The freedom of religion in North America, which has existed in some form or another since the early 1600s, has encouraged many persecuted churches to establish congregations in America. Although individual colonies may have been intolerant of certain denominations, generally a church would be welcome in at least one of the many colonies established in the New World.
Colonial America was perhaps the most religiously diverse place on earth at that time. During the Revolutionary War, you will find dozens of different denominations were already well-established, some having been in North America for five generations.
Understanding the Situation
1. Who was the immigrant?
The difficulty in researching immigrants from this time period is determining who the immigrant was. Often, when we run out of records showing our surname, we assume that the first person of our surname mentioned in the records is our immigrant, when, in reality, we have simply been the victim of the scarcity of records during this era.
2. The scarcity of records.
There were fewer records kept: no census, no government vital records, virtually no newspapers, few immigration lists, etc.
Small wonder then, that church records need to play a more prominent role in our colonial research. This is particularly true when trying to track the origins of British colonial immigrants. However, even after finding an immigrant in a colonial church record, you may not find any reference to his or her home town. Generally you can expect greater success with non-British immigrants.
What Denominations Existed?
The vast majority of non-British immigrants to North America were the Dutch of the 17th century and the Germans of the 18th century. Each brought its own culture, which included churches. Many of the Germans were Lutherans, which we discussed in a previous lesson. However, a significant number belonged to the German Reformed Church (now part of the United Church of Christ).
Although German immigration traditionally dates from the 1680s, the first major German immigrant group was the 1709 refugees who were permitted to settle upstate New York and work for the British harvesting naval supplies. Here they established their churches, or intermixed with the local Dutch in their churches.
The work did not go well with the British, so the next wave of German immigration focused on Pennsylvania where they were granted much more liberality in establishing their own communities and maintaining their culture.
Most of the Germans in Pennsylvania were either Lutheran or Reformed, sometimes even sharing the same church building (often termed a "union" church). Their record-keeping practices were similar: they generally recorded the baptisms and marriages, but burials only infrequently. It appears that most German church records have been preserved in one form or another, however.
The most common denominations during this time period were:
- German Reformed
- Dutch Reformed
- Moravians (Anabaptists)
- Roman Catholic
Strategy for Approaching The Records
Follow this strategy for approaching the records:
1. Identified the immigrant.
2. Identify where he or she lived.
3. Search the local church records, including cemetery records, as that may be the only burial records extant. If you learn that the immigrant arrived unmarried, try to locate a marriage record, as it will usually be easier to find than a burial, and have a greater chance of naming the home town.
4. Don't restrict your searches to the father. Remember, many Germans arrived as families, so you will want to track the young immigrant sons.
5. Women, when mentioned, seldom name their home town. The best solution for seeking the origins of a German female immigrant is to try and locate the origins of her father or brothers.
6. Use the following published sources to locate Reformed Churches:
- Florence M. Bricker, Church and Pastoral Records in the Archives of the United Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society (Lancaster, Pa.: n.p., n.d.). This is an overall guide to German Reformed Church records. The Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society (555 West James Street, Lancaster, PA 17603) holds the transcripts made by William J. Hinke and others of most of the colonial and early national German Reformed congregations.
- For a list of most colonial Lutheran and Reformed congregations in Pennsylvania and reference to the years the records begin, see Charles H. Glatfelter's Pastors and People, I, Congregations and Pastors in "Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society," vol. 12 (Breinigsville, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1980).
- A very useful guide for tracking the origins of early New York Dutch is Gwen Epperson's New Netherlands Roots (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994). She discusses which church records are most effective, while also covering other sources for learning the home towns of these early immigrants.
- The Dutch were actually the first settlers of what became New York, having established a Dutch colony known as New Netherlands, with its chief city New Amsterdam (later New York City).
- The Dutch Reformed Church records are among the best sources for any kind of genealogical research during the 17th Century. Although some records have been lost, especially for Dutch churches in New Jersey, most have survived. Most have also been transcribed, or published, sometimes in two, three, or four versions.
- Early transcriptions are often incomplete and may not name places in Holland where the families originated, so seek more recent transcriptions.
- Remember, the Dutch stopped immigrating to New York after the British took over in 1664, and most Dutch had immigrated before 1650. Therefore, you will need to seek the earliest registers to find reference to immigrants. Watch especially for early marriage records, often within just a few years of arrival.
- Fortunately, the Dutch were more likely to refer to themselves by their home town. For some, it even became their surname. Where families arrived, seek records for all family members, even the young girls, whose Dutch home is often mentioned in their marriage records.
7. Original records are difficult to find. Sometimes only transcripts exist, but even they can be quite comprehensive. Begin with the transcriptions, where the preface may identify the existence of the originals.
- However, be cautious when using the transcripts because they often focus only on birth or marriage information. Additional information, such as removal notations, or disciplinary action, may not appear in the transcript or publication. This information may only survive in the original record, or complete copies.
8. Recognize that there are several German denominations besides Lutheran or "Reformed": The smaller German Pietist groups, such as the Mennonites, Dunkards, Brethren, and Amish churches, as well as groups such as the Moravians.
9. Understand that the church was literally a part of the immigration of its members.
- The Moravians, for example, often kept excellent records which may provide specific places of origin for their members. Remember, immigration of such groups was often church-sponsored.
- Sometimes it is difficult to locate the parish registers of these smaller denominations, but even better than their church registers are the histories of the churches. Both denominational and congregational histories will mention early immigrant members, often noting the home town in Germany. For example, in its three volumes, The Brethren Encyclopedia (Philadelphia : Brethren Encyclopedia, 1983-1984) discusses many of the original immigrant families, often identifying their ancestral home.
10. Realize that many churches studied and published family history information.
- Few U.S. Religious groups of the Colonial Period have pursued genealogy and family history with greater zeal than the Mennonites. Undoubtedly some of this emphasis stems from being "a people apart." In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Mennonites were a persecuted people.
- Given their "underground" status, it is difficult to find recorded evidence of the Mennonites in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German and Swiss records. Indeed, tracing Mennonite and other Anabaptist immigrants from Pennsylvania back to their place of origin ranks as one of the most challenging tasks facing a German-American genealogist.
- Mennonite records in Pennsylvania tend to be rather fragmentary as compared to those of the Lutheran and Reformed congregations. On the other hand, the Mennonites have published an impressive series of scholarly works concerning their particular history for the past sixty years. Often these histories identify not only the immigrant, but often his ancestors back two or three generations.
- An excellent bibliography of published Mennonite family histories is Amish and Amish Mennonite genealogies (Hugh F. Gingerich and Rachel W. Kreider, Gordonville, Pa.: Pequea Publishers, 1986).
11. Recognize that some early colonial churches kept excellent records:
- Another colonial denomination, known for its excellent records, is the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. Quaker records are perhaps the most useful of any colonial churches having predominantly British membership. In addition to records of birth (not baptism) and marriage, Friends keep minutes of their administrative meetings wherein they dealt with matters of discipline and other aspects of their local society.
- Often found among those records are letters, or certificates, of removal or admission which document the previous Monthly Meeting (local Quaker society) to which a member belonged. In order to be readily accepted in a new meeting, members were encouraged to carry a letter of recommendation with them, testifying that they had been in good standing with the previous society.
- Many immigrants were Friends in the Old World before arriving in the colonies. Therefore, they would often bring such letters with them, which naturally identify the former meeting to which they belonged. Many, but certainly not all, of these records have survived. Once you establish that an immigrant ancestor was a Quaker, try to learn which meeting he or she attended then locate the records of that meeting. Usually they have been transcribed (often in handwritten form), and often published (perhaps just as a typescript).
12. Recognize that most other colonial churches were not as careful or consistent in recording the various events in their parishioners' lives. Where they did record the burial or marriage of an immigrant, they seldom ever included reference to their home in the old country. During the colonial period, the other major churches in North America included:
- The Congregational Church in New England (now part of the United Church of Christ) and the Anglican or Episcopal (also called Protestant Episcopal) in Virginia and other southern colonies. The records of these two denominations tend to be sketchy and incomplete. Sometimes they are missing all together.
- Since their adherents were primarily British, who were the earliest immigrants to the colonies, you would have to find such records from the mid-1600s to document immigrants. Records from that time period are rare for these denominations, and mention of English homes is virtually unheard of.
- The Roman Catholic church was the preferred church in areas settled by the French and Spanish. The French occupied the area later known as Quebec and the Spanish established St. Augustine, Florida with parish records starting in 1594. There were few colonial Catholics in the British colonies. Late in the colonial time period many English-speaking Catholics settled in Maryland.
- Where early Catholic records exist, they may provide the name of an ancestral home. This seems particularly the case with French Catholic parishes. There were virtually no German Catholics in North America before the Revolutionary War.
- The Presbyterian Church had its origins as the Church of Scotland and arrived in America in the 1700s, becoming one of the largest denominations by the time of the Revolutionary War. Local records are often scattered, as there was no uniform movement to preserve the records.
- Where their records exist, they can be quite useful for general research, but few Presbyterian churches were established in areas with first-generation immigrants. Therefore, they don't document immigrant origins very well.
- Some Presbyterian churches in the southern colonies were established during the lifetime of the more recent colonial immigrants (often Scots-Irish) in that region, but seldom, if ever, name where those immigrants came from.
- Huguenot (French Protestant) immigrants to the British colonies have been the subject of significant research over the past century and a half. This has resulted in many records being preserved, microfilmed, and even published. The French origins of many Huguenot families have been determined and well documented. Others have only been surmised. Many Huguenots settled near the Dutch, and are often found on the early records of Dutch Reformed congregations. Among the hundreds of books on the subject, most researchers begin with Charles Washington Baird's History of the Huguenot Emigration to America (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1885, reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore in 1973).
13. As with passenger lists, and many other colonial records, many colonial church records have been published in one form or another. They may appear as a series of articles in a genealogical journal, a separately published book of transcripts of the parish registers, an appendix to a congregational history, or, often, a typescript abstract of the registers deposited at an historical society or local library. Such typescripts are not actually published records, but there may be a few copies, created as carbon copies of the typescript, or later photocopies. Often these typescripts have ended up on microfilm, usually available on loan through the Family History Library, increasing access to a point almost equal to formal publication.
- Where a church served a specific ethnic group, publications of those church records may identify immigrants. William Filby's Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 2nd edition (Detroit: Gale Research, 1988) lists a few parish register abstracts that mention immigrants.
- An excellent example, because of the records it includes, is Albert Cook Myers, "List of Certificates of Removal from Ireland Received at the Monthly Meetings of Friends in Pennsylvania, 1682-1750," first published in Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania. 1682-1750, (1902) and reprinted as Irish Quaker Arrivals to Pennsylvania: 1682-1750 (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1964).
14. Don't expect all colonial church records to have been published, such is certainly not the case. However, if you check the major indexes, including the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), bibliographies, and library catalogs (especially the Family History Library Catalog) under the locality of the church, you will likely find some records in print.
Although the series of lessons dealing with post-Civil War sources discussed the value of American church records in locating immigrant origins, the use of church records cannot be restricted to that era of immigration. Indeed, churches have been a mainstay of American culture and society since the first European immigrants arrived at the shores of North America. While only a small portion of immigrants actually came to America primarily for religious freedom, it was a contributing consideration for many more.
- Select one ancestor in the colonial period to investigate.
- Using histories of the location in which this ancestor lived, determine what religious denominations existed. Write them down.
- Using the Family History Library Catalog, determine what records exist for the denomination located in question 2 in the locality of your ancestor.
About Genealogy Research Associates
Karen Clifford is the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates. She is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California). She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher, and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.
Karen currently serves as Vice-president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-president of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.