click to view original photo

The Compleat Genealogy Database: Religious Affiliations

With the new year, why not make it this year's resolution to create the compleat genealogical database? Now that you have names, birth dates, wedding dates and dates of death, Judy Rosella Edwards challenges you to devote the the coming year to filling in all the blanks.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1361 (approx.)
Short URL:

What is a compleat database?

Granted, few of us can trace our ancestry back to the first man and woman. But, a compleat database should consist of evidence and as much detail as possible. Regardless of the database, make it your commitment to cite sources for everything. Make this the year to locate the birth certificate for every individual in your family tree. Cite the location and where the original is on file.

Identify the dates when ancestors died according to a death certificate or other identifying documentation. Make a note of when the death certificate was filed. If the date of death on the certificate says 1890 and the filing date, which was recorded by a government official, reads 1880 then it is important to verify which date was correct. It is highly unlikely that it took ten years to file the death certificate. Be thorough and precise.

Why so many fields?

Regardless of the database, there are many other fields just waiting for information. Make this the year to fill the fields. There are a variety of existing fields we are all too guilty of leaving blank. Complete the fields and create a fuller picture of every ancestor. These fields are more than just busywork. Knowing the answers often leads to more resources with valuable genealogical data.

Fine-tuning what you already have

For every marriage, document the marriage license number and the book where it was recorded, including the courthouse or other location. Look at the original marriage certificate. The information varies slightly from one location to another and from one time period to the next.

One thing that is common on marriage licenses is witnesses. The witnesses probably knew the couple well and may even be relatives. The witnesses may hold some research clues.

If a bride or groom was underage at the time of marriage, the marriage license will provide evidence. It will also bear the name of the witness who vouched for them. When my maternal great-great grandmother was married, she was underage. According to her marriage license, her uncle gave her permission to marry. Without looking at the marriage license, I was unaware of either face.

Be precise about place of death. The place of death is where the death actually occurred. It is not necessarily where the deceased was living. It is important for researchers to know if Grandma was living in Sullivan, Illinois and died in St. Mary's Hospital in Decatur, Illinois. Otherwise, we falsely assume that she was living in Decatur, in Macon County, Illinois, instead of in Sullivan, in Moultrie County, Illinois. The result is a pointless search in the wrong county.

What have I missed?

Throughout the next dozen articles, we will identify those additional database fields and explore the types of information to include - and learn to interpret the value of that information in uncovering other resources. The first collection of fields relates to religion.

An ancestor's religion reveals more than which religious path they followed, although many of us find that intriguing. Religious institutions maintain records that are helpful to genealogists.

Begin by identifying the religious tradition of each ancestor. Don't overlook the fact that people change religions all the time. I have an ancestor who moved his membership to a different denomination after discovering his new-found faith did not condemn chewing tobacco!

Do not give in to the temptation to assume that every member of a family was a member of the same church. Marriages between spouses of different faiths is nothing new. Verify each ancestor's religious path.

The vast majority of churches maintain membership records. The membership process in a Unitarian Universalist Church consists of literally signing your name in a membership book. The book is kept in a central location, and signing is generally a private matter without witnesses or fanfare. New members are "presented" to the church on New Member Sunday, but the day they sign the book is considered the date of membership.

Other churches are much more elaborate. Children who are "born into" a faith, are usually given the option to join the church around their twelfth birthday. The reason it matters is that members' names are likely to appear in various documents and become useful for documenting where an ancestor lived, besides revealing some details about their circumstances. Churches have long been known for publishing names of elders, ushers, church board members, and the members of church committees. These activities clearly place your ancestor at an event at a given location on a specific date.

Churches also reveal your ancestor's financial circumstance. A family literally pays for the cost of a church pew. In some churches, the family name is attached to a nameplate on the pew. It is unlikely that anyone would purchase a pew unless they were members. Buying pews is an age-old tradition. Beyond demonstrating generosity, by paying for the pew the family has a designated place to sit at each service. Whether the entire family shows up and sits there or not is perhaps less important than realizing that only the more affluent could afford to buy a pew.

The connection between affluence and religion is a common one. While in many churches membership is based solely on signing a paper, there are perhaps a surprising number of churches where members must literally pay financial dues in order to maintain membership. The dues are minimal and currently the minimum requirement by some is the payment of a mere penny.

Membership, however defined, is connected to church governance. Congregational votes are more likely to occur at a regularly scheduled annual meeting. In order to determine who is allowed to vote, the church staff will diligently review church donations to verify that only those who have donated at least a penny are allowed to vote. If a matter is up for vote by the congregation, only those members are allowed to vote. This type of vote often occurs when a congregation is faced with making momentous decisions. If a church has moved, changed its name, or experienced a split, members names will be documented in church archives.

The connection between religion and finance is more obvious when an individual donates a building. Out of respect - or sometimes by the donor's request - the new building will be named in honor of the person who donated the money to make it a reality. Inside the church, there are often other smaller donations such as hymn books, or other church decorations. Nameplates are often attached to windows a member donated money to purchase or a stained-glass window someone paid to have repaired.

Religious groups often publish church newsletters. They are a goldmine for the everyday events in people's lives. Older religious records are typically archived as universities affiliated with the religious group. If you can't find them locally, identify where the religious group or denomination archives records.

A more compleat religious history

There are events associated with any given religion. A christening is an important event. In some cultures, a child is not considered to have a name until they are christened. This explains why a baby's name is often given as the mother's name or the father's name until they are older. If a four year-old child appears in a household with a name previously unencountered, perhaps it is because sometime prior to age four the child was christened with their own name. Pay especially close attention to this if the child that appeared earlier, bearing a parent's given name, no longer seems to exist. Bear in mind, they could have been christened rather than having died. Christening is more than a religious event. It is a life-altering event when a child takes on their name.

Bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah data should be included for those of the Jewish faith. There are database fields for such things as circumcision, blessings, confirmation, endowments, excommunications, first communion, missions, and ordination. Each event is evidence of where an ancestor was at a given time in history.

Upcoming fields

Watch for future articles exploring how to create additional fields for better data collection. The next dozen articles will look at the following:

  • Compleat names
  • Non-traditional Relationships
  • DNA and health
  • Citizenship
  • Cultural Affinities
  • Education
  • Life Events
  • Death Data
  • Property Ownership
  • Legal Events
  • Marital Status
  • Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles