Religious Archives

The origins of record-keeping in this country are primarily religious, rather than secular. The state was a remarkably late entrant on the scene. Thus, until well into the nineteenth century, the registration of births, marriages and deaths and the proving of wills was undertaken by Churches, while the earliest population censuses (in England in 1563, 1603 and 1676, and in Scotland in 1755) were all undertaken under ecclesiastical aegis.

Religious archives are, therefore, a rich source of information for the study of all aspects of British history, and not simply those which relate to religion, narrowly defined. Although there have been several partial efforts during the twentieth century to map the religious archival scene, there has never been a holistic survey.

In an attempt to begin to fill the gap, and to improve the coverage of religious archives in the online National Register of Archives (NRA), The National Archives (TNA), the Archives and Records Association and the Religious Archives Group have come together to carry out the Religious Archives Survey, 2010, with principal funding from the Pilgrim Trust.

The survey covered the United Kingdom but deliberately did not extend to the full spectrum of religious archives. There seemed little point in duplicating information which is already held in the NRA, nor in investigating the central, diocesan and parish records of the four branches of the Anglican Communion in the British Isles (and the equivalents in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland), whose archiving procedures are well-codified and places of deposit predictable.

By design, the survey concentrated on Christian and non-Christian traditions which have become established during the past half-century, and on other archives which are held privately. Inter-faith and non-faith bodies were also included. Data collection was largely by means of a structured questionnaire posted to 2,689 religious bodies, both official and unofficial, of which 414 (or 15%) were returned completed – a characteristically low response for postal enquiries.

The response rate varied by religious tradition. It was highest for those religious communities which have the longest histories in Britain – Anglican, Catholic, Free Church and Jewish. It was poorest for faiths which have only relatively recently taken root in any statistically significant extent, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, of whose organizations only 2% responded. In part, this probably reflects a weaker archival consciousness among these communities and lesser engagement with the public network of national and local archives.  

Thus, from a quantitative perspective, the results of the survey are double-skewed, both by deliberate principles of sample selection and by differential rates of return. However, the numerical data generated by the survey continue to have indicative value in describing the arrangements which religious bodies make for their archives. The statistics are summarized in chapter 4 of the main report on the survey and set out in more detail in Appendix III. These documents may be found at:

The report was formally launched yesterday evening at an event held at the Westminster Archives Centre, at which the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, was the guest speaker. A detailed national action plan for religious archives is in the process of development, informed by the results of the survey and by stakeholder responses which are being sought to it. The plan will necessarily have to be incremental and realistic, given current economic circumstances.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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