Sometimes determining your ancestorâ€™s religion is as easy as looking at the name on the door of the church they attended. For some of us it is not that easy. This week we look at some clues that may help us in our search for our ancestorâ€™s church and the records that church left behind.
Why Church Records?
Records from our ancestorâ€™s church may help us document his or her birth, death, and marriage. In some cases, they may help us learn other details about his or her life. The content of church records varies greatly among different denominations. However, these records should still be a part of any comprehensive research plan. We start by looking at ways to determine the denomination of your ancestor.
The â€œObviousâ€ Sources
Family tradition may mention the religion of your ancestor, but keep in mind that if the ancestor in question is several generations removed from the informant, that tradition may be based upon assumptions that are not correct.
The religious affiliations of your ancestorâ€™s children may also give you an idea of the denomination with which the actual ancestor was associated. Keep in mind however that not everyone attends the same church as their parents.
Home sources such as baptismal certificates, marriage records, obituaries, funeral cards, and the like may also provide details on your ancestorâ€™s church. The availability of these records makes your search easier. Do not neglect extended family members in your search for these materials.
Look for Clues
If you can locate a civil marriage registration, check for the name of the individual who performed your ancestorâ€™s marriage. It may be that they went to a justice of the peace and the name provides no real clue at all. In other cases, looking for the officiant of the marriage in census records, city directories, and other records from around the time of the marriage may help in determining the denominational affiliation.
If these sources do not provide the clues as to denomination, a posting to the appropriate county and surname message board at Ancestry.com may also result in the desired information.
Contacting a local historical or genealogical society to know if they are aware of the ministerâ€™s affiliation is another option.
In some cases, you may have an idea of your ancestorâ€™s denomination, but are not certain. Perhaps you suspect they were Lutheran, but the name of the church is conveniently omitted from the marriage license. Contact the national church archives (e.g., the ELCA http://www.elca.org/archives/ or of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod http://chi.lcms.org/. This approach may work with other denominations as well.
National archives may not have the marriage records of the church in question, but may be able to provide general information on the location of the congregation in which the officiant served. You can find links to denominational archives through Cyndiâ€™s List http://www.cyndislist.com/religion.htm.
Unfortunately, some denominations did not really keep rosters of clergy. This is particularly problematic with frontier religions and those that do not require extensive seminary training. The fewer the records, the more difficult it is to track anyone–ancestor or minister.
The Church â€œMergedâ€
For a variety of reasons the church where your ancestor worshipped may no longer be in existence. There are several ways you may obtain these records if they are available. If the church disbanded, a denominational archive may have the records. If the church merged with another congregation, the resulting congregation may have the records. In some cases, the minister may have taken the records and kept them.
In some of these situations the records are lost forever, in others they may have ended up in a local collection of materials. It may require some searching to locate these records, if they still exist. The best bet is to start with the national archives of the denomination and contact state and local sources from there. If the name of the last minister is known, tracking down his descendants may be an option, but keep in mind they may have absolutely no idea what happened to the records.
Look at the Cemetery
Is your ancestor buried in a cemetery with a church nearby? That might be the church where your ancestor worshipped. If the cemetery is not affiliated with a church, determine if there are sections of the cemetery for different religious denominations. Does the cemetery have any burial records that might mention the name of the officiating clergyman? Does the funeral home have any records that might provide that same information?
Consider Likely Religions
Given your ancestorâ€™s ethnic background and geographic location, some denominations may be more likely than others. Consider reading local history to see what churches were in existence in the area and time period of your ancestor. You are probably not going to find a German Baptist in Florida in the 1820s, but Roman Catholics in the early southwest would not be unusual at all. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
A notice in the “Saint John Globe” from Saint John, New Brunswick indicated that Samuel Neill and Anne Murphy were married on 9 November 1865 by the Rev. James Bennett. The announcement indicated the parish where the Neills lived, but a search of those records located no marriage. A scan of the other marriage entries for 1865 and 1866 did not list any marriage ceremonies that were performed by Rev. Bennett.
I came to the conclusion that Rev. Bennett was not the minister for the Simonds parish where the Neills lived.Â I needed to be looking in the records for his church (wherever that was).Â The problem was that I did not know with which church he was affiliated. I did what I usually do in this case; I searched Google. A search for Rev. Bennett on Google located some entries, but unfortunately none of them provided the name of his church. The only reference I found was to his character and work habits–not too helpful.
The next plan of attack was to post a request for information on Rev. Bennett to the St. John, New Brunswick, message board at RootsWeb. Within several hours, I received a reply with the name of the church and where a microfilm copy of the records was located.
Are They Public Records?
As a last warning: even when you locate your ancestorâ€™s church, they do not have to let you see the records. Church records are not public records and are laws about public access are not applicable. Be gentle, respectful, and tread lightly. After all, they hold the keys.
Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.
Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including â€œAncestryâ€ Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at http://www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
- 21-23 June 2007, Dearborn Heights Workshops
Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, is sponsoring three consecutive days of genealogy computer workshops (Using Genline, 21 June 2007; Using Ancestry.com, 22 June 2007; and
Publishing, Promoting, and Preserving, 23 June 2007)