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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Church Records - A Vital Record Alternative
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 14, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

When you are looking for records that support the information you have on a given individual, the first stop is often vital records. Vital records so often give us more than just information on the individual in question. The record may supply us with the names of other family members or give us information on the ages or places of birth of other family members, such as parents.

This works, provided vital records were being recorded for the time period and locality in question. Vital records are a contemporary record, begun in many states in the twentieth century. So where can a researcher turn when trying to verify information or push back a line when vital records do not exist?

Church records may be a vital record substitute.

Understanding Church Records

One of the records that probably does exist and should certainly be investigated is church records. Churches were often the driving force when a group of individuals migrated. The church in some communities was a ruling institution almost.

Church records, and the information found in them, will vary from religion to religion. Some religions make a great effort to record information about every event that an individual may have. Many religions have special ceremonies or rights of passage from the time of birth on up. There is baptism, confirmation, wedding, and burial, just to name a few. Some religions baptize a child at birth, while others wait until the child is older, perhaps eight.

Working with church records requires that you understand the religious practices of the denomination. Understanding that a Catholic child is baptized at birth while a Latter-day Saint child will be blessed at birth, but not baptized until the age of eight.

Other denominations, like the Quakers, may hold additional clues in their records. Witnesses to a wedding are often relatives, and the witness list tends to be lengthy. You will want to be sure to record all of the names if you are not making a photocopy of the record.

Determining Denomination

Of course, the hardest part about using church records may be determining the denomination of a particular ancestor. It is not unusual to discover that your ancestors were a different religion from what the family presently practices.

Death records, if in existence, and obituaries may hold clues to religion. When working with ancestors from the 1800s, a county history may hold the clue. Cemeteries may also hold the clue, as might membership in specific fraternal organizations.

Once you have determined the religion, you can then begin to search for the records. Check the Family History Library Catalog to see what records may be microfilmed. Learn where the archives for the given religion are, and what they house. Use city directories to see what specific churches were in existence at the time of your ancestor's life. This may be necessary when conversing with an archive or other repository.

In Conclusion

Church records may be an alternative when vital records do not exist. It is important though to keep in mind the practices of the given religion as well as the history of various localities and the churches that were in the area. All of this will affect the results of your research in church records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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 the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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