Back to Basics with U.S. Church Records – Part 2
Could a church record be the missing link in your genealogical research? Do you need a substitute for vital records or clues to your ancestor’s origins or migration? A church record might hold the answer.
Part 1 of this series examined the value of church records, what kind of records were created, and what you can find in them. In part 2 of this series, we’ll learn how to determine what church your ancestor might have attended and how to find the records.
What Church Did They Attend?
The first step in researching church records is to determine what church your ancestors might have attended. This might seem impossible to discover, but there are several clues to consider.
What family sources could provide clues to religious affiliation? Is there a family bible? A funeral program? Was the ancestor buried in a church cemetery? Analyze all of the records you’ve already found for the ancestor with an eye for hints to religion.
What church did the descendants belong to? Often a family follows the same religion for several generations so researching the records of the descendants could prove beneficial.
What genealogical records could help to discover the religion? Perhaps you need to dig deeper in the records to find clues to religion. Research in newspapers might discover obituaries that could include funeral details including the name of the church and officiating minister. Civil marriage records often include the name of the “minister of the gospel” and city directories could reveal the church affiliation. Probate and land records could provide clues if land or property was bequeathed to a religious institution.
In 1857, my ancestor, Thomas Beverly Royston deeded four acres of his land to the Deacons of the Baptist Church at Mount Hickory Meeting in Chambers County, Alabama. (1) Determining that Thomas was probably Baptist led me to searching microfilm for the “Primitive Baptist churches in Alabama, 1822, 1834-1962.” (2) Unfortunately, Mount Hickory records were not included, but I can continue my search for any extant records in the local library or historical society or other repositories.
What was the national origin of the ancestor? Was there a state church in the home country? Many Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. Danish immigrants could be Lutheran. Learning about the history of churches in the country of origin would be an important first step if there are no other clues among the family sources or descendants.
The map below from Wikimedia Commons shows the ancestry of the majority of the population in each United States county. (3) Although this was taken from the 2000 census, it might give you clues as to what the country of origin was for the general populace.
What churches existed in the area where your ancestor resided? Was there a state church at the time that he lived there? Was a certain denomination prominent? City directories and local histories typically include sections that list the churches. You can often discover when a church was built and then determine if your ancestor might have been involved.
Finding the Records
Make a Timeline
Once you have a good idea of the religion your ancestor may have practiced, the next step is to determine where he lived so you can narrow the search. Church records are kept in a variety of places: a local church, historical, or genealogical society, a state library or archive, or a central denominational archive, to name a few. As for any kind of genealogical research, knowing the location is key.
Gather all the records for the ancestor or family together into a timeline and start with the location where it is most likely that they left a church record. For ideas in creating a timeline, see my post Track Your Family with a Timeline.
Use the FamilySearch Research Wiki
The FamilySearch Research Wiki is an excellent place to begin finding the records. Type the locality and “church records” into the search box; or search by the denomination. Try a variety of searches to discover information and links about your ancestor’s locality and religion. Pages exist for international countries, denominations, U.S. states, and more.
Typing “Alabama Church Records” brought up the official page with sections on the major denominations in Alabama with links to the records.
Using the FamilySearch Research Wiki, I discovered that the Samford University Library Website has an inventory of Baptist records. This could be my next avenue for discovering a church record for my ancestor, Thomas Beverly Royston.
If you are researching an ancestor in a different country, often church records are key to your success. The FamilySearch Research Wiki has detailed information on the church records with word lists to help navigate the language barrier, what to expect in the records and more. If you’ve been nervous about beginning international research, you’ll find many, many helps to get started.
Search Major Websites
Once you’ve determined a religion and a location to research, you can next search the major online genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com, My Heritage, FindMyPast. Using the keyword search in the individual card catalog of each website, enter the religion and location: “Catholic New York.” This will reveal databases that may be helpful for your ancestor.
If nothing was found in the major websites, next try the FamilySearch Catalog. Use the place search, then select the category “church records” to see what might be available online or at the Family History Library. An alternate search would the keyword search for the denomination and location. The results could then be narrowed down by the year, category, and availability online.
Another excellent place to look is Cyndi’s List of Religion and Churches which has a category for 14 major United States religions with links to helps for each religion. Cyndi has compiled an excellent resource for links to histories, general resources, repositories, and much more.
The USGenWeb Church Records Project has indexed records for each state. Some states have multiple collections, others only a handful. It is always worth a try, however, to see if your ancestor is listed.
Another source for church records would be in the periodicals created by genealogical societies. Try searching PERSI, the Periodical Source Index on FindMyPast to find references to churches in a specific location. Use the filters to get to church records, history, or biography – any key words that might give clues to the churches of the area. If an interesting article is found, that periodical could be requested through interlibrary loan.
Historical Records Survey
From 1938-1942, the Works Progress Administration, better known as the WPA located and inventoried church records in many states. These inventories can help you find the churches that existed at the time of your ancestor’s residence in an area.
The project was part of the Historical Records Survey, the most ambitious archival survey ever undertaken in the United States. The project was not completed, but a keyword search for “historical records survey” in the FamilySearch catalog found 4,272 results. Narrowing the search to “historical records survey church” found 545 results. Narrowing further to include “Georgia” in the results found 12 records. One of the results was the Inventory of the Church Archives of Georgia: Atlanta Association of Baptist Churches, Affiliated with Georgia Baptist Convention, images below. (4)
The inventories have been digitized and you can view them from your home computer. Each identified church could have a physical description of the church, address, and inventory of the records and where they were kept at the time of the inventory.
As I examined the digitized versions of the Inventory of the Church Archives of Georgia, I scrolled down to the index to discover what might be of interest for my research in Georgia. I found an alphabetical church name index with physical addresses of each church and a chronological index giving the date the church was established, both helpful in determining any records that might shed light on my Georgia ancestors.
If you’ve hit a brick wall in your research, it is time to dig deeper into the records. Church records might hold the key. Although these records can be more difficult to locate and use, part of being an excellent genealogist is going deeper. Church records may or may not be online, but with some good old fashioned sleuthing you may be able to find a record that will shed light on your ancestor’s actions.
Best of luck in your genealogical journey! Any great finds in church records? Leave your comments below. I’d love to hear what you’ve found.
(1) Chambers County, Alabama, “Deeds v. 12 1852-1854,” page 46, Royston to Deacons, Baptist Church at Mount Hickory, 19 February 1857; FHL microfilm 1,854,664.
(2) “Primitive Baptist Churches in Alabama, 1805-1935,” Alabama Department of Archives and History, FHL microfilm 1,409,425 (1807-1935) and 1,409,426 (1807-1846). Also “Primitive Baptist churches in Alabama, 1822, 1834-1962,” Alabama Department of Archives and History, FHL microfilm 1,409,427 and 1,409,428.
(3) Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg,” Wikimedia Commons, The Free Media Repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg&oldid=289087639 (accessed November 14, 2018).
(4) Historical Records Survey, Inventory of the Church Archives of Georgia: Atlanta Association of Baptist Churches, Affiliated with Georgia Baptist Convention (Atlanta,Georgia : Georgia Historical Records Survey, 1941); digitized book, FamilySearch (https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE6263680 : accessed 15 November 2018).