The Smiths and Methodism

In many of the pages and posts about the Smiths who lived in the 19th century I have mentioned that they were Methodists.  You might wonder why this matters in a family history blog.  The short answer is because it affects where the historical records are.  Before the establishment of civil registration systems, the only records of births (actually, baptisms), marriages and deaths (burials) were kept by the churches.  Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837 in England and in 1864 in Ireland.  It is thought that in the early years of civil registration some life events were not registered either because people were not familiar with the requirement or decided not to bother.  Church records continued to be important for tracing people’s lives in the 19th century.

The established church in England is the Anglican Church; this was so in Ireland as well until 1871.  (The Anglican Church in Ireland is called the Church of Ireland.)  As the established (state-authorized) church, the Anglican Church in England has greater political status than the other Protestant churches usually referred to collectively as non-conformists.  The non-conformist group would include Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and so on.  From the 17th century to the early 19th century, non-conformists were prevented from taking part in public life or receiving public education and social benefits because they did not belong to the Anglican Church.

The Catholic Church, while also “non-conforming” to the Anglican Church’s creeds and practices, was treated differently; since the English Reformation in the 16th century, it was suppressed in Britain even more harshly than were the non-conformist churches and this was also the case in Ireland although the vast majority of the people in Ireland belonged to it.  Catholic emancipation occurred gradually in Britain, including Ireland, from 1829 onwards.

As a result of the various constraints on non-Anglican people and their clergy, early records in non-Anglican churches were often not kept well, were destroyed or were lost over time.

Regarding the Smiths, it is fortunate for us that they chose to record the key life events of their families in the Anglican Church.  Even though those records too are not always complete, readable or even available, especially before 1700, they are generally more accessible than the others.  From what I have learned so far, the Smiths were Wesleyan Methodists.  This version of Methodism grew out of the Anglican Church in the 1820s and was not antagonistic to the established church, at least in the beginning.

Another reason why it matters that the Smiths were Methodists is because of their social connections when they moved to Ireland – what we now call social networking.  It seems to me that in Tipperary their social network was made up largely of other English families and I believe a number of them were also Methodists.  I will be describing these links more in later posts and pages.

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One Response to The Smiths and Methodism

  1. opmartin says:

    I agree that the dividing line between Anglican and Methodism was somewhat blurred in the early 19th century. In an area like Gamblesby – in the back of beyond – this may well have persisted longer than in mainstream areas. A sensible Anglican incumbent would not have wished to alienate half his possible congregation!
    My Wayland ancestor, who also moved to Ireland from NW England was also methodist, I believe. Word of mouth must have carried a great weight in those days especially a recommendation from someone with similar views.

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