The visitation provided the opportunity for the gathering of information about the condition of the church throughout the diocese.19 By the late seventeenth century the visitation process was in decline, and the quality of the information being collected was poor.20 Before embarking upon their tour of the diocese, seventeenth and early eighteenth century bishops circulated printed articles of enquiry, usually addressed to the ministers, churchwardens and sidesmen of each parish. In 1677 Bishop Thomas Lamplugh circulated a series of enquiries divided into seven sections dealing with the church fabric and church property, the incumbent, the parishioners, hospitals, schools, medical practitioners and parish officers.21 Such articles continued to be circulated by the bishops of Exeter, even after the practice of directing queries specifically to the clergy had become established.22 However, by the early eighteenth century bishops and archdeacons were becoming increasingly frustrated by the inadequate answers that were forthcoming from the churchwardens in response to these articles.23 It was on account of these shortcomings that eighteenth century bishops sought greater involvement from the parish clergy in the visitation process, as reflected in the circulation of printed questionnaires to them in advance of the visitation.
The earliest known example of these questionnaires is that circulated by William Wake in advance of his primary visitation of the diocese of Lincoln in 1706. Wake's preferment to Lincoln was preceded by four years as dean of Exeter, during which he appears to have resided little on his deanery and devoted most of his energies to his parish of St James's Westminster.24 In 1706 he sent a brief letter to the clergy in his diocese followed by a series of questions under seven heads concerning their benefice, the population of their parish, dissent, charitable endowments, whether there were any resident gentry and whether there were any notable monuments in the church or antiquities in the parish. At his subsequent ordinary visitations Wake expanded the range of his enquiries, and his successor Edmund Gibson developed them into a questionnaire that would form the basis of future visitations at Lincoln and elsewhere.25 Different bishops drafted slightly different sets of questions in accordance with the needs of their own diocese and their personal preoccupations. However, the chief innovations of the new procedure were shared throughout the Church of England. First, the questions asked were of a general nature and did not request specific information on particular offences or offenders. Second, 'they were directed to the clergy alone, and more specifically to the beneficed clergy'.26