In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fear of a Catholic rebellion and takeover of the English Government occupied the minds of the Monarchy and Parliament. Parliament passed two acts: the Corporation Act (1661) and 'An Act for preventing Dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants' (1673); the latter act became better known as the Test Act.
Persons seeking to hold any public office, or civil or military position by appointment of the Crown, or received pay from the Crown, were required to make an oath of loyalty to the Crown and Church of England, and to attend church to take part in the Anglican communion. This meant they were taking part in a service which denied transubstantiation - a thing which no Catholic would do (this also affected Protestant dissenters, but restrcitions against them were later lifted).
The sacrament had to be received within three months after being admitted to office, and after the communion they were given a sacrament certificate signed by the Anglican minister and churchwarden of the parish and witnessed by two credible witnesses.
The person then attended the Court of Chancery, Exchequer or King's Bench, if they were in 30 miles of London, if not, at the local Quarter Sessions. There they produced the sacrament certifcate, took an oath, and also made the following declaration: "I A.B. do declare, that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's supper or in the elements of bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatever." .
The sacrament certificate provides the date the communion took place, the location, and often the office which the person is to undertake. The two witnesses were often also undertaking the process themselves, so in effect each of them were to witness each other's sacrament.
On its own a sacramental certificate does not provide agreat deal of information, but if combined with other documents it may provide a some information on an ancestor's career. One example is of Daniel Chandler. He joined the Customs and Excise in Hampshire in 1717 and his sacrament certificate gives his name, the parish where he lived, that he was an excise officer and stationed at a named nearby parish. Other documents such as parish registers add to his life story and his Will provides the last piece of the jig-saw. When he died in 1753 he had reach the position of Supervisor of His Majesty's Excise of Southampton.
Restrictions under the Test Act were relaxed in 1828.
To track down a sacrament certificate start at the National Archives. Also try the relevant County Record Office (but not all record offices possess sacramental certificates).
1. Quoted in The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, Volume 3 on Google Books
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