Have you used church records in your genealogy yet? If not, you might be interested to know how helpful a church record can be in researching your family. Because birth and death certificates were not required by most states in the U.S. until after 1900, church records can be a substitute for vital records. They can also help establish an ancestor’s status in the community, reveal associates, and point to previous or subsequent residences.
In this two-part series, we’ll examine the value of church records, what kind of records were created, and how to find them for your ancestor. Because every church used different criteria for their record keeping, we’ll also look at the major denominations and specific examples.
What is the Value of Church Records in Genealogy?
Church records began in the early 1600s with the first settlements. Many of the early colonists came to the new world for religious freedom and established churches. Following the patterns from the old world, records were kept. In some of the colonies, state churches were established. In New England, the Congregational Church prevailed with it being the formal state religion for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. (1)
The mid-Atlantic and southern colonies had a wide of variety of religions represented. The Epsicopal or Church of England was established for a time as the state church in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, although only in Virginia were laws imposed about Anglican worship. Other religions included Dutch Reformed, Quaker, Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, and Baptist. (2)
As early as 1632, laws were enacted, such as in Virginia, requiring the ministers to keep a register of all christenings, marriages and burials. After the Revolutionary War churches were less dominant and westward migration created multiple issues. Pioneers could not always attend their preferred church, so records might not be in the county or congregation where you would expect to find them. Also, events might have been recorded by a “circuit-riding” minister.
For these reasons, researching church records can seem difficult, but with practice, you can learn to use these valuable records to further your research.
What kind of records were created and what can you find in them?
Baptisms/Christenings, Marriages, and Burials
A variety of records that can substitute for vital records were created by churches: christenings/baptisms, marriages, and burials. Because forms and record books varied, each denomination is unique with what was recorded. Some records will include birth dates, names of parents, and maiden name of the mother. In addition to dates and places, the sponsors and witnesses on a marriage or baptismal record are often immediate or extended family members.
The example below lists baptisms in the Congregational Church at Otisco, Onondaga County, New York. The state of New York didn’t require birth certificates until 1880, so this a good substitute for that vital record. These church records don’t name a specific date of birth, but the date of baptism narrows the time frame as this denomination generally baptized infants.
When working with church records, always study the practices of the religion at the time of the event to seek to understand the records better. Discover answers to questions such as: Did the church baptize infants or adults? What was the typical age at communion?
Notice this example only lists the father, but in 1832, that is significant information.
Churches generally kept some type of list, census, or register of the members of the congregation. These can reveal an individual’s residence and actions in between federal census years. The lists can even note previous places of worship, giving clues to a prior residence.
Some of the terms to look for: confirmations, communicants list, admissions and removals, financial records, minutes of various organizations within a church, Sunday School lists, biographical notes on members and pastors, notes on funerals, membership lists, and church related newsletters.
At first glance, these may not seem helpful, but consider these records as something akin to newspaper records. Who was excommunicated for disagreeing with the minister? How many people attended a funeral? Who were the poor and needy receiving help? Membership records can help us gain insight into the everyday life of the people and reconstructing the actions of our ancestors through church records can help us make more connections in their lives.
Example 1 – Membership Records
Consider this example from a Virginia Parish (Episcopal or Church of England) for the years 1787-1819.
This record of how much various individuals were paying to help support the poor gives great insight into the community. It could even be used as indirect evidence to establish relationships. Was the individual paying for the upkeep of a relative? Recording each entry for a family can be reveal patterns that could lead to a conclusion.
I used this church record to compile a table of the proceedings for an entire family over several years. I discovered that the family members made several contributions to the upkeep of other community members, then after the death of the head of household, the widow and children began receiving help from other parish members. One of the men in the family disappeared from the records which became evidence of his move west where he appeared in other records.
Example 2 – Membership Records
Below is a register of members from the Mt. Auburn Baptist Church of Cincinnati Ohio. Notice that along with the member’s name and date of admission to the church, there is the important date of removal and where they went. Several of the members died and the valuable death date is given. Others moved on and an exact date for the move is also given. With the loss of the 1890 census, this list reveals information about an individual during the 20-year gap from the 1880 to the 1900 census.
Example 3 – Membership Records
Consider this example of a Roman Catholic parish census. Notice the valuable information of each woman’s maiden name and her father. I used this church record as key evidence in proving the father of Mary Bryan French. Since she is the sister of Monica, Mary Ann’s father would almost certainly be James French.
Each denomination has its own type or recording system for keeping track of it’s ministers. There could be records of appointments, approvals, ordinations, or elections. How could researching the minister help in your family history quest? Consider him as part of your ancestor’s FAN club. He would be an important member of the community and an associate of your ancestor. Entire communities would migrate to a new location and religious bodies were especially close. Knowing more about the minister and his movements might lend insight into your family.
The example below shows a register of Pastors for the Washington Station Methodist Church of Washington, Georgia. If you were tracing your Methodist ancestors of Washington, Georgia, this list could help determine the pastor responsible for the congregation.
As shown in the examples above, church records are valuable to our family history research. They can be a substitute for vital records, reveal moves to a new area, help establish the associates of our ancestor, and show details about the community.
Part 2 of this series will delve into how you can discover what church your ancestor attended and how to find the records.
Best of luck in all of your genealogical endeavors!
(1) “Religion in the Original 13 Colonies,” ProCon.org (https://undergod.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000069 : accessed 20 September 2018).
(2) “Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs,” Facing History and Ourselves (https://www.facinghistory.org/nobigotry/religion-colonial-america-trends-regulations-and-beliefs : accessed 20 September 2018).
I need to pay more attention to church records in the areas my ancestor’s lived. Thank you for this overview of what they can contain.
You’re welcome! Church records are a little more difficult to find, but can be so rewarding. Good luck with your searching.