What were ‘Dissenting’ Churches?

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Thanks to our researcher, David Matthew, for this week’s blog about dissenting or non-conformist churches, with special reference to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, which we were asked about this week:

Background: unity under the Pope

Christianity was widespread in Britain—which was part of the Roman Empire—by the end of the third century AD.
In mainland Europe the western part of the Roman Empire soon came under serious threat from northern invaders and the last Roman legions in Britain left in 410 AD to defend Gaul and Italy from the invaders. With Britain undefended, pagan invaders from northern Germany poured in across the North Sea, destroying the church in eastern England and south-east Scotland. They were the Angles and Saxons.

British Christians fled westwards across the country from the invaders. This led to a situation where a belt of pagans down the eastern side of Britain cut off the British church at the western side—known as the Celtic Church—from the church in mainland Europe, which was centred on Rome and was effectively the Roman Catholic Church.

The two styles of Christianity in Britain developed quite separately, with the Celtic Church being overall simpler and less ritualistic in its approach than the Roman Church. Eventually, the Bishop of Rome, by this time known as the Pope, became unhappy with the Celtic Church’s isolation and in 597 AD sent Augustine to England to bring them into his fold. Augustine established a base in Canterbury and began evangelising the pagan Angles and Saxons, many of whom embraced Christianity.

In due course, as Roman Christianity spread in eastern Britain, the two styles of Christianity came to exist side by side and a confrontation became inevitable. This took place at the Synod of Whitby in 664, chaired by King Oswy of Northumbria. Representatives of both sides presented their cases, and Oswy declared the Roman Church the winner. After that, the Celtic Church faded rapidly and British Christianity in due course became all of the Roman Catholic variety.

The search for truth brings disunity: the Reformation

This state of affairs continued largely unchanged until the 16th century, when the Reformation took place. On the continent Martin Luther (Germany) and John Calvin (France and Switzerland) led many away from what they believed was a Roman Catholic Church too corrupt to change. They formed what soon came to be called Protestant churches—so called because they protested against the Pope’s attempts to dictate their doctrine and lifestyle.

In Britain at this period Henry VIII was on the throne. Piqued by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce, he took the English church away from Rome’s jurisdiction and declared himself head of the church in his realm. Thus was born the Church of England. English Reformers, taking advantage of Henry’s action, quickly influenced the shape of church life in Britain in the direction of greater freshness and vitality. At the same time, Henry dissolved the many monasteries, seeing them as dangerous focus-points of remaining loyalty to Rome. The Church of England became the national church.

Further fragmentation: the Dissenters

All this gave English Christians an intoxicating taste of freedom, and some of them began to feel that the reforms under King Henry has failed to go far enough. Many, for instance, wanted the episcopal system of church government (a bishop over a diocese) replaced by a Presbyterian system (several ‘elders’ in each local church). They believed this to be more in line with the Bible’s teaching.

Others believed that the baptism of babies, practised by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, should be abandoned in favour of the baptism of believers only, that is, those old enough to make a personal commitment to Christ. In these and other desires these people dissented from the teaching of the mainstream, established church.

In the 17th century some of them withdrew completely and set up new churches where they could incorporate their preferred practices without interference. They were called ‘dissenters’, ‘separatists’ or ‘independents’, and many were severely persecuted for their stand, some even executed. Desperate for freedom to worship in line with the dictates of the consciences, without outside interference, some even left Britain for the New World—the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. Over the next twenty years some 20,000 followed them to America.

Back in England, two groups managed to establish themselves as sizeable denominations on the basis of their form of church government, which they felt should come from every member having a vote. These were the Congregational Church, who practised infant baptism, and the Baptist Church (formed in 1611), who baptised only believers—and did it by full immersion. Gradually these and other groups became better tolerated and were allowed to exist alongside the Church of England.

As the 17th century drew on, more and more groups split away from the existing denominations to establish new ones emphasising some particular biblical truth or practice that they felt to be more important than unity with the existing churches. One of these was the Society of Friends (the Quakers), started by George Fox.

Revival and more new denominations: 18th century

The 18th century saw widespread spiritual revival in England, with two Anglican ministers as the key figures: George Whitefield and John Wesley. Wesley in particular became convinced that the Church of England was sadly in no condition to nurture the tens of thousands of ordinary Britons who were becoming committed Christians in the revival. Reluctantly, therefore, he established the Methodist Church to do the job.

George Whitefield, who had introduced John Wesley to the novelty of open-air preaching, saw equal success in terms of converts. In his work he enjoyed the support of an influential lady, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (born 1707). As a member of the Church of England, she used her considerable influence to steer evangelical ministers into many parishes. She also appointed George Whitefield and others as her personal chaplains, a way of providing them with financial support to continue their wider work.

The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion

As a peer of the realm, the Countess was permitted to open private chapels attached to her various residences, and she used these to the full for the propagation of the gospel. She also opened a college for training young men for the ministry, but the trainees found it increasingly difficult to find posts as ordained ministers in Anglican churches.
Indeed, many Anglican clergy, unhappy with all the Countess was doing, put pressure on her and she eventually left the Church of England. The churches linked with her and her colleagues thus became a separate denomination  called the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, and their first ordination service took place in 1783.
The Connexion’s articles of faith kept much in common with those of the Church of England, but also drew elements from other sources, such as the Westminster Confession. Their position was basically Calvinistic and they retained infant baptism. The Countess died in 1791. The denomination still exists today but is quite small—just over twenty congregations. It also has a branch in Sierra Leone.

If you want to see more of David’s writings, do check out his personal website: davidmatthew.org.uk

Will the 1939 Register help your family history research?


The 1939 Register, in all its digital glory, was released by Find My Past this week and has caused quite a stir amongst professional genealogists. Controversies abound: Is it too expensive? Too heavily censored? Or too difficult to search?

For the pros hoping to use the 1939 Register on a daily basis, all these questions are very important. But what does this new source mean to you, if you only want to use it for your own family history research? Are you likely to find out anything new about your ancestors and is it worth the money?

Q. What is the 1939 Register?

A. It’s a survey of all British households taken on 29th September 1939, just a few weeks after the start of World War II. Members of the household were recorded at each address and the following details taken:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Whether an Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient, Inmate (Institutions only)
  • Marital status
  • Occupation
  • Notes, such as if the individual had previously had any military experience.

Q. Why is it important?

A. Apart from electoral rolls, the most recent useful document we can access is the 1911 census. The 1921 census won’t be available until the 100-year rule allows it to be published, the 1931 census went up in smoke during World War Two and the 1941 census was never taken. This means that the 1939 Register is a useful stopgap during nearly 30 years of our recent history. It provides information about what ordinary British people were doing on the brink of war.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. £6.95 to “unlock” a household, once you have seen a preview, or £24.95 for a batch of five households. If you are a 12-month subscriber you receive a one-off discount code of 20% on the bigger package.

If you’re choking into your coffee at the price, Sarah William’s blogpost helped me a little, although I still have to say because of the high cost, it won’t be a resource I use routinely.

Q. Will it tell me anything I don’t already know?

A. Well that all depends! There are several factors involved here:

  • Censorship – Anybody born after 1915 is currently blanked out of the images and the transcriptions. This can be removed, to reveal the information underneath, but only after proof of death has been received by Find My Past. So there won’t be any surprise children in the family to see, for example.
  • Search Fields – Because it’s rather expensive to view a household, you’ll want to be sure you have the right one on the preview. This is all fine if your ancestor happens to have an extraordinary name, but if, like most of us, there are several options, you will want to be sure you are unlocking the right one. So, you may well have to find out more information from another source first, so you can confirm you have the correct entry.
  • In his blog on this topic, Chris Paton highlights some interesting details, such as accurate birthdays, which he gleaned by finding his own ancestors on the 1939 Register.

My best advice is to use the 1939 Register for one of the following reasons:

  • If you are trying to piece together the story of someone who was born between 1911 and 1915, and is proving elusive on marriage and death records.
  • If you need an accurate date of birth for someone and would rather see a household than order a copy of their birth certificate, or if you can’t find their birth record on the indexes.
  • If you suspect that one of your ancestors married between 1911 and 1939 and you’ve been unable to find their marriage record on the index.
  • Or, if you simply love finding your family on historical documents and have the money to do it!

Reminder: Win a year’s subscription to Ancestry or Find my Past


Just a quick reminder in case you’d missed our great news!

We’ve teamed up with Ancestry and Find my Past to offer a free competition with two amazing prizes – you could win a year’s subscription to one of these two fantastic family history resources.

If you’re interested in tracing your genealogy but don’t know where to start, winning one of these prizes would get you under-way in no time, giving you access to over a billion records, including censuses, birth, marriage and death indexes, parish records and passenger lists.

If you’re already a seasoned researcher, then winning a year’s subscription to one of these genealogical behemoths would be another powerful weapon in your research armoury!

It’s completely free to enter, and requires only your name and email address. For more information, visit our competition page by clicking the button below or visit the following link: http://familydetective.net/ancestry-fmp-competition.

Good luck!


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Passenger lists – a useful resource

A boarding pass from the Titanic Experience, Cobh, Eire

A boarding pass from the Titanic Experience, Cobh, Eire

This week’s guest blog is from Family Detective researcher, Kassie Foran:

Over the summer I visited the Titanic Experience in Cobh, near Cork, Eire. This was the final embarkation point for the ship, before its fateful journey across the Atlantic. One of the many interesting features of the museum was that they gave you a boarding card as your entrance ticket, displaying the name of a real passenger who boarded from that port.

The final installation in the museum was an area where you looked up the name printed on your ticket, and read about their fate. There was information available about each of the passengers, including their purpose of journey, and information about their travelling companions. Our tickets were for poor Dennis Lennon, a third class steerage passenger who was heading to New York, and his sister Mary. Sadly neither Dennis nor Mary survived.

Titanic Passenger List

When researching your own family history, passenger lists are a useful tool to help fill in more of your family’s story. Passenger lists provide plenty of useful information including name, age, travel dates, ports of departure and arrival. Some included hometown and nationality. Family groups travelling together were typically recorded alongside one another, and occasionally ‘missing children’ can appear if they were born and died between censuses.

For one Family Detective project we were researching the story of a husband and wife, but were unable to find their marriage, and they only appeared on one census. By widening our search to include passenger lists, we found the record of the wife travelling under her maiden name to Burma. Further research turned up a marriage record for the couple in Rangoon, and then subsequent passenger lists showed the married couple travelling together. Later travel records gave further insight into family life, as we discovered the wife and children leaving Burma during the hot summer season and returning to the UK. And later, the wife coming to the UK with the children and then returning by herself to her husband in Burma after leaving the children at boarding school.

Passenger lists can also be found on the following websites:


Find My Past

Family Search

Olive Tree Genealogy

National Archives USA

National Archives UK

And don’t forget, you could win a year’s subscription to either Ancestry or Find My Past in our free competition – for details click here.