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.