The established church and nonconformism

The Church – as a religious, administrative and legal body – was for many centuries an essential part of the way of life in south west England. Attending church on a Sunday was an important part of the week for those who held sincere religious beliefs; Sunday was also a day to socialise and offered respite from the week’s labours. Going to church was essentially compulsory – employees and tenants who might have been reluctant to attend were often coerced by landowners to do so. The church levied fines on non-attenders, who were known as recusants.

The Church had a significant legal status, with ecclesiastical courts presiding over matters that nowadays would be handled by civil bodies, including the probate of wills. From the 16th century, the Church kept written records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Most of these records have survived and form a valuable resource for genealogists. From the mid 18th century they include records of when banns of marriage were read.

The local parish church was where baptisms, marriages and burials took place. These ceremonies continued, apparently seamlessly, whether the churches were catholic (before the ‘break with Rome’ under Henry VIII in the 1530s and during the reign of Mary I in 1553–1558) or protestant (Church of England).

For a brief period in the 1650s during the Commonwealth, marriages were conducted in front of a Justice of the Peace and from the 18th century specific legal arrangements were made for Jews, Quakers, nonconformists and Catholics. Civil marriages were again introduced in the 19th century, after which couples could choose to marry at a register office rather than in a church.

It was not only civil authority that undermined the powers of the Church of England. From the 17th century, dissenters of various kinds wanted to worship differently and separately from it. The 1662 Act of Uniformity, which placed a range of constraints on the clergy, led to ministers being removed from their posts for ‘preaching the gospel’, examples being Bartholomew Yeo at Merton, Thomas Finney at Exbourne and William Yeo at Wolborough. Nonconformist beliefs and practices grew and led to the establishment of separate denominations. Plymouth was an active centre for nonconformism – Mary Ann Shortridge, who married John Yeo at Hartland in 1838 and settled in Ontario with him – was from a family that worshipped at the Norley Street chapel near the Barbican.

Methodism, which originated within the established church, also became a separate denomination. Several Yeo families had connections with the Bible Christian movement, which was founded at Shebbear in 1816 and later merged with the Methodists.

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