Tracing one’s ancestors

Bible 1

If you were asked to name one of the oldest genealogy books in the world, you may not think of the Bible.

But that—in part—is what it is.

When I was a child I was puzzled at the number of ‘begats’ in the Bible (‘Joseph begat Levi’, and so on).  I was unaware that the Hebrews found it necessary to trace the lineage of a number of people.

Today, genealogy is one of the world’s top hobbies. Much of it may have been stimulated by the film ‘Roots’, but in the last few years the digital revolution has been making it easier for everyone everywhere to participate.

It seems to me that few genealogists realise the enormous debt they owe to the Anglican Church.

Since 1538, countless numbers of clergy have been making lists of births, baptisms, marriages and burials.

Whenever people today manage to locate an important event among their ancestors it is due to the fact that some hardworking vicar recorded the details for posterity.

The order for all Anglican parishes in 1538 to keep parish registers has proved invaluable to us all.

At first, not all entries were perfect. It was not until 1812 that standard printed registers were available. And it was not until the following year that there was any mention of the mother’s name in the case of an infant baptism. Even marriages sometimes only recorded the groom’s name.  At first, ages at deaths were rarely mentioned.

But things improved. And copies were made. As well as the parish records, in 1597 it was ordered that the churchwardens in a parish should make an additional copy of the parish registers to be sent to the diocesan headquarters and to be known as bishops’ transcripts.

During 1643 and 1660 (the Commonwealth period, when Oliver Cromwell’s government banned the Anglican Church and turned the country into a republic), the keeping of parish registers and marriages in church ceased.

But after the Restoration in 1660, every parish had to keep a book recording all of its marriages, births and deaths.

Of course, genealogy, like most things, can be overdone. As someone once said: “A man who thinks too much about his ancestors is like a potato—the best part of him is underground.”