Your Family’s Religious Historical Context, by George G. Morgan

Throughout history, religious organizations have provided strength, stability, and support in their communities. Beyond the spiritual aspects of their activities, they also have provided a focal point for social interaction. Members formed strong common bonds with one another, often resulting in marriages between families.

Sometimes you may find that large numbers of a congregation’s members relocated to other geographical areas or split from their original group to form a new congregation.
Your family may have been part of a religious group that migrated from one area to another. One of my own ancestors came from Scotland–through Ireland–to America in the early 1700s and settled in Cecil County, Maryland. He came with his parents, two of his brothers and their families, his minister, and at least twenty other families. These Presbyterians migrated through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and to Mecklenburg County in the southern part of North Carolina in the late 1740s.

They settled and established a new church in that area which, over time, produced other Presbyterian churches in the vicinity. These people went on to build a community and to become active in civil affairs, including the organization of resistance and rebellion against the English crown. Published histories of the congregations detail the founding of these churches and recount the activities of its members throughout the centuries.

Not every church or synagogue has a history filled with extraordinary events, but the role it played in the community is no less significant. A book titled “Pressing Toward The Mark,” written by Bill Page, was published in 1991 by the First Baptist Church of Mebane, North Carolina, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the church. It contains a history of the church and its place in the history of that area. It provides membership statistics, detailed biographical information about every pastor, the names and details of a number of prominent members, the names and terms of pastors, clerks, treasurers, Sunday schools superintendents, and directors of the Women’s Missionary Society/Union, as well as the names of all members at the time of publication.

In addition, there are photographs included of pastors, groups, individuals, and significant events in the church’s history. I found my own grandfather in a photograph of the 1947 groundbreaking ceremony for a new building. As a result, I was able to conduct some additional research to learn more about my grandparents’ membership and activities in the church, as well as details about my mother and her sisters.

Locating the Histories
Some congregations’ histories may be formally published in book form while others may only be typed and photocopied. You are sure to find a copy in the church or synagogue library, and chances are good you will find a copy at the local public library. Other sources for such histories are the national or regional administrative locations for the religious group, the state archives or state library, and genealogical or historical societies.

If you are researching a congregation that is no longer in existence, contact the office of a current congregation and request the name, address, and telephone number of its national or regional administrative offices. Those offices can usually tell you if a congregation has dissolved or merged with another and where to locate older records. Sometimes originals or copies of records are sent to headquarters for storage.

Any number of these religious groups’ histories can be found, too, in online collections of digitized books, such as those at Ancestry. Search the Ancestry Card Catalog by institution name, denomination, and/or location. 

Local histories often include profiles of the religious groups and congregations in the area, sometimes mentioning family names. Check, too, with county genealogical and historical societies for information about publications that they may have located and archived.

As you can see, the history of a religious organization may shed some insight on your ancestors’ membership and details of their role in the life of the group and the community. You may find that your ancestors’ arrival in an area coincided with the establishment of a church and, by tracing the origins of other founding members, you may find it possible to trace your own ancestors to a previous place of residence.

Happy Hunting!

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5 thoughts on “Your Family’s Religious Historical Context, by George G. Morgan

  1. Emory University in Atlanta has an extensive collection of published and archival material for the Methodist Church establihsed in eastern Tennessee and nearby states in the late 1700s. The material I looked at went up into the late 1800s. There is probably later material, but as it was not relevant to my research, I do not know how recent the material goes. The staff was very helpful.

  2. One should also be ready to accept that their ancestor switched religions – sometimes on their own accord while at other times because of their parents. My mother and her brothers were baptized Lutheran. My grandfather got mad at the minister at the Lutheran church they were attending. The family then switched to another local church but it was Presbyterian. My grandparents and two uncles remained with that church. The other uncle returned to the Lutheran faith but in a different town. My mother converted to Catholicism when she married my father. Raised to believe that there were no Catholics on my mother’s side of the family, I later discovered that my one set of gr-gr-grandparents were Catholic, raised their children Catholic but over time all left the Catholic Church. Just before his death, my gr-grandfather turned Catholic and my gr-grandmother returned to the Catholic Church. One never knows what they may find in the religion tree of their family.

  3. And don’t forget to use the resources of those churches to help find family members who may have belonged to the clergy!

    I started my search for “Anne Smith” married to “John Taylor.” The only information I had was that he was one of the first graduates of Beloit College in Wisconsin (from an article about the family), and that he became an Episcopal rector. A search at Beloit College yielded his middle name, and then I had the bright idea to contact the Episcopal Archives in Austin, Texas.

    They let me know that he had spent most of his time as a missionary traveling around the Pittsburgh Diocese (which was why it had been hard to peg him down in censuses!). The Pittsburgh diocese had been contacted by his great granddaughter years before, and shared the entire family with me (which she had already researched!). What a goldmine of information, all from a simple letter to the archives.

    Laini Giles
    Milwaukee, WI

  4. I’ve several religious ancestors of differing denominations. Some were ministers and others sheltered Quakers and other persecuted religious groups. Reading through some of the sermons of one, Samuell Gorton of Rhode Island, I’ve learned some of the thinking of the early colonists. Very different from today’s thinking. It is interesting, too, to see how the teachings of the religions of that day have been modified to comport to this current era.

    People migrate and adapt. It would seem their beliefs did also.

    Happy Dae.

  5. Very information articles. I have kept them for future researches as I have some ancestors who have simply disappeared from sight, although I have found their parents and their children. Yellow fever along the southern Mississippi River communities is probably the reason for some of these lost relatives. Thank you.

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