American Church Records and your Genealogy

Did you survive Friday the 13th? It came and went before I realized it was the 13th…I still have my furnaces turned on high and I am dressed in 4-5 layers of winter wear–including ear muffs at certain times of the day. Isn’t it ridiculous? Extra gas and electricity to heat a building that is exposed to wind chill and ice. Oh well, a winter to remember.

January 13th was actually a good day for me–I am studying American church records and the relationships between the religious beliefs of each denomination and the records they have created. Learning when the church was organized, what its mother church was, where it was established and where its members reside, how each congregation managed its membership functions and reported to higher-ups, and what things they determined were worthy of recording–amazing stuff.

So why have church records been ignored for so long by genealogists who could have used their information? Actually, why are church records important for genealogy?

Let me count the ways…

  1. Church records provide births, marriages, and deaths: If the courthouse burns, before civil registration begins in the city or in the state, because census records give only ages, and military records are hard to find, let the recordings in local churches fill the gaps.
  2. Church records identify parents’ names and prove family relationships–sponsors, godparents, witnesses. Do you have any idea how many clients of mine have this as their first research objective?
  3. Church records document migrations and places of origin for both individuals and groups. Admissions, dismissals, biographical sketches, memorials, funeral sermons. These records transfer membership from congregation to congregation or include the details from the life of the members.
  4. Special populations are picked up  better in church records than any other record category: Quakers, Huguenots, Native Americans, German Methodists, etc. For example, church records provide both Christian and Indian names for Native Americans. You can match the information in the church record to tax rolls, wills and other probate documents, and participation in military events.
  5. Biographical databases of church leaders, ministers, members are now available online and include itinerant preachers and missionaries. This new access gives you data you could not find readily before.

There are many other reasons to search church records–these are some really important ones. It still takes due diligence to find the church your ancestor attended so I recommend that when you are searching local areas, you check all the congregations. Friends and relatives served as witnesses, godparents, contributors, performers, and attendees at churches all around the valley. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS When the book on church records is finished, I’ll let you know. Stay tuned to this blog. From time to time, I’ll share tips for finding and searching these records. And in the meantime, I will continue to search them for your ancestors!



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