Religion is an important part of many of our lives. The same is true for our ancestors. Knowing about their religious membership and finding church records can lead to a better understanding of our ancestors and the choices they made that affected their lives and the lives of their descendants.
The types of religious records that might be found are: Baptisms or births, confirmations, marriages, deaths or burials, membership (membership lists, parish census, convert lists, new member records), disciplinary action records, transfer or removal records, clergy related records, and business records (financial records and records for organizations within the church).
Not all religions will have every type of record, and some churches kept better records than others. Some European countries, such as Sweden and England, had state churches. The church records were the official records of the country for births, marriages, and deaths. Although the United States does not have an official religion, during colonial times certain religions were dominate in individual colonies.
Information that can be found in church records includes dates and places of vital life events (birth, marriage, death), place of residence, previous place of residence, where they moved or next place of residence, family relationships, and participation in church- related activities.
A search for religious records begins with determining the church denomination. Clues about the denomination might be found in home sources like artifacts (commemorative certificates and booklets from religious events) and newspaper clippings. These items will often provide the place where the event took place. Civil marriage records and obituaries will record the name of the person officiating at the event. The name will then lead to the denomination of the officiator. In addition, some churches and denominations have their own cemeteries or have separate sections of a public cemetery. If your ancestor is buried in one of these, chances are good that they belonged to that denomination.
Many of our ancestors joined churches that were not the same denomination as their parents or grandparents, and some might have belonged to more than one denomination during their adult life. An example of this is a great-uncle of mine who was baptized a Methodist, attended church with his Baptist step-father and then converted to Catholicism just prior to marrying his Catholic bride.
Other things to consider when searching for the denomination is ethnic background and place of residence, both before and after immigration. For example, if your German ancestors immigrated to eastern Pennsylvania during colonial times, it is likely that they belonged to either the Lutheran or German Reformed church.
The next step is to find the church name and location. Check records you already have, such as a civil marriage record. If the couple was married by a priest, minister or someone else with a religious title, find the church to which that person is connected. This can be accomplished by checking city directories and census records. Cemetery records and obituaries could name the church where the ceremony took place. In addition, wills and probate records may have a reference to a church or religious institution if the church received a portion of the estate. The information in these records could lead you to the church.
If you have not been able to determine the church from the records you already have, find out where the person lived. Then identify the churches for that denomination in that area. Town and county histories, church histories, and city directories will all help in finding churches within the area.
The last challenge is finding the records. The records are usually at the church, but could also be stored at church archives or other archives. If the church still exists, check there first. Ask if the records have been microfilmed and if so, where the microfilm is housed. Some of these microfilmed records are available through the Family History Library, local and state libraries, and historical societies. The records could also have been transferred to a church college or other church institution. If the church no longer exists, check with a closest church of that denomination or with that denomination's regional headquarters.
A few tips when searching for church records:
There were times when church records did not stay with the church but rather were kept by the minister. In this case, look for the records of the minister.
For Family History Library microfilmed church records, check the online catalog. Also, FamilySearch is in the process of digitizing many of the microfilmed church records and the records might be found online at FamilySearch.org.
Although not the majority, some church record indexes have been published. Check the local library catalog or the World Cat catalog for the specific time periods and places you are researching.
Always obtain the civil record and the church record when both are available. The two records may not be identical and one may contain more information than the other.
Church records are often underutilized because they usually require extra effort to find. But these invaluable records add depth and dimension to the stories of our ancestors and should not be ignored.