Finding Church Records
| Church Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Church Records|
|Types of Church Records|
|Finding Church Records|
|List of Selected Denominations|
|List of Useful Church References|
Identify the Denomination
To find church records, the researcher must identify the denomination of an ancestor and the actual church of affiliation. In some families, this decision poses no problem due to a continuing religious tradition. However, individuals or families at times changed denominations; in such a case, a search is required. Perhaps the family Bible or other papers—baptismal certificates, wedding announcements, organizational certificates, or obituaries—will offer clues. These documents may reveal an organization tied to a specific denomination, a church name, or the identity and title of the person officiating at a religious ceremony or event.
Civil marriage or death records, if they exist, should provide the officiate’s name. Determining that this person is clergy can help researchers identify the denomination and perhaps the congregation or local church. In small towns or rural areas, county histories often list ecclesiastical leaders and where they served. In larger cities, city directories usually list clergy and their associated church.
Marriage records are particularly good sources for determining a denomination or a church. Although a direct ancestral pair may have been married by the local justice of the peace, one or more of their siblings may have preferred a religious ceremony. Customarily, a wedding takes place in the bride’s church or is performed by her pastor. Therefore, the marriages of the bride’s and groom’s sisters may be a link to determine which church the family attended.
Civil death records may not provide the name of the minister who conducted the service. However, these records, when thoroughly examined, can assist in the search. For example, the death certificate may note if the decedent was in the hospital; contacting the hospital may lead to information about religious affiliations and thus to a church. Likewise the death certificate usually identifies the funeral home. Funeral home records tend to list the name of the person who officiated at the service, which again may lead to a church.
Finding your ancestor’s denominational connection may require taking a few detours in your research path. But this knowledge is useful in targeting a local church that he or she may have attended. A map (contemporary to the time period) of the area in which an ancestor lived can help pinpoint a specific church close to your ancestor’s place of residence. In urban areas, where transportation was swift and easy, church selection may have been impacted by more than just proximity. Immigrants often attended churches where their native language was spoken, which might have been more important to them than the denomination itself. For this reason, a search of all nearby churches that held services in the native language of your ancestor may also be helpful.
Locate the Records
Once the denomination has been identified and decisions are made about the name of the most likely church of attendance, the next challenge is to locate the actual records. This quest can be yet another research adventure because early records can reside in many places.
The obvious first place to look for church records is at the church itself. If the church is still in existence and the name has not changed, use a current print telephone directory or search online for contact information. If a church has merged with another of the same denomination, or changed denominations, the yearbook of the present denomination, such as Annual of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, should have the name, address, and current pastor of the new congregations.
Some churches may have simply ceased to exist. Should this be the case, contact another church of the same denomination in the area and inquire about the location of the records. Utilize all available local and denominational information, including personal recollection, to help unravel the mystery. The records may have been retained by the clerk for safekeeping or, if his clerkship continued, merged with those of the new congregation. Follow the church clerk’s path and you may find the new church and/or the records.
Correspondence with the church may be conducted via letter, telephone, or e-mail. When inquiring about the records and their availability, ask about the church’s policies for research and confine the request to specific dates and people. Be patient. Remember that the church is not in the genealogical business. However, the majority of church personnel will want to assist in locating former members and may search the records for you, as their busy schedules permit. Should this occur, offer to reimburse for copies and time, and consider making a donation to the church, perhaps as a memorial to your ancestor.
Finally, certain denominations require that the records of defunct churches be sent to a central archive. See List of Selected Denominations for denominational contact information, or contact the state organization of the denomination.
If records have disappeared from the church, they may be in private hands. Sometimes the church clerk maintained the records for so many years that they became regarded as personal possessions. Or in the case of a church split, merger, or closing, the records were retained by the clerk for safekeeping. These can be difficult to locate. If possible, visit the area and contact as many relatives and former members of the church as possible.
Once the records are located, the owner may be persuaded to place them in a repository. Such was the case concerning the record book of the United Baptist Church of Christ at Mount Pisgah, Blount County, Alabama, 1836–1876. The book was sent to a Texas relative following the death of the person who had held it for several years. The Texas family retained the original and transcribed the volume, then donated both the treasured book and the useful transcript to the Alabama Baptist repository.
If the records are known to have been destroyed, perhaps in a fire, the personal records of former pastors may be an effective substitute. Many clergymen recorded events in a diary, along with comments about sermons or church activities. After the minister’s death, the diary may have stayed with the family, been sent to a denominational archives, or ended up in an antique store. The daybook of Presbyterian minister John Webster Bailey was found at a flea market by researcher Mary Balderstone. From May 1882 to September 1890, Reverend Bailey served churches in Indiana, New York, and Vermont. He recorded more than nine hundred names of members in his book along with baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths, and removals. Many entries are annotated, such as, “Moved to Goshen, Ind.,” or “Mrd Walter Hathaway.”
To locate missing or substitute records of this type, see Finding Aid.
Libraries and Archives
In some communities, the local public library is the repository of genealogical materials, including church records. Larger public libraries may have a genealogical reference specialist who can assist you. You can locate libraries through print or online directories or by consulting the American Library Directory. In addition to the library, contact the community historical or genealogical society.
The denominational archive seeks to retain records of churches both extant and defunct. While some denominations maintain an independent repository, many denominations select a denominational college or university to serve in this role. The Gardner A. Sage Library of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary (affiliated with Rutgers University) is home to the official archives of the Reformed Church in America. The Friends Historical Library, founded in 1871, is located at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Their holdings represent the largest collection in the world of Quaker meeting archives, either in the original manuscripts or on microfilm. Denominational institutions of this kind also house the church records and papers of ministers and lay leaders, as well as other related historical materials. The state denominational office can help in locating the archive.
State college and university libraries may also collect church records. The state archives and library is yet another repository to search. In some states, the state historical society has become the official archives for certain denominations; for example, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin serves as the repository of the United Church of Christ in that state.
Certain private libraries, not affiliated with a religious denomination, contain a vast amount of genealogical data, including church records. An example is The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society in New York City, which holds (among other important church record collections) the original Vosburgh Collection of New York State Church Records (also available on microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City). The Library of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, in Washington, D.C. houses Bible records, private papers of ministers and lay persons, and church and denominational histories. And the manuscript department of the New England Historic Genealogical Society has collected family Bible records for over 150 years.
Many church records have been preserved through microfilm projects at the regional, state, and local levels. The largest ongoing microfilming activity is that of the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU). GSU is a non-profit entity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Microfilming teams cover the entire United States and work worldwide. The first public notice of newly acquired microfilm that is available for patron use appears in the Family History Library Catalog online. Search the catalog by subject or region to locate church records, histories, and related materials.
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) indexes the entries captured on microfilm processed by GSU. Because of its plentiful baptism, confirmation, and marriage records, the IGI is a valuable resource for family historians who seek church records. Researchers who follow the indexed entry back to its source are usually richly rewarded. A reel number for the microfilm of the original records is often given, thus leading to the possibility of additional family information within the records of that church.
The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) can help to locate out-of-place church records—those that are not in a church or a repository designated as the denominational archives. Repositories submit holdings details to the Library of Congress, which maintains the NUCMC database. The names and chief subjects of the collections are then indexed and made accessible through surname, subject, and author searches. Out-of-place reports made since 1985 may be searched online. Earlier reports will be in the printed volumes of the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections. (See Introduction to the General References and Guides Series).
The Periodical Source Index, better known as PERSI, is the largest and most widely used subject index covering genealogy and local history periodicals in North America and Canada. There are currently more than 1.7 billion searchable records representing almost six thousand periodicals received by the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, since 1847. This is not a full text index but can locate articles and transcriptions that are primarily about church records. PERSI is available in several formats: print, CD-ROM, and online subscription service.
Early church record abstracts were often published in limited quantities, making them hard to find and quite expensive. The advent of CD-ROMs has removed that limitation. For example, six volumes of Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy by William Wade Hinshaw are available on CD-ROM from Genealogical Publishing Company. Another CD-ROM collection is Pennsylvania German Church Records 1729–1870. Two newer issues are Records of the Churches of Boston and Plymouth Church Records 1620–1859. Remember to use these collections with the knowledge that, despite the best efforts of the abstractor or transcriber, mistakes occur and data may be omitted. Therefore, make every effort to locate the original record or a microfilm copy.
A relatively new and growing resource is the USGenWeb Church Records Project. This began in 2000 and now has contributions for many counties. The project relies on contributions by volunteers who transcribe local area church records, church histories, minutes, and other useful information. Their work is placed online and accessed through the main website. Although individuals’ names are not always indexed, a search by state and county name will reveal the title of the record and then display the transcription. Many of the transcribed entries are from the pre-1800 era.
During the period 1938–1942, the Works Progress Administration (later called the Work Projects Administration), or WPA, located and inventoried church records in many states. This was part of the Historical Records Survey (HRS), the most ambitious archival survey ever undertaken in the United States. Although the goal of the HRS was to locate, describe, and publish all church (and other public and some private) records, much remained undone when the project ended in 1942. The extent of completion varies from state to state. For example, in Vermont, only three books were published. Both the published volumes and the far greater amount of unpublished survey material can be used to discover what records were available and where they were located during the time of the HRS survey. Information about the printed volumes and remaining manuscripts is usually available at the appropriate state archives.
Access to Records
If the original records have not been microfilmed or catalogued but are still in the custody of the church, obtaining permission to see the record is required. Religious records are not public records, and the caretaker is not legally obliged to provide information or to allow examination. When requesting data from local church records, state the request in specific terms. Provide names and dates or, at the least, a short time span for a search. Do not expect the pastor or secretary to perform long involved searches.
Churches with large memberships often have websites that give a research policy and an e-mail address. If a request is made by postal mail, it should include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. After any request, be patient and allow adequate time for a response. Be patient; allow time for a response. Often work of this type is done by church volunteers who have many other responsibilities. If the church staff is kind enough to look up and send information, a thank-you note and small donation is in order. If an on-site inspection is possible, an appointment should be scheduled for the church staff’s convenience. During your visit, treat the records carefully and acknowledge your appreciation. Consider making a small donation in your ancestor’s honor or to be used by the church towards records preservation.
If an on-site visit is not possible, contact the local library or historical society for a list of local researchers who may be willing and able to conduct research in these records. If appropriate, suggest that the records might be loaned to an archive or repository for preservation and then returned to the owner.
To most effectively locate and use church records, a researcher must consult all available civil and/or private records, talk with residents in the area, and initiate contact with a variety of repositories and organizations that may house the records. Armed with all this information, you are ready to tackle the records themselves. Some general and denominational specific suggestions for success follow.
Church records allow the researcher to view an ancestor and/or community in a particular place and time as no other documents can. These materials provide an added dimension of one’s culture and heritage. Contained in the pages of these volumes are the joys and sorrows, disappointments and successes of our people.
- Annual of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, microfilm MFA 2.1, call number BX6470.1 A4, Samford University Special Collections Library.
- Indiana entries appear in “Presbyterian Church, Cambridge City, Indiana. Rev. J. W. Bailey, Pastor,” Hoosier Genealogist 22, no. 1 (March 1982). New York and Vermont entries are in “The Church Notebook of Rev. J. W. Bailey, Pastor,” New York Genealogical & Biographical Record 113 (1984): 235–37.
- American Library Directory (New York: R. R. Bowker). This directory can be found in the reference area of most libraries. In smaller libraries, it might be found in the librarian’s office.
- Bible Records from the manuscript collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, CD-ROM #SCD-BR, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2004.
- William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, 6 vols. (1969; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991–94), also on CD-ROM with full index, same title and publisher. Abstracts of the Records of the Society of Friends in Indiana, Part One through Six (1962–1975) with Index by Willard Heiss, which was first published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1972 and covers Indiana Meetings, was reissued as volume 7 of Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia series. The Indiana Historical Society did not release the Heiss work for inclusion in the CD.
- Pennsylvania German Church Records 1729–1870, CD-ROM #7130 (Genealogical Publishing Co., n.d).
- Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart, transcribers, Records of the Churches of Boston, CD-ROM (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2003); David Thomas Konig, ed., Plymouth Church Records 1620–1859, CD-ROM (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2004).
- The WPA church record inventories, for various reasons, may contain incomplete information. For example, one of the New Hampshire inventories shows “no information given” for the early records for the town of Pembroke. In fact, the New Hampshire Historical Society holds the original records.