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Writing your Church or Chapel History

Maybe you are just thinking about starting your own project or have been working on it for some time, we hope you will find some useful tips here.

The title of this article represents just one of the stages towards the completion of this task. It starts with deciding what you are trying to achieve and collecting the source material. It may be that the inspiration to do this has arisen because of an impending anniversary or perhaps just because it has not been done before or it is time for an update. The reasons for undertaking the project may vary, but the principles are the same – to document the history for future generations and to explain to the current congregation their own heritage and context of their church life today.

Before starting the main research for your history it would be time well spent to understand the general history of Baptists in your locality and nationally by reference to published sources. This should include reference to:

The English Baptists of the 17th century, White, B R, Baptist Historical Society, London, 1983 1

The English Baptists of the 18th century, Brown, R, Baptist Historical Society, London, 1986 1

The English Baptists of the 19th century, Briggs, J H Y, Baptist Historical Society, London, 1994 1

Strict and Particular, Dix, K, Baptist Historical Society, Didcot, 2001 2

Particular Baptists in Victorian England, Breed, G R, Baptist Historical Society, Didcot, 2003 2

The Strict Baptist Chapels of England, Chambers, R F, Fauconberg Press, 1952 -1963 & Oliver, R, 1968 3

1 obtainable from
2 obtainable from The Strict Baptist Historical Society
3 volumes 1, 2 and 3 out of print but library copies available, volumes 4 & 5 from The Strict Baptist Historical Society

There may also be published histories of the growth of Baptists in your region e.g. Baptists of London, Whitley, W T, n.d.

A useful article is “Sources for the study of Baptist History” by Sue Mills, Librarian of the Angus Library, Oxford appeared in the Baptist Quarterly, vol. XXXIV part 6 pp 282-296, April 1992.

My Ancestors Were Baptists” by G R Breed has useful appendices listing church records held by the Public Record Office, the Society of Genealogists, the Gospel Standard Baptist Library, the Strict Baptist Historical Society Library, the Angus Library in Oxford, the Guildhall Library and Dr Williams’s Library.

Depending on the circumstances, some of the suggestions below may not be applicable in all situations. Even for the modest undertakings readers are encouraged to consider the points below to avoid serious omissions.

  • Where to start. Is this going to be an individual effort or a group task agreed by the current membership? Either way make your intentions clear to prevent duplication of effort and publicise the task to as wide an audience as possible. Decide what you are going to write. Who is the final work going to be written by, an individual or by the committee? How is it going to be organised, by time, by pastorate, by the different aspects of the church/chapel’s life and work? Understand the balance of the final work, does it give equal coverage to each time period. It should be clear whether the final work is a Chapel (building) or Church (people) history.
  • Make it interesting. To produce a work that will be read and enjoyed is a challenge. By including the stories about individuals and families makes it interesting and all the more worthwhile. It is also important to be able to deal objectively with difficult events in the church/chapel’s history. In this area, be careful about biographical references especially recent ones so as not to cause offence. It should be written as a history not as a sermon.
  • What has been written before? This might be as a published history, someone else’s earlier efforts i.e. unpublished notes, or an article in a denominational magazine. Remember that a church may have moved buildings over the years but also may have changed in its beliefs, consequently there may be several sources to be followed up. Local newspapers may have a summary of a church/chapel’s history at the time of the opening of a new building, the arrival of a new pastor or the celebration of an anniversary. This could be a lengthy process, and it may involve checking references to many series of magazines e.g. Baptist Magazine, Gospel Herald, Earthen Vessel, Christian’s Pathway, Gospel Standard, etc. Remember to research both by location and key individuals. You should at least investigate the following:
Local Reference LibraryPublished materials, newspapers, maps of the area (showing the development of the buildings). Victoria County History series.
County Record OfficeManuscripts, correspondence, deeds and other primary sources. Meeting house licences. Maps of the area. 1851 census (printed transcripts are held by some of the specialist libraries (see below)).
Specialist LibraryStrict Baptist Historical Society Library, Dunstable
Specialist LibraryGospel Standard Library, Hove
Specialist LibraryAngus Library, Regents Park College, Oxford
Specialist LibraryDr Williams’s Library
Specialist LibraryEvangelical Library, London
National ArchivesTrust Deeds deposited in class C54 exist for many chapels and related land and buildings. These describe them in detail often including the reasons for establishing the trust and a statement of beliefs, together with a list of original members. Microfilmed copies of registers deposited in 1837 and later.
National Archives "Find an archive"Although not a repository itself, this is a use directory of archives in the UK.
  • Understand the facts. Finding the church minutes (from a church officer or by checking appendices in “My Ancestors Were Baptists”) and gaining access to them may be an easy or challenging task. They may not be available for the whole life of the church, or may be in several different places. It may be necessary, where they have gone missing, to investigate reports in nearby churches’ minutes, for example, details of special services and transfer of members. This is an area that may need some investigation to understand how the church came to be organised and the historic context of the church/chapel. Was it a split from another or a deliberate planting of a new fellowship? Did they start by meeting in a private house? A history should be specific and not generalise.
  • Make the project widely known. Many people will no doubt have material they have retained over the years, i.e. special service leaflets, old invoices (could be with church records), photographs, press cuttings. You should try and get sight of as much of this material as possible. Consider copying the photographs for inclusion in the final work (with owner’s permission; return them promptly; and give due acknowledgement) or as a separate archive.
  • The oral history. Often overlooked is the need to collect from members their memories of the last (say) 50 years, the documentary history can always be worked on later. It also serves as a method of promoting interest in the project. This type of research is carried out by making a sound or a written record of your conversation. Try not to put words into your interviewee’s mouth, or let another member of the family speak for them. It is important that they speak for themselves. Remember that some of what they say may be based on church tradition rather than on fact so ought to be corroborated. In principle the interviews should be a verbatim record and analysed later. The Strict Baptist Historical Society has its own Oral History Project.
  • Remember to investigate all the differing dimensions of the growth of a church/chapel. Its pastors, building, members, Sunday School and community. Its relationship to and with other churches/chapels in the area may provide a useful contribution to understanding the context of the development of the church/chapel.
  • As well as concentrating on the facts relating to the church/chapel it is also important to give a ‘feel’ of chapel life – describing anniversaries, Sunday School outings, harvest festivals, baptisms, how folk came into membership, and how and why church discipline was practised.
  • Whilst researching the church/chapel’s pastors, an appendix could be planned covering short biographies and details of any published works. As a minimum include a list of Pastors (with dates) and possibly church officers.
  • Records and statistics. It may be possible to include the transcription of vital records and an analysis of the growth of the church/chapel. This may be worthwhile in making the finished work appeal to a wider audience.
  • Preserve your history. If along the way you collate a collection of source material seriously consider its preservation. For safety you should consider depositing the collection in a suitable archive, or County Record Office (and in this case inform the SBHS Librarian that you have done so). When depositing records make it clear that they are on long term loan, list them, obtain a receipt, and ensure that they are easily accessible. Also consider the microfilming of key records (Baptism, Marriage, Burials, Membership and Minute Books) for both security and so that copies can be provided at alternative locations.
  • Aspects of publishing. Remember to put the name of the place on the cover (not just the name of the chapel) and to include a proper title page with ISBN (which can be obtained from your publisher). Include the date of compilation, the dates covered and the author. A brief index and bibliography would be useful. Include acknowledgements for illustrations etc and for help given. Send a copy to the copyright libraries. How is it to be marketed or distributed?
  • Remember research will cost money, whether in expenses incurred doing it oneself, charges levied by libraries, or employing professionals to research specific questions in far-away places.
  • Always keep records of contacts and references in a card file or on a computer as you go along.