Stevington Registration and Early References
In 1672 Charles II issued a Declaration of Toleration for Protestants dissenting from the Church of England; this had the effect of some dissenting meeting houses registering with the Secretary of State. The Toleration Act of 1689 enshrined the right of protestants to dissent from the Church of England and, once again, encouraged meeting houses to register voluntarily with local quarter sessions and Anglican church. Registration provided protection against persecution, laying a duty of protection upon magistrates and so was popular with nonconformists. Most registrations were made with quarter sessions until the middle of the 18th century, presumably due to the mutual antagonism of nonconformists and established Church. However, from that point registration with the Church, via the local archdeaconry began to become the favoured method, because the archdeaconry Registrar would issue a licence at any time rather than during the days each quarter when the quarter sessions met.
Visitations by the Bishop of Lincoln to Bedfordshire in the early 18th century give some idea as to the number of nonconformists in each parish from returns made by the vicar or rector. Former County Archivist Patricia Bell has compiled returns from 1706 to 1720 for the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (Volume 81, published 2002). In 1706 two hundred dissenters were recorded in the parish "Most go to an Anabaptist [Baptist] Meeting house in the parish. There are to balance these 300 Church people, and about 100 that go to no public place of Worship at all". In 1712 the population was "Near halfe [sic] Dissenters, chiefly Anabaptists. One family of Papists. Two Licensed Houses: in one they meet on the Weekdays, the other on Sundays. In the Morning about 40 or 50; in the afternoon 150 or 200". Again, about half the parish were stated to be dissenters in 1717 and there was now just one meeting house "Independent. Assemble once a week. The number uncertain. Harecock teaches". The 1720 return noted "1st About 80 families. 2ndly Above half Dissenters. 3rdly They are generally accounted of Promiscuous Principles". The latter presumably meant that they had no set doctrine but followed a number of nonconformist ideals, as was evidenced that there was still just one meeting house "consisting of Divers Sects, and assemble Every Sunday, in Number (as I hear) about 200. Having one William Boyer, as I'm informed, for their Teacher".
Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a reasonable number of registrations of nonconformist meeting houses in both the Quarter Sessions and Archdeaconry of Bedford archives. Registration continued through the 19th century even though persecution faded away - this was because registered buildings were allowed to claim exemption from parish poor rates, were exempt from control by the Charity Commission and were allowed to be licensed to carry out marriages. These things meant that registration became almost compulsory in practice for well established nonconformist meetings. This is fortunate for the local historian because sometimes the only surviving references to a nonconformist meeting occur as registrations. One drawback with the registrations are that they do not usually inform the reader of the particular type of denomination involved, though sometimes it is possible to infer it from other evidence.
Volume 110 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1996 and edited by Edwin Welch contains registrations of Bedfordshire nonconformist meetings drawn from a number of sources. Those for Stevington are as follows:
- On 13th September 1808 the house of James Prasslow was registered.
- On 15th January 1842 a building occupied by Richard Lilley was registered for "occasional public worship" by Jeremiah Dodsworth of Bedford [ABN1/2 and 2/369]