If you are able to obtain transcriptions of early church records, you may find where your ancestor had brought a letter to the church for admittance as a member. Usually, the church from which the letter was issued is named, along with the place, which usually meant the county and the state. This information can prove pivotal in your search for your ancestor, particularly in the late 1700's and early 1800's when people were moving around a lot. This type of information will also prove useful if your ancestors traveled out West and "skipped" several states before settling down.
Before the 1860's, everybody belonged to the same churches. Researching African-American history may be made easier, if early church records can be located. Often a family would join, and the names of the slaves who also joined the church would be given. Sometimes slaves would join a different church from the white owners, and this would also be listed in the church books.
Everyone who joined the church, whether by letter or by "satisfactory experience of grace," would be listed in the church record book. Sometimes women are listed only as Mrs. without their given names, and the children are often only listed as daughters or sons. Still, the information provides a starting or a verification point for a researcher.
Often, when an individual or a family left an area, they requested a "letter of dismission." This letter was the one that would be taken to the next church. Sometimes the next church would contact the first church in an effort to find out more about a member. This usually happened in cases where there was a question about the "character" of an individual. This information will prove useful in that it may assist in finding the next location of your family.
In terms of character, early churches had "cases of reference" for many matters. Some were quite simple - dancing, for instance. Attending a church of another denomination also resulted in censure by the church. Non-payment of debts was a frequent charge brought against people to the church. Public drunkenness, fighting, foul language, and cheating were also frequent charges. More serious offenses included stealing and adultery. Names were always listed in the church book with the charge.
As a rule, a committee would be appointed to meet with the brother or sister in question. Usually, the names of the members of these committees would be placed in the church book. Upon receiving an answer from the person about the alleged charge, the committee would go back to the church and make a report. People either gave "satisfactory evidence" regarding their charge or they were excommunicated from the church.
A frequent practice in the early churches was to send "correspondents" to other churches. These men were visitors to the churches in the area. The men and the churches they were to visit were listed in the church record book. The men who visited as "correspondents" from other churches would also be listed in this church record book.
Preachers, moderators, church clerks, and deacons would always be listed in the church record book. Any special committees, such as building committees or graveyard committees would have the names of the members recorded.
In certain cases, requests were made by surviving family members to record the dates of death for members of the church. This may be the only death record ever found for your ancestor. As a rule, church record books did not list births, marriages, funerals, or deaths.
Church records may be found in a variety of places. Often they are still in the homes of descendants of early church members! County histories are a good place to start, as well as local libraries. In recent years, the internet sites Rootsweb.com, USGenWeb.com, and Ancestry.com provide church records which interested individuals for various areas have entered. Some colleges have church records in an archives. Some of the larger libraries in cities and counties have their church records digitized. State archives are another place to look for church records. Many state archives have microfilmed church records for posterity. Another example of an excellent resource for church records is the many genealogical records, both published and unpublished, in the DAR Library in Washington, DC.
If you can find church records for your ancestors, you may open the door to new information and new geographic locations. In any event, church records give an excellent view of the type of life that your ancestor lived.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.
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