Putting Flesh on the Bones – Non-Conformist Church Records
by Chris Hamson, originally published in Practical Family History, Summer 2008. Reproduced here by permission of the author and publisher.
Fascinating as it is to trace ancestors into past centuries, I sometimes have a sense of frustration in wanting to discover more about the way they lived. What was the nature of their work? What was their social life? What were their driving passions? I am fortunate in having the journal of my great grandfather, Joseph Rowell, and some of his essays, which give a good sense of the answer to these questions. Yet of course once you know some answers, you are spurred on to further research.
From great grandfathers journal it was clear that my family were non-conformists throughout the 19th century, with both Baptist and Independent (Congregational) connections. It became obvious to me that to find one particular ancestral line I needed to access the registers of the non-conformist churches in Kettering, Northamptonshire, where my great great grandmother, Mary Ann Manton, Josephs mother, had originated. I had not been surprised to draw a blank in Ketterings Parish registers – Josephs journal made it clear that the family had been Dissenters for many years. I was looking for Mary Anns baptism around 1817, when there were two major dissenting causes in Kettering, the Great Meeting, an Independent Church led by Thomas Toller, after whom the church was later named, and a Baptist Church, later named after its most eminent pastor, Andrew Fuller, one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society. There were other minor congregations in Kettering at the time.
The major difference from my family history perspective was that Independents baptised their children, but Baptists did not (though I did find at the record office some Baptist infant dedication records from the period). I was able to access a full set of baptismal records from the Great Meeting stretching back into the mid-18th century, and I found not only Mary Ann, but most of her siblings and her grandmother who was baptised there in 1754. I was relieved that the family were Independents rather than Baptists! Mary Anns father, Richard Manton wasnt there, and I later found his baptism in the Anglican Church. The Great Meetings records also helpfully recorded the fathers occupation, allowing me to discover Richard to be a shoemaker. An interesting incidental was finding the baptism of William Knibb, famous for the emancipation of Jamaicas slaves, and realising that he would have grown up as a contemporary of my family in the same small church. I also found a set of records from Ketterings Wesleyan Methodist Church, discovering baptismal records for some of my family on my fathers side.
So far, so good – non-conformist records hold the same interest as Parish records. Yet I knew from Josephs journals that he and his father had been centrally involved in non-conformist churches – his father William was a deacon at Oundle Baptist Church in the 1860s, and I guessed that Joseph had held office in the Congregational Church in Brigstock, though I wasnt certain. I knew from my own Baptist background that non-conformist churches hold regular democratic church meetings where church affairs are discussed, and that these deliberations are recorded in minute books with reports of peoples applications for and acceptance into membership, motions proposed and seconded, and dissensions recorded.
I soon found out that many of these records are deposited at county record offices, and I was delighted when Brigstocks minute books from 1890 through to 1920 were produced for me by the Northamptonshire Record Office. I was able to read in considerable detail about the contributions Joseph made to discussions in the church meeting. He was indeed a deacon for a while, but resigned unexpectedly, for reasons not made clear: the fellowship exhorted him to withdraw the resignation, but he refused. Reading between the lines it seemed that he was in disagreement over a matter of church government: I found his refusal to withdraw his resignation entirely consistent with what I knew from his essays and journals of his firm adherence to principle. It was fascinating too to read of occurrences in the life of the church which I knew from the journals – like the hurricane which took the roof off the church in the mid 1890s, recorded in the journals from the familys point of view and in the church book from the fellowships, with discussions about repairs, materials and costs all laid out in detail. I got a real picture of Joseph the churchman: my view of him from the journals was confirmed as I read an objective account of his life in the fellowship rather than just his own subjective account.
I drew a blank at the record office when I came to enquire about Oundle Baptist Church however. The card index produced just one very scanty reference, the index books nothing at all. Staff, helpful as they were, could throw no light on where any records might be. The church had closed in the early part of the 20th century, and there was nothing on deposit. That bit of my research went onto the shelf as I concentrated on other avenues of exploration: I thought that later on I might contact the Baptist Union for help. One Saturday evening, browsing through the website of Northamptonshire Family History Society I found a link to a website set up by Graham Ward who has done considerable research into non-conformity in Northamptonshire, and discovered that he had listed, among other churches, the early pastors of Oundle Baptist Church.
A bell rang: the pastor listed from 1826 was R. Manton. Could this be Richard, my 3-times great grandfather? I knew that the Mantons had moved from Kettering to Oundle between 1823 when a daughter was baptised at the Great Meeting, and 1832 when their last daughter was born (not baptised but listed on censuses as born in Oundle), I knew them to be non-conformists, I knew that there were Baptist ministers in the family later on. I had no idea that Richard might be a pastor – after all, he was a shoemaker according to his childrens baptismal records. Yet of course many pastors of small dissenting causes needed to earn their living without relying on church resources, and many saw it as scriptural to do so, following in the steps of St. Paul who earned his living making tents. Indeed, William Carey, the first missionary sent to India by the Baptist Missionary Society, was a shoemaker. I had to follow this lead!
I e-mailed Graham to ask whether he had any further information, and almost by return, he replied to tell me that the Oundle records were held by the Strict Baptist Historical Library. The next step was to make an enquiry there: again, almost by return the librarian confirmed that on a quick reading he could tell me that the minister was indeed Richard Manton, and just as exciting that there were references to William Rowell, my great great grandfather, as a deacon there in later years. I arranged to visit the library as soon as they could accommodate me! The librarian was most helpful, and allowed me to use my digital camera to capture all the records I was interested in – membership records, summary accounts of the churchs history up to 1846 and detailed accounts of church meetings from then on until 1895.
What emerged as I read the minute books was what a quarrelsome lot they were! Richard Manton arrived in 1826 initially travelling from Kettering, about 18 miles away, each Saturday night, returning on Monday. His family must have been relieved when he moved them all to Oundle in 1827. He pastored the flock for little monetary reward for 19 years, 18 of them recorded as acceptable, though in the last few months the congregation very much decreased and a very unfriendly spirit was manifested between him and some of the members… He was asked to leave in June 1845, and returned to Kettering where he died in 1848. His wife Rebecca was left in penury, a pauper lacemaker on the 1851 census. There remains one more reference to her in the Oundle minutes, when in 1856 her case was brought before the church, and the church considering her conduct in communing at the Lords table with an unbaptised church to be unscriptural and disorderly she was excluded from membership. She had probably returned to the Great Meeting, which of course being Independent rather than Baptist, would not find favour with this community of Strict Baptists.
If they were harsh with Rebecca, she was not alone: William Rowell was baptised in 1847 with 4 others including Sarah Willson, who was received with trembling as that which she stated before the church was not quite satisfactory to all present, but fearing that we should offend one of the Lords little ones we wished to judge charitably. Within 3 months Sarah was excommunicated for the sin of unchastity, with a public declaration that the offender is no longer a member with us, that we as a church do not countenance iniquity in any shape whatever. A little later, in 1853, Samuel Brown, who was Williams brother-in-law, had his moral conduct investigated (by William and another member). They failed to catch up with him as he had left the district but withdrew from communion with him as it was well known that he had frequently been intoxicated prior to leaving. At least he wasnt publicly named! Then in 1869, pastor William Tooke, who was later father-in-law to Williams son, stated in the Church meeting that the reason he had stayed so long was because his moral character had been attacked and he would not leave until it was cleared up, and he defied the whole world to bring one immoral charge against him… He gave notice a month later.
As well as disciplining members over moral shortcomings, there were frequent disagreements over church government. William was elected deacon in January 1867, but there was dissension over the manner of his election and some withdrew from fellowship. The church then voted on whether he should be confirmed, and he lost by a margin of one. He was later restored when in another election he and another candidate were so close in the voting that the senior deacon got them both appointed. Later, in 1870, there was dissension over the unauthorised reception into membership of one Joseph Plant, and in a subsequent Church meeting seven members left the meeting in a most disorderly and reprehensible manner declaring they would no longer remain members of the church. One of these was the original complainant about Williams election: it is apparent that there was a power struggle going on!
William himself was not to be a member and deacon for much longer. In March 1873 it came to the churchs attention that he was involved in the sin of intemperance: he was dismissed as a deacon and suspended from fellowship. Having renounced his sin he was readmitted in June, but by November was reported to be drinking again. At the December church meeting he was suspended for 6 months. His name never again appears in the minutes. From what I know from family journals, he was nursing a sick wife all through the 1870s: probably a mental illness, since she is recorded on the 1871 census as imbecile. Its perhaps not surprising he turned to drink, but there is no sense of understanding in the minute book. William left Oundle shortly after, to work with his son Jabez in a fellmongering business in Brigstock.
So, flesh on the bones – thanks to the survival of these church records I have a real understanding of some of the passions which consumed my ancestors. Quarrelsome they may have been, but at least there was honesty in their recording, and over a century on, we get a good picture of what it meant to be a non-conformist in the mid 1800s.