Old Time Religion

One of the rethinks we have to make in looking at past times is the way religion and politics were connected. They still are today of course, but not as insistently. The way you worshipped your god once had a lot to do with what political authority you obeyed.

Look at European history. Europe was Christian, under the temporal authority of the Pope. The Pope thought he was the king of kings, and that all kings owed him obedience. Then world trade developed, became a capitalist money system, and we had nation states, mostly ‘Catholic’, who fought the ‘universal’ authority of Rome to create a national identity. A number of empires formed. There were two main ones, the Spanish, which controlled most of southern Europe and most of North and South America, and the French, which unified kingdoms in western Europe and northern Italy (there was yet no Italy or Germany as nations).These two were both ‘Catholic’. Then small nations with big trading empires entered the mix, Portugal, England and Holland. The last two broke so violently with the authority of Rome they formed national churches and were known as Protestants. The German states became united and Germany the most militant Protestant country of all.

The Popes didn’t give up their pretensions of political power easily (obviously they hadn’t read The Sermon on the Mount for a while). It was only in the reign of George I that the Pope said it was all right to obey the monarch of Britain. He had actively intrigued to topple Elizabeth I from her throne, which was why the Tudors were so hard on Catholics. They were potential traitors. Some religious folk wanted to get away from all this fuss and bother, and just worship in the way they preferred. Some ways were pretty peculiar, like the Amish or the Quakers. But their religion was still a political statement.

So scratch a so-called Protestant, and you uncovered a possible political activist. In America the Puritans talked of liberty. Turned out they meant freedom from taxation: they wanted to keep their money, not give it to England. People all over the world became objects of suspicion if they didn’t follow the orthodox form of the religion of their home town. And born again radical preachers came along, like the Wesleys, and made everyone nervous.

Jan_Hus

Jan Hus thought different about the Catholic church

Even the idea that you might want to read the bible in your native language was a threatening one, and translators like Huss and Wycliff were tortured to death as heretics. People did that weird thing they do when under pressure; they said that anyone who disagreed with their opinion was possessed by the Devil (whoever that was) and had to be tortured in as many ingenious ways as possible then killed. This didn’t work. The result was more Protestants, who, er, protested.

As far as genealogists are concerned, all this was most inconvenient. It means that often when looking for a record of a marriage, or a funeral or baptism, the record is missing. This sometimes means the record has been lost or destroyed. But often it means the persons being researched weren’t orthodox in a religious way. They didn’t toe the line as far as the religious/political establishment was concerned. And often these are the people, too, who emigrated, to get away from an oppressive situation. There’s always been such a fuss about which hand to make the sign of the cross with, or exactly how the Persons in the Trinity are related. If you felt strongly on issues like these (millions once did!) you had to emigrate, protest; and also got to keep your money.

Take the Irish for instance (I have a 65% Irish background so I know them well). They lived in a country which was the scene of widespread starvation and infectious disease because of English mismanagement. If they raised a hand to protest, the English sent the army in and slaughtered everyone. Why? The Irish were Catholic! They might revolt!  When they finally did revolt they were sent to the other side of the world, Australia, where there was no food and hostile natives. But as convicts they were still suspect as Catholics. If they wanted to marry or have a wake it had to be the Church of England way. That meant swearing an oath to be loyal to the King of England who had destroyed their country, stolen their land, murdered their relatives and sent them in irons to die of exposure in Australia. They didn’t like it. Trouble was there wasn’t a Catholic church in Australia at first. It might foment traitors, so it was outlawed, and priests who insisted on practising were put in jail. The Catholics didn’t give up: they went underground. This played havoc with things like recording births and funerals.

When I came to look into the life of an Irish rebel called William Davis, known as the Wexford Pikemaker (a four greats grand uncle), there was no record at all of his marriage. There was no details at all on his death certificate. There was little detail of the births of his children. It was a hard job to track the man down, and there are still many blanks. The man stayed away from the Church of England and its ministers like the plague. He knew what he knew. Davis as it turned out played a key role in establishing the Catholic Church in Australia (he became very rich and gave the church a lot of money), and after his time there were records to consult of Catholic baptisms and marriages. But for tracing William, it had to be done the hard way, by scanning newspapers for details mentioned in passing, deducing births from later deaths, and looking at Government Archives.

Another relative was a two times great grandfather called Joseph Knowles. He was in the records for marriage and death, but no birth record. Luckily I met a colleague through the internet who was tracing the same family, and discovered the Knowles family were Catholics. First I’d known of it. Still no result. I even employed a researcher to go through surviving church records in the area. Then I found it on Google. That’s what happens these days. It was called  The Official Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial BMDs Service, a register of non parish records about those who dissented from Anglicanism. The site is at http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk/. A lot of people just wanted to register a baptism, not swear an oath of allegiance against their conscience. In the case of Joseph Knowles his baptism was recorded at Dr William’s Library situated at Redcross Street near Cripplegate London. Dr Williams’s Library was the pre-eminent centre of English Protestant nonconformity for groups such as the Presbyterians, Unitarians and Congregationalists.

So it turns out the religion of our ancestors was important to them, and important to us as researchers. How did they feel about the government of the day? We don’t know, really. But we can deduce it from where they conducted registers of baptisms, marriages and funerals. They might have been nationalists, like the Irish, a new power elite, like the Founding Fathers, or have just seem the light, like countless Baptists, Anabaptists, Hussites, Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. These last of course were often Nationalists as well, militant Scots people who wanted to kick the English out of Scotland. Perhaps they didn’t fit in at all: Jews, or even atheists.

Every life event recorded on a certificate should contain a note of the person’s faith. That can lead you at first to a denominational cemetery where other ancestors might lie. But it also gives you a clue where to look for earlier records. And it also brings their period to life, a time where how you worshipped was also a way you were politically aligned, and something you debated hotly with friends and neighbours. Free Trade, for or anti Slavery, independence for America, a vernacular bible, the income tax, war with France, women’s right to vote and be heard. All issues, in some way, of faith and the freedom to believe.

These were living issues once, and we should never forget it.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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About phillipkay

Welcome. The essays you'll find on this site are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.

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