Because civil records are not always available, church records can be vital in reconstructing your family. In the following excerpt from Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, the author gives suggestions for locating the records of the church your ancestor attended.
The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy is a comprehensive American genealogy how-to book. In its 676 pages, it describes the usage and location of vital records, census records, church records, wills, land records, military records, cemetery records, immigration records, and more. In addition, Greenwood provides excellent coverage of research methods.
- Problems and Solutions
- Finding the Records
- Some Record Locations
Problems and Solutions
Church records are of no value if you cannot find the ones that fit your specific problems. In America, where church and state are separate and where people with ancestry from all over Europe lived side by side and inter-married, there are two main problems:
- Determining the church with which your ancestor had affiliation.
- Locating the records of that church in the locality where your ancestor lived.
Clues to solve the first problem might come from many sources. Perhaps the family's present affiliation can help you, or the national origin of the family, or family tradition. You might find your answer in a will or a deed or on a tombstone. It may be in an obituary. Or there may be a clue in the locality where your ancestor resided -- it may have been the settlement of a particular religious denomination -- but you must know the locality's history to determine this. (A person may have belonged to several churches during his lifetime. This was quite common on the frontier, because if a town had only one church, that was usually where the town's residents [especially the Protestants] went to worship, regardless of former affiliation.) In later years obituaries, death certificates, hospital records, etc., contain statements of religious preference.
The second problem may be the more difficult of the two. There are some helps and reference tools to assist in locating church records, but even these are quite incomplete and may be misleading if we are not aware of their limitations. There is, in fact, no complete guide to American church records. This is an area which lies wide open to further study. The personnel at the LDS Family History Library have done some studies on the location of church records, but they have a long way to go before the true objective is attained.
There is, in fact, no complete guide to American church records.
Some useful studies were made in the 1930s and early 1940s as part of the Historical Records Survey under the auspices of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) of the "New Deal." The "Inventories of Church Archives" which resulted from these studies were excellent for the geographic areas and the churches they covered at the time they were made, but much of the information in them is now outdated. Many of the records have since been moved and many which were in private hands are now completely untraceable.
We must not assume that church records do not exist just because we have been unable to find them; on the other hand, it would be foolish to say that no church records have ever been lost or destroyed, because many of these records are no longer in existence. The vestry minutes of the Immanuel Church in Hanover County, Virginia, of which I gave an example earlier, show this quite clearly. The biographical sketch (obituary) of George Washington Bassett tells some of the history of the Immanuel Church:
In the year 1843, soon after his removal, to his estate in Hanover, Mr. Bassett became much concerned at the prostrate condition of the Church in his neighborhood, and the adjoining counties of King William and New Kent. The parishes had died out and been without rectors or church services for more than half a century. [Emphasis added.]
Was this common? What of records during this "more than half a century"? What about records of the earlier period before the church "died out"? All of these questions should be considered in a study of American church records. The same thing may have happened in hundreds of other churches. What does happen to the records when a church becomes defunct? It has been suggested by some that many records of the English Church met their doom during the Revolutionary War as part of an action of reprisal against the British, but I am unaware of any specific situations of this nature.
Finding the Records
If you can find early American church records they are peerless as a source of genealogical evidence, so let's consider some steps you might take:
- First consider that the records are still in the custody of the church where they were kept, if that church still exists.
- An advertisement in a local newspaper will often lead to the whereabouts of available records, especially those in private hands.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions -- of ministers, chambers of commerce, old-timers; anyone who might know.
- The records of many churches have been published, especially in genealogical and historical periodicals, and are thus available. These are generally not too accessible either from the standpoint of finding the proper magazine or of knowing that an article of value is within it. One of the best approaches is to use the various periodical indexes listed in Chapter 6 [of The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy].A few church records are also published in book form (both alone and in conjunction with other records) and you should be aware of this possibility. Look under the locality of interest in your library catalog. I mentioned Hinshaw's work on the Quakers earlier in this chapter. These seven volumes (in eight) contain abstracts of Monthly Meeting records, are indexed, and are quite useful as far as they go; but they certainly do not cover all Quaker records. They are, however, a representative example of published American church records. In using published church records, as with all published sources, remember that they present secondary evidence and frequently contain copying errors.
- Many church records are now being microfilmed by the churches themselves and by other agencies. Historical societies often preserve microfilm copies as well as originals, and copies are frequently available for sale or for reading. The LDS Family History Library has microfilmed the records of many churches throughout the U.S. and you may find it worthwhile to check its holdings before making a lot of other searches.
- Libraries and historical societies have collected many church records (especially in their local areas) and these are readily available for searching. One of the big problems is to determine just who has the records. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections can be useful in that effort.
Some Record Locations
With no indication of specific congregations or of the actual extent of the records, I offer the following as a partial list of church record depositories in states east of the Mississippi. Further information on the exact nature of the various collections and the addresses of these depositories must be determined from other sources.
- Samford University, Birmingham -- Baptist (Georgia and Alabama).
- Department of Archives and History, Montgomery -- Methodist, Baptist, P.E., Presbyterian, Roman Catholic.
- Hendrix College, Conway -- Methodist.
- Bristol Public Library, Bristol -- Congregational (local).
- Farmington Museum, Farmington -- Congregational (local).
- Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford -- P.E.
- Connecticut State Library, Hartford -- various (more than 700 churches).
- The Missionary Society of Connecticut, Hartford -- Congregational.
- Peck Memorial Library, Kensington -- Congregational (local).
- Wesleyan University Library, Middletown -- Methodist.
- Delaware Public Archives Commission, Dover -- various.
- University of Delaware Library, Newark -- Presbyterian, Baptist.
- Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington -- various.
- American Catholic Historical Association, Catholic University of America -- Roman Catholic.
- Emory University Library, Atlanta -- Methodist.
- McCormick Theological Seminary Library, Chicago -- Presbyterian (including records formerly at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio).
- Garrett Biblical Institute Library, Evanston -- Methodist.
- Knox College Library, Galesburg -- Presbyterian, Congregational.
- Church of the Brethren Historical Library, Elgin -- Brethren (Dunkers).
- Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook -- Brethren (Dunkers).
- Lutheran Church in America, Chicago -- Lutheran.
- Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago -- Congregational.
- Franklin College Library, Franklin -- Baptist.
- Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen -- Mennonite and Amish Mennonite.
- Archives of DePauw University and Indiana Methodism, Greencastle -- Methodist.
- Henry County Historical Society Museum, New Castle -- Quaker (local).
- New Harmony Workingmen's Institute Library, New Harmony -- Methodist (local).
- Earlham College Library, Richmond -- Quaker.
- Old Catholic Library, Vincennes -- Roman Catholic.
- College of the Bible Library, Lexington -- Disciples of Christ.
- Margaret I. King Library, U. of Kentucky, Lexington -- mainly Baptist and Presbyterian, but also Disciples of Christ and Shaker.
- Filson Club, Louisville -- Shaker (Mercer County).
- Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Library, Louisville -- Presbyterian.
- Parson Memorial Library, Alfred -- Baptist, Congregational, Methodist (all local).
- Androscoggin Historical Society, Auburn -- Baptist (Lewiston).
- Bangor Public Library, Bangor -- various (limited).
- Hubbard Free Library, Hallowell -- Congregational, Unitarian.
- Louis T. Graves Memorial Library, Kennebunkport -- ? (local).
- University of Maine Library, Orono -- Baptist (in Polermo).
- Maine Historical Society, Portland -- various (scattered).
- Colby College Library, Waterville -- local country churches.
- Hall of Records, Annapolis -- various (more than 400 volumes).
- Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Baltimore -- Roman Catholic.
- Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends (Hicksite), Baltimore -- Quaker.
- Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends (Orthodox), Baltimore -- Quaker (extensive).
- Maryland Diocesan Library, Baltimore -- P.E. (extensive).
- Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore -- P.E. (local).
- Methodist Historical Society, Baltimore -- Methodist.
- Amesbury Public Library, Amesbury -- Congregational (local).
- Amherst College Library, Amherst -- ? (local).
- Barre Town Library, Barre -- ? (local).
- Beverly Historical Society, Beverly -- Congregational (local).
- Congregational Library, Boston -- Congregational (extensive).
- Massachusetts Diocesan Library, Boston -- P.E.
- New England Methodist Historical Library, Boston -- Methodist (very few registers).
- Dedham Historical Society, Dedham -- Congregational, P.E. (local).
- Haverhill Public Library, Haverhill -- various (nearly 200 volumes).
- Ipswich Town Hall, Ipswich -- ? (local).
- Marlborough Public Library, Marlborough -- ? (local).
- Universalist Historical Library, Crane Theological School, Tufts University, Medford -- Universalist.
- Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket -- Quaker (local).
- Friends Meeting House, New Bedford -- Quaker.
- Andover Newton Theological School Library, Newton Center -- Baptist. (Has collections formerly in New England Baptist Library.)
- Forbes Library, Northampton -- Congregational.
- Northborough Historical Society, Northborough -- ? (local).
- Peabody Historical Society, Peabody -- Congregational, Unitarian, Baptist (all local).
- Petersham Historical Society, Petersham -- Church of Christ (local).
- Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield -- Shaker and (mainly) Quaker.
- Essex Institute, Salem -- various.
- Shrewsbury Historical Society, Shrewsbury -- ? (local).
- Goodnow Public Library, South Sudbury -- ? (local).
- Historical Room, Stockbridge Library, Stockbridge -- Congregational (local).
- Old Colony Historical Society, Taunton -- Congregational, Baptist.
- Narragansett Historical Society of Templeton, Templeton -- ? (local).
- Westborough Historical Society, Westborough -- ? (local).
- J. V. Fletcher Library, Westford -- ? (local).
- Winthrop Public Library, Winthrop -- Methodist (local).
- Worcester Historical Society, Worcester -- Congregational, Baptist, Universalist (local).
- Woburn Public Library, Woburn -- Congregational (Woburn and Burlington).
- Michigan Historical Collections, U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor -- Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist et al.
- Archdiocese of Detroit Chancery, Detroit -- Roman Catholic.
- Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit -- Roman Catholic and various Protestant (extensive).
- Flushing Township Public Library, Flushing -- ? (local).
- Thompson Home Library, Ithaca -- Congregational (local).
- Jackson City Library, Jackson -- ? (Jackson County).
- Kalamazoo College Library, Kalamazoo -- Baptist et al.
- Port Huron Public Library, Port Huron -- ? (local).
- Hope College, Van Zoeren Library, Holland -- Dutch Reformed.
- Pope County Historical Society, Glenwood -- ? (local).
- Blue Earth County Historical Society, Mankato -- ? (local).
- Hennepin County Historical Society, Minneapolis -- various.
- Historical Society of the Minnesota Conference of the Methodist Church, Minnesota Methodist Headquarters, Minneapolis -- Methodist (extensive).
- Evangelical Lutheran Church Archives. Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul -- Evangelical Lutheran.
- Historical Committee of the Baptist General Conference, Bethel Theological Seminary, St. Paul -- Baptist (extensive).
- Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul -- P.E. (extensive for state).
- Weyerhauser Library, Macalester College, St. Paul -- Presbyterian.
- Gustavus Adolphus College Library, St. Peter -- Evangelical Lutheran.
- Mississippi Conference Methodist Historical Society, Millsaps College Library, Jackson -- Methodist.
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson -- Southern Presbyterian.
- New Hampshire State Library, Concord -- various.
- Dover Public Library, Dover -- Baptist (local).
- University of New Hampshire Library, Durham -- ? (local).
- Dartmouth College Library, Hanover -- Congregational.
- New Hampshire Antiquarian Society, Hopkinton -- various.
- Blair Academy Museum, Blairstown -- Presbyterian, Methodist.
- Cape May County Historical Association, Cape May -- Quaker.
- Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold -- various.
- Drew University Library, Madison -- Methodist (including papers formerly held by the Methodist Historical Society of New Jersey).
- Morris County Historical Society, Morristown -- various (local).
- New Brunswick Theological Seminary Library, New Brunswick -- Reformed Church (extensive).
- Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick -- various (on film).
- Sussex County Historical Society, Newton -- various.
- Passaic County Historical Society, Paterson -- various.
- Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society, Plainfield -- Seventh Day Baptist.
- Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton -- Presbyterian (N.J. Synod).
- Salem County Historical Society, Salem -- Quaker.
- Atlantic County Historical Society, Somers Point -- Quaker et al.
- Somerset County Historical Society, Somerville -- various (local).
- State Library, Archives and History Bureau, Trenton -- various.
- New York State Library, Albany -- various (extensive).
- Cayuga County Historical Society, Auburn -- Congregational.
- Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo -- Baptist, Presbyterian.
- Ontario County Historical Society, Canandaigua -- various (local).
- Cobleskill Public Library, Cobleskill -- various (local).
- New York State Historical Association and Farmers' Museum, Cooperstown -- various (Otsego County).
- Cortland County Historical Society, Cortland -- various (local).
- Green County Historical Society, Coxsackie -- various (transcripts).
- Department of History and Archives, Fonda -- Dutch Reformed et al.
- Pember Library and Museum, Granville -- Presbyterian (local).
- Colgate University Archives, Hamilton -- Baptist.
- Hempstead Public Library, Hempstead -- various (local).
- Huntington Historical Society, Huntington -- Presbyterian, P.E. et al.
- Dewitt Historical Society of Tomkins County, Ithaca -- Methodist, Presbyterian et al.
- Columbia County Historical Society, Kinderhook -- various.
- Senate House Museum, Kingston -- Dutch Reformed et al.
- Daughters of the American Revolution Library, LeRoy -- various.
- Wayne County Division of Archives and History, Lyons -- various (local).
- Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz -- Huguenot.
- Jean Hasbrouck Memorial House, New Paltz -- Dutch Reformed, Methodist.
- Holland Society of New York Library, New York City -- Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, French Reformed, German Reformed.
- New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York City -- various (extensive).
- New York Historical Society, New York City -- P.E. and various.
- Queens Borough Public Library, New York City -- various.
- Society of Friends Records Committee, New York City -- Quaker.
- Union Theological Seminary Library, New York City -- Presbyterian (defunct parishes in Manhattan).
- Yivo Institute of Jewish Research, New York City -- Jewish.
- Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highland, Newburgh -- various (local).
- Shaker Museum Foundation, Inc., Old Chatham -- Shaker.
- Oswego County Historical Society, Oswego -- Presbyterian (local).
- Portville Free Public Library, Portville -- Presbyterian (local).
- Suffolk County Historical Society, Riverhead -- various (local).
- American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester -- Baptist (extensive, including Samuel Colgate Baptist Historical Collection formerly at Colgate University).
- Colgate Rochester Divinity School Library, Rochester -- Baptist plus some Dutch Reformed and German Evangelical.
- Saratoga County Historian's Office, Saratoga Springs -- various (local).
- Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady -- Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed.
- Schoharie County Historical Society, Schoharie -- Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian.
- Staten Island Historical Society, Staten Island -- Dutch Reformed, Methodist.
- Onondago Historical Association, Syracuse -- various (local).
- Syracuse Public Library, Syracuse -- various (transcripts).
- Syracuse University Library, Syracuse -- Methodist (central and western New York).
- Hancock House, Ticonderoga -- Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist Episcopal et al.
- Troy Conference Historical Society, Ticonderoga -- Methodist.
- Utica Public Library, Utica -- United Presbyterian, Congregational et al (of Paris, NY).
- Waterloo Library and Historical Society, Waterloo -- various (local).
- Westchester County Historical Society, White Plains -- Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian.
- New York Yearly Meeting Archives, New York City -- Quaker.
- American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester -- Baptist.
- Duke University, Durham -- Methodist Episcopal (extensive).
- Guilford College Library, Greensboro -- Quaker (extensive).
- High Point College Library, High Point -- Methodist.
- Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, Montreat -- Presbyterian, Reformed (very extensive).
- Catawba College Library, Salisbury -- German Reformed.
- Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem -- Moravian.
- Smith Reynolds Library, Winston-Salem -- Baptist.
- Great Cleveland Methodist Historical Society, Berea -- Methodist (especially German Methodist).
- Mennonite Historical Library, Bluffton College, Bluffton -- Mennonite, Anabaptist.
- American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati -- Jewish.
- Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Cincinnati -- various.
- Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland -- Shakers et al.
- Ohio Historical Society, Columbus -- Quaker, Freewill Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Shaker.
- Historical Society of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, Memorial Library, United Theological Seminary, Dayton -- Evangelical United Brethren and predecessors, Methodist.
- Ohio Wesleyan University Library, Delaware -- Methodist, Methodist Episcopal.
- Rutherford B. Hayes Library, Fremont -- P.E. (local).
- Oberlin College Library, Oberlin -- Congregational (formerly belonged to Ohio Church History Society).
- Toledo Public Library, Toledo -- Presbyterian (local).
- Otterbein College Library, Westerville -- Evangelical United Brethren.
- Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Youngstown -- various (typescript).
- Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland -- Brethren (Dunkers).
- Lehigh County Historical Society, Allentown -- ? (local).
- Old Economy, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Ambridge -- Harmony Society.
- Tioga Point Museum and Historical Society, Athens -- ? (local).
- Archives of the Moravian Church, Bethlehem -- Moravian.
- Bethlehem Public Library, Bethlehem -- various (typescript).
- Delaware County Historical Society, Chester -- various.
- Presbyterian Historical Society of Coatesville -- Presbyterian (local).
- Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown -- various (extensive).
- Easton Public Library, Easton -- various.
- Lutheran Historical Society, Gettysburg -- Lutheran.