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.