Some of the best evidence of our ancestors’ vital dates and locations can be found in church records. This is especially true of the time periods before state, county, and local governments began complying with legislation to issue birth and death certificates. These records are also essential in cases in which government-produced records have been lost or destroyed.
One of the challenges of researching church records is that sometimes the churches have disappeared. For whatever reason, the church to which you thought your ancestral family belonged just cannot be found. Let’s discuss some possible reasons for â€œlostâ€ churches and strategies to help you locate them and their records.
What Happened to the Church?
There are many reasons why you might not be able to find a church. First and foremost, be certain you are researching in the right place and are using the correct name and denomination. In Rockingham County, North Carolina, there are two Chapel Hill Churches (unrelated to the town of Chapel Hill in another county), three Mount Herman Churches, and two New Hope Churches, among others. Churches with the same name can also be different denominations, as I found when I located a Baptist church and a Methodist in the same county, both known by the name of Bushy Creek Church. (You might need to research both if you arenâ€™t sure of your ancestors’ religious affiliation.)
The church may have changed its name, merged with another church, or split into multiple congregations. In some situations, the church may have dissolved entirely. Worse yet, the church may have been destroyed by some natural disaster and simply was not rebuilt. In these cases, you may need to trace the â€œgenealogyâ€ of the churches themselves.
It also is possible that an entire congregation relocated to another area, perhaps even to another state. In my family research, I found an example in the mid-1700s in which an entire congregation and its clergyman relocated from Maryland to North Carolina.
When these things happen, the question then becomes, “What happened to the church’s records?” That is where you need to be creative.
Strategies for Locating the Records
Assuming that you do have the right church name, and are looking in the right place, there are some strategies to help you locate these elusive churches and their records.
First of all, you might start with the United States Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information Survey.Â Enter a state, county, and choose the church type and see what you get.
The list is not always comprehensive, as I found when I looked for Madison Presbyterian Church in Rockingham County, North Carolina.Â It was not on the list.Â Try selecting no feature type, and enter a keyword into the Feature Name box.Â
If you find the name of a church you were seeking, the research results list will tell you the state, county, the latitude and longitude, and the name of a USGS map.Â Click on the hyperlink in the Feature Name column and, on the next page, click on the hyperlink labeled Tiger Map Server.Â
When you access the map feature, the area with the church location will be indicated by a red dot. You can zoom in for more detail and to see roads in the area. The new TerraFly map is an interactive facility that allows you to scan across an area and read the labels for the related features. The roads are not named or numbered, so you will need to consult a county road map, but this search can be very rewarding.
Next you might want to search the Web. Search online directories for the name of the church. Search engines are also a huge help. Remember, enclosing several words in quotation marks in a search engine’s search box causes it to be treated as an exact phrase.
If you still have no success, contact the public library in the nearest town. Ask for information about the church by name, and be sure to tell the librarian the time period youâ€™re interested in so he or she can search more effectively. There may be a county or local history in the library’s collection that tells about the church.
You can also direct your inquiry to an academic library at a nearby college or university. If they can’t locate anything, keep going and contact your state archives. Other resources you should check would include local, county, and/or state historical and genealogical societies; libraries at nearby colleges and universities; and state archives. You may even find that one of these resources is now in possession of the churchâ€™s records.
Don’t overlook contacting other churches of the same denomination in the area; clergy, staff, or members may have knowledge of the lost church. The lost church’s members may have joined their congregation. Be sure to inquire whether they have the church’s original membership records and minute books, or if they know where they may be located.
Research the denomination to determine the structure of its governing body and contact them to request information about the church in question.
No Perfect Steps
These approaches can be used by anyone. There is no set sequence to use when searching for a â€œlostâ€ church. Internet research is a great place to begin, followed with telephone calls, and then letter-writing. I personally have had success with tracing one family line from a church in North Carolina back to a prior church in Georgia, then to Tennessee, and finally back to Alabamaâ€”all through the use of membership records. (Letters of membership transfer were presented at each new church by him or by his parents when they relocated, and the membership records all indicated the name and location of the previous church.)
Sometimes you just have to think consider alternative research paths and different sources than perhaps you have used before. The strategies we’ve discussed above will go along way toward locating those â€œlostâ€ churches and the records of your ancestors.
George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of The Official Guide to Ancestry.com and How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy. George and Drew Smith produce The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week. George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Visit his company’s website at AhaSeminars.comÂ to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.