Religious Statistics in Great Britain: An Historical Introduction


Religious Statistics in Great Britain: An Historical Introduction


Clive D. Field, Universities of Birmingham and Manchester


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



This essay summarizes the development of religious statistics in Great Britain from the seventeenth century to the present day. In particular, it describes, in very broad and succinct terms, the contributions which have been made to the quantification of religion by the state, faith communities and other agencies. A few reflections on future needs and prospects are also offered.


This review does not aspire to be comprehensive, in the sense of covering all the sources or all the collecting bodies. Neither does it attempt to discuss methodological and interpretative issues in any depth, nor to present the actual primary data (some of which will be found elsewhere on this website).


The text is designed to be used in conjunction with the database on this website, where additional bibliographical and methodological information will be found on the overwhelming majority of the individual sources which are mentioned here. For this reason, endnotes in each section have been kept to a minimum. To avoid encumbering the overview with excessive detail, a few topics calling for extended treatment, and which do not lend themselves to inclusion in the database, are dealt with in appendices.


It is naturally impossible to divorce the statistics of British religion from the ecclesiastical and faith context which gave rise to them. Although some key facts and dates are mentioned in passing, a full religious history of Britain is beyond the scope of this introduction. Some suggestions for background reading are made in Appendix 1, but it has not been possible to list there works on the history of particular Free Church denominations.




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