Who were the nonconformists?
Elizabeth I attempted to end decades of turmoil by making the Church of England the established church in 1558. ‘Nonconformist’ refers to a Protestant who did not conform to its regulations, sacraments or customs.
Examples of popular non-Anglican Protestant denominations include Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers. Baptists emerged in the early 1600s, as a reaction to Church of England practices that were formalised during the Reformation, while John and Charles Wesley laid the foundations of the Methodist Society in 1729 when they set up the Holy Club prayer meetings at Christ Church, Oxford.
If your ancestor was a nonconformist, you may get two bites of the cherry because many nonconformists would be recorded within Church of England baptism and marriage registers as well as in records created by their own denomination. Collections of nonconformist birth, marriage and death registers are already available online, but we have also chosen some lesser-known resources.
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Nonconformist family history: The best websites
This site has millions of nonconformist records from The National Archives, which were deposited with the registrar general in 1841 (another collection was made in 1857). Nonconformists (aside from Quakers) had to marry in Anglican churches from 1754, and many congregations did not have their own burial grounds, so most of the registers here record baptisms or births. There is also a large collection of Quaker marriages and more. Viewing a full record or page image costs five credits (10 credits cost £5), or you can instead access the site via a subscription to TheGenealogist. The records are also now available on both Ancestry and Findmypast.
The dictionary contains information relating to the nonconformist denomination of Methodism in Britain and Ireland, covering people – including preachers and ministers – as well as places of worship, practices, communities, schools and colleges. This is an online version of a book originally published by Epworth Press in 2000, which has been hugely expanded since launching online over a decade ago. The number of entries has more than doubled, and the editors have attempted to increase sections covering the work of lay Methodists, women and members of branches of Methodism other than the Wesleyans. You’ll also find that many entries include portraits and illustrations.
The Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Central London holds a host of archives about the nonconformist Quaker community, as well as records of meetings in London and Middlesex; records of meetings held elsewhere will normally be in local archives and libraries. It also has some 200 periodicals; about 80,000 books and pamphlets, including a collection of 17th century Quaker and anti-Quaker material; and archives relating to prominent Quakers and Quaker organisations. Because of their beliefs many Quakers became conscientious objectors during the Second World War, and the library also holds the archives of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors.
The Baptist Historical Society’s site includes all kinds of information about the early history of this nonconformist denomination; the central pillars of its beliefs and customs; and links, videos and publications. Although actual data is thin on the ground, you will find advice about tracing Baptists here. Because of the custom of baptism through total immersion in water, and only when old enough to fully commit and understand the practice, baptisms are not to be found in parish registers, but will often feature in local churches’ minutes. The society also has an index of obituaries listing many Baptist ministers since 1790, which you can download as a Microsoft Access database file.
Sources held here include circuit preaching plans, issues of the Methodist Magazine, and Wesleyan Methodist student registers. The centre has also developed an online image library of thousands of Methodist buildings across the UK.
Chosen by Stuart A Raymond, author of Tracing Your Nonconformist Ancestors:
“The 1662 Act of Uniformity led to the expulsion of some 2,000 dissenting ministers from their living in the Church of England. It also led to a religious test at the universities that excluded dissenters because of their nonconformist beliefs. Many expelled ministers were university men; some had been tutors at Oxford or Cambridge. Teaching provided a means for them to earn a living. Some of them attracted sufficient students to form academies, providing university-level education. Dissenting academies expanded rapidly in the decades after the 1689 Toleration Act, which allowed most nonconformists to worship publicly provided they swore an oath of allegiance, and played a key role in providing trained dissenting ministers for various denominations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Dissenting Academies Online is a major database and encyclopedia for the study of these institutions between 1660 and 1860. It includes accounts of each academy, biographies of leading figures, and biographical data for approximately 11,000 students. It also includes a comprehensive guide to archival sources, and an extensive bibliography. It can be browsed alphabetically, by student or tutor name, by academy, or by archive repository.
“For example, a search for an academy at Marlborough in Wiltshire identifies one run by Cornelius Winter between 1783 and 1788, and names 15 of his students. It also cites the source of this information. Winter’s first student was Thomas, the son of Thomas Higgs, gentleman of Bristol. He was born in 1769, but sadly died in 1789 at Painswick while he was still a student. He also studied for a brief period at Oxford. Bristol Baptist Academy, found in 1720, was a much larger institution; the database provides information on 18 tutors and 672 students.
“If you have nonconformist relations in your family tree then it is well worth searching this free database to see if they studied or taught in one of these dissenting academies.”
More nonconformist websites
Find out more about Ancestry’s nonconformist registers from the London Metropolitan Archives.
This site includes a history of the union, which was founded at Llanwenarth on 21 August 1886.
This is a great source of advice for researching Methodists. There’s also My Methodist History, as well as allied websites focusing on Primitive Methodists and Wesleyan Methodists.
Learn the story of nonconformity in Wales from this Welsh Religious Buildings Trust website.
Find out more about the key Quaker collections held at the library of the University of Leeds.
This is a leading body for Quaker research.
Find out more about the group’s library, events, meetings and publications.
Learn how to find nonconformist material at TNA, and archives and libraries across the UK.
The society’s site is a useful stomping ground, with an introduction to Methodist genealogy as well as links to regional societies and archives.
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History