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Understanding Your Western European Ancestors:
Religion

A basic understanding of religion in Western Europe is vital since churches kept the best and most reliable records of common people. These parish records provide birth, marriage, death and sometimes other information about the majority of our Western European ancestors. For more information about records kept by churches, see the Parish Records section. For information about religion in England (particularly Buckinghamshire) and Sweden (particularly Skåne) try their individual sections.

This section is still growing. Check back for more information.

State Sponsored Religions

In Western Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was little concept of separation of church and state. Most religions were state-sponsored, or endorsed, and supported by the civil authorities. For many peasants, their local parish minister was one of the strongest authority figures in their lives. Freedom of religion often either did not exist at all, or was only in its infancy. Many countries outlawed the practice of other religions and refused to recognize marriages and other ordinances performed in them. As the century progressed, freedoms grew and religious tolerance gradually increased.

The two main religions throughout Western Europe were Lutheranism and Catholicism. For example, the Scandinavian countries were predominantly Lutheran, while France, Spain, and Italy were Catholic. The German states were divided with much of northern Germany practicing Lutheranism, while the southern states tended to practice Catholicism. The exception to the Lutheran/Catholic divide was England, where the state sponsored church was the Church of England.

Dissident Groups

For more information on dissident religious groups, see the article below, which first appeared in the September/October issue of Family Chronicle.

Nonconformists and Their Records in Western Europe
By Leslie Albrecht Huber

Nearly everyone relies heavily on church or parish records when tracing their Western European ancestors. Figuring out where these ancestors went to church (as in determining their hometown and parish) can be difficult. But usually, figuring out what church they attended (as in determining their religion) is straight-forward. The great majority of our Western European ancestors attended the dominant church in their region – usually the state church. If you know where your ancestor lived, you know what church they attended. It’s a simple as that.

Well, not always. A significant minority of our ancestors attended nonconformist or “dissident” churches. Tracing these ancestors can be challenging for a number of reasons. Often, these records are not as easily available and cover different jurisdictions than the state church records.

But, don’t despair! There is hope for nonconformist ancestors. First, it helps to understand a little about the religious climate in Western Europe and the background of these particular denominations. Then you’re ready to start becoming familiar with what types of records exist and how you can access them.

The Religious Climate

There was little concept of separation of church and state in Western Europe during most of the nineteenth century or before. Most religions were state sponsored, or endorsed, and supported by the civil authorities. For many peasants, their local parish minister was one of the strongest authority figures in their lives. Freedom of religion often either did not exist at all, or was only in its infancy. Many countries outlawed the practice of other religions and refused to recognize marriages and other ordinances performed in them. In most places it wasn’t until that the second half of the nineteenth century that freedom began to grow and religious tolerance gradually increased.

The two most prevalent religions in Western Europe were Lutheranism and Catholicism. Generally, most of the population of a country belonged to whatever religion had been selected as the state religion. The Scandinavian countries were predominantly Lutheran, while France, Spain, and Italy were Catholic, for example. The German states were divided with most people in the northern German states practicing Lutheranism, while those in the southern states tended to practice Catholicism (although usually not as exclusively as the Lutheran states practiced their religion). There were some exceptions to the Lutheran/Catholic divide. In England, the state sponsored church was the Church of England or the Anglican Church while the Dutch Reformed Church became the dominant church in the Netherlands.

Despite the often severe regulations and penalties for dissenting from the state church, religious dissidents existed throughout Western Europe. Their prevalence varied from place to place. In some areas, such as the German states of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Brandenburg, nearly ninety-nine percent of the population attended the state church. Other areas had sizable populations of various other religious groups. England, for example, took a religious census in 1851 which revealed that only about half of the population attended the Anglican Church on census Sunday. Many attended a Methodist Church, and a fair amount attended a Baptist, Independent, or Catholic Church. In the German state of West Prussia, the population split nearly evenly between Protestant and Catholic.

Nonconformist Denominations

Having a basic understanding of your ancestor’s religion and its history can help you understand the records and how to locate them. I’ve provided a brief background of some of the major nonconformist religions. If your ancestor attended one of these churches, you should consider finding additional books, articles, or online information. The list below doesn’t include the Catholic or Lutheran faiths, although keep in mind that if your ancestor belonged to one of these religions in a place where the other was dominant, they would have been a nonconformist.

Jews. Of course, Jews were not dissenters since they didn’t break off from the Catholic or Lutheran Church, but existed before either of them. But, they were a minority religion and researching these lines does present some specific challenges.

Jews have been persecuted throughout history, and forced to move from place to place. In the 1400s, Jews were expelled from Spain, Sicily, and Portugal. In the seventeenth century, more Jews began settling in Western Europe. By the end of that century, the largest populations of Jews were in Poland, Russia, and Prussia. Historians estimate that 85% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe in the 1800s. Many countries passed laws emancipating Jews, yet still persecution continued. From 1890 to 1924, about two million Jews left Europe (mostly Eastern Europe) to come to the U.S. Persecution of Jews culminated during the Nazi regime in which approximately six millions Jews were killed. Many others left Europe.

Calvinists and Associated Religions. John Calvin, born in 1509 in France, had a profound effect on religion in many countries. Raised in a staunchly Catholic home, Calvin left the church and eventually France too. He spent most of his adult life in Geneva where followers flocked to him. His teachings provided the basis of the Reformed Church and several others. Through history, many of these splintered into still other religions. In some places, Calvinist religions became so strong that they were no longer considered nonconformist religions.

In Germany, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established that only three churches would be tolerated in the German states – Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Church. As mentioned earlier, in the Netherlands the Dutch Reformed Church became the dominant presence. Yet in other places, these people suffered intense persecution. In France, the followers of the Reformed faith, called Huguenots, often had to flee France. They settled in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa or other places - sometimes briefly before moving again. Some eventually came to the U.S.

The Presbyterian Church traces its origins back to a student of John Calvin. John Knox, a Scotsman, studied with Calvin in Geneva then took his ideas back to Scotland with him where he led the Protestant Reformation there. His ideas soon spread and became the foundation of the Presbyterian faith.

Anabaptists and Related Religions. The Anabaptist movement can be traced to the 1520s when groups of Protestant dissenters in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria disagreed with Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders on some beliefs. Their name (which means re-baptizers) came from their rejection of infant baptism which led them to “re-baptize” adults. Religious and governmental leaders considered the Anabaptists radical and threatening and so arrested, tortured, banished and executed them. Because of this, many people of this faith left for other lands – Russia, Poland, and the U.S., among others. The people were sometimes called Mennonites for Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who joined the movement. Splinters in the group also led to the establishment of the Amish faith and the Hutterites, among others.

Quakers. The Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, began in England in 1652 under the direction of George Fox. Their emphasis on inward spirituality and their unique worship services concerned the governmental and ecclesiastical leaders of the time. Facing persecution, many chose to leave England. Some came to the North American British colonies, but found little relief in the Massachusetts Bay colony. In 1677, the first Quakers arrived in what would become Pennsylvania, founded by the Quaker William Penn. Here, religious freedom was extended to any who believed in God. Quakers also spread in relatively small numbers to other Western European countries.

Methodists. Founded by John Wesley, the Methodist Church represented a homegrown derivation of the Church of England. From the time he began preaching in 1738 until his death in 1791, Wesley insisted he was no dissenter. Instead, he said, he offered supplemental teaching to the Anglican Church. Many of his followers didn’t agree. Their actions in the early 1800s made it apparent that Methodism had evolved into a religion of its own with an emphasis on spirituality and emotions not found in the Church of England. The religion continued to attract followers so that by the mid nineteenth century, nearly 2.5 million people attended over eleven thousand places of worship in England alone.

There are, of course, other nonconformist religions that were active in parts of Europe in the last few centuries. Some of these others include Baptists, Independents, Moravians, Separatists, and others.

Nonconformists, not surprisingly, are disproportionately represented among the European emigrants to America. That said, though, remember that the great majority of our immigrant ancestors were not nonconformists. Economics – hope of improving their standard of living – served as a much more common motivator for these ancestors.

Nonconformist Records

Now that you have a very basic introduction to some of these nonconformist religions, you’re ready to look at what types of records exist. Records vary not only by religion, but also by locality. Many nonconformist records can be located using the same methods you would use to locate any church record. Many have been filmed by Genealogical Society of Utah and are now available through the Family History Library (FHL). Check their catalogue online at www.familysearch.org (choose the “Library” tab at the top, and then the “Family History Library Catalogue” tab). Most of the films you find here can be ordered to your local family history center for a small fee.

Of course, there are complications when dealing with nonconformist records, though. Some of the complications have to do with the records themselves. First, because of the persecution they encountered, nonconformists moved much more often and much further distances than other people of their time period. Many even left their country of origin. This movement can make them difficult to trace. Also, nonconformist churches were not linked to the state, and therefore their records often were not preserved as reliably through the state archive system or other efforts made by the government. Finally, nonconformists sometimes kept different types of records. Many didn’t baptize infants, meaning baptism or christening records were never created.

Locating the records that do exist is usually also more complicated for nonconformist churches. To find an ancestor in church records regardless of his or her religion, you must know where this person went to church. Church records are local records. For the state church, every village or group of villages has a parish church. But, since much fewer people belonged to nonconformist churches, they didn’t have nearly so many places of worship. For large nonconformist groups, such as Methodists in England, you’ll find in many areas, there is a place of worship in nearly every town. But for less established groups, places of worship will be much more spread out. Also, nonconformists didn’t always meet in the same place for generations, like their counterparts in state churches did. Your challenge is to locate where the ancestor attended church – so you can find out where the records are.

Before you make the leap to chasing down nonconformist records, make sure you really are dealing with nonconformist ancestors. If you look in the state church records in the town you believe your ancestors lived and don’t find them, it’s not necessarily time to assume your ancestors were nonconformists. Without further evidence of this, it’s much more likely that you have the town wrong than it is that you have the religion wrong.

Also, keep in mind a couple of points when seeking to trace nonconformist ancestors. You may find these ancestors listed in the state church records. Sometimes law required them to register here. In some areas and time periods, marriages performed outside of the state church weren’t recognized. So, some nonconformists had the ceremony performed in the state church to avoid penalties that would follow if the marriage wasn’t considered legal (for example, children labeled as illegitimate might not be able to inherit land).

If your nonconformist research gets bogged down, consider other records besides church records. If you ancestor lived in a time and place where civil registration had already begun, these records can be easier to use – and more thorough. Civil registration records included everyone regardless of religion. Census, probate, or other records may also help. Check the Research Outline for your country (available through www.familysearch.org, then choose “forms, maps, and guides” on the right hand side, then “Research Outline” from the list of options) for information on what records are available in your country of interest.

Fortunately, there are some guides, indexes, collections, and societies and organizations that can help you trace these sometimes elusive ancestors. I’ve described only a sampling to give you an idea of the possibilities.

German Jewish Records. Some Jewish synagogue records date back very early. But, many synagogues didn’t keep records. In fact, usually only those required by law kept and preserved these records. German Jews will sometimes be included in the records of the state church also – again as dictated by law. Jewish vital records can also provide an excellent source of information.

There are a number of institutes and societies with wonderful websites and resources. Try the Leo Baeck Institute (www.lbi.com) which has 50,000 German Jewish records or the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (www.jewishgen.org) for more information. The FHL also has 2,000 microfilms of German Jewish records, and a guide to Jewish research available at www.familysearch.org as part of their Research Outline collection.

Huguenots. Because of their frequent migrations, tracing Huguenot ancestors can be difficult. However, some significant information has been gathered, possibly making your search easier. Read the “Church Records” section of the France Research Outline available through www.familysearch.org for a list of some possibilities. The outline gives descriptions and references for several card indexes (available through microfilm to be ordered to your local family history center) of Huguenots. The website of The National Huguenot Society, located at http://www.huguenot.netnation.com/general has links to information on Huguenot history and records. You can also try the Huguenot Society of Pennsylvania records which sought to provide information on all known Huguenot lineages. Read more about their collection at http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/h/huguenot3009.htm which can now be accessed through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

English Nonconformist Collections. Perhaps because nonconformists were a large percentage of the population of England, there are some significant collections of English nonconformist records. Dr. Williams’s Library includes 50,000 birth records from 1716 to 1837 for Presbyterians, Baptists, and Independents (or Congregationalists). Copies of these records are available through the FHL. You can order these films through the Family History Library Catalogue (FHLC). Some Methodist birth and baptism records from the years 1773 to1838 have been collected in the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Registry. Again, the records and indexes are available through the FHLC.

In recent years, more of these records have also begun coming online. For a summary of what’s available online, look at England’s National Archives webpage under a section on nonconformist records located at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/familyhistory/bmd/step1a.htm. This explains that the International Genealogical Index (IGI) available through www.familysearch.org includes many of the nonconformist records. The National Archives has recently put some collections of nonconformist records online with images and indexes including parts of the both Dr. Williams’ Library and the Methodist Registry mentioned above. You’ll notice that many of the indexes stop at 1837. This is because in that year England began keeping civil registration records which included people of every religion.

There is also a “My Ancestors” series that provides information on some groups. You can see a list and description of the individual books at The Society of Genealogists website at http://www.sog.org.uk/acatalog/My_Ancestors_Series.html. Here, you’ll see books on researching Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, Baptists, and Jews. There is also a book on Quakers by Edward Milligan and Thomas Malcolm in this series that’s not listed on the website.