Usually when you hear genealogists discussing church records, it is in reference to baptisms, marriages and burials. These records are generally available at the local parish or if you are lucky on microfilm. However, there are other church records that may be of use to you.
This is one of the problems we sometimes have as genealogists. We are too focused, never venturing out from the set pattern of records we have heard about. Sometimes this means we may overlook or never seek out the very records that would be of use to us.
Look at all that a church may offer in records.
Beyond the Baptisms
Many of us are researching ancestors who may have had a slightly different connection to the church. Sometimes, we discover that our ancestor was a minister or a circuit preacher. While this may seem like a given, it is important to first determine the religion and then to look for the appropriate archive that may have records of use to you.
It is important to point out here that not all denominations will have a single archive that holds all the records on your ancestor. Even some of the more well-known denominations have multiple archives, or multiple subsets that greatly affect the record availability and location.
Where to Turn?
County histories will often include information about the first churches established and may even include the names of the first ministers and sometimes the first parishioners. Many times these histories are available on microfilm through the Family History Library.
Often there are church histories that have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. You can usually find these listed under the town in which the church existed. For histories as a whole, you may want to search the Subject Index of the microfiche version of the Family History Library Collection for the religion in question.
Research Before You Write
Before contacting a repository of records for the various churches, it is important to know what types of records you are likely to discover. After all, if you were to contact the American Baptist Historical Society for baptismal records, you would be disappointed in what is included on the record. If you were to contact the Fellowship of Brethren Genealogists (Church of Brethren), you would want to make sure you weren't expecting to get records from ancestors who belonged to the United Brethren in Christ.
An excellent resource that lists the addresses and phone numbers for every denomination you can think of is Elizabeth Petty Bentley's The Genealogist's Address Book, Part 3 "Ethnic and Religious Organizations and Research Center" which includes 25 pages of addresses and information about religious archives and organizations.
Churches often offer more than just baptisms, marriages, and burials. Many denominations have other records that may prove useful to your research. You just need to seek them out.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.