(PRWEB) May 27, 2010
For the first time ever the names and details of hundreds of thousands of UK radicals and religious dissenters from over 225 years are available online.
Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s Number One family history website1, today launched online the first tranche of Non Conformist Registers, 1694-1921. Digitised in partnership with London Metropolitan Archives (where the paper originals are held), the records reveal the names of thousands of men and women who refused to conform to the doctrine of the established (Anglican) Church including Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers.
The records contain approximately 224,000 names and include baptism and marriage registers and burial inscriptions, dating from the late 17th century when the roots of non conformism were laid. As our non conformist ancestors were not recorded by the state until 1837, these documents are, for the most part, the only records of these non conformists in existence.
Non conformists were often intellectuals and free-thinkers who advanced the progressive causes which formed the bedrock of the modern civil liberties. For example, the Quakers were the first religious group to denounce slavery, Unitarians campaigned for better conditions for factory workers and Methodists were great advocates of women’s rights.
In fact, today’s Liberal Democrat party can trace its origins to these religious dissenters, who supported the Whig politicians in the 18th and 19th centuries in their push for greater civil and religious rights. It was the coalition of Whigs and free trade radicals who later founded the Liberal Party.
Yet early non conformists suffered terribly at the hands of the powerful Church of England through laws enacted by an Anglican Parliament. These laws, collectively known as the Clarendon Code, restricted the civil rights of those not professing allegiance to the Church of England and remained in effect until 1828.
Such restrictions prevented non conformists from working for the state or holding a position of public office. They were also prevented from studying at English universities before University College London (UCL) was founded, compelling non conformists to fund their own Dissenting Academies.
Yet official restrictions were also partnered with social exclusion, with minority non conformist religious groups often suffering from discrimination, intimidation and even physical violence. This persecution led many non conformists to leave Britain during the 18th century and head for America - a nation built on the principle tenets of religious and civil freedom.
Many of the ‘Founding Fathers’ who authored the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were staunch non conformists. For instance, John Adams, the second President of the United States, was a Unitarian.
Other examples of non conformists who helped further the cause of religious and civil liberty include:
- George Fox (1624-1691) – Founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Fox was one of the most outspoken supporters of religious freedom at a time when non conformist religious gatherings were prohibited. As a result, he and many thousands of his followers were arrested and hundreds were killed in prison or during assaults on their meetings.
- Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) – The author of Robinson Crusoe was educated in a dissenting academy at Newington Green and was the son of Presbyterian non conformists. Defoe was a political radical and pioneered the novel as an artistic form.
- William Blake (1757-1827) - One of Britain’s greatest artists, Blake’s poetry and painting is central to the Romantic movement. The well-known religious dissenter is buried in the Bunhill Fields Cemetery in Islington.
- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) – A leader in liberal thinking, the British philosopher and politician was a huge advocate of individual decision-making over the self - even refusing to study at Oxford or Cambridge because he refused to take Anglican orders from the "white devil". Today Mill's celebrated work On Liberty, once considered hugely radical, is passed on to every Leader of the Liberal Democrats as a symbol of office.
Ancestry.co.uk International Content Director Dan Jones comments: “Many of the free, multi-faith and multi-cultural societies around the world owe a great deal to 18th and 19th century non conformists who fought for a more tolerant and diverse Britain.
“Anyone who is lucky enough to find an ancestor within these records can be proud in the knowledge that their forebear was someone who wasn't afraid to be different or stand up for what they believed in.”
Dr Deborah Jenkins, Assistant Director of the City of London’s Department of Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery, comments: “The non conformist congregations have played a fascinating role in the story of London and the collections we hold at London Metropolitan Archives are fundamental to developing our understanding of their impact on life in the capital."
The records form part of the London Historical Records, 1500s-1900s and have been published in partnership with London Metropolitan Archives following a competitive tender by the City of London to digitise and exclusively host their collection online.
The London Historical Records, 1500s-1900s, can be accessed at http://www.ancestry.co.uk/LMA.
# # #