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Blunham 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. FormerCounty Archivist Patricia Bell has compiled returns from 1706 to 1720 for the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (Volume 81, published 2002). In 1706 the return for Blunham notes that about half the parish were Dissenters: "There are 3 Quakers. The rest seem to be Antinomians [Baptists], and most of them never Baptize in any manner, or at any Age. They are of different sects, yet meet together in the same Barn, within the parish, and are backward to their own principles". No Roman Catholics lived in Blunham. In 1709, again, about half the parish were stated to be nonconformists: "Some Anabaptists, the most Independents. They all meet together twice every Lord's day. Their chiefe [sic] teachers Richard Dixey and John Nutter". By 1712 "Their chief Teacher - Chappelle". By 1717 it was reported that only a third of the parish were dissenters and: "We [i.e. the parish] have One Meeting House. They are Independents, a great part of which are Anabaptists. They assemble twice every Lord's Day, sometimes to the Number of two Hundred, chiefly from the adjacent Parishes. And One Joseph Perry teaches them". In 1720 it was noted: "There is a Meeting House of long standing. Sometimes they assemble as 'tis thought to the Number of near two Hundred many neighbouring parishes yielding the Supplies. One Mr Agar teaches Them. They are Independents, Antinomians and Anabaptists. They Assemble twice very [sic] Lords-day".

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. There is one for Blunham which, given the strength of the Baptists in the parish, may be connected with that movement: on 27th January 1759 baker John Rutt's house was registered by Rutt himself and John Keeling of Bedford, woolstapler [ABN1/1 and 2/15].