With religion being such a central part of almost all our ancestors’ lives, it is important to be aware of the options that they had for worship in the communities in which they lived. Even if they were adherents of the established church, the arrival of alternative denominations in an area had an impact on the lives of all the residents. There could be tensions or downright hostility between members of different churches or religions. Of course, in some cases, our ancestors will have emigrated in search of a religious climate that was more congenial to them. For some there will have been life threatening persecution on religious grounds; illustrating just how significant the impact of religion may have been.
During 2017, worldwide members of The Society for One-Place Studies’ have been investigating ‘Faith in our Community’. Those taking part have been researching all aspects of the history of religious practice in whatever place the member is interested in. In addition, the UK based Family and Community Historical Research Society’s (FACHRS) are conducting a ‘Communities of Dissent’ project. Concentrating as it does on non-conformity between 1850 and 1939, the FACHRS project is less wide ranging than the Society for One-Place Studies’ work but it does provide an opportunity to look in depth at this aspect of faith. I have been taking part on both these projects.
As both a family and local historian focussing on this particular aspect of a community has been fascinating. As part of this and previous research that I have done, I also looked at the broader, regional, religious history for my area. Being aware of this background is a valuable addition to our toolkit as we seek to understand our ancestors better. Information about the general religious history of a region tends to come in the form of more academic books and articles but these are well worth seeking out. The detail at town, village or parish level can be the job for the family historian.
For those of you with ancestors in Victorian England and Wales, I would urge you to look at the 1851 ecclesiastical census, which is now available online. This will give details of the various congregations, when the place of worship was built, the name of the minister, elder or leader and the number of people who attended the service on census day. Other useful sources are directories and gazetteers, although some seem to omit small chapels, maps and the buildings themselves. Local histories may mention places of worship that are no longer standing and it may be possible to source pictures of these. There may even be a history specific to that church, chapel, synagogue, mosque or meeting house. Try consulting historic newspapers for details of openings, renovations or events such as fetes or harvest festivals. Are you able to find the name of the minister who would have buried your ancestor? Do you know who taught in the local Sunday school?
In the past, many social activities were associated with places of worship as was schooling. Not only did religious groups teach basic literacy and numeracy in Sunday schools, or their equivalent, they also set up educational establishments of their own. In this way, many aspects of our ancestors’ lives revolved around their place of worship. They may well have met their future spouse at church or chapel. Think too about the difficulties that may have been caused if your ancestors wished to marry across religious divides. In some places and at some times, of course, this would have been totally unacceptable and we may never know how many of our ancestors’ romances were thwarted on religious grounds. I challenge you to find more about how your own family worshipped in the past.