It is not easy tracking down Methodist ancestors—there are so many sources in a large number of repositories!
The 1851 Ecclesiastical Census shows that there were over 15,000 Methodist Chapels in England, Wales and Scotland attended by Wesleyan Methodists, New Connexion Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, Welsh Calvinist Methodists, Protestant Methodists, etc. Following amalgamations in 1857 and 1907, the different Methodist groups eventually united in 1932 to form the Methodist Church.
Consolidation since then has seen many chapel closures particularly in towns and villages where there were previously 2 or more Methodist chapels. This has resulted in many Methodist records being deposited in County Record Offices. Sadly many records have also been lost through negligence at the time of chapel closures.
Earlier in 1837 when Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths was introduced, the Registrar General called in early Baptism and Burial Registers from all Nonconformist Churches.
856 Registers from Methodist Chapels were surrendered and these are listed by County for England and Wales in My Ancestors were Methodists by William Leary (now out of print but possibly available through at your local reference library or through the inter-library borrowing system).
Principal Methodist Archives
The Methodist Archives and Research Centre (MARC) at John Rylands University Library, Manchester, encourages academic research rather than family history. It has a huge number of links to Methodist sources worldwide, both primary and secondary. Its main collections are the records of Methodist Conferences since 1744, Methodist periodicals, pre 1932 Methodist manuscripts and a large collection of chapel histories and other printed records of Methodism. It has few Circuit or Chapel records—these are largely found in County Record Offices.
The Wesley and Methodist Studies Centre, Oxford Brookes University, Harcourt Hill Campus, Oxford, OX29AT (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) has complete runs of Minutes of Conference for all the 19th Century Methodist groups and their magazines (good for obituaries), Methodist newspapers and Hills’ Arrangements (details of ministers and their stations).
The main Methodist Church website: has links to many of today’s Methodist Chapels some of which have very informative pages about their history and records.
The National Archives website includes information provided by the Access to Archives network so that researchers can check holdings in a County Record Office for a particular Methodist Chapel or the Circuit in which it is located.
Records of a Methodist Chapel
From earliest days Methodists have always been very conscientious in keeping written records of Chapel meetings and of the many and varied committees within the life of the Chapel.
The records of a typical Methodist Chapel dating from the early 19thCentury may include some of these records:
Marriage Registers—duplicate copies from 1898 or from the date when the Chapel was registered for marriages.
Burial Registers—if there was a burial ground attached.
Register of Members/ Community Roll/ Church Directory. Many chapels have kept registers from the date of opening to the present day or up to the date of closure of a chapel. These registers usually include the address of a member and may include information about the chapel a member has come from or has moved to, as well as recording death of a member or in some instances “ceased to meet,” or “fallen” where a member has stopped attending the chapel.
Class Lists and names of Class Leaders. These are lists of people who were declared members of the church, who used to meet each week for Bible study and prayer at the home of the Class Leader. Members of a chapel are still put in classes but not all classes meet on such a regular basis. Early 19th Century Class Books often give the names of members, their marital status, occupation and address.
Leaders’ Meeting Minutes or Church Council Minutes. The minute books of chapel members who had been elected to look after the chapel property, the quality of worship in the services and pastoral care for members. The Minute books often show the names of all who attended and are sometimes accompanied by an Attendance Register which everyone present had signed.
Annual Chapel Meeting Minute Books. These contain annual reports from the different organisations in the chapel and the names of chapel officers elected for the following year.
Society Stewards’ Accounts or Chapel Stewards’ Accounts. These show annual income and expenditure. Some are summary accounts, but detailed accounts were often shown in early Account Books.
Collection Journals and Weekly Offering Ledgers. These books record details of chapel collections and the names of the ministers and local preachers who took the services.
Pew Rent Records. Before the Second World War, many chapels were well attended and members paid monthly or quarterly Pew Rents to reserve their seats—different rates depending where you sat in the chapel. From these lists it is possible to work out where your ancestors sat—if the pews haven’t been replaced by chairs in recent times.
Trustees’ Minutes and memoranda regarding the Appointment of Trustees. Every chapel was required to appoint Trustees to be responsible for the upkeep of the chapel buildings. Trustees were often appointed for life. New Trusts were formed when half of the old Trust had either died or moved out of the area.
Sunday School Minutes/ Accounts/ Registers. Many chapels used to have flourishing Sunday Schools and kept detailed records of scholars’ attendances, Anniversary services and outings.
Choir Minutes. These often record information about choir members, which parts they sang, special concerts and services as well as disputes between choir members and the organist!
Building Fund Minutes and Accounts. These may include information about chapel extensions , fund raising events and names of generous donors.
Wesley Guild Minutes/Roll book/ accounts.
Band of Hope/ Temperance Meeting Minutes/Registers and Accounts.
Christian Endeavour Meeting Minutes/Register and Accounts.
Youth Club Minutes and Accounts.
Women’s Meeting/ Ladies’ Circle Minutes and Accounts.
Records of a Methodist Circuit
Every Methodist chapel belongs to a Circuit, or used to belong to a circuit before the chapel was closed. A Circuit may comprise only 2 or 3 chapels in some towns and cities but as many as 20-30 chapels in rural areas. Circuit records may include duplicate records of chapels in the circuit as well as records of the different circuit meetings and organisations.
A typical list of Circuit records may include:
Circuit registers of baptisms—a combined register of baptisms in each of the circuit chapels.
Circuit plans and directories—names and addresses of Ministers, Local Preachers, Circuit stewards and officers in each of the Circuit Chapels as well as showing the preachers’ appointments for the three or four month period covered by the plan.
Circuit Quarterly Meeting Minute Books –summarising the business of the circuit and listing the names of attendees and those who had given apologies for absence.
Local Preachers’ Meeting Minute Books—Methodism relies heavily on Local Preachers to conduct services as it has many more chapels than ordained ministers. Local preachers go through a rigorous programme of training before they are “Fully Accredited.” The Minute Books record how Local Preachers progress from being “On Note” to being “On Trial” to becoming “Fully Accredited.” A large number of young local preachers used to then go forward to train for the Methodist ministry and the minute books record the support and encouragement they received from the Circuit. There may be a collection of Preachers’ Candidating Forms attached to the minute books in these cases.
Circuit property schedules giving information about the condition of each chapel in the circuit. These would have been completed by the chapel stewards and signed by them as well as by the minister chairing the meeting.
Circuit Registers of Members—lists of members attending each of the chapels in the circuit. They also record deaths of members, transfers of membership between chapels and circuits and sadly some who had ceased to be members.
Circuit Trustees—Lists of trustees and Minutes of their meetings. Circuits appointed Trustees and stewards to be responsible for circuit property, especially the Manses in which the ministers lived. Until comparatively recent times the Circuit officers were responsible for furnishing the manses—some Circuits did this as cheaply as possible as the minutes show.
Chapel Registration certificates confirming that the chapel was a registered place of worship.
Circuit Accounts including details of expenses incurred when ministers moved to another circuit.
Circuit Class books listing the names of members in each Chapel and to which class they were allocated for spiritual and pastoral care.
Circuit Account Books of Money paid to Poor members of the Circuit out of collections taken “for the Poor Fund” at Communion Services.
Many Circuits Records include collections of Miscellaneous Records. These may include items such as reports on the Sunday Schools in the Circuit; names of subscribers to the circuit magazine or to a weekly Methodist newspaper; Trip Books listing names of people who went on Circuit outings and how much they paid; the Horse Hire Fund or Travel Fund accounts showing expenses paid to ministers and local preachers in the days before bicycles and motor cars.
Chapel histories written for a chapel centenary, 150th anniversary or bicentenary.
Local Newspapers are a rich source of information about Methodist activities in local chapels or of circuit events. There may be reports about Sunday services and weekday meetings, Chapel Anniversaries, Sunday School Anniversaries, Chapel and Sunday School outings, Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade activities, Choir concerts, Circuit Rallies— especially the annual celebration of Wesley Day on May 24th, and pen portraits of prominent local worthies some of whom were Methodists.
Recently the British Library has started to digitise newspapers published between 1800-1900, many of which contain reports on Methodist chapel activities. For more details visithttp://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs
Census returns between 1851 and 1911 are another source for locating Methodist ancestry. They record a Minister’s occupation as “Wesleyan Methodist Minister” or “Primitive Methodist Minister” and some Local Preachers are recorded as “Farmer and Wesleyan Methodist Local Preacher.” In some instances children are recorded as Methodist Sunday School scholars. For more information read Stuart Raymond’s book “The Census 1801-1911” [The Family History Partnership 2009].
Local Newspapers 1750-1920 in England and Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man by Jeremy Gibson, Brett Langston and Brenda Smith (3rd edition). The Family History Partnership, 2011. ISBN 978 1 906280 31 4..
The Census 1801–1911: A Guide for the Internet Era, by Stuart A Raymond. The Family History Partnership 2009. ISBN 978 1 906280 16 1.