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Religious history: a research guide

Connected Histories provides access to materials reflecting the organisation and practice of religion on both a national and a local level.

Contents of this article

The church and the nation

Connected Histories includes resources covering a period of seismic change in British religious history, including the Reformation, civil war and Restoration. The Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords detail the passage of the crucial legislation through parliament, and the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, contains a wealth of material on the development and enforcement of policy by the crown and its agents. Both these sources are part of British History Online.

In the comparative stability (religiously, at least) of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was still the case that the bishops of the Church of England sat in the House of Lords. The Journals of the House of Lords (British History Online) and the Parliamentary Papers contain much material on their role in the shaping of legislation.

Personnel and religious life

Fundamental to our knowledge of day-to-day religious life are the records of individual churches and their clergy. For clergy the starting point must be the Clergy of the Church of England Database, which traces the careers of a large proportion of the clergy in that period.

The parish had many functions beyond the conduct of worship. With careful keyword searching, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online and London Lives, 1690-1800 hold a great wealth of more tangential information on religious understandings of crime and punishment, the provision of poor relief and the moral regulation of the lives of the poor, particularly in London. Diaries, such as that of the 16th-century funeral arranger Henry Machyn (British History Online) also provide glimpses of the religious life of the capital.

A particularly detailed source for the religious habits and beliefs of London’s poor are the notebooks of Charles Booth, which formed the raw materials for his inquiry into the populace of London in the late 19th century, and which are part of the Charles Booth Online Archive).

Those who failed to conform to church rules were brought before the church courts; for these see the Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York. The Witches in Early Modern England database provides rich evidence concerning those accused of witchcraft between 1540 and 1700.

Roman Catholics and Nonconformists

The Church of England was not the only church in Britain. It is the case, however, that the religious lives of Roman Catholics and of members of the Nonconformist churches are much less well documented in the period covered by Connected Histories than those of members of the established church. Where non-Anglicans are mentioned in the records of the central government such as in the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords or the Calendar of State Papers (British History Online), it was in relation to their supposed part in political intrigue against the crown or to legislation enacted to restrict their religious freedom. The 19th century saw campaigns to relax and overturn these various disabilities, and the 19th Century Pamphlets Online (forthcoming) and British Newspapers 1600-1900 both contain sources of relevance.

For local religious life, there is no equivalent source to the Clergy of the Church of England Database. However, the religious materials in the Charles Booth Online Archive are equally as rich for non-Anglican denominations as for the established church. Origins.net also contains much detail on the family connections of individual ministers.

Religious Controversy

Religious controversy was never far below the surface, even in the comparative calm of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jeremy Bentham's controversial critiques of the Church of England and religion more generally can be found in the Transcribed Papers of Jeremy Bentham, and other debate can be found in Nineteenth-Century British Pamphlets and British Newspapers 1600-1900. The Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical database indexes articles in the Christian Observer, Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, and Youth's Magazine; or, Evangelical Miscellany.

Strengths and weaknesses

Although Connected Histories has very strong resources for the legal and constitutional aspects of British religion, the coverage is uneven across the whole period. The Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, the most government focused source, ends in the early 18th century and the Parliamentary Papers help fill the subsequent gap, the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords also extend only to the mid 18th century. The Clergy of the Church of England Database, while indispensable, is nonetheless incomplete, and so search results or the lack of them for individual clergy must be handled with care. Resources are also relatively thin for the histories of individual churches, their patronage and architecture.

Search strategies

Much profitable searching for religious history may be done by the use of personal names; a strategy supported well by the site's search engine. An alternative strategy is to search for the name of an individual church, such as 'St Botolph Aldgate', but it is also worth trying variant spellings, such as 'Butolph' or 'Aldegate'.

For the history of religious ideas or movements, a keyword approach would be well advised, but conducted with a combination of imagination and care. A searcher interested in the religious politics of the reign of Charles I might well search for the same individuals as 'Calvinist', 'puritan' or even just 'godly'. It is also the case that items of religious law are rarely referred to by their offical titles: the 'Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates' would be most efficiently found by a search for 'annates'.

Further reading

  • P. Collinson, The Reformation (London, 2003)
  • F. Heal, Reformation in Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2003)
  • J. Spurr, The Post-Reformation. Religion, Politics and Society, 1603-1714 (London, 2006)
  • C. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (Abingdon, 2001; 2009)

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