Genealogy: Researching church records

Researching church recordsBy Barry J. Ewell

Church registers are often the only way to determine birth, marriage, and death dates in the years before states started to keep vital records. They are a valuable substitute when vital records do not exist. Most churches keep their own records, but libraries usually have a number of books, copies of church records, a few manuscript volumes of original records, and microfilmed church records.

Each denomination will have different types of records that they keep. The types of church records you will find include records they kept in accordance with their theology. Some types of church records that can be found include christenings or baptisms, marriages, burials, confirmations, communion, admissions and removals, financial records, Sunday school lists, church censuses, and church related newsletters. The actual information found in each type of record varies also. For example, when I have researched christenings or baptisms records I have often found the birth information of a child, parents of the child, and witnesses or godparents, who were often relatives.

Church Records Research insight
When you search church records, look for records of the entire family and relatives. As a general rule, the more individuals that were served by a church, the more information you’ll get about the individuals. In order of priority, search the following church records:

Burial. From these records you can learn ancestor’s death date and place, find ancestor’s last residence, find the date or at least year of birth, find names of surviving relatives, learn the maiden name of a woman, learn the cemetery of burial for further research or visit, and determine death date for obituary or death notice search.

Wedding. If you are able to find a public record of an ancestor’s marriage, you will note who performed the marriage. If you see the title of officiator as Pastor, Reverend, Father, or listed as minister of the gospel, your ancestors probably had a church wedding. You can determine the church the individual belonged to and search for records there. From these records you can find ancestors’ marriage date and place, find ancestors’ place(s) of residence, determine a year of birth for the bride and groom, learn of previous marriages, learn groom’s occupation, find clues to family relationships (usually through names of witnesses), discover the names of the preceding generation, correctly ascribe children to appropriate marriage if a parent has married more than once, learn of other possible religious affiliations, see the handwriting of an ancestor, narrow the time period for the death of the first spouse in the case of the widow(er) remarrying, and learn of other family connections through dispensation remarks.

Baptism. From these records you can find an ancestor’s birth date, discover the names of the preceding generation, find a family’s place of residence, find clues to family relationships (through names of sponsors), learn about previously unknown children who died young, learn the parental association in the case of multiple marriages by one of the parents (to determine which one a particular child came from), and learn about changes in church affiliation.

Confirmation. Most church records simply list those that were confirmed on a specific day. On rare occasions you might find information such as their birth dates, parents’ names, and place of birth. Information will vary somewhat by religion, with Scandinavian and Lutheran, for instance, generally providing more details.

Minutes or Communicant Lists. These records can be helpful in reconstructing family history. The disappearance of a couple from the list may signify their departure from the community. The disappearance of one but not the other may indicate death, an important clue if the death records no longer exist. These lists may also provide insight as to where persons have moved. These records also help to build a picture of what your ancestors were like and how they worshiped.

Where to Find Church Records
If you know the church an ancestor attended, contact the current minister to ask about record availability. When a church closes, or sometimes by practice, the records may be transferred to denominations archive. The following are locations for finding the archives for major United States religious denominations:

  • Adventists: Washington, DC
  • Adventists: Washington, DC
  • American Baptists: Rochester, NY
  • Southern Baptists: Nashville, TN
  • Brethren in Christ Church: Grantham, PA
  • Church of Christ, Scientist: Boston, MA
  • The Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons): Salt Lake City, UT
  • Churches of Christ: Memphis, TN
  • Congregational: Boston, MA
  • Disciples of Christ: Nashville, TN
  • Greek Orthodox: New York, NY
  • Jewish: Cincinnati, OH; Waltham, MA
  • Evangelical Lutherans: Chicago, IL
  • Missouri Synod Lutherans: St. Louis, MO
  • United Methodists: Madison, NJ
  • Pentecostal: Tulsa, okay
  • Presbyterians: Philadelphia, PA; Montreat, NC
  • Episcopalian: check local parishes
  • Reformed Church: New Brunswick, NJ
  • Roman Catholic: Notre Dame University, South Bend, IN; Catholic University, Washington, DC
  • Quakers (Society of Friends): Swarthmore, PA, for Hicksite records; Haverford, PA, for Orthodox records
  • United Church of Christ: Boston, MA; Lancaster, PA
  • Unitarian and Universalist: Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA

Make sure you check to see what has been microfilmed and can be accessed through the Family History Library system. These include records of many denominations, particularly the Society of Friends (Quaker), Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches. Some churches have donated their records to local genealogical and historical societies. Many local universities and public libraries have copies of church records. Most libraries and societies have websites and list their holdings online.

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