Locating Churches in the United States, by George G. Morgan

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 “lost” 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 aren’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 “genealogy” 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. 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.  It was not on the list.  Try selecting no feature type, and enter a keyword into the Feature Name box. 

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.  Click on the hyperlink in the Feature Name column and, on the next page, click on the hyperlink labeled Tiger Map Server. 

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 you’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 church’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 “lost” 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 Alabama—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 “lost” churches and the records of your ancestors.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

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.com to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.

13 thoughts on “Locating Churches in the United States, by George G. Morgan

  1. I have been researching a Brushy Fork Church, Barbour Co. WV for I would say 6 years now. Within my search I have found 3 Churches named Brushy Fork Church. Not one of them turned out to be the Church I was looking for… Which of course I am going with information from my Great Grandmother told me, when she was about 90 years of age and I was 16…now 37… Like to think my memory is not that far gone.. And now that I think about nither was Grams… I have been able to track down over three thousand people with what I picked up from her growing up. Sometimes it drives me crazy I can feel her willing to it, but I can not find her church she was born in 1893 and moved to the next county of Taylor, WV when she was seven and not one goes back that far. Only 1900″s…

    Well thanks for listening.. Also, thanks for the articles they are very interesting and useful… Keep up the great work..

    Maureen Richie
    Almost Heaven West Virginia

  2. I found while researching my Lutheran ancestors in New York State that the church records show services, etc. in towns all around the area. Some towns far enough away that I would not have thought to research in these records. This was in the 1800’s. Ministers traveled to serve other sections of the area. I have both Catholic and Lutheran denominations in the same family. I have also found the Catholic members of the family listed in attendance records for the Lutheran church. This taught me to broden my scope of research no matter what the religion was. You might just find someone you are searching for listed in another church/denomination.

  3. If you are researching Catholic ancestors in New York City and vicinity, as I have been, the Diocesan websites are helpful. The Archdiocese of New York’s website lists all current parishes, so check there first. If you don’t find the parish, write a letter to:
    The Vicar General’s Office
    Archdiocese of New York
    1011 First Avenue
    New York, NY 10022

    Ask about the closed parish and where it’s records are now kept. I received a quick response on where St. Ambrose parish records currently are stored, which is Sacred Heart of Jesus parish, a few blocks away from the old St. Ambrose parish. I was able to get my grandparent’s wedding certificate information from 1908 from Sacred Heart.

    I was also able to use this same method with my husband’s great grandparents who were married in Jersey City. I checked the Diocese of Newark website ; http://www.rcan.org/parishes/parjc.htm
    and found a parish list. I knew from research on the LDS website that the great grandparents were married in 1890 at St. Michael’s in Jersey City. I was able to find out that St. Michael’s was absorbed into the “super parish”, Resurrection Parish. I wrote to Resurrection and got not only the marriage certficate information on the great grandparents, but also baptismal certificate information on my husband’s grandfather and grand uncle who were baptized at St. Michael’s in 1891 and 1893.

    The Diocese of Savannah, Georgia has an archive staff who are very helpful. I was able to get the baptismal record for my husband’s grandmother who was born in Savannah in 1891.

    So if you are searching for lost/closed Catholic churches, check out the Dicoese first!

  4. The First Presbyterian Church in Crockett, Texas celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2004, and as a part of the celebration, it was decided to publish the records of the church. This project grew and grew and was finally finished in April this year! The records included those of many small churches that no longer exist, as well as many other kinds of documents. It turned into a 3-volume, 1760-plus page set, with an every-name index. Copies have been placed in many libraries across the country, including the DAR Library in Washington DC, the LDS Library, the Allen Co.(IN)Library, Dallas (TX) Public Library, Clayton Library in Houston, TX, Mid-Continent Library (Independence MO), as well as local libraries and genealogical societies. You might look for PRESBYTERIANS OF HOUSTON COUNTY AND BEYOND: Church Records from 1838 to 2004.

  5. I appreciated the article, but would add to also check the nearest seminary of that denomination. If their graduates served the church which you seek, they might have some records.
    Also, check for regional affiliation. In American (Northern) Baptists, that would be the ‘district’; in Disciples of Christ, it is an ‘area’. National offices of the denomination could help you find the appropriate office.

  6. Records from dissolved or destroyed Methodist Churches (not merged into other Methodist Churches) are turned over to the conference in which that church was located at the time. You can contact any Methodist Church (now United Methodist Church) in that same area to find out where the records of dissolved churches for that area are kept and the contact information. If the church staff doesn’t know the answer, the pastor will surely be able to direct you to the person in the conference to whom you can further inquire.

    Beware, however, that the records of a church are only as complete as the pastor at the time was good at keeping them. I found this to be true when searching for information about my great-grandfather who died in Omaha, NE, in 1916.

    Happy Hunting!

  7. I’ve also discovered that some individual churches don’t allow people to see their records. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have staff time to help or because they consider them too fragile for anyone to see. One of my Brown families attended a church in Springfield since before 1850. I’m sure that the church records would answer many of my questions however they don’t allow anyone to see them.

    I know that the Kansas State Historical Society has a few church records because at one time they would microfilm them free of charge as long as they could keep the master negative and a positive for their use. It wasn’t advertised however. After using the records at one major cathedral in Topeka I mentioned microfilming. They told me they and looked into it but couldn’t afford to have the microfilming done. I mentioned that the Society would be willing to do it free of charge and told them who to contact. When I called back later I was told the church board or whoever had decided they weren’t interested. Free of charge by a professional organization and they weren’t interested. Go figure. Unfortunately most places or organizations don’t have this option.

  8. Yes, there are remaining records left from the Chuckatuck meeting recorded in the Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy. However, I am not sure how complete they are. The author, Hinshaw, is said to have left out anything controversial. I have been able to trace back my ancestors to Chuckatuck but would like to know more about them. I am not sure where what remains of the original records are – perhaps in Baltimore, perhaps in North Carolina. If I can find my copy I may know. Right now I have hidden that great tome… I would like to take an extended trip to see the records when I am well. At any rate, so far as I remember, there is no indication of exactly where the tiny meeting in Chuckatuck was. There is a description of what was built. There is some indication that the meetings on the Eastern Shore preceded those in Chuckatuck but I’m not sure if they built a meeting house. I am reading Jay Worrall’s The Friendly Virginians. She may have some information about all of this – and perhaps I’ll get back to you if I can know your e-mail address.

  9. Further comment: The Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy is by William Wade Hinshaw, published by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, originally in 1950, my copy in 1973. The Virginia volume is Volume VI. If you will give me some names, I can tell you what is said about them. It may be hard to find a volume of the Encyclopedia now. There are volumes on North Carolina and some on the Indiana meetings. You can inquire from the Indiana Historical Society whether they have some of those to sell. I have the North Carolina and some of the Indiana records – all copies you understand. Best Wishes, Dorothy Gaus

  10. Do you have any suggestions on locating known Pastors? I know he was a pastor and sometimes I know the denomination. How do I find what churchs he pastored at?


  11. Leslee,
    Find him in the census.
    Find out what churches were in the area at that time.
    Write to the churches to inquire if he was there.
    Ask if they have what church he went to after serving them.
    Good luck,

  12. Interesting piece — and good ideas. One more, and even simpler idea: Google. After reading the article, I searched for: +”Sacred Heart” +”north Square” and found lots of pictures of the church in Boston where my Sicilian grandparents were married. It’s worth clicking on the Image link after the search loads.

    Thanks for the ideas!

  13. Exellent article and helpful comments. I also have Googled “Lutheran Church, City or County, Pa.1777″ and found the church I sought. Recently I called a Lutheran church without knowing whether my ancestors were Lutheran or Bretheran. I learned that the two denominations had built the church together in the 18th century and had shared the facility until about ten years ago. Apparently this was common practice. Each had kept its own records and my ancestors had been baptized in one and married in the other. Both were very cooperative and sent records. However, I have found pastors who said they did not have records (I had been told they did), and church secretaries who told me,”Mr. Smith is the clerk of session and he has the records. He is 90, lives alone, and he won”t let anyone in the house.” I had nightmares about him dying and his distant relatives finding a box of papers and burning them. Even today churches let people keep the records at their homes. I am appalled!

    On another note, if you know the name of the pastor, call the denomination’s national headquarters. Most likely they will be able to tell you something about his pastorates and can send you his records. Happy hunting!

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