Tracing Hard-to-Find Ancestors in the British Isles by Religion
c 2007, Arlene H. Eakle, PhD

The principle is the same, only the religion has been changed to protect the innocent—Non-Conformity. And the denominations that don't conform will vary depending upon the time period and the place your ancestors come from. Religion has defined the political squabbles and most of the wars since time began. Local vestries and common councils re-live and re-fight these squabbles regularly—then and now. So do American city councils.

What religious faith did your ancestors accept and where did they physically go to church? If you don't know...

  • ·         Check tombstones and pay special attention to the artwork. Where in the public cemetery are they buried? Or what private graveyard do family members visit on special occasions? Are they interred in a churchyard? See Brian Bailey, Churchyards of England and Wales. 1987. Available Magna Books, Magna Road, Wigston, Leicester, LE18 4ZH England. The Ulster Historical Foundation has published more than 25 volumes of Monumental Inscriptions for Belfast, County Down and County Antrim. These are available in many genealogy libraries or can be ordered: Unit 7, Cotton Court, Waring Street, Belfast BT1 2ED Northern Ireland UK. Surname-Given name Index to their online Gravestone Inscription Database of more than 59,000 entries is available to members only.
  • ·         Is there a clergyman in your ancestry? Consult Sheila Rowland's article (above) and, The Clergy of the Church of England Database, 1540-1835. Indexed by persons, locations, and bishops with upgrades every month. FREE. Also check Clive Holmes, The Suffolk Committee for Scandalous Ministers, 1644-46. 1970. Suffolk Records Society, Volume XIII. Available from Hon. Secretary, Westhorpe Lodge, Westhorpe, Stowmarket, IP14 4TA England
  • ·         How do your ancestors spell their surnames in American records—Kelley is Protestant and Kelly is Catholic in West Virginia court records. In Scotland and Ireland Irish surnames are often spelled differently by religion—MacMaster (S=Prot) and Masterson (I=Cath); Doyle (S=Prot) and O Toole (I=Cath); Swan (S=Prot) and McSweeny (I=Cath); Graham (S=Prot) and McGrimes (I=Cath). These same spellings will accompany them to Pennsylvania and into Ohio.
  • ·         What given names do they select for their children? Many kids are named for Saints. Which names do you find on your family group sheets? Basil, Stephen, and Agnes are Catholic. Check a good list of Saints at your public library or at any major bookstore.
  • ·         The importance of non-conformity for Welsh genealogy is discussed in detail by Bert J. Rawlins: 95% of the people in Methyr-Tydfil were non-conformist in the Religious Census of 1851 and 75% of the people in the industrial coal areas of South Wales were non-conformist.

See Bert J. Rawlins. The Parish Churches and Non-Conformist Chapels of Wales: Their Records and Where to Find Them: Volume One—Cardigan, Carmarthen, Pembroke. 1997. Available Celtic Heritage Research, P.O. Box 510652, Salt Lake City UT 84151-0652.

  • ·         How to find a non-conformist chapel in Wales. 1. Check the Religious Census Returns, 1851. 2 vols. FHL Fiche 6054483. Remember that the chapel may be built in 1830; the congregation was established in 1750. 2. Consult the Royal Commission on Religious Worship, Vol. 6. FHL film 0104427. This includes a list of chapels, where located, and their date of establishment. 3. Trace chapels. You want their boundaries, their dates, and their “mother” chapel or church. Check into all of the chapels descending from the same “mother” church. 4. Locate local chapels within the Anglican parish. Use 6-inch Ordnance Survey maps which include farms (often by name), chapels (usually named for places in the Bible—Salem, Goshen, Horeb, Bethel, etc.) The 1st edition maps will name the congregations. New online database for historical place-names: Order hard copy maps from National Library of Wales, Maps and Prints Department, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3BU Wales. Or consult William Foot, Maps for Family History: A Guide to Tithe, Valuation, Office, and National Farm Surveys of England and Wales. 1994. Public Record Office Publications, #9. Can be ordered online at
  • ·         How to find non-conformist records in Wales. In 1837, many congregations turned their records into the PRO, now The National Archives, UK. The Baptists did not. Many chapels are closed and their records are difficult to find. Check: Chapel histories, Family History Society periodicals for the local area, look for souvenir and centennial publications (often published with a local newspaper). The Family History Library has a good collection of these.
  • ·         Why Welsh non-conformist records are important: they usually give the mother's maiden name, the exact farm of residence, and include emigration transfers of membership!

Identification of Roman Catholic background: The Elizabethan government in 1577 ordered the bishops of each diocese to make a list of all recusants (those who refused to take the oaths of allegiance and trans-substantiation) and the value of their properties, lands, and goods. This census set the pattern for later Catholic censuses and property registrations: 1676, 1715, 1717, 1722-23, 1730, 1733, 1735, 1738, 1743, 1767, 1780, 1789. Some of these lists appear only in the Quarter Sessions records for each county or in the bishops visitations. Some are printed. See E.S. Worrall, Returns of Papists, 1767. Volume One: Diocese of Chester; Volume Two: Dioceses of England and Wales, except Chester. 1980-89. Catholic Record Society, 12 Melbourne Place, Wolsingham, County Durham, DL13 3EH England. The Society website lists the titles of all their publications and includes a separate page for Recusant History.

Consult also, Arlene H. Eakle, “Treason Demands Payment: The Systematic Rape of the English Catholics,” paper presented to the Council on British Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver BC, 1977. (39 page article in pdf format - 8.8megs).

  • ·         How much tax did your ancestors pay in America? Hidden Catholic origins are buried in the tax rolls—where they paid double, triple, and even quadruple taxes depending upon the circumstances. In England, Catholics (called popish recusants to distinguish them from Quakers and other non-conformists) were double taxed in 1625 and from 1692-1794, when the double tax was abolished.
  • ·         Was their land confiscated? Did they change occupations frequently? Were they skilled craftsmen by tradition? You will enjoy looking at “Miscellaneous Forfeitures: English and Welsh Popish Recusants, 17th c.,” MS #17057E, National Lib. of Wales. FHL 826554, it.1.
  • ·         Did your surname have an alias? Whitfield alias Blackett. Entries in the IGI preserve the alias. Watch carefully. The first surname is the Catholic family, the second is the nearest Protestant family who would inherit the land and estate in the normal course of inheritance. That way the lands could be protected and the Crown secure that the Protestant family was loyal. See also Forster Papers on Catholic Recusancy in Northumberland and Durham, 16th-18thc. 13 microfilm reels, FHL. Filmed 1986. Includes pedigrees, tax rolls, court affadavits, and other documents.