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.