I have been reading How to Find Your Family History In U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide, a new book by Sunny Jane Morton and Harold A. Henderson, CG. I just finished it, and I’m excited to share my thoughts about with you.
When the new year began, and I was making an effort to establish good habits for the new year, I hatched a plan. After listening to Atomic Habits by James Clear, I realized that if I just read a couple pages a day, I could finish it in no time. I decided to use one of his strategies and pair the habit with another habit I was trying to reinforce – exercise. My favorite part of a workout is the stretching afterward. So, I decided that while I stretched every day, I would also read this book. It worked! I finished in two months. I’m continuing to read as I stretch since it’s become a habit. I love my purple yoga mat and book/stretching time.
About the Book
How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide: With Specific Resources for Major Christian Denominations before 1900 was released on June 1, 2019. Part 1 focuses on research – using church records in your genealogy. Part 2 includes chapters about twelve major Christian denominations in the United States before 1900.
Chapter 1 is a comprehensive summary of what you might find in church records and their value to the genealogist. Chapter 2 explains several methods for identifying your ancestor’s church, which is an often overlooked step! Once we locate the church an ancestor may have belonged to, Chapter 3 helps us find and order the church records that they may be mentioned in. Chapter 4 has additional tips for working with old church records, and Chapter 5 includes records about church life.
Chapters 6-17 include the following denominations: Anglican/Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed/Reformed Church in America, German Churches: Reformed and Sectarian, Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Lutheran, Mennonite and Amish, Methodist, Quaker (Religious Society of Friends), Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic. Toward the end of the book, I kept thinking I was done! But then there was another chapter. It was enlightening to learn about all the different denominations and the groups that branched off from each of them. It highlighted the importance of learning about the evolution of each denomination over time.
Top Ten Tips
Locating church records can be difficult. I learned many helpful tips for finding church records. Here are my top 10.
1. Marriages are the most reliably kept church records, because they were more than just a church ordinance – they were also a legal event.
2. When trying to figure out an ancestor’s church, use local histories, historical maps, and city directories to figure out churches that existed in your ancestor’s time.
3. If a church is not operating anymore, they may have sent their records to centralized church archives, or a university associated with them. One way to help locate these collections is WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org), a free catalog with items from libraries all over the world – including the Family History Library.
4. Use PERSI to locate transcriptions or indexes of church records that have been published in journals. Although these transcripts may have disadvantages, because they are not originals, they may have supplemental research and explanatory notes.
5. Union churches – congregations in a town that shared buildings, duties, finances – were common in the United States. Be sure to look in both of the faith’s records.
6. Church records that have been digitized may not include all the records of the church – probably just those that have the most genealogical information. Inquiring with the church may bring to light additional records that mention your ancestor, like member and rite lists.
7. Review all pages of a church record book to ensure you don’t miss valuable information. Start at the beginning of preprinted membership registers – they often have a page of instructions at the beginning for the clerks. Continue to the end of each section to check for additional details that were tacked on to the end. The authors share the example that a Presbyterian record included a separate list of infant deaths at the end of the regular list of deaths.
8. Research congregational histories, denominational histories and encyclopedias, and church newspapers to find historical context for the church. These are easier to find than the original, typically unpublished creeds, by-laws, meeting minutes, and so forth. If you decide to search for the original administrative papers of a church, they were probably not imaged with the membership records, so you’ll want to check the source citation to find who holds the originals to contact.
9. In colonial times, the Anglican Church was predominant in the southern colonies (Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia). It was the state church of England, so the people in these colonies were often included in Anglican records whether they believed in the religion or not. Parish taxes were called “tithes” during this period – so that’s why the tax lists in colonial Virginia were called “tithables.” Parish church leaders also helped with the care of the poor, orphans, land boundaries and land disputes until after the American Revolution, when the state church was dissolved. Look for these types of records in vestry minutes.
10. Roman Catholic church records are considered private and confidential. You may not be granted access to records, or the records may be given to you as transcriptions instead of originals, and some information may not be included.
I probably should have titled this my top 20 favorite tips, because there were so many. But you will just have to go read the book! I’m sure you’ll have different takeaways than I did. If you have ever been stymied by how to locate church records, this book will help. You will gain a fresh understanding of how church records were kept in the United States and how you can access them. It will save you time to understand the basics of each denomination before beginning to research for their records. Best of luck to you!
Further Learning about Church Records
At the end of each denomination chapter, Sunny Morton and Harold Henderson include a list of further reading. These sources include genealogical talks, articles, and books written by experts in each denomination. I spoke with Sunny Morton at RootsTech, and she plans to continue writing articles for journals about additional churches whose denominations were not included in the book.
I knew the most about LDS Church records prior to reading this book. I have some experience using the microfilm records of early England branches at the Brigham Young University Library. I thought the information included about the LDS church records was accurate and helpful. Angela Packer McGhie just wrote a wonderful article about these church records in the NGS Magazine. If you are looking for more information about finding and using church records, I recommend searching through NGS Magazine. Here is the source information for Angela’s article:
Angela Packer McGhie, “Researching Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” NGS Magazine 46 (January-March 2020), 26.
To read another review of this book, see Gary L. Ball-Kilbourne, “Review of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide,” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (March 2020) 40.
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