Church Records: Genealogical Clues


By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
Copyright © 1990, 2007—All Rights Reserved
Do not post or publish without written permission

Photo: GraphicStock

Church records are among the most fascinating sources for genealogists. And if your ancestors came to America early, these records may contain the only information that can help you untangle your family tree. They are well worth the effort it takes to locate and read them.

Church records can tell you about the births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials of your ancestors. They can reveal the extent to which your ancestors participated in religious affairs. They can show transfers of membership and separation from the church, information helpful in tracing a family’s migration. They can also detail family relationships.

Vital records only recently became the responsibility of county and state officials. In the past, churches usually sanctioned marriages, conducted weddings, and kept official records. (An exception to this is Puritanism, which believed that marriage was strictly a civil matter.) Churches were also the sole recorder of christenings, confirmations, and baptisms.

If one of your ancestors was a minister, priest, or rabbi, you may find mention of him in church or synagogue archives, or in a published obituary or biographical sketch.

In locating pertinent records, you face two challenges: First, you must determine the denominational preferences of your ancestors and the churches they belonged to or attended. Second, you must discover where the records are now located.

Tracing your ancestry to the Colonial period narrows the possibilities of religious affiliations, because there were few established churches. In addition, some colonies virtually had only one faith, and some had an official religion.

In New England, the Congregational church dominated, while in the South, the Church of England (also called Protestant Episcopal) reigned. In Maryland, many families were Roman Catholics. Early Dutch settlers in New York and New Jersey belonged to the Dutch Reformed church. In Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as various German denominations like the Lutherans, were strong.

After the Revolution, the Constitution abolished official religions and mandated separation of church and state.

The immigrants who came to America during the 19th Century generally settled among those of similar background. The Spanish, French, Irish, and Acadians were usually Roman Catholics. The Scandinavians, who settled mainly in the upper Midwest, were usually Lutherans. The Germans, who gathered in Pennsylvania and along the Mississippi River, were most likely either Lutherans or Mennonites.

Knowing the Old World origins of your ancestors can help determine their religious preference. But remember that our ancestors frequently changed denominations in America. They often joined or attended the church nearest them.

Many of them became Anabaptists or Baptists; others, Mennonites or Amish. Some joined German Reformed or German Evangelical churches. Those who migrated South often became Methodists. The Scotch-Irish frequently established Presbyterian churches. The Huguenots (French Protestants) joined a wide range of denominations, including Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Quaker, and Baptist.

The Baptists split into several factions because of different interpretations of the Bible. During the Civil War, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians divided into northern and southern branches.

The number of Jews in Colonial America was small. Most were Portuguese and lived in New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. During the 1800s, Jews began coming to the United States from Russia, Romania, Poland, Austria, and other European countries, and they represented the spectrum of Jewish thought: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Not until the early-20th Century did Jewish migration become substantial.

If you can trace your ancestors to the 1700s or earlier in this country, you will probably find them in the records of Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker, or Roman Catholic churches. If your ancestors arrived between 1820 and 1850, in addition to the churches listed above, they may have belonged to Episcopal, Methodist, German Reformed, Unitarian, or Universalist churches. Methodists and Baptist had the fastest-growing churches during this period.

One of the best clues to an ancestor’s religious history is the name of the minister, priest, or rabbi who conducted their christenings, confirmation, baptism, bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral. You can often find information about him in church or synagogue archives, which may in turn tell you about his congregation.

A gravestone in a church cemetery is another indicator of church membership. And don’t overlook diaries, journals, or letters, which may refer to the religion of family members.

Depending on your ancestor’s denomination, finding records can be a great task. Many denominations kept extensive records; others did not. Some transferred their records to a central archive. Others entrusted their records to a minister or to private hands.

Unfortunately, many records have been destroyed. Say, for example, your great-grandparents were married by an itinerant Methodist preacher in Texas; he may have stuffed the records into his saddlebags only to lose them while fording a stream.

Numerous state and county historical societies, as well as state archives, have copies of church records. And some church-supported colleges are repositories for the records of their denomination.

Reading county histories of the areas in which your ancestors lived can give you the names of the churches established then. You may also discover membership lists or biographical information about early religious leaders.

In your search, don’t forget old land records. They can help you learn where your ancestors lived. Next, you can study old maps to see what churches were in the area, since people usually attended a nearby church. And then you can try to locate the records of those churches.

While there are relatively few Quakers today, millions can trace their ancestry to former members. If your ancestors came to America early, check the Quaker records; they are superb in detail. Not only did the Quakers list marriages, but also those who attended the ceremonies. Most surviving Quaker records have been microfilmed. The principal repository is the Friends Historical Library in Swathmore College, in Swarthmore, Pa.

An excellent book on the subject is Our Quaker Ancestors: Finding Them in Quaker Records, Ellen T. Berry and David A. Berry (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, Md., 1987). Also consult William W. Hinshaw’s six-volume Encyclopedia of American Genealogy. Most libraries with a genealogical collection have it.

Roman Catholic records are usually kept in the parish that generated them. You may have to consult your own local priest to find out where the parish you seek is located.

The Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) not only have extensive genealogical material on their members, they also have microfilmed records of many other churches. You may order film from the main Family History Library, in Salt Lake City, Utah, by visiting one of its many branch libraries nationwide.

These records are a rich source, particularly for early churches in America, as well as in many other countries. To determine what information on a church is available, consult the Family History Library Catalog at Look first under state, then for church records; next, consult state/county/churches.

On microfilm, you may be pleasantly surprised to find 1790 Baptist church records of western North Carolina that contain your ancestor’s name. You might even learn that your ancestor was the church scribe, thus giving you samples of handwriting.

Once you determine your ancestor’s denomination, study its history. University libraries are rich sources for church histories, particularly of small for church histories, particularly of small or little-known denominations. Studying their histories can lead you to the repositories of the need.

Check whether historical societies have the records of the church in which you are interested. Usually, however, you’ll find that the church has them. If the church still exists and its name hasn’t changed, the telephone directory may solve your problem.

If the church merged with another of the same denomination, consult Frank Mead’s Handbook of American Denominations (Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1970) or the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (also by Abingdon, under editorial direction of the National Council of Churches). Most large libraries will have these reference books.

If a church is defunct, contact another church of the same denomination in the area and inquire about the location of the records. Sometimes records of defunct churches go to a central archive, and a local minister may know the address. The state organization of a denomination may also be able to help you.

For in-depth information about American church records and denominations, archives, repositories, and record-keeping practices, see the chapter on church records in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny (Ancestry Publishing, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1984). Val Greenwood’s revised edition of the Researcher’s Guide to American Records (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, Md., 1990) details how to locate church records and what you can find in them.

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