Church marriage records are a common record set used in genealogy research for many European countries. Church marriage records can also be found in U.S. research. Depending on the time period and state, you may find Church of England parish marriage records, like in colonial Virginia, Catholic church marriages, Lutheran church marriages, and so forth. Determining the religion of your ancestors can help you determine which church they may have been married in. Civil marriage records often name the person who performed the marriage, and that can also lead you to determine where they were married. Sometimes the church marriage record will reveal more information than the civil marriage record – possibly the names of the parents, places of origin, witnesses, etc.
This post is the third in our Back to the Basics with Marriage Records series. In two previous posts, Diana and I wrote about marriage records:
Polish Church Marriage Records
I asked our team of researchers at Family Locket Genealogists for examples of how church marriage records have helped in their projects. Alice Childs shared her experience using church marriage records in Poland. She said,
“When I worked on the Kunch project, the Polish (church) marriage records were very helpful in extending Michael Kunch’s line. The records named the bride and groom’s parents and usually the father of each parent. Earlier Polish church records can be accessed free online. The ones I used were at the Przemysl Archives. https://www.przemysl.ap.gov.pl/skany/. I wrote a blog post about Polish records that includes step-by-step instructions for accessing the church records on this site: https://alicechilds.com/9-resources-for-polish-research/ More recent records must be obtained in person. I hired a researcher in Poland to retrieve those for me.”
French Church Marriage Records
Another of the researchers on our team shared her experience using French marriage records. From Melanie Whitt:
Similar to the Polish church records for marriages, French church records are quite informative. This is actually the case in the European countries with a state church where I’ve researched: Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy. French church records for marriages (predominant prior to the advent of état civil in 1792/3) typically record the name, residence, occupation, age, and names of parents (also whether living or deceased) for both the bride and groom. Witnesses were often family members and sometimes the relationship is noted.
Additionally, if either the bride or groom were widowed, the name of the earlier spouse was usually recorded, too. Though there may be some slight chronological/regional variation in data points, I’ve seen this full set of info on marriage entries as far back as the early 1600s. All French church records are held geographically within the archives for each department. You can google the department name with the words “archives departementales” (or departmental archives) to find the relevant departmental archives website. Once there, you’ll need to know the commune (essentially the parish within the department) where your subjects lived/married. French church records in general are quite organized, abundant and full of valuable information. They center on baptêmes (baptisms), mariages (marriages), and sépultures (burials). Margin notes (or sometimes the entry itself) can sometimes lead you from one set of records to another, allowing you to readily connect these vital events for an individual.
Church of England Marriage
My fourth-great-grandfather, Edward Creer, married Ann Morris on 21 June 1835 in Chorley Parish, Lancashire, England. The marriage record contains the names and residences of the bride and groom. It includes their “state,” i.e. bachelor and spinster, meaning they hadn’t been married before. The marriage included the names of two witnesses. These witnesses are often related to the couple. In Edward and Ann’s marriage, the witnesses were George Hindle and Elizabeth Morris. Elizabeth Morris was Ann’s aunt, and Elizabeth would marry George Hindle the next year. So, the witnesses were the aunt and uncle-to-be of the bride.
This couple was married by banns, a public announcement of the marriage in case anyone had knowledge of an impediment (like a previous marriage or lack of parental consent). Another option was to be married by consent, as you can see on the marriage form used by the parish below.
St. Laurence’s Church, Chorely Parish (Lancashire, England), parish register, marriages, Edward Creer – Ann Morris, 21 June 1835; image online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DCR9-4PK : accessed 9 June 2023), image 1126 of 2209; Lancashire Record Office.
Fortunately, many England parish church registers are digitized and available on FamilySearch.org, like this one.
Colonial Virginia Parish Marriage
In a recent client project, one of our researchers found a marriage record for one of the common ancestral couples for a cluster of autosomal DNA matches. The MRCA couple is John Woodall and Dorothy Pledge. Their marriage was recorded in the Douglas Register for the St. James Northam Parish in Goochland County, Virginia, in 1756. The marriage is part of a FamilySearch index called “Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940,” and is originally from the Douglas Register, which was published in 1928 and is available in digital format at FamilySearch here: https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/183989.
William Douglas, The Douglas register : being a detailed record of births, marriages and deaths together with other interesting notes, as kept by the Rev. William Douglas, from 1750 to 1797 : an index of Goochland wills, notes on the French-Huguenot refugees who lived in Manakin-town (Richmond, Virginia : J.W. Fergusson & Sons, 1928), p. 51, John Woodhall – Dorothy Pledge marriage, 12 Aug 1756; images online, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/viewer/451350/ : accessed 10 June 2022).
The book’s forward contains the following description:
For a great many years it has been the sincere desire of all those interested in the early records of Virginia to make the contents of the celebrated Douglas Register available to the public; but the owners, descendants of the Reverend Mr. Douglas, would not agree to its publication. It has been the good fortune of the writer to have succeeded in obtaining the consent of the present owner, Mr. Hunter Fielding Warner Lewis, to this publication. …
The Reverend William Douglas came to St. James Northam Parish, in Goochland County, Virginia, (Dover Church), on the 12th of October, 1750. A memorandum in the Register shows that he had charge of St. James Northam Parish for twenty-seven years; Maniken Town (King William Parish), for nineteen years, and ministered to a charge in Buckingham County for four years. There had been, according to his statement, no parish register kept up to the time that he took charge. He began, on the 15th of September, 1753, keeping a record of the marriages performed by him. The book in which the Register is kept, was procured by him at the beginning of the year 1756 and was kept from that time until near the time of his death, which occurred on the 7th of February, 1798. But he inserted many of the marriages performed by him before 1756, and in the matter of births the record goes back to 1705—including the names and dates birth of children given him by their parents, who desired them recorded. …
The book is made of the old Government stamped paper and is bound in calf and parchment. It is in a good state of preservation, though in some places the margin is worn or broken, and there are several pages missing.
I looked for original images of the book but didn’t find any. This derivative might be the only surviving record of the marriages Douglas recorded. This is a simple marriage record, stating only the names of the couple and the date they married. It also gives the page number of the original register. However, the detail that this couple lived in the parish at that time has helped develop a hypothesis for our research question, the parents of a female born in the 1780s. There were autosomal DNA matches going back to the Woodall family and the Bolling family, who also happened to live in Goochland. Some of the Bolling children’s baptisms recorded in the Douglas Register. We think it’s possible that a child from the Woodall family married a Bolling and were the parents of our female research subject.
Catholic Marriage Record
The next example is a Catholic marriage record from the archdiocese of Atlanta, Georgia.
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church (Atlanta, Georgia), marriages 1873-1923, p. 23, Patrick A. O’Connor – Tenie Stephens, 1 March 1881; image online, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/20535:62456 : accessed 10 June 2023); citing Sacramental Records, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, Smyrna, Georgia.
This marriage was recorded by the priest, T.J. Cleary, on a preprinted Latin form. The marriage record includes the names of the parties, their father’s names, and their places of residence. It also includes several witnesses. This particular marriage record is rare for Catholic marriage records in that it is digitized and included indexed in an Ancestry.com collection, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta Sacramental Records, 1840-1980. Usually Catholic church records are not publicly available online.
Where to Find Church Marriage Records
FamilySearch has digitized many Church of England parish registers and other European countries’ church records. Some churches have not allowed their records to be digitized. The Roman Catholic church does not usually allow free access to their church records – each diocese handles it differently and you must request the records to see if you can access them. This can be more work but it has the potential to unlock great clues!
Some countries have national level archives with online access to their church marriage records, like Poland and France. Others require that you hire an onsite researcher in order to access them. Sometimes church records require a little more work to access, but they can be very rewarding. Often a church marriage record in the U.S. will reveal the hometown and parents’ names of an immigrant ancestor in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Many churches have their own archives where they keep records. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the Church History Library with manuscript collections and some digital records. Their website allows you to search collections and learn whether they are digitized and open to research. Here is a book of marriages performed by Matthias Foss Cowley that has been digitized:
Matthias Foss Cowley, Marriages solemnized, Abraham Owen Woodruff – Avery Clark, 18 Jan 1901, Preston, Oneida Co., Idaho; image online, Church History Library (https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/870e5c60-b3a0-49fe-9b47-bc1384be0fb3/0/9 : accessed: June 10, 2023).
Be sure to check the FamilySearch Wiki for help finding church marriage records. Often there will be wiki pages dedicated to the records of a specific church. Good luck as you search for church marriage records!
See the other posts is our marriage records series here: