Statistics Collected by the State

Religious Statistics in Great Britain: An Historical Introduction

Article contents


1. Statistics Collected by the State

1.1         Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

1.2         Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

1.3         Recent Developments

Notes to Section 1

2. Statistics Collected by Faith Communities

2.1         Established Churches: Church of England

2.2         Established Churches: Wales and Scotland

2.3         Free Churches: General

2.4         Free Churches: Methodists

2.5         Free Churches: Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers

2.6         Free Churches: Other Denominations

2.7         Roman Catholic Church: Before the Second World War

2.8         Roman Catholic Church: After the Second World War

2.9         Ecumenical Initiatives: National

2.10       Ecumenical Initiatives: International

2.11       Non-Christian Faiths: General

2.12       Non-Christian Faiths: Judaism

2.13       Irreligion

Notes to Section 2

3. Statistics Collected by Other Agencies

3.1         Social Investigators

3.2         Opinion Pollsters

3.3         Academic Researchers

3.4         Print and Broadcast Media

Notes to Section 3

4. Future Needs and Prospects for Religious Statistics

Notes to Section 4

Appendix 1

Select Bibliography of the Religious History of Modern Britain


Church of England

Free Churches

Roman Catholicism




New Religious Movements




Appendix 2

Recent Publications on the 1851 Religious Census of England and Wales

General Commentaries

Local Studies

Appendix 3

Contemporary Regional Studies of Religion as Social Capital in England and Wales

Appendix 4

Church of England Clergy Visitation Returns of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Primary Sources: Editions of Returns

Primary Sources: Editions of Specula

Secondary Sources: Visitation Process

Secondary Sources: Use of Returns

Appendix 5

Abraham Hume’s Contribution to Religious Statistics and Sociology

Appendix 6

Local Censuses of Church Attendance in Great Britain, 1881-82

Appendix 7

Newman Demographic Survey and Pastoral Research Centre

Appendix 8

John Highet’s Contribution to Scottish Religious Statistics

Appendix 9

Local Censuses of Church Attendance in Great Britain, 1901-12

1. Statistics Collected by the State

1.1 Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

It is often assumed that, in Britain, the state has played a very limited role in the collection of religious statistics, relative to most Western countries. While this is largely true in terms of the population census, it is far from being the case across the board. This mainly stems from the close links between Church and state which flowed from the sixteenth-century English and Scottish Reformations, and which still persist in diluted form today: there continue to be “established” churches, accorded special recognition by the state, in England and Scotland.

The nascent Tudor Protestant state felt particularly insecure. It introduced uniformity legislation to enforce adherence to the Church of England, including compulsory attendance at the parish church, a provision which – amazingly – was on the statute books for almost the entire period between 1552 and 1969. The state was especially concerned about the perceived threat from Roman Catholics, whose allegiance was to an extra-national temporal power (the Papacy) and who were also often thought to be in league with England’s foreign enemies (notably France and Spain), and about Protestant sectaries, from whom Nonconformity was to emerge.

It was these concerns which inspired the first attempts to gather ecclesiastical statistics, which were commissioned by Government and Parliament but executed through the machinery of the Church of England (as had been a population count in 1563).

In the seventeenth century, there were two general religious censuses of England and Wales, in 1603 and 1676, the extant documents for which have recently become available in scholarly editions.[1] The former enquiry sought a return of communicants, recusants and non-communicants, the latter of conformists, papists and nonconformists. Both surveys suffered from an imprecise and inconsistent application of these categories, from non-response and from a degree of underestimation. There was also an earlier return of perceived nonconformists, in 1669.[2]

A heavily qualified freedom of religion was introduced for Trinitarian Protestant Nonconformists by the Toleration Act 1689, but Roman Catholics remained highly suspect, at least before the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791. Indeed, there were no fewer than four occasions in the eighteenth century when the House of Lords called on the Anglican bishops to enumerate English and Welsh recusants, in 1705, 1706, 1767 and 1780. The 1767 investigation is the most detailed and complete and has recently been edited by Edward Worrall.[3]

The situation in Ireland (then an integral part of Britain) was thought to be graver still, for here Catholics formed the overwhelming majority of the people, not the tiny minority they constituted in England and Wales. Accordingly, in 1732-33 a census of Irish Protestant and Roman Catholic families was taken in connection with the returns to the Hearth-Money Office.[4] In 1764-66 the House of Lords ordered a fresh enumeration of Irish Protestants and Catholics, the returns to which were lost when the Public Record Office of Ireland was destroyed by fire in 1922 in the period of civil disturbance following the establishment of the Irish Free State (although some extracts from this enquiry do survive).

1.2 Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Tolerated they may have been, but Nonconformists were not immune from scrutiny. One manifestation of this was the requirement from 1689 to register their meeting-houses with the authorities in England and Wales, although the obligation never extended to Scotland. Coincidentally, the process conferred certain legal and (in time) taxation advantages, as well as affording protection from prosecution or persecution, and so it proved attractive to register even after it became permissive in 1855. Until the mid-nineteenth century licenses were issued by county and borough quarter sessions or episcopal and archidiaconal registries, but the Protestant Dissenters Act 1852 transferred the responsibility to the Registrar General, with whose successors it still resides. Certification extended to Roman Catholic and non-Christian in addition to Nonconformist places of worship.

Lists and tables of these registrations have been published, very occasionally as House of Commons Parliamentary Papers before the First World War (for instance, 1882, Vol. 50); or later, but only intermittently, in The Official List, Part III and Marriage and Divorce Statistics, buildings registered for the solemnization of marriages being separately identified. Data for selected years from 1972 are conveniently assembled in the various editions of Religions in the UK.[5]

Other indications of official preoccupation with the growth of religious pluralism were the 1812 listing of Dissenting chapels;[6] and the Home Office’s 1829 return of places of worship in England and Wales which were not of the Church of England, and of the number of adherents connected with them. Apart from a somewhat inaccurate edition for Lancashire, this was never printed, and the central record went up in flames with the Palace of Westminster in 1834. However, the original local replies often survive in county record offices.

By this stage, there was recognition by Government and Parliament that they also needed to examine the other side of the coin, the condition and performance of the Church of England, whose failings were perceived as encouraging the spread of its rivals. A programme of ecclesiastical reform was therefore inaugurated. There were particular anxieties about the extent of pluralism and non-residence of the clergy, the inadequate provision of Anglican church sittings in proportion to a rapidly expanding population, archaic parochial and diocesan boundaries, and the insufficiency and inequitable distribution of ecclesiastical revenues.

Commencing with Sir William Scott’s Residence Act 1803, which demanded that the bishops furnish annual statements of the condition of benefices to the Privy Council, the nineteenth-century Parliamentary Papers are thus awash with all manner of accounts and reports on the plant, manpower, finances and worship of the Church of England, most of them founded on new empirical research. Although these are too numerous to mention them all individually, even in the database on this website, they may be traced through the various subject indexes to the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.[7]

Nevertheless, the major series can be noted, commencing with the abstracts of clerical residence (from 1808) and the reports of the Commissioners for Building New Churches (from 1821). The statistics flowed especially freely from the 1830s onwards, when the Ecclesiastical Commission (subsequently, in 1856, incorporating the Church Building Commission of 1818) was set up following a Commission of Inquiry into Ecclesiastical Revenues (1832-35). The major annual reports thereafter comprised those of the Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty (from 1837), Tithe Commissioners (from 1837-38), Ecclesiastical Commissioners (from 1846), and Church Estates Commissioners (from 1852).

The Church Commissioners, formed in 1948 by the merger of the Ecclesiastical Commission and Queen Anne’s Bounty, are still accountable to Parliament today, as well as to the General Synod of the Church of England, and are an important source of statistics on Anglican assets. Relevant information may also be found in the reports of Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee, set up in the wake of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 to consider Church of England Measures proposed by what is now the Church’s General Synod.

In the Victorian era Parliamentary data also extended to the Church in Wales, culminating in a Royal Commission on the Church of England in Wales which reported in 1910 and gathered a wealth of statistics on Welsh Anglicanism and Nonconformity in 1905 as a prelude to the eventual disestablishment of the Church in 1920.[8] Subsequently, Parliament received regular reports from the Church Temporalities (Wales) Commissioners (from 1914-16) and accounts from the Welsh Church Commission (from 1917-18).

Parliament’s brief likewise extended to the Church of Scotland as the established religion north of the border, and whose work was similarly quantified, including through the Royal Commission on Religious Instruction of 1835-37, reporting in 1836-39.[9] This was appointed to validate the Church’s request for Government grants to facilitate the creation of new parishes. It gathered written and oral evidence, which was especially detailed in its treatment of Edinburgh and Leith and Glasgow, from respondents in both the Church and other denominations. In the early 1870s the radical MP Duncan McLaren sought and received Parliamentary orders for the Registrar General to obtain details of Church of Scotland communicants and ministerial stipends.[10]

Governmental interest in religious statistics was by no means confined to the fortunes of institutional Christianity, in reflection of the all-pervasive influence of faith on nineteenth-century society. Education was one example of a major policy area which was inseparable from religion. Prior to the Education Act 1870, which marked the beginnings of a national system, elementary schooling was substantially in the hands of religious bodies, through their day and Sunday schools, and its availability was assessed by Government enquiries in 1818, 1833, 1851 and 1858.[11]

Thereafter, a mixed economy of board and voluntary schools operated, ensuring an important continuing role (and state funding) for what are now termed faith schools, which persists to this day. As recipients of public money, their provision and performance have been subject to routine monitoring by and reporting to the state since the late Victorian era, and a range of recurrent and non-recurrent statistics were issued, initially in the form of Parliamentary Papers and then as departmental publications of the English, Welsh and Scottish education offices. The Education Act 1944 provided for mandatory collective worship and religious instruction in state schools, and thus inaugurated further quantification and scrutiny, partly through the regime of school inspections and partly through periodic national surveys (such as of the supply and qualifications of religious education teachers, as occurred in Scotland in 1970 and England and Wales in 1977).

Vital statistics were another area where faith influenced the Government’s agenda. Of the three rites of passage, religious data have only ever been gathered in connection with marriages, the number of civil and denominational ceremonies being recorded since the introduction of civil registration, in England and Wales from 1838 and in Scotland from 1855. The Scottish series has been published annually throughout, but for England and Wales only until the First World War and then mostly just for selected years thereafter (with a particularly long gap between 1934 and 1952). The data are perhaps least valuable as a guide to religious persuasion in the nineteenth century, given that it was not until after 1918 that most Nonconformists married in chapel and that a plurality of chapels were licensed to conduct weddings. The one Victorian statistician who relied heavily upon marriage figures to quantify the religious landscape could only correct for this fact by additionally classifying as Dissenters all those who married in registry offices.[12]

By contrast, the decennial population census has not routinely gathered religious statistics, with the marginal exception of information about the clergy from 1841 onwards (with varying degrees of disaggregation by denomination). Following a census of religious profession in Ireland in 1834, Government attempted to conduct a similar enquiry in connection with the 1851 census of Great Britain. This encountered stiff opposition, on the grounds of its perceived inquisitorial nature, and Government was forced to switch to an enumeration of churches, sittings and attendances, which – in the face of further resistance – it had to concede to be voluntary.

Despite a degree of non-response, and a tendency to overlook many of the smaller non-Anglican places of worship, the 1851 religious census remains one of the most important nineteenth-century statistical sources, especially when studied through the manuscript enumeration returns at The National Archives, the published analyses failing to distinguish properly between attendances at worship services and Sunday schools.[13] There is an extensive literature on the 1851 religious census, summarized in Clive Field’s bibliographical guide,[14] as brought up to date in Appendix 2. There was also a separate educational census, which covered denominational day and Sunday schools. Both the religious and educational censuses were overseen by Horace Mann.

Additional controversy broke out when the headline results of the 1851 religious census were published, in England and Wales in 1853 and in Scotland in 1854. In particular, the count of sittings and attendances seemed to confirm the relative success of voluntaryism and the failures of state Churches, further fuelling the campaign for disestablishment. Polarized denominational positions blighted Government’s attempts to include religion in later nineteenth-century censuses. Thus, for the 1861 census Government again proposed a census of religious profession, which was attractive to the Church of England and the Church of Scotland because it seemed likely to maximize their adherence. But it was resisted by the Nonconformists who felt that a count of churchgoers, as in 1851, would put them in the best light. In the end, Government had to abandon a religious census altogether in that year. For the 1871 census the proposal went to a division; the House of Commons voted against a religious question, the House of Lords reinstated it, and the House of Commons rejected it again. Attempts from various quarters to reopen the debate in connection with the 1881 and 1891 censuses were similarly abortive.[15]

Fortunately, Government had greater success in introducing a census of religious profession in Ireland from 1861 (and Northern Ireland from 1926), the question becoming optional from 1971. Attempts in 1912 and 1914 by the Anglican Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen to legislate for a similar census in Wales and Monmouthshire were actually resisted by Government.[16]

Although not available for the entire British population at this time, statistics of religious profession were collected by Government for certain specialized groups, including the armed forces. Data for the Army have been gathered since 1860, for the Royal Navy from 1939 and for the Royal Air Force from 1963. The army return has mostly been annual, the naval one only ever quinquennial, while the Air Force has had a variable frequency. The Army statistics were printed in Parliamentary Papers before the First World War, and have been abstracted in various secondary works.[17] Twentieth-century data for all the services have rarely been published but may be obtained from the Ministry of Defence.

Censuses of the religious allegiance of prisoners in England and Wales were taken in the 1860s and 1906,[18] and annually from 1962. Some statistics have been included in the published reports of the Prison Department, but most have to be requested. Victorian Governments occasionally surveyed the religious affiliations of other groups, for instance the inmates of workhouses.[19] Seamen and mariners were similarly covered.[20] It is not known when hospitals started to record the religion of patients on admission, which they still do, but data have never been collated and disseminated.

Other nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious statistics were the incidental by-product of purely secular initiatives. One example is the circulation data for nineteenth-century religious newspapers and publications which are to be found in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers for 1814-70 as an element of the returns to the Stamp Office. Another instance are details of religious charities gathered by the various Charity Commissions which have operated since 1817 (nowthe Charity Commission for England and Wales and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator). The Charity Commission has been running a series of initiatives with faith-based charities since 2003 and created a Faith and Social Cohesion Unit in 2008 which has carried out an important survey of mosques in England and Wales in the same year.[21] It should be noted that Charity Statistics and Charity Trends, which commence in 1977-78, are published by the Charities Aid Foundation and not Government, and that they are confined to the top 500 fundraising charities.

1.3 Recent Developments

By the 1980s the range of routine religious data gathered by the state had broadly settled down to series on the solemnization of marriages, faith schools and the religious profession of the armed forces and prisoners, and – tangentially – to the statistics which the established churches were required to report to Parliament. In addition, there was the occasional non-recurrent source, usually of the social survey variety, such as the 1970 poll of public attitudes to Sunday shopping and public house licensing hours, undertaken by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.[22] The resultant statistics were often repurposed for selective inclusion in general Government publications, such as the annuals Britain: An Official Handbook and Social Trends, where they were sometimes augmented by religious data from non-state agencies, particularly MARC Europe (and later Christian Research).

However, there was still little Government appetite for increasing the range of religious information, particularly as regards the decennial population census, and notwithstanding steadily increasing pressure from faith communities and academics to add a question on religion. The nearest the Government came to innovation in this area before the 1990s was in connection with trials for the 1981 and 1991 censuses in which the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys tested the feasibility of asking a supplementary question on religious adherence of those who gave their country of birth as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka in response to a primary question on racial and ethnic origin. In the end, both ethnicity and religion were omitted in 1981, for cost and public controversy reasons, although the ethnic group question was run on its own in 1991.

The 1990s witnessed the beginnings of a shift in Government’s attitudes to religious data, especially after the election of a Labour administration in 1997 and the appointment of a Government Envoy to Faith Communities in 2001. This policy change was indisputably the consequence of a heightened recognition by the state of the increasingly multicultural and religiously pluralistic nature of British society, the negative aspects of which had become evident in British Muslim reactions to the Salman Rushdie affair (1988-89) and the First Gulf War (1990). The need started to be felt for better intelligence about the British religious landscape, and the decision was taken to include a voluntary question on religious profession in the 2001 census.

However, as Leslie Francis makes clear,[23] there continued to be much feet-dragging by Government about this initiative. Moreover, the utility of the enterprise was limited by the failure to adopt a standard question across the four home nations, including Government’s refusal to differentiate within the English and Welsh Christian community, despite protestations from all the principal faiths. The wording employed in England and Wales was also of a somewhat leading nature, while the question’s positioning (unlike in Scotland) clearly implied that it was viewed as merely supplementary to country of birth and ethnicity, rather than religion being important in its own right. Government failed to modify the wording for England and Wales in the census test of 2007, in anticipation of fielding religious profession again in 2011.

The after-effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (in 2001) and 7/7 (in 2005), combined with Government’s determination to tackle religious discrimination (through the Equality Act 2006 and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006), have further increased Government interest in gathering religious data. The lead department in England was initially the Home Office and now Communities and Local Government. The biennial Citizenship Survey (inaugurated in 2001) is proving to be an invaluable recurrent source for religion, while important one-off investigations have also been commissioned.[24] What is now the Equality and Human Rights Commission has likewise sponsored relevant surveys, some among general samples and some among special groups, such as Muslim women in 2009 on their attitudes to work.

But perhaps the single most important serial source, because of its immense size (60,000 households each quarter), is the Labour Force Survey, which has asked about religion in Britain since 2002 (and before that in Northern Ireland). It is now being used to estimate the post-2001 growth in the Muslim community,[25] although – like the census – it does not disaggregate Christians by denomination. Paradoxically, a religion question has never been included in Government’s General Household Survey (which started in 1971), but the incidence of marriage in church and the extent of religious reasons for total abstinence have featured on its schedules. Additionally, Government is demonstrating great interest in religion as social capital, from the perspectives of community cohesion and economic value, and it has been encouraging (and sometimes facilitating) the various regional studies which have been undertaken recently in this field (see Appendix 3).

The foregoing account has concentrated on central government. There is much less to report about local government collection of religious statistics. There have been occasional plebiscites on Sunday observance issues, notably on the Sunday opening of cinemas in England and Wales in 1932-39 and 1945-50 in connection with the local option arrangements introduced by the Sunday Entertainments Act 1932; and there were septennial referenda in Wales on the Sunday opening of public houses from 1961 to 1996. More recently, some councils have commissioned public attitude surveys touching on religion. Examples include Glasgow’s poll on sectarianism in 2002 and Bristol’s on Muslim demands for a Muslim school in 2004.

Notes to Section 1

[1] The Diocesan Population Returns for 1563 and 1603, eds Alan Dyer and David Michael Palliser, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition, ed. Anne Whiteman with the assistance of Mary Clapinson, London: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[2] Original Records of Early Nonconformity Under Persecution and Indulgence, ed. George Lyon Turner, 3 vol., London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1911-14.

[3] Returns of Papists, 1767, ed. Edward Stanislaus Worrall, Catholic Record Society Occasional Publication Nos. l-2, [London]: the Society, 1980-89. For a full analysis, see Jean-Alain Lesourd, Sociologie du catholicisme anglais, 1767-1851, Nancy: Publications Université Nancy II, 1981.

[4] David Bindon, An Abstract of the Number of Protestant and Popish Families in the Several Counties and Provinces of Ireland, Dublin: printed by M. Rhames, 1736.

[5] For instance, Religions in the UK, 2007-2010, ed. Paul Weller (Derby: Multi-Faith Centre, University of Derby, 2007).

[6] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1812, Vol. 10.

[7] Especially Peter Cockton, Subject Catalogue of the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1801-1900, Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1988, Vol. 4, pp. 603-733.

[8] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1910, Vol. 14-19.

[9] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1837, Vol. 21; 1837-38, Vol. 32-33; 1839, Vol. 23-26.

[10] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1874, Vol. 51; 1875, Vol. 57.

[11] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1819, Vol. 9 and 1820, Vol. 12; 1835, Vol. 41-43; 1852-53, Vol. 90 and 1854, Vol. 59; 1861, Vol. 21, Parts 1-6.

[12] Ernest George Ravenstein, Denominational Statistics of England and Wales, London: Edward Stanford, 1870. Cf. Ernest George Ravenstein, ‘Statistics of Roman Catholicism in Great Britain’, Geographical Magazine, Vol. 1, 1874, pp. 102-6.

[13] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1852-53, Vol. 89; 1854, Vol. 59.

[14] Clive Douglas Field, ‘The 1851 Religious Census of Great Britain: A Bibliographical Guide for Local and Regional Historians’, Local Historian, Vol. 27, 1997, pp. 194-217 (later reissued as a pamphlet, Salisbury: British Association for Local History, 1999).

[15] The arguments and counter-arguments can be studied in some detail in Michael Drake, ‘The Census, 1801-1891’, Nineteenth-Century Society: Essays in the Use of Quantitative Methods for the Study of Social Data, ed. Edward Anthony Wrigley, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1972, pp. 17-19; and Keith Snell and Paul Ell, Rival Jerusalems: The Geography of Victorian Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 449-52.

[16] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1912-13, Vol. 5; 1914, Vol. 6.

[17] Such as Harold John Hanham, ‘Religion and Nationality in the Mid-Victorian Army’, War and Society: Historical Essays in Honour and Memory of J. R. Western, 1928-1971, ed. Michael Foot, London: Elek, 1973, pp. 159-81.

[18] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1862, Vol. 45; 1864, Vol. 49; 1866, Vol. 58; 1867-68, Vol. 67; 1906, Vol. 99.

[19] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1854, Vol. 55; 1861, Vol. 55; 1876, Vol. 63.

[20] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1876, Vol. 45.

[21] Lys Coleman, Survey of Mosques in England and Wales, Birmingham: BMG Research, 2009.

[22] Michael Bradley and David Fenwick, Public Attitudes to Liquor Licensing Laws in Great Britain, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1974; Michael Bradley and David Fenwick, Shopping Habits and Attitudes to Shop Hours in Great Britain, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1975.

[23] Leslie John Francis, ‘Religion and Social Capital: The Flaw in the 2001 Census in England and Wales’, Public Faith? The State of Religious Belief and Practice in Britain, ed. Paul Avis, London: SPCK, 2003, pp. 45-64.

[24] Such as Paul Weller, Alice Feldman and Kingsley Purdam, Religious Discrimination in England and Wales, London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2001; and the Change Institute’s fifteen reports on Understanding Muslim Ethnic Communities, London: Department of Communities and Local Government, 2009.

[25] For instance, in a ministerial statement to the House of Commons on 7 July 2009.

Forward to Part 2: Statistics Collected by Faith Communities