Religious records rank among the most promising sources for discovering dates, places, and family relationships. In fact, in years before civil registration of vital statistics (a relatively late development in the United States and some other countries), religious or church records rank as the best available sources for birth, marriage and death information.
Traditionally, various denominations have kept different types of records. For example, presbyteries transferred membership records when a member moved to the new church. For centuries, Catholics and most Protestant denominations have kept careful records of baptisms and marriages that included names of godparents and witnesses–many of whom were relatives. Some religions baptized later in life and these records will contain important information about adult members.
Death and funeral information was not always recorded in official registers by some denominations and may therefore be harder to find.
Locating Religious Records
Church records themselves are becoming increasingly available on the Internet. Put the name of the denomination of interest into a search together with the name of the place where your ancestors lived and you may be pleasantly surprised to find great clues. The Jewish Family History Collection is just one indication of how rapidly religious sources are being added to Ancestry.com.
On a personal note, we were able to find several wonderful clues for our own family from the records of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York, 1837-1900, which were also added to Ancestry.com in recent months (baptisms and marriages).Â These pre-Civil War records took on added importance since civil registration did not begin in Brooklyn until the late 1860s and there may be no other source for this vital information.
Newspapers provide a fascinating way to find the religious affiliation of ancestors. Obituaries and death notices, engagement and wedding announcements are among the best places to look for clues. Articles about church fundraisers, picnics, sewing circles, clubs and other social events often listed the names of the participants and the sponsoring religious group. News publications are also great sources for biographical information about ancestors that cannot be found elsewhere. For example, â€œThe Southern Christian Advocateâ€ was a publication of the Methodist Conferences of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, during the 1860s and 1870s. Hereâ€™s an example from that publication of what you might find in similar periodicals:
â€œMrs. Mary Smith died on 14th March 1867, in Abbeville District, S. C. She was born in Newberry District, 25th March 1805, and was for about 35 years a faithful and consistent member of the Methodist Church. She was twice married, in 1823, to George Cameron, and in 1855 to William Cuttino Smith, who survives her.â€
Cemetery sexton’s records and gravestone inscriptions are also logical places to find clues. Once a death date is known, a death certificate or obituary can lead to religious records. As in any genealogical search, it’s a good idea to track information on other relatives listed in the obituaries or buried in the same cemetery plot. Their records may include missing details that will help you to learn more about a common ancestor.
Information about religious affiliation can be found in some pretty surprising places, too. For example, the 1925 Iowa State Census, available at Ancestry.com, lists the religious affiliation of everyone enumerated as well as ages and birthplaces so that you can often estimate where and when a baptism or marriage took place.
City directories (increasingly available online) are great places to discover where an ancestor was living at a given time. Look in the same directory for the addresses of churches or other religious institutions where your ancestors may have worshiped or gone to school. Be aware, however, that the closest church may not have been the one they attended. In many cases, ethnic groups chose to worship in a church where they could be with others who spoke their language. This may be especially true in Catholic churches. Even though an ancestor may have lived right next door to an Irish parish, the Germans and Poles probably chose to travel some distance to be with fellow immigrants and to hear sermons in their mother tongue.
Religious records may be a little more difficult to find that other records, but in most cases, the search will be worth the effort!
Loretto (“Lou”) Szucs is the author of several books and co-editor (with Sandra Luebking) of The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. She previously worked for the National Archives-Great Lakes Region in Chicago, and has been with Ancestry for sixteen years.Â Â