Urban Research Using Religious Sources

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Urban Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Urban Research
Urban Research Using Census Records
Urban Research Using Vital Records
Urban Research Using Newspapers
Urban Research Using Religious Sources
Urban Research Using Land Records
Urban Research Using Maps
Urban Research Using Naturalization Records
Urban Research Using Court Records
Urban Research Using Business Records
Sources for Urban Research
List of Useful Urban Research Referencs

This article originally appeared in "Urban Research" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and John M. Scroggins, MA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Locating urban religious records presents a unique challenge. Population, geography, and ethnicity are confusing enough; but to complicate matters further, different denominations have kept different types of records. For example, presbyteries transferred membership records with the departure of the member. Immigrants commonly chose to worship in their own tongues and often went far out of their neighborhoods to find the congenial atmosphere of the national parish. Churches as well as people responded to the dynamics of cities—­some closing, consolidating, or moving as neighborhoods changed, others shifting from their ethnic orientations to accommodate new circumstances. Thus, any researcher having difficulty tracing the church or synagogue of an ancestor might save time by backtracking to study the history of that particular religion in the locale of interest. Though finding religious records may be difficult, it usually repays the time and effort spent. Church records usually predate civil records and supply information not found elsewhere—sometimes indicating even the European church or parish where people being married were christened or confirmed.

An invaluable guide for research in this area is the Historical Records Survey of the WPA. WPA workers inventoried church and public records extant in the 1930s for many areas in the United States. Their lists for urban churches are especially valuable. A typical entry for church vital records would contain the name and address of the institution at the time of publication, ethnic orientation (if any), and comprehensive dates for each type of vital record. If the organization housed documents from other congregations, the survey noted that fact and included a range of dates. For example, in A Guide to Church Vital Statistics Records in California—San Francisco and Alameda Counties, the individual churches are arranged by geographical area and denomination.[1] A summary of baptisms, marriages, and death records follows for each. Additionally, it notes that Holy Family was a Chinese mission while Saint Anthony of Padua was German. In most cases, the founding dates are noted. Some of the WPA surveys can be located on the Internet.

The obvious limitation to the survey is that many of the records may have since been moved. But it still provides an overview of the span of years during which records were kept and is proof that the records were still in existence at the time of the WPA compilation. It is a very good place to start.

For those inventories that were printed, consult Bibliography of Research Project Reports, by Sargent B. Child and Dorothy P. Holmes.[2] Many inventories were never printed; they can be located by consulting Loretta L. Hefner’s The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes, and Transcripts.[3]

Some contemporary guides facilitate finding records for certain cities. A local reference librarian should, for example, be able to point to guides such as Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area and The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy. Both of these guides, mentioned earlier in the chapter, contain specific addresses for Jewish material. Jack Bochar’s Locations of Chicago Roman Catholic Churches, 1850–1990 is a time-saving book filled with maps, addresses, microfilm numbers, and historical data relating to hundreds of parishes in that city.[4]

Early city or county histories, biographical sketches, and jubilee books provide other background on religious institutions in a particular area. Illustrations included in county histories often preserve the only surviving images of buildings where city ancestors worshipped. Through these descriptions you can trace the development and ethnic makeup of a church. Modern studies also are a tremendous help, and their bibliographies enhance their utility. Chicago Churches and Synagogues, compiled by George Lane and Alginantes Kezys, highlights 125 houses of worship with architectural, historical, or social significance.[5] Further, they provide a detailed description and history of each building and its congregation, ethnic makeup, architectural attributes, and location by exact address and area of city. The acknowledgments and notes provide numerous sources for locating denominational repositories.

A few church records are available in book form or microform. The Newberry Library in Chicago has a large collection of sources from the eastern United States as well as from local institutions. The Detroit Society of Genealogical Research is one of many metropolitan groups engaged in the publication of local church records. The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed church registers from numerous localities, and Family History Centers in every state allow access to these records. Also available through the Family History Library is the International Genealogical Index, which is rich in church registers for New York City, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and many other cities. A few church records have also been transcribed and posted on USGenWeb Project county or state websites.

Used in combination with other sources, church vital records can help solve even the most perplexing problems. For example, Karl Johnson was known to have lived at a certain address in Minneapolis for several years near the beginning of the twentieth century, but his death date was unknown. A death index indicated that he had died at that address in 1911. This death year led to a certificate that, in turn, pointed to the cemetery records. The cemetery gave the officiating minister’s name, and a directory search identified him as belonging to the Swedish Covenant Church. It had since moved, but inquiries at another congregation of the same denomination pinpointed the new location of the records. Not only did the church have many records of the family, it had a jubilee book with biographical sketches that included Karl Johnson as a founding member. The biography gave his exact birthplace, his date of arrival in the United States, and his residence before settling in Minneapolis.


  1. A Guide to Church Vital Statistics Records in California-San Francisco and Alameda Counties (San Francisco: Northern California Historical Records Survey, 1940).
  2. Sargent B. Child and Dorothy P. Holmes, Bibliography of Research Project Reports, WPA Technical Series No. 7 (1943; reprint, Bountiful, Utah: Printing by Faisal, 1979 [as WPA Bibliography 9]).
  3. Loretta L. Hefner, The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes, and Transcripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1980).
  4. Jack Bochar, Locations of Chicago Roman Catholic Churches, 1850-1990, 2nd ed. (Sugar Grove, Ill.: Czech and Slovak American Genealogy Society of Illinois, 1998).
  5. George Lane and Alginantes Kezys, comps., Chicago Churches and Synagogues (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981).

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