Finding And Using Church Records

by Bob Brooke

Church records are made for ecclesiastical reasons, not to provide genealogists with answers to their questions. They were, and still are, made to report to church authorities the functional success of a church in the community. But genealogists have discovered that church records are a prime source of information.

Unfortunately, a researcher cannot assume that church records are available for all the places people settled. Where they're located and when did they begin are the two basic questions that must be answered before church records can be used.

During the 1930s, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) planned an inventory of all U.S. church records. Because too many churches wouldn't cooperate and because the amount of material was too voluminous, it never finished. The WPA did manage to publish many volumes, listing churches of the same denomination, giving the name, location, brief notes concerning the history of the congregation, its dates of founding and of combining with other churches, and the location of the records as of the 1930s. Usually, these can be found in libraries. Naturally, the data giving the location of the church records may now be inaccurate. Some denominations, realizing the genealogical and historical value of keeping church records, have set up central depositories where local churches can send their records for preservation and research.

In determining what churches existed at the time and place being researched, a genealogist should consult the county, state, and local histories that proliferated in the 1870s and 1880s, which often included at least one chapter on church history. Local historians gave a surprising amount of information about the churches and in some cases were foresighted enough to include a transcript of at least part, and sometimes all, of the vital records of the leading or earliest church in their town.

If it's necessary for a researcher to write a church for a record, it should be brief, asking for a copy of a specific record, a nd enclosing a return, self-addressed, stamped envelope and a small donation check. But often researchers never receive a reply. Some churches have no staff to do any searching in their unindexed volumes, and some have no one who can read the old-fashioned script. The minister himself may be irked by the number of letters he receives and therefore refuse to answer any. There are even places where the pastor or the clerk in the church office doesn't know the location of the old records. This is especially true if the records were kept in a foreign language.

One of the best sources for locating records today is E. Kay Kirkham's A Survey of American Church Records, published by Everton Publishers, Inc., Logan, Utah. Included are most of the church records accumulated by the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City covering the major denominations before 1860. This basic reference covers all the states east of the Mississippi before 1860.

Once having discovered where the records are kept, a researcher s hould consider the church's denomination–Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.–since each denomination's records contain details important to that specific church. Some church records will show baptisms or christenings of infants; others, only baptisms of adults, marriages of members, and perhaps burials, along with officers of the church. Thus, in Baptist records few if any baptisms of infants will be found because candidates for baptism are usually 14 years or older.

There's also the question of accuracy. Records of marriages and baptisms weren't always made on the day the event took place but were entered following the event from notes the minister had made. For instance, records for a baptism may give a month and a year, but no day and often with the child unnamed.

In marriage records the groom's full name may be stated, but only the first name of the bride, or vice versa. If the person who made the record in the church book wasn't familiar with the family names, they may be s pelled phonetically. If an entry states that a baptized child is "of Mrs. Jones," or that the baptism of a child was performed "for Mrs. Jones," it doesn't necessarily mean that the father was deceased or the child illegitimate. It may simply mean that, while Mrs. Jones was a member of that church, Mr. Jones wasn't.

Lastly, not all records are in separate categories in church record books. Many may be found in the meeting records of the ruling body of the church–the Session Records of the Presbyterians; the Official Board records of the Methodists; and the Monthly Meetings of Quakers.

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