It was priceless for placing members squarely at a specific time, place, and event. While you'll always want to respect the privacy of the living, church records are snapshots of how your family lived. They can add an intriguing dimension to your research.
Just about every faith-based organization keeps records about church business. Within these records, you can document what church your relatives attended, what roles they played, perhaps who married and buried them, and to what causes they were involved. Today much of this information is online, or is at least searchable, via the Internet.
Of course, we're all familiar with the Latter Day Saints genealogical collections. What you may not realize is you do not have to travel to Salt Lake City to use the collection. LDS Family History Centers across the country maintain access to records. Start your search at FamilySearch.org/ and locate your local Family History center. There is an international search tool that will locate any center, along with their address and what hours they are open. Some centers offer classes on genealogical research topics.
The Church of the Brethren maintains a web site called "Fellowship of Brethren Genealogists." An interesting aspect of this web site is a link to the The Brethren Encyclopedia, explaining much of the church's history back to 1708.
Like many denominations, the Church of the Brethren maintain a historical library, the Brethren Historical Library and Archives. The library includes the papers of Alexander Mack, Jr., Peter Nead, the James Quinter family, D.L. Miller, J.H. Moore, Wilbur and Mary (Emmert) Stover, and Dan West.
Church records may also maintain district and congregational records. Don't overlook these treasures! They include directories and newsletters of districts and congregations. They include names of people you might be researching.
There is also a Brethren Heritage Center in Brookville, Ohio. It's web site says, "The Brethren bodies involved with the Brethren Heritage Center are: The Brethren Church, Church of the Brethren, Conservative Grace Brethren International, Dunkard Brethren, Fellowship of Grace Brethren, Old Brethren, Old Brethren German Baptist, and Old German Baptist." That's an extensive list!
The Adventist church archives are housed at Loma Linda University in California. The University library maintains a heritage collection. Digitized copies of the "Adventist Heritage" is available from the library in PDF format. The Adventist Pioneer Library is also located in Loma Linda.
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania is home to only half of the American Baptist Historical Society. The rest is maintained at the American Baptist-Samuel Colgate Library at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York. The most useful resources is a web page simply called Some Baptist Heritage Web Sites. Any Baptist denomination you can name — and probably some you never heard of—are listed here.
If you are researching Assembly of God members, you'll want to connect with the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. The center publishes the "Heritage Magazine." The iFPHC podcasts are one of the most unique projects in genealogy, offering oral history via podcast interviews with church members. The collection includes over 500 interviews.
Resources are not restricted to the United States, by any means. The Church of England provides a guide to "Anglican Sources for Tracing your Family History." You'll discover birth records back to 1849. Marriage records are kept back to the same date and, beginning in 1884, the church was required to maintain them. As of 1878, the church was required to also keep death records.
To find information on just about any religious group, use the search engine of your choice to find the national or international denominational web site. There will likely be links to church history or, in some cases, there will be a church-affiliated genealogy group.
For instance, to locate family history information about members of the Mennonite Church, use Google! to search for "Mennonite Church" and "Genealogy." The first hit should be the Mennonite Church USA Archives page for "Genealogy and Family History." How easy is that?
This denomination maintains the MennObits project thanks to the Historical Committee of the national organization. The MennObits are searchable obituaries of church members of any age. They are indexed, including by maiden name.
You'll find interesting obituaries, often including some family history such as the cause of death and even what verse was used in the funeral service.
JewishGen is the family history source for those of the Jewish faith. You can search by ancestral name or by ancestral town. The main page includes information on how to research Jewish history. There are also online discussion groups.
Don't overlook the more marginal faiths and faith-based Utopian communities. The Koreshan Unity Settlement was a new religious movement in the 19th century, located near Estero, Florida. The settlement is long gone, but many people left hearth and home across the country to join the Settlement. Now a Florida State Historical Site, a Koreshan Genealogy site is online with extensive research including cited sources. I discovered this site while researching someone from Coles County, Illinois, who had moved to the Florida community.
Church archives aren't just for church leaders any more. You'll find archives filled with useful genealogical information.