by Dr Kenneth Dix
"My great-grandfather is thought to have been a Baptist minister. He may have lived in Richmond, Surrey, and died sometime between 1890 and 1895. His name was Joseph Jones and he had three children, Ruth, Reuben and Rebecca. I shall be glad if you can let me know the exact date of his death, and also the dates when the children were baptised. Would you also be able to tell me where I can examine the records of the church where he was minister? Please let me know the cost of photo-copying."
When due allowance is made for an exaggerated lack of clear-cut information, this totally imaginary request is somewhat typical of many letters received by the Baptist Historical Society, the Strict Baptist Historical Society, and by the Librarian of the Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford. Rather less imaginary is its portrayal of a complete lack of understanding, on the part of many family history researchers, of Baptist beliefs and practices.
The Baptist movement in England began in the early 1600s. By 1660, there were about 300 Baptist churches; by 1900, the number had risen to well over 2,000. Among these churches there have been differing emphases, different beliefs and practices, but they have always been committed to believers' baptism, and also to what is known as independency.
Baptism in Baptist churches is administered only to those persons who make a personal profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is sometimes known as adult baptism, but this is misleading, as it gives the impression that baptism is only for grown-ups, or even for all grown-ups. Baptism among the Baptists is not for adults only, but for believers only. The essential thing is to recognise that Baptists do not baptise those who have not yet come to an age of understanding: they do not, as is the case with other denominational groups, baptise infants. The mode of baptism is also different, and is normally by total immersion of the candidate in water, rather than by sprinkling.
When this is applied to my imaginary letter, it means that even if Ruth, Reuben and Rebecca were all baptised in a Baptist church, and if the dates when those baptisms took place were known, or could be discovered through extensive research, this would be of little help in building up a family tree. As the children of parents with Baptist beliefs, whether or not father was a minister, they would not have been baptised as infants. All three may well have been baptised in a Baptist church later in life, but this could have taken place at almost any age. Children as young as 10 or 12 have often been baptised, as have elderly folk in their 70s.
Knowing the date of an individual's baptism in a Baptist church can sometimes be helpful from a biographical point of view. It can be useful in establishing the time when he or she became fully committed to the Christian faith, and it can also indicate where they were living at the time, but it will not establish when or where a person was born.
All Baptist churches are autonomous or self-governing. Each church appoints its own leaders, arranges its own finances, and keeps its own private record of church meetings where decisions are made. There is no hierarchical structure, no central body exercising control over individual local churches, and no general repository of information. Each church is fully independent.
Each church is composed of men and women who have been baptised on profession of faith. In the gatherings for worship on a Sunday the congregation will include members and non-members, but it is only members whose names are entered in the church records, and it is only members who gather for members meetings, when decisions relating to the running and order of the church are made. Minutes of these meetings are recorded in the Church Book. Typical entries might look like this:
1843, Jany 4th:
Brother Smith opened the meeting with prayer.
It was agreed that Annie Brown and George Hartop be admitted to membership after having been baptised. It was also agreed that Brother Williamson should again exercise his preaching gift on Tuesday fortnight.
Febry 2nd:Brother Jones began the meeting with prayer.
It was agreed that the communion service should in future be held after the evening service on the first Sunday in the month.
Deacons Smith and Gregory were appointed to visit John Tompkins and speak to him about his continued non-attendance at the services on the Lord's Day.
A letter was read from the church of the same faith order at Cambridge asking for the transfer of Sister Mary Webb to the membership of that church. It was agreed that a letter be written agreeing to this request commending her as a loyal and faithful member of this church over many years.
In a separate book, or in the Minute Book itself, there would normally be a list of church members, with dates of admission to membership. Sometimes the private address of each member is given, and sometimes a date of death, but not always. Prior to the official registration of births in 1837, some churches also kept a book giving the date of birth of children born to members of the church or congregation. With official registration these books were required by law to be handed to the Registrar General's office - see below.
Baptist church books are not therefore to be thought of as a kind of Nonconformist parish register. They are an account of the internal working of the church, of the reception of members, of occasions when it might have become necessary to exercise discipline, of the call of a minister or the appointment of deacons, or of suggested preachers for forthcoming special services. Apart from giving dates of baptisms and admission to membership, transfers of members from and to other churches, or dates of death biographical details are thinly scattered. Dates and details of marriages are almost non-existent.
These books are normally retained by the church, and researchers must recognise and give due respect to the fact that they are the private property of the church to which they belong. Books which have long since been filled up and are no longer in regular use are sometimes deposited for safe custody in a county record office, or in one of the Baptist archives. Unfortunately, all too many of these church records, which for the historian are treasured possessions, have vanished without trace, especially those belonging to churches which have ceased to exist and where the building has subsequently been sold. The last surviving member has frequently retained the books for safe keeping, but following his or her death, these "old books" have been consigned to a bonfire by uninterested descendants,
If Joseph Jones was real rather than mythical, then his name would likely appear in the Baptist Union Handbook as the minister of a church in the Richmond area, if great-granddaughter's hunch is correct. If this church is still in existence then its records, if they are complete, would give the date of his appointment, but no indication would be given whether at the time he was 17 or 70. These records would also normally indicate the date when the ministry ceased, either by resignation, by his leaving to go to another church. or when he died. To locate an obituary, or any other information about him, including titles of any books he might have written, an extensive search of the denominational magazines would be necessary.
If all this research, occupying many hours of exacting work, realises nothing more than a plain sheet of paper, then the gentleman in question may only have been an itinerating minister, who happened to live in Richmond. Some itinerating ministers, or lay preachers, and whose names are not listed in Baptist records, have been known to describe themselves as "Baptist minister" on marriage certificates.
From the foregoing, it will have become apparent that Baptist church records are only rarely a genealogist's gold mine. Obituaries in the denominational magazines even when there is one, can be singularly disappointing, vaguely commenting that, "the deceased was married twice and had three children."
Each of the organisations named at the beginning of this article is prepared to undertake a limited amount of research, but each charges an initial search fee of £5, which is not returnable, whether or not the search is successful. If the search is extended, or if a considerable amount of photocopying is involved, then the figure is raised to £10.
There are two very good reasons for not writing to each of these organisations at the same time. The first is financial prudence on the part of the researcher. And the second is that it creates an awful waste of time, with librarians or secretaries hunting through the same books or sets of periodicals in their respective libraries to answer a request from the same person.
It is essential that researchers provide as much data as possible, based on
factual information rather than guesswork. Before writing it is suggested that a thorough acquaintance be made with
the guidance and help to be found in "My
Ancestors Were Baptists, How can I find out more about them?" by Geoffrey Breed, published by the Society of
Genealogists. The book lists deposits made by Baptist churches to the Registrar General's office in 1837, and which are now available at the National Archives and Church Books in possession of the Strict Baptist Historical Society, the Gospel Standard Library,
the Angus Library at Regent's Park College, and London Baptist Church Records held at the Guildhall, Regent's Park
College and Dr Williams’s Libraries.
This article was first published in Practical Family History, May 2000 and appears with their permission. Dr Kenneth Dix is our Chairman.