Determining Your Ancestor’s Religion, by Michael John Neill

church.jpgSometimes determining your ancestor’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 ancestor’s church and the records that church left behind.

Why Church Records?
Records from our ancestor’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 “Obvious” 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 ancestor’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 ancestor’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 ancestor’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 may also result in the desired information.

Contacting a local historical or genealogical society to know if they are aware of the minister’s affiliation is another option.

Go National
In some cases, you may have an idea of your ancestor’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 or of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod 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 Cyndi’s List

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 “Merged”
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 ancestor’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.

Get Help
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.  I needed to be looking in the records for his church (wherever that was).  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 ancestor’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 “Ancestry” Magazine. You can e-mail him at [email protected] or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Michael’s Schedule:

  • 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, 22 June 2007; and
    Publishing, Promoting, and Preserving, 23 June 2007)

8 thoughts on “Determining Your Ancestor’s Religion, by Michael John Neill

  1. Also remember that ministers traveled miles to other towns to perform services. Personally I have seen records of ministers who traveled periodically some 40 to 50 miles to perform occasional services. This occured in the late 1800’s in New York State in the Lutheran faith. Also remember to check the faith of the person your ancestor was marrying. There are records of people who were married in one of the faiths but attended another.

  2. Numerous members of my one family line, including a set of gr-grandparents and a set of gr-gr-grandparents, are buried in the Methodist cemetery. For some decades this cemetery was taken care of the village and everyone thought it was the city cemetery. It wasn’t until sometime in the early 1980’s that a member of the church researched the church’s history and discovered that the land for the cemetery had been donated to the church by a church member for the use of the church’s cemetery. During this research it was found that at some point the church failed to maintain it but never transferred ownership to the village. This information was brought before the membership which readily agreed that they should take responsibility for what was legally theirs. My relatives were Catholics but their burials give a different impression of religious affliation.

  3. We were trying to track my husband’s family in Mills Co, IA, and we found that the Old German Lutheran Church in Imogene had closed, but their records had been transferred to a church in Shenandoah. We didn’t know which one, so we wrote letters to the 2 or 3 Lutheran churches there, explaining what we were looking for. The pastor of one church emailed us, telling us he found the old church records in a book in his office. We made an appointment to meet with him, and we were able to get the names of 13 children of one of my husband’s relatives, their baptism dates, birth dates, and the names of their sponsors. This, in turn, led to other family member names. And, while we were in Shenandoah, we stopped at the local newspaper office and looked through their archived newspapers and found an obituary for my husband’s great-great-grandfather.

  4. I was married in LaGrange, Georgia at the First Baptist Church there, by a former pastor who no longer lived there, and jointly by my father, who didn’t live there either! That might be a complication for future descendants if they only knew the names of the ministers.

  5. Re: “Determining Your Ancestor’s Religion”
    (I am sending this also to Juliana, in case she would like to use it as a TIP.)
    In many places there were “Reverends” licensed or self-proclaimed who were not a
    pastor of a church, but who administered weddings and funerals as well as preaching in many
    places. When a researcher knows the name of the person who performed a wedding or funeral
    but was not the pastor of the church, he (she) might have been a member of the church; or the
    courthouse or the funeral home might have information about the person.
    Roy L. Howard retired United Methodist minister Chattanooga TN

  6. Often families went to the nearest church, rather than the denomination they grew up in. From the farm, it was a long way to walk or ride, & the weather sometimes discouraged folks from traveling farther than absolutely necessary.

  7. Pingback: A Useful Article of Tips from Ancestry’s Blog « Jessica’s Genejournal

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