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Religious Records << Episode 206

| Religious Records | How to Find Religious Records |
| Types of Religious Records |


 Video Clip
34kbps(56k modem) | 220kbps(DSL/Cable)
Ancestors expert John Humphrey tells how the church record brought the average man out of obscurity.

America has a diverse religious background. Over the centuries, its residents have belonged to hundreds of different churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations. Before the advent of civil registration of vital statistics, church records rank as the best available sources for information on the important life events of birth, marriage, and death. There are also lesser-known religious records that can be helpful in one's search for his ancestors, such as confirmation records and membership records.

community church Very often, these religious records are the only source for such information in early American communities, and in Europe, church records sometimes began decades or even centuries before any government registration. Even in more recent years when it is possible to obtain birth, marriage and death certificates, however, it is frequently worth the effort to secure the corresponding church record as the details revealed may complement those in the vital record.

 Video Clip
34kbps(56k modem) | 220kbps(DSL/Cable)
Ancestors expert John Humphrey discusses the importance of church records to genealogists.

How to Find Religious Records

church The first thing to do in researching the religious records of your ancestors is to determine their religion. It is best to start with what you already know. For example, longtime family tradition may hold that your immigrant ancestor was a Huguenot who came to the New World in search of religious tolerance. Knowing where your ancestors came from can also be helpful in determining their religion. For example, most Poles were Catholic, most Norwegians were Lutheran, and most Scots were Presbyterian.

The dramatic proliferation of religious denominations in this country during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th, however, has made the genealogist's work more complex. Although many ancestors clung to their European religious roots, many others changed from one denomination to another -- often several times.

In the case of changing affiliation, there are places to search for clues, including the family Bible, wedding announcements, and obituaries. County marriage records or civil death certificates, if you have them, often include the name of the clergyman who officiated. From this information, the clergyman's denomination or church can be traced (e.g., from city directories).

 Video Clip
34kbps(56k modem) | 220kbps(DSL/Cable)
Ancestors expert John Humphrey gives some hints in looking for your ancestors church.

Sunday morning breakfast If you have no other clues, study census returns and land records to determine where your ancestors lived, and then find out which churches were in that area. In doing this, be sure to ignore state, county and town boundaries as your ancestors most likely attended the nearest church. In days of less-than-stellar transportation systems, convenience and distance could easily affect the decision of which church to attend. Another factor to consider is your ancestors' native tongue, as they might have been willing to travel slightly further to attend a service in their own language. When looking for marriage records in particular, it's also helpful to remember that weddings have traditionally been held in the bride's church. To find the groom's church, try searching for the weddings of any sisters you know he had.

Once you've determined your ancestor's religion, the next step is to find out where the records you're searching for are located. Although it doesn't always produce results, it's worth a visit to to see if, by chance, you might find traces of your ancestors there. The IGI database available through this site includes quite a few church records, and the Family History Library Catalog can be searched by both locality and subject (e.g., Methodist church). In so doing, you may find that the FHL has microfilmed copies of the church you're interested in, or perhaps some of the records of the archives of your ancestor's denomination. If you're one of the lucky ones, you can search the films yourself and possibly discover a few extra clues, such as the birth of a child you didn't know about previously or the wedding of a sister, giving you her maiden name.

If you aren't fortunate enough to find what you're seeking this way, a logical next step is to contact the church in question. Many original church records are still at the local church and have been kept by the clergyman presently officiating there. In this case, you may write to the clergyman or church secretary and ask for assistance in obtaining specific records. It is considered customary to include a donation for the church as providing copies of such records is not an obligation, but a courtesy. Also, be sure to specify that you would like a complete transcription or even a copy of the actual record, as many churches will otherwise provide an abbreviated form with only the most basic of information. Useful details can often be missed in this way.

If the records are not there, they may have been transferred to a central archive for the church. The local minister of the church may know which archive they are stored in and who to contact there. If the church you are seeking no longer exists or the church is unwilling to reply to your request, try contacting the local library or newspaper and asking for the name of a local historian or genealogist. This person will often be able to tell you how and where to access the records you are seeking. In cases of a defunct church, a call or letter to another church of the same religion in that area can often solve your mystery of where the records were deposited.

big sis If you are referred to a denomination's archives, go to the Religious Archives extra to find where it is located. For more information, consult The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Other resources to try include local or state genealogical or historical societies, local and state libraries (especially their manuscript collections), college libraries, special libraries (e.g., DAR), and genealogical periodicals (especially those pertaining to that area or your ethnic group).

Sometimes despite all our efforts, we just can't find a person to tell us where the church's records are located. In such cases, there are several printed resources to check. For organization records already donated to libraries and archives, the basic finding aid is the Library of Congress's series of volumes called the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, commonly known as NUCMUC. J. Gordon Melton's The Encyclopedia of American Religions 2nd ed. (published by Gale Research Co., 1987) provides addresses for more than 1,000 denominations. Finally, in searching out church records, do not overlook the Historical Records Survey of the WPA, undertaken in the later years of the Depression. Among its projects is a compilation of church records at the state and local level. While incomplete, it is still the most comprehensive listing of its kind. Try consulting Check List of Historical Records Survey Publications (reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Co. in 1969) or The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes and Transcripts (by Loretta L. Hefner, Society of American Archivists, 1980). Your local library may have one or more of these resources or be able to steer you to another one that does.

Types of Religious Records

The most commonly used religious records are baptismal, marriage and burial, but don't neglect other religious records that may prove valuable, such as confirmation or minutes. The content of these records varies widely, not only by record type, but also by religion and the personal style of the clergyman. For this reason, the content of the records of a particular church frequently evolves over time. At a minimum, one can expect the names of the involved parties and the date of the event, but beyond that it is difficult to generalize. The content of the records may also be affected by historical or political influences, such as traditionally Latin Catholic records suddenly shifting to the Hungarian language or the Cyrillic alphabet for a period of time. Some of these variations may make the records slightly more difficult to search, but translation and interpretation help is available.

The information contained on this page comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on The Everything Family Tree Book by William G. Hartley (Adams Media, 1998) and Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy by Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).

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