Pennsylvania did not require the registration of births, marriages, or deaths until 1906.1 Births, marriages, and deaths were recorded by Pennsylvania counties from 1851-1855, and then again beginning in 1893 and continuing until 1905. County marriage records began again as early as 1885. The late starting dates for state and county records means that vital records will not be found for our early Pennsylvania German ancestors. Church records act as a valuable substitute.
Church records are especially important in Pennsylvania German research. Germans tended to keep good records, mostly in German. Many church records have been transcribed and published, but it is always worthwhile to seek out the original records. I will discuss some tips for doing so later in this post. Refer to part 3 of this series for tips on reading German handwriting.
Church records were generally kept in a register by the local clergyman and might include baptism, marriage, and burial records. While these records might not give exact dates for births and deaths, a baptism was often close to the child’s birth date, and burial quickly followed a death, so these records can provide a close date.
Additional church records that can provide useful information about our ancestors’ lives include confirmation records, membership lists, and information about when a person was admitted to the congregation, where they came from, when they “removed” from the congregation, and where they went. As you might imagine, these records are very helpful for placing our ancestors in a particular time and location and tracing their migration. Communicant lists are especially valuable for identifying the FAN club for our ancestors. They document who attended church together on a particular day.
Even though some churches did not begin keeping records for several years after their founding, church records for Pennsylvania German ancestors are abundant and a very valuable source of information in our research.
Which Church Did your Ancestor Belong To?
Because the state of Pennsylvania was known as a place for religious tolerance, it was attractive to Germans of many different denominations who often settled in the same places. Authors Sunny Jane Morton and Harold A. Henderson, CG write, “in the 1800s Berks County, Pennsylvania, had Germans who were Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, Reformed, Mennonite, Amish, United Brethren in Christ, Moravian, Church of the Brethren, members of splinter groups of these faiths, and more.”
In order to find church records, we must first discover which church our ancestors belonged to. Identifying the religious denomination for more recent descendants of our Pennsylvania German ancestors might require additional historical research, as many more recent denominations are offshoots from older ones and were not in existence when our Pennsylvania German ancestors were alive. However, learning about the history of these denominations can help to identify their origins and lead to records for our ancestors.
One of the best strategies for finding which church our Pennsylvania German ancestors belonged to is to learn what churches were extant in the area and time period where they lived. County histories are a fantastic resource for this. County histories often include brief sketches about the earliest churches, including the names of clergymen who presided over those churches. Find county histories by performing a FamilySearch catalog place search for the county of interest and scrolling down to “Histories.” Other places to look for county histories are the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Google Books. You can also contact local libraries and historical societies for suggestions about county histories.
It is important to know that prior to the establishment of churches, many denominations had traveling clergy, or circuit riders, who would ride from one settlement to the next, holding services and performing baptisms, marriages, and other religious sacraments. His records would all be kept in the same book, often in his personal possession rather than associated with a particular church building.
When trying to find out where to look for a marriage record for my ancestor Jacob Fisher, I learned about Reverend Abraham Blumer, a traveling preacher in Northampton County Pennsylvania from 1773-1787. Abraham Blumer is noted in a history of Lehigh County (formerly Northampton) as the second pastor of Zion Reformed Church at Allentown.2 Blumer also oversaw the three Whitehall charges. Whitehall is where Jacob Fisher lived. This book is held at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City but has been digitized. A FamilySearch catalog search helped me locate the county history. I will discuss more about what I found in Abraham Blumer’s church book later in this post.
Understand the Theology of Your Ancestor’s Church
It is important to understand the theology of the church your Pennsylvania German ancestors belonged to in order to understand which records will be available. For example, most Anabaptist faiths commonly practiced “believer baptism,” (adult baptism) rather than infant baptism. Looking for baptism records for infants will be fruitless if your Pennsylvania German ancestor belonged to one of these churches. Knowing who qualified to be witnesses can help identify family members. Below is a chart that briefly illustrates theology that might affect the availability and content of records. Find a more detailed discussion in Morton and Henderson’s How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records book.
One additional theological consideration is whether the church required the parents of the infant to be members of that church in order for their child to be baptized. Some churches did have this requirement. Other churches would baptize anyone. Genealogist Michael Lacapo suggests remembering CLAM – Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Moravians.3 These churches would baptize anyone. If you can’t find baptism records for your ancestor in the churches where you think you should find them, check the records for these four.
Union Churches in Pennsylvania
Another thing to be aware of regarding Pennsylvania Germans and church records is the concept of Union Churches. When our ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania, they were very reliant on their neighbors and worked to live together in harmony. There were often small numbers of members of the Lutheran and/or Reformed faiths and few pastors. Those pastors who were in the area often served a number of different communities.
Members of the Lutheran and Reformed churches overcame these obstacles with what became known as “union churches.” The congregations banded together to build shared church buildings. By doing this, they could also share pastors and have worship services more often. Their common language aided in the sense of community and socialization that took place among these members of two different faiths.
Members of these religious groups would intermarry without feeling a need for one spouse or the other to switch religions. Most often, daughters born into a mixed marriage would be baptized in the faith tradition of the mother, and sons would be baptized in the same church as the father.
While the records for the two different churches that both met in the same church were usually kept separate, they might have both been recorded in separate sections of the same record book. 4
Discover Where Church Records are Held
Once you have identified the religious denomination. theological tenets, churches that were extant near your ancestor’s home, pastors who served in their area, and what records might exist, the next step is to locate the records for that church. If the church is still operating, the records could be held there. If not, the records might have been moved to the regional denominational archives. Still, other records can be found at libraries, historical societies, or in the possession of private individuals. Many records for Pennsylvania German churches have been translated into English and transcribed, available in book format. Many have been microfilmed and are available online. While finding the original records is always the goal for genealogists, remember that original church records may be lost and the transcription will be the only surviving record.
Some Pennsylvania church records have been gathered into historical record collections at FamilySearch: Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1709-1950, Pennsylvania Marriages, 1709-1940, Pennsylvania Church Marriages, 1682-1976, and Pennsylvania Deaths and Burials, 1720-1999. These are mainly indexes but do sometimes provide links to the records themselves. These collections are good starting points, but they don’t always yield records for the ancestor of interest. In fact, I have sometimes found that I can find a baptism record for one child in a family but not another, even though both children were baptized in the same church. If you don’t have success with these historical record collections, move on to other sources for finding the records.
The FamilySearch catalog is a great starting point for locating original church records. Do a place search for the county of interest, then scroll down to “Church Records.” When searching for the records for Reverend Abraham Blumer, who I mentioned above, the FamilySearch catalog revealed a typed and digitized transcription of his record book, which included a 1778 entry for the marriage of Jacob Fischer and Elizabeth Horman. This transcription was a great example of how mistakes and omissions can be made. Another transcription of the same record, which was handwritten, revealed a second entry for Jacob Fischer, who married Elizabeth Klein a few years later. (See the last line in the image below). Using the FAN club and a timeline of the births of the known children of Jacob Fisher, I have concluded that Elizabeth Klein was likely the mother of Jacob and Elizabeth Fisher’s known children. Their first daughter, Susannah, was born in July of 1786. One of the sponsors for her baptism was Catharina Klein.
Regional denomination archives are another place to look for original church records. Locate them by visiting the FamilySearch Research Wiki page United States Church Records and clicking on the link for the denomination of interest.
The WPA Church Archives Inventories are another very valuable resource for finding church records in Pennsylvania. These were created by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Workers recorded details about church archives and records including the church’s official name, addresses over time, founder, history, and original and current pastor or rabbi. They also created an inventory of books and records created by the church, including registers of baptisms, births, deaths, marriages, membership, and cemeteries. These inventories have been digitized and are browseable by County at Ancestry.
In summary, church records are a must-use resource when researching Pennsylvania German ancestors. The records are abundant and hold a wealth of information that will help you trace your Pennsylvania German ancestors. Correlating information contained in a will in Westmoreland County in 1846 with baptism records for children in Whitehall Township and Upper Milford Township in Northampton County in the late 1700s helped me determine which Jacob Fisher in Northampton county was the father of my ancestor Hannah Fisher. I hope you will have similar success as you find church records for your Pennsylvania German ancestors!
- “Pennsylvania Vital Records,” FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Pennsylvania_Vital_Records : accessed 2 March 2022).
- Charles R. Roberts, History of Lehigh County Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: United Evangelical Publishing House, 1914), 495-496; digital version, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 2 March 2022), images 517-518.
- Michael Lacopo, “Church Records, Part I: The History and Theology,” SLIG Course: “The Pennsylvania German and Research in the Keystone State,” October 2021, personal notes taken by Alice Childs.
- Horace S. Sills, “The Union Church: A Case of Lutheran and Reformed Cooperation,” in Barbara Brown Zikmund, editor, Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ, vol. 2, (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1984), ch. 2.