (Researching the history of chapels)
www.bmdregisters.co.uk/help.php (Guide to the Non-Parochial Registers)
www.berkshirerecordoffice.org.uk/family-history/non-parochial (Whereabouts of Berkshire nonconformist registers and other records)
www.sog.org.uk/leaflets/nonconformists.shtml (Nonconformist Records guide from the Society of Genealogists)
www.parishchest.com (Online store selling nonconformist records from a variety of suppliers)
www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/london-metropolitan-archives/visitor-information/Pages/information-leaflets.aspx (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet No. 3: Records of nonconformists in London)
www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/london-metropolitan-archives/visitor-information/Pages/information-leaflets.aspx (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet Number 60: Non-Anglican register transcripts held in London Metropolitan Archives)
www.gla.ac.uk/services/archives/news/dunaskinnews200207/sourcesforscottishchurchhistoryinthenas (Sources for Scottish Church history in the National Archives of Scotland)
www.christianstogether.net/Articles/138977/Christians_Together_in/Christian_Life/Presbyterianism_Scottish_style.aspx (Christians Together: Presbyterianism - Scottish style: Brief History of the Presbyterian Christian Church in Scotland)
www.edinphoto.org.uk/1/1_church_of_scotland.htm
(Church of Scotland and some other churches: Brief History)
www.scotland.org.uk/history/disruption (TravelScotland: The Great Disruption of 1843)
www.scotshistoryonline.co.uk/episcopal-church.html (Scottish History Online: The Scottish Roots of the Episcopal Church)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

www.unitarianhistory.org.uk (Unitarian Historical Society. Resources include a location list of the records and archives of most Unitarian congregations in Great Britain and an Index and Synopsis of Obituaries of Unitarian Ministers)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], National Register of Archives [NRA)
BMD Registers (Non-parochial registers plus other nonconformist registers and the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground records)
British Library Newspaper Collections (Whereabouts of nonconformist journals and newspapers)
www.ancestry.co.uk (England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970 This collection is mainly comprised of birth, marriage, and death registers from non-conformist congregations and churches in England and Wales that were turned over to the Registrar General following the Non-Parochial Register Act of 1840 and a later request in 1857)
www.ancestry.co.uk (Non Conformist Registers, 1694-1921: Baptism, marriage, and burial registers for many Non-Conformist churches in the greater London area digitised in partnership with London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library Manuscripts)
www.ancestry.co.uk (West Yorkshire, Non-Conformist Records, 1646-1985. The database contains registers from Nonconformist churches in the West Yorkshire area, produced in partnership with the West Yorkshire Archive Service)
www.ancestry.co.uk
(Manchester, Non-Conformist Births and Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths and Burials, 1758-1987. This database contains birth records from Nonconformist congregations in the Manchester area. These include Methodist, Quaker, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, URC, Congregationalist, Baptist, Unitarian, and Jewish congregations)
Familysearch.org (Historical Record Collections: Transcripts of baptisms, marriages and deaths extracted from Anglican parish registers and non-parochial/nonconformist registers including those held at Dr. Williams Library. The site incorporates the data formerly known as the International Genealogical Index and also data formerly sold on CD as the British Isles Vital Records Index. Nonconformist records include Cheshire Non-conformist Records, 1671-1900, Bristol Non-Conformist Registers; Non-Conformist Record Indexes transcribed from TNA series RG 4-8. The former Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File can be found under the heading of 'Family Trees')
www.batharchives.co.uk/what_we_hold/records_for_family_history/bath_ancestors_database.aspx
(Bath Record Office: Bath Ancestors Database: Unitarian Registers, 1852-1970)
www.findmypast.co.uk (Parish Records Collection: Includes access to baptism, marriage and burial registers supplied by members of the Federation of Family History Societies and other organisations. Includes records from the Bunhill Fields and Spa Fields Burial Ground which catered for mostly but by no means exclusively for Non-Conformist rather than Anglican burials)
www.findmypast.co.uk (The Cheshire Collection: Non-Conformist and Roman Catholic Records 1671-1910. The original records are held by the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies)
www.findmypast.co.uk (The Shropshire Collection, 1538-1900. The collection includes searchable transcripts and scanned colour images of Non-Conformist Shropshire registers)
www.findmypast.co.uk (Essex Memorial Inscriptions. The dataset contains records covering Anglican, Roman Catholic, Quaker, and non-conformist, as well as community and war memorials)
www.unitarianobituaries.org.uk
(Unitarian Obituaries/The Johnston Index: Index of obituaries of Unitarians from 1798 to the present extracted from Unitarian periodicals such as The Inquirer, The Christian Life and The Monthly Repository)
www.durhamrecordsonline.com (Durham Records Online: Transcripts [mainly baptisms] from Presbyterian registers covering County Durham and Northumberland)
Gloucestershire Archives' Genealogical Database (Non-conformist baptisms for some chapels in Gloucestershire. Also try searching for a named individual at the Gloucestershire Archives Online Catalogue which includes the General Personal Names Index and other specialist indexes)
www.mundus.ac.uk (Mundus Database: Catalogue of British Missionary Society records. The catalogue contains summary description of collections relating to missionary material held at various institutions and British missionary societies. The material includes missionary archives, personal papers, printed matter, maps and photographs)
www.unitarianhistory.org.uk/hsresearch4.html (Unitarian Historical Society: Obituaries of Unitarian Ministers, 1900-2004, compiled by Alan Ruston)
www.ncse.ac.uk (Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition: Free online access to digitised copies of the Monthly Repository, 1806-1837 and the Unitarian Chronicle, 1832-1833)
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk (ScotlandsPeople: Presbyterian Church Records, 1744-1855: Online access to presbyterian births and baptisms, 1744-1855; marriages and proclamations 1729-1855; death and burial records, 1783-1855)
www.findmypast.co.uk (Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688. These records document the names of those who were labelled as rebels or covenanters by the English government. They signed the National Covenant to defend their Presbyterian faith against the intrusion of the government. The transcripts were created by sources found at The National Archives and the National Library of Scotland)

CD Roms

S & N Genealogy Supplies (Worcestershire, Dudley Non-Parochial Parish Registers 1656-1837)
Gloucestershire Family History Society
(Gloucestershire Non-Conformist Transcriptions - Vol 1 Baptisms; Gloucestershire Non-Conformist Transcriptions - Vol 2 Baptisms and Burials; Gloucestershire Non-Conformist Transcriptions - Vol 3 Baptisms)
Parish Register Transcription Society
(The Sussex NonConformist Registers)
GENfair (Nonconformist data from a variety of suppliers)