Historically, religion often played an influential part in our ancestors’ lives. Knowing which religion or denomination your ancestor belonged to is more than just an interesting piece of trivia, though – it can often be a crucial clue leading to more records. As a previous blog post discussed, church records are often not readily available online. Many can be found on microfilm, but most are still held privately by the church which created them, or perhaps a local archive. For this reason, they are passed over by some researchers in superficial searches. This is a mistake! If you’re wanting answers, do not allow the level of ease to determine the depth and breadth of your research. Since they were generally kept long before the government mandated that vital records be recorded, church records can be the substitute that gives you the information you’ve been looking for, especially if you have reached a point where vital records for your family don’t exist.
Determining the Religion
The first step to finding religious records is to properly identify which one your ancestors belonged to, and from there to determine if there were any meetinghouses of that branch or denomination in the places they lived.
Sometimes the culture and history of the place can give an answer – or at the very least, a possibility. For example, most people in Spain and its territories (including early Texas and Louisiana) were Catholic. Christian Germans tended to be predominantly Protestant – Lutheran and/or Reformed – though some portions of the country were more heavily Catholic. The Dutch who settled New York and New Jersey had their own branch of Reformed Protestantism, as did the Huguenots who fled persecution in France and came to the American colonies. People in the American South tended to espouse the Baptist or Methodist faith, while the Scotch-Irish who came to the U.S. brought their Presbyterian beliefs with them.
Other common historic religious groups you might encounter could include Quakers, Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Episcopalians/Anglicans, Pentecostals (popular in the South as well), various Orthodox branches, and Mennonites, among others. Finally, smaller numbers of non-Christian groups can also be found in American history as well – particularly Jews, but also Muslims.
Pay close attention to obituaries, county histories, social columns, cemetery names and affiliations, and family traditions when attempting to ascertain the religion of your ancestors. Another important clue? The minister who performed the wedding. Often noted simply as a “minister of the gospel” (as opposed to a civil justice of the peace), it may take some digging, but researching the name of that pastor, priest, or rabbi could give an indication of which church or synagogue he led.
Churches and Recordkeeping
Some religious denominations were more thorough than others about keeping records of their members and parishioners, and can generally be relied upon to have had a consistent means of keeping track of rites like baptisms, deaths, marriages, excommunications, and confirmations. Some kept membership rolls or meeting minutes. Some religious groups in urban areas even had their own newspapers. The ones that are the “best” in this regard are those that were centralized churches whose individual congregations all reported to a top authority and who were mandated to keep records at the local level. Sometimes this was done for doctrinal reasons, but in many countries it had more to do with the fact that the church and government were bound together (these are usually referred to as “state churches”).
Groups best known for their record-keeping include the Catholics (who were a state church in many countries), Lutherans/Reformed, LDS, Quakers, and Anglicans.
Churches that acted more independently can be harder to track down, and these include most Protestant denominations. For example, there are hundreds of different Baptist groups, and thousands of individual churches. Methodists were likewise divided, though not to that extent.
In cases such as these, it was up to each congregation to decide what to record. Most groups of these sorts do not practice infant baptism, and made no records of babies born to parishioners. Often, the records were kept by the pastor alone, and if he left the congregation, he took his book with him. This is one factor that makes researching in the American South so challenging. Jewish research suffers from similar issues.
This is not to say it is always impossible – it may just take a little more creativity to locate them. The individual churches themselves may still hold their own historical records. Others are kept by local archives, university libraries, or have even been transcribed into book form. The best way to find them is to research the church itself, using the FamilySearch Wiki or library catalogs. And don’t forget that Google is your friend. Books are being digitized at a rapid rate, not only by that search engine, but by the major genealogical databases as well, including FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Ancestry, and Mocavo.
Have you had success using church records to solve family mysteries? Share your experience in the comments!