Church records are a rich resource for the genealogical and historical researcher. In many parts of States, church records predate civil records. They therefore document vital events, giving birth, marriage, and death information that might otherwise be lost. Besides providing names and dates, church records may reveal relationships between people and depict a family’s status in the community. In addition, entries of a personal nature are not uncommon, and these can offer a glimpse into an ancestor’s character or habits.
Before County and city governments collected vital records, many people recorded important dates, events, and names in their family Bible. Family Bibles are valuable research tools. Although the dates cannot be guaranteed, Family Bibles are a tangible link with past generations.
When there are no civil registrations of birth, marriage and death records, church records can serve as alternative sources for these vital records.
Although there are a lot of different records that you can use to research family history and genealogy, church records tend to contain a lot of the best information. One reason for that is that many states didn’t require vital statistics to be recorded at the state level until long after they were settled. So, you may have much better luck looking up a birth, death, or marriage record in church records, especially if you are looking for a record that predates state recording.
The fact that church records can be so revealing makes it seem strange that most American genealogists don’t take full advantage of them. However, that isn’t always by choice. There are so many different church denominations that finding the exact record of interest can be difficult, even for professional genealogists. Nevertheless, thanks to photocopying, microfilming, and other new technologies, more and more church records are becoming far easier to search.
The content of church records can vary greatly from one denomination to the next. However, you can accomplish a lot by first identifying “free” churches and “state” churches. The “state” churches were established in Europe and included every Christian member of the kingdom or state as a member. The “free” churches, which were also called “gathered” churches, only accepted born again Christians, which are those who were baptized a second time, usually as adults. Those free churches and their leaders were often called Anabaptist churches, which comes from the word “rebaptizers” in Latin. Hutterites, Mennonites, Baptists and other groups of Pennsylvania Germans that exist as church groups in America today can all trace their roots back to those early “free” churches.
One major problem for genealogists who are looking at Baptist church records is that those records tend to lit adult activities, such as marriages and deaths, but they did not focus on birth records. Instead, they believed that the second baptism was the “rebirth” in Christ of the person. Other church groups, such as the Lutherans, placed much more emphasis on actual birth records for infants.
Another factor that determines how in-depth the church records are for a particular church is how popular or large the church was. For example, many parts of Germany and Scandinavia primarily consisted of Lutherans. The Lutheran pastors were public figures. So, official birth, death, and marriage records for the area were recorded by those officials. Another example is an Act of Parliament passed in England in 1538 that made the Church of England record baptisms, marriages, and burials. Several years later, in 1597, another act was passed. That act required copies of those recordings to be sent to the bishops of each diocese once per year. That caused the formation of the “Bishops’ Transcripts,” which are now a valuable research tool for genealogists.
Calvinism was quite popular in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and some parts of Germany at one point. Pastors of those churches also kept official records. In fact, when German immigrants created churches in in what is now the United States of America, that caused some issues. Many of the German Protestants who came to the New World were Protestants, but several belonged to Calvinist churches, or churches that at least included some elements of Calvinism. However, regardless of the problems created, records from those churches are good sources of information today.
As for Roman Catholics, their parish priests kept all official records for their parishes in Europe. Those records included marriages, burials, and baptisms. Also, the Council of Trent, which was part of the Catholic church at the time, passed a decree in 1563. That decree stated that nobody could get married within the church unless they could prove that they were baptized. Also, a 1614 decree passed by Pope Paul V made it mandatory for each parish to keep registers.
European churches and their record keeping at the time wasn’t just a religious issue. It was actually a sign of the changing times. Oral histories and human memories gave way to written records and bureaucracy. Those records make it much easier for today’s genealogists to track ancestors who lived at that time.
It’s important for today’s genealogists to understand that the traditions that took hold in Europe made their way to the United States with the immigrants. For example, European practices were followed in the 1620s in Plymouth Colony. State churches were soon established in many of the colonies. The Church of England (Protestant Episcopal) was the most prominent church in South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. It also took hold in Maryland for a while, despite Maryland beginning as a Roman Catholic colony. The northern colonies, on the other hand, consisted mainly of Congregational Church followers. The Dutch Reformed Church controlled New Netherland, when later became New York, until the Dutch lost control of New Netherland.
Some of the churches above lasted as state churches for a while, even after the American Revolution ended. However, it was eventually clear that religious uniformity on the state level was not going to last. That’s when the separation of church and state became a part of the United States Constitution. The 1700s and early 1800s brought about a major religious change known as the “Great Awakening,” which led to the United States having religious views and practices that became completely different from Old World practices.
Unfortunately, the religious freedoms established in the United states don’t make researching church records easy. There are so many different religious groups and record types that information can be hard to find. However, there may be information available at the local level, or in particular churches and parishes.
Types of Church Records
Baptism and Christening Records
Christening and Baptism records usually list the person’s name, as well as the date of birth, birthplace, and place and date that the baptism occurred. Names of the parents and where they lived may also be listed, if the baptism was for an infant. Pastors who were serving in several parishes tended to take better records about the parents than pastors working at one parish. In cases where date of birth is not listed, the age of the person at the time of baptism may be listed. That may help in determining the approximate birth date. Godparents and sponsors may also be listed in the records. Since they were commonly relatives, their names could lead to additional genealogical information.
Almost all church denominations in the United States kept marriage records. However, there are some notable gaps. For example, the Puritans had a civil magistrate that recorded marriages. So, they were not listed in church records. Nevertheless, most church marriage records actually predate the recording of marriages by states or counties. South Carolina is a good example, since marriages were not recorded at the state level there until 1911 unless marriage contracts were created. So, South Carolina’s church records are important for those researching marriages in that state.
Marriage records recorded by churches should at least list the names of the groom and bride, as well as the date of the marriage. However, not all church records list other information. Some that do include the German Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic churches, which often list other information, such as birthplaces of the groom and bride.
Although church marriage records can sometimes list the birthplace of immigrants, church death records more commonly list that information. Some churches recorded deaths, while others recorded burials. In either case, information like birthplace may also be listed. So, church death records can be very valuable to genealogists.
Genealogists that look at church records often focus on the obvious records, such as those of births, deaths, and marriages. However, other church records may also be useful. Confirmation records are a good example of under-used resources. Some denominations only listed names in confirmation records, but others kept meticulous records that included extra information. For example, present-day Episcopal churches keep detailed confirmation records. Scandinavia Lutheran churches did as well.
Generally, American Protestant churches only record names and dates of confirmations, if they even perform confirmations. Some of them don’t perform confirmations at all. Occasionally, if confirmation are performed, the Protestant church’s records may include the age of the person being confirmed. German-American Lutheran and Reformed records may contain the place and date of the event. Catholic confirmation records may not list the location where the confirmation took place. Episcopal church records may list both confirmation and baptism records together. Those records are often filed with the bishop of the church.
Another important church resource is the membership records for the church in question. Those records, such as communicant lists, can be filled with information. Although, some of that information may not be extremely obvious. For example, if a couple’s name is on the list one year and off the list the next, it could mean that they moved away. If only one of their names is gone, it could indicate that the missing name belongs to a person who passed away. That information can be particularly useful in situations where death records are lost.
The regular membership lit for each church may contain more helpful information than the communicant list. However, it may only list names of members. It depends on the record keeping system that particular church used. Typically, Protestant member lists from the late 1800s onward were well-kept. Many of the “dismissals” or “removals” on those lists are from dates after 1930. The latest federal census was taken in that year. So, the church records may contain information that isn’t listed in the census. That information could indicate when and why certain church members joined or left the congregation. Since some church records are quite modern, they can be useful for those who are looking for more current heirs, not just distant ancestors.
Other Types of Church Records
Different churches kept different types of church records. There may be family registers, disciplinary records, or pew rental details. There may also be church or vestry minutes recorded. Ancestors who happened to participate a lot in church functions may be more apt to be listed in those records. So, genealogists should not discount those records, even if they may not immediately seem helpful.
Denominational and diocesan church records are not always utilized by genealogists, but they should be, when they are available. Many of them can be a treasure trove of useful information. For instance, “Episcopal Acts” are often recorded by the Episcopal Church bishops. Those records may include:
- Clergy Dismissals
- Clergy Admissions
Minutes of the Methodist Conferences Annually Held in America; From 1773 to 1813 Inclusive Volume the First (New York: 1813. Reprint Swainsboro, Ga.: Magnolia Press, 1983) is a prime example of those sorts of records. It lists circuit riders for the church, as well as many records of tenure, ordination, and admission. Pastor obituaries can also be valuable resources for genealogists. Some obituaries of clergymen and their wives can be found in diocesan or denominational newspapers. Regular church members’ obituaries may also be listed in those records.
Anita Cheek Milner, comp., Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers, 3 vols. (Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press, 1977, 1979, 1982) and Betty M. Jarboe, Obituaries: A Guide to Sources, 2nd ed. (Boston: G.K Hall & Co., 1989 are each excellent resources for finding published church and newspaper obituaries.
Clergy lists can also be found in church directories and annuals. Episcopal church those sorts of publications began in the 1830s. The Church Hymnal Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Church Pension Fund, now publishes the Episcopal Church Clerical Directory on a biennial basis.
Locating Church Records
Some churches can be particular about who they allow to access their records. So, that can be a challenge for genealogists. Finding those records in the first place can also be difficult.
If you want to locate a church record, you need to first figure out which church your ancestor was a member of. Many families continue their religious traditions every generation, but sometimes church affiliations can change. Personal documents, such as wedding announcements and baptismal certificates, may be useful in tracking down the right church. Family Bibles should also be consulted. One way to track down the right church is to obtain the clergyman’s name from a marriage record. Then you can examine county records to find out which church that clergyman was a member of. However, sometimes those records may not exist. It’s also important to remember that large cities may not list each clergy member for a specific church, but that information may be found in the directories for those cities. Those directories can often be found on microfilm in major libraries. Some of them date back to the early 1800s.
In cases where the ancestor was married by a justice of the peace, records may not be as easy to find. However, a person’s siblings may have opted for traditional marriage ceremonies. Typically, weddings were held in the church of the bride. Therefore, if you are looking for information about a particular male ancestor’s church and can’t find it, you may be able to use records from his sisters to track down their church.
Civil death records can be searched in the same way. The officiating clergyman may be listed on the record. If not, there should at least be an undertaker’s name listed. Checking a current telephone directory or city directory can reveal the funeral establishment’s address, if it is still in business today. You can then send a letter to the firm or call them and ask if they can tell you the name of the clergyman who officiated, if the certificate only listed an undertaker. You should also note that certain mortuaries may be used for particular religious groups, which could yield valuable information as well. Another thing to consider is that the ancestor in question may have been ill before their death. So, a search of hospital records from that time could reveal even more information about the person’s history. Local newspaper obituaries may also give useful information about the person’s funeral and burial, which could lead you to their church and its records.
In some cases, the ancestor in question may have died before newspapers in the area carried obituaries and before vital statistics were officially recorded at the civil level. In those cases, it’s important for genealogists to understand the general geography and history of the place where the person lived.
For example, studying county plat mats in conjunction with lists of churches that were in that area at that time can help you to find your ancestor’s church. Land and census records may also give you clues about your ancestor’s life. If only one large church dominated a region, the process of identifying it should be easy. However, many areas had multiple churches. Also, many people chose to change religious affiliations when they immigrated to the United States from Europe. One example is the Swedes. Most of them began as Lutherans, but became Methodists or Baptists after they immigrated to North America. Also, several of the Germans who came to North America in the 1700s became either Baptists, Mennonites, or Amish, rather than Lutheran. In the middle of the 1800s, the LDS church missionary program in Denmark and Sweden.
Many German states also had state churches that either followed Calvinism directly or a combination of Calvanism and Lutheranism. Examples include Prussia and Rhenish Palatinate. When immigrating pastors from those areas came to the New World, they established German Evangelical and German Reformed churches in many places. Those churches have since merged into the United Church of Christ. Meanwhile, German Methodist churches have since merged into the United Methodist Church.
Most immigrants who came to the United States either didn’t attend a church or attended one where their native language was used. After all, people wanted to be on equal footing with their fellow parishioners. Even if a church was conducted in your ancestors language, but was not their denomination, they may have served as witnesses or sponsors in those other churches. So, you should research records from all of the relevant churches in the surrounding area.
In the South, it took a long time for many states and areas to begin civil registration of vital records. Those activities were viewed as church responsibilities. That means that early church records from the South are particularly important. Unfortunately, they can also be incomplete, as well as difficult to find.
Many colonies in the South were home to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Colonial era. Nevertheless, certain regions were home to more Presbyterians, who were Scottish or Irish, than Anglicans, who were English. For example, the community of Augusta County in Virginia had Presbyterians presiding over their services. The Augusta Church was also home to the Virginia Provincial Assembly and the Revolutionary Committee of Safety when the colonies were separated from England. So, you should be sure to check all church records in the area of interest, even if your ancestor wasn’t known for being a member of a particular faith.
Throughout the 1700s, record keeping was made more difficult by migration across the United States, as well as the Great Awakening, which caused many new spiritual and emotional views to change the way residents approached religion. Therefore, church records from that time are sometimes unavailable or incomplete. However, those that are available can be quite useful to genealogists.
Many church records from across the country have now been included in the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which can be found at the Family History Library, Genealogical Society of Utah, and other family history centers. Some of the records included are:
Dutch Reformed Records for New York and New Jersey
Lutheran and German Reformed Records for Pennsylvania
Congregational Records for the New England States
The IGI also contains information about Roman Catholic, Quaker, and Presbyterian church records.
Some states have moved certain denominational records to the state historical society. For instance, the United Church of Christ official archive for the state of Wisconsin is located at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Nevertheless, local churches may also hold valuable records, some of which may not have been moved to state archives. You can view the telephone directory to get contact information for churches that still exist today. If the church has become part of another church, you may need to consult the denomination yearbook for the current pastor’s contact information. Mead and Hill’s Handbook of American Denominations can also help when researching split or merged denominations. If a specific church no longer exists, it’s important to contact an area church of that denomination. They may be able to inform you about where you can find records for the church that no longer exists. Some of those defunct church records may be sent to a specific church official, or to a central archive. The denomination’s state organization can also be a valuable resource.
The current minister of an existing church of interest may know where you can find older records for the church. He may also know former pastors or their descendants, who may have access to older records. Even older congregation members may have valuable information about the history of the church.
Local genealogical and historical societies often have some church records available. If not, a visit to the denominational archive may yield old records. You can also contact the denomination’s state office for assistance.
In some cases, official church records may have been lost in fires or other circumstances, but records from former pastors may be able to bridge the gap. Several clergymen were known to keep their own baptism, funeral, and marriage records separate from the official church records, especially if they rode the circuit (officiated at multiple churches). The denominational archives may have some of those personal records on file, as might the state archives. Other records may be held by private citizens or organizations. National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) lists several privately-held pastoral records.
If you aren’t sure what denomination your ancestor was a member of, you may be able to get help from the local genealogical or historical society. You may need to look up and contact the current president of the organization and ask for help. Most historical society staff members will be eager to assist you with your research. Although, you may have to pay a small fee for their help.
You may also be able to find information at your local public library. Many old church records, along with other genealogical records, are kept at local libraries, whether original documents or copies. Large libraries may even have specialists in genealogy on staff who can help with your search. The American Library Directory or a local phone book can direct you to the local library in the area of interest.
If you are researching an ancestor from a small community, resources may be limited at the town clerk’ office, historical society, or library. In fact, one or more of those may not exist in the community. If that’s the case, you should talk to the nearest newspaper office to see if the editor knows of any local historical experts. The advantage of researching in a small community is that it may be a tight-knit area where many people know their local history well.
Of course, a disadvantage in a small community, or in any community, is that some church records and documents may have become the property of private citizens. Most often that happens because a minister’s family retains his records after his death, or because a clerk has been put in charge of records for so long that they retain possession of documents that are supposed to be in the hands of the town or county. The best way to get around that problem is to interview local residents, especially relatives of the pastor, yourself. However, you can also hire a local researcher in the area to conduct those interviews for you. He or she may know the area and the residents better than you do. As a result, they may uncover more information than you would on your own.
College libraries can also hold a lot of records from churches that are now defunct. Denominational colleges often have large libraries. For example, many Quaker records can be found in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania at Swarthmore College. Some colleges are even official repositories for the denominations that they represent. All church-related colleges and their denominations are listed in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
Some libraries that have no religious associations at all also have large collections of church records and other genealogical information on hand. One example is the Library of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. It can be found in Washington, D.C., and it is full of documents that genealogists can use to complete research into family histories.
Church Records Search Suggestions
If you plan to research church records, you need to understand the benefits and problems that you will encounter. Always be sure to look at all available local resources for church records. For instance, if you can’t find the church death registers, you can look in the county probate records, instead. Look for witness names from baptisms and weddings as well. That’s a great way to discover or clarify relationships between family members. If you can’t find your ancestor’s birthplace listed, look for other members of his or her ethnic group who were in that area at that time. Chances are good that they may have all come from the same place.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the American frontier was a fairly isolated place. There may not have been enough people in some areas to support multiple churches. So, regardless of your ancestor’s denomination, he or she may have attended another denomination’s church at some point.
It’s also important to understand how each church worked. For example, some churches may have only performed baptisms on infants, some only on adults, and some on both. Knowing that information can help you to pinpoint a person’s age more accurately.
When you request information from a particular church, you need to be specific about what you want. They may have a standard response to generic inquiries. Many of them may only provide information about a person’s age, unless you ask for other information, such as the person’s birthplace.
Next, be aware that records may not be totally accurate. For instance, infant baptisms may occur quite a while after the child was born. That extra passage of time means that more errors could occur in the recording of the child’s birth date. So, always check more than one source to try to confirm information.
Typographical and translation errors can also be a problem. So, transcriptions may not be accurate word for word. For instance, names and occupations of sponsors from baptisms may not be included. Also, in cases where information is alphabetized, some important genealogical information may not be obvious, such as multiple children in the same family being baptized. It’s always better to examine an original record or a microfilmed copy, as opposed to a written transcription. Although the original records may be in a different language, a translator or foreign language dictionary may be able to help you get the information from them.
Original records can often be quite fragile. So, church officials may not want to let you examine them. Sometimes you can suggest that the records be placed on microfilm. Another option is that you can ask if the pastor will examine the records for you, possibly even with you present to watch. Luckily, there are many record microfilming programs in place across the country. So, more records are being safely copied on microfilm all the time. The Genealogical Society of Utah is particularly well known for microfilming various genealogical records, including church records.
Many times, Catholic records stay in each individual parish. However, when parishes close or records become quite old, the diocese may order those records to be moved to university archives or historical societies. Other records may be moved directly to the diocesan archives. If you know where your family member lived, even if their parish has long since closed, the local diocese may be able to tell you where the records from the closed parish can be found. If you are unsure which diocese or archdiocese to contact, you should refer to Virginia Humling, U.S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1995). It contains an in-depth list of each diocese or archdiocese, their locations, phone numbers, and, in some cases, fees you can expect to pay for accessing their records.
Be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to talk to a parish priest directly. Instead, you may have your genealogical inquiry answered by a volunteer or a secretary for the parish. You may also be able to access copies of those same records at the Genealogical Society of Utah on microfilm. So, it’s worth spending some time to examine the Family History Library Catalog for any useful information.
Parish secretaries, volunteers, or pastors may not always be willing or able to help you conduct research that is as thorough as you need it to be. You may need to go to the church to inquire in person. Someone there may be able to connect you with a congregation member that knows a lot of area history or can assist you with your genealogical search. However, you can start by sending a written request to the church with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and at least $5 or $10 dollars. If you need someone to research more than one entry, you should include a higher amount. Depending on the church, you may or may not get that money back.