Where colonies of European immigrants arrived in the United States, often as religious groups, it is also possible to find some early records. Pilgrims, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, and other close-knit groups have many records that can be used back into the 1700s in many cases, with a few being available into the 1600s. To find these types of records, check with the Family History Library as well as libraries and genealogical societies in the areas you are researching. By contrast, when individuals arrived in the U.S. as single or nuclear families, not attached to any religion, very often nothing exists about them in the way of church records in the first and second generations, thereby creating many roadblocks to tracing their ancestry back into Europe.
After the Civil War with the vast migrations north of many African Americans, northern congregations were formed or expanded dramatically. A forthcoming book edited by Eleanor Dooks Bardes and Mary H. Remler, and published by the Hamilton County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, entitled Hamilton County Ohio, Burial Records, Volume 9, Union Baptist African American Cemetery shows the extent to which some church record collections can reach. This particular church has over 30,000 burial listings recorded between it foundation in 1831 and 1970.
There are numerous other books in print containing the church records of local congregations. Again, check the Family History Library and libraries and genealogical societies in the areas you are researching. For example Alfred Andrews in 1867 compiled Genealogy and Ecclesiastical History of New Britain, Connecticut. Farmington, Connecticut, founded in 1645 had by 1707 grown to the point where the Great Swamp area was granted permission to become its own ecclesiastical society and found a new church. Every communicant member of the church from 1758 to 1867 is included in this study. Thousands of such records exist and have been preserved throughout the nation.
Types of Church Records
Church records include many varieties. There are the standard baptism, marriage and burial records that most of us think of. In addition, you can often find the following:
Naugatuck, Connecticut Congregational Church Records, 1781-1901, published in 1987 by Helen S. Ullman is one example of a collection that contains a variety of record types. It includes records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, admissions, transfers of membership, disciplinary actions and other matters of this congregation.
Also of note is the fact that some churches published their own newspapers or magazines. For example, Barbara Manning has studied and compiled the records of the German Reformed Church in twenty-two states and several countries in Europe and Asia. Her two-volume work, Genealogical Abstracts from Newspapers of the German Reformed Church, was published in 1992 and 1995 covers 1830-1839 and 1840-1843. This collection of information from church newspapers gives details on marriages, deaths, parsons taking up new posts, appointments complete with lists of references, reports of accidents, murders, arrests, convictions, hangings, founding of scholarships, acts of human kindness, rosters of people who gave to collections, lists of those who attended schools or were elected to sit on church boards.
Finally, one little known fact that many genealogists overlook in their search for their ancestry, is that foreign congregations, parishes, and ecclesiastical communities of all types often refer in their records to the migration or status of former members, or members who have immigrated but still maintain their membership in local fraternities or societies. One record from Spain seen by the author gave the location of a member of the local parish then living in Mexico, stating who he had married, and the names of several of his children. The records for this family in Mexico do not exist because they have been destroyed, but continue to exist in Spain. Limiting one's search to Mexican sources would never have uncovered this information.
Despite the fact that there is no standard type of records and no state religion in the United States, a wealth of information available from U.S. church records. It is often in obscure locations such as the homes of retired pastors, or their descendants, in local libraries or archives. Nonetheless, every effort should be made to identify extant records for the areas in which your ancestors lived or from whence they came in foreign countries.
1. Conly, Robert. "St. Augustine, Nation's Oldest City, Turns 400," National Geographic 129 (1966):201, 212.
2. Thompson, George A. Lost Treasures on the Old Spanish Trail (Salt Lake City, Utah: Western Epics, 1988), pages 34-35.