How to Locate Church Records
Editor’s Note: The following post is by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG. She is an accomplished researcher and writer, known to many of us from her work as the columnist of “Shaking the Family Tree,” as the former editor of RootsWeb Review, and as a founder of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors.
Locating and Using Church Records
Church records are rich sources for genealogical information. However, finding the old church records of interest can be the challenge. To determine the religious affiliations of your ancestors, search through obituaries and cemetery records. Pay attention to family traditions; children’s names; marriage returns; and the style, translation, and language of old family Bibles; and check local histories and county history biographies (often called “mug books”). Local histories frequently mention early churches or the predominant denominations in their localities. Don’t overlook local newspapers and deed book entries. Many of our forebears’ names appeared in the local newspapers, and many donated land to churches.
Additionally, old church records may reveal the extent to which your families participated in its affairs. Transfers of membership and separation, sometimes involuntarily, are often recorded, and these are helpful in tracing a family’s migration. Family relationships often can be sorted out by examining church records.
If you have an ancestor who was a minister, priest, or rabbi, there is an excellent chance you will find mention of him in a biographical sketch, an obituary, or a necrology in a published work or in the church or synagogue archives. One of the best clues to help identify your ancestor’s religious preference is to discover the name of the minister, priest, or rabbi who conducted their wedding ceremony, christening, confirmation, baptism, or bar mitzvah, or who presided at a funeral of a family member. You often will find information about the religious official in church histories, which in turn will tell you about his “flock” and a history of that congregation. Family members’ diaries, journals, or letters may contain references to their religious affiliation.
Many denominations kept extensive records; others did not. Some transferred their records to central denominational archives, while in other instances the minister kept them. Many are in private hands, and unfortunately many have been lost. A number of state and county historical societies, as well as state archives, have copies of various church records. There also are church-supported colleges that act as repositories for the records of their denomination.
Often the records are still in the possession of the local church–this is especially true of Roman Catholic records. If the church is still in existence and the names have not changed, an online telephone directory may solve your problem. If the church has merged with another one of the same denomination, the yearbook of that denomination should have the name, address, and current pastor of the merged church. If the denomination has merged or split, consult Frank Mead’s Handbook of American Denominations or the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Larger libraries have these references.
If you have traced your American ancestors to colonial times, you might find them in the records of Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker, or Roman Catholic churches. If your families arrived in the 19th century, in addition to the religious groups previously mentioned, you might find they belonged to an Episcopal, Methodist, German Reformed, Unitarian, or Universalist denomination. While there are relatively few Quakers today, millions of descendants can trace their ancestry to someone who was once a member of that group.
Many church records of various denominations have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Check the FamilySearch Catalog under the appropriate “state/church records” as well as under “state/county/church records.” The catalog is online at https://familysearch.org/.
Church records are well worth the effort it takes to locate them as well as the hours of tedious reading that is sometimes required.
Image credit: Photograph of two Los Angeles Plaza church priests (Father Relbana and Father Cote) with Don Antonio Coronel examining church records, ca.1885-1900. By Not given [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Part of the collection, California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960.