Thursday, 21 February 2013

Henry VIII, genealogists, Anabaptists and Mormons

Back for a moment to my old stamping ground, Henry VIII's Reformation: for a realisation which seems like it ought to be embarrassingly obvious. I've not noticed anyone spell it out before. So apologies if this is old hat, but tortoise here has only just caught up with it.

One of the oddities of Henry VIII's reign is the appearance of parish registers. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell's second set of royal injunctions required every parish to keep a register of baptisms, marriages and burials: for no very obvious reason. There was some suspicion at the time that he was proposing to tax these things, but there's no evidence that was the case.

But we don't ask too many questions, because the documents themselves are so fantastically useful: they're the basis for English genealogical work (a subject in which 1538 is Year Zero) and for lots of other historical stuff too. So we tend to assume - or at least I have - that this is somehow part of Cromwell's general drive for administrative efficiency and to turn England into a clockwork bureaucratic machine. Quite how these registers would serve that purpose, well, who knows?

Marking a student essay on Swiss Anabaptists yesterday made me realise what's up. 1538 was, amongst other things, the year when Henry VIII's regime was at the height of its panic about Anabaptist infiltration. We know it never happened, but this was only three years after the terrifying and bloody takeover of the city of M√ľnster by apocalyptic Anabaptists, an event which hung over Europe not unlike 9/11.

... And then they require every parish to keep a record of all its baptisms. Well, duh. What better way of flushing out any Anabaptist tendencies, given that Anabaptists are marked by their refusal to baptise infants?

If I'm right, there's a lovely irony to this. The parish registers that resulted have been used by a great many genealogists, but most assiduously and systematically by the Mormons, who as I understand it use them for the practice of posthumous baptism of believers' ancestors, and who as a result have collated and analysed the registers more thoroughly than anyone else. If Henry VIII was shocked by Anabaptists, what would he have made of that?

1 comment:

  1. Swiss anabaptists? Are there any left for you to discover in April? C