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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
First, let’s look at some terms:
Denomination: is the organized form of the religion, with certain forms of government, set of beliefs and a network of churches across the country. Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic are examples of denominations. Most denominations have a name for the organization of their government, such as synod, conference, session or diocese.
Church: is an individual group in a specific town or locality, usually with allegiance to a denomination, and usually having a building in which they hold services and social events. Sometimes, when appropriate, we will also refer to this unit as a congregation.
Records: All the larger divisions of a denomination generate some records, similar to business records, and they will be called by the name of the denomination’s division (synod records, session minutes, diocesan yearbooks, and so on). These records have a chapter to themselves. Records of an individual church or congregation are the ones we will need to consult most in our genealogical work, and most of this course is devoted to some congregations which do not keep records in this way; their records are perceived as the property of the individual clergy who minister to them. Since these clergy have different names in different denominations, we will refer to these kinds of records as pastoral records. An example of pastoral records are the bishop’s books kept by Mennonite pastors.
‘Your Area’: indicates the geographical area of interest to a genealogist doing research. To avoid repeating this unwieldy phrase, we will use ‘your area.’
BMD: This blanket term covers the three basic dates used in genealogy, birth, marriages and deaths. Church records do not record births, they record baptisms, nor do they record deaths, they record burials. These baptismal and burial dates may have to replace births and deaths if they are all that are available.
Bibliographical References: Throughout the course we will use examples of individual books to point researchers down certain avenues. These are only single instances of what are probably numberless resources on the topics mentioned. Using the examples as possibilities, look for similar books on those topics in the geographical areas of interest to you, or about the denomination you want.
The information given for the examples (author, title, date of publication) is sufficient for obtaining these volumes on interlibrary loan. For confirmation, or to find more titles, start with an online bibliography.
Using the examples as possibilities applies even more to websites, as they change constantly and new ones appear which may be exactly what you need.
Why Church Records?
In Canadian genealogical research, church records are of great importance. They have a lesser place here than in English research, where they hold a central place, but greater than in the United States, where denominational history makes using them more difficult.
The reason for their importance is that they often involve the three most significant genealogical dates (birth, death, marriage), and are contemporary records written down at the time the event occurred. While most of us probably think we know a great deal about church records, in fact they are very complex; first because each denomination had differing attitudes to record keeping, and then because the recording and preservation of information about services, sacraments and activities required the thoughtful efforts of a great many people over decades. Not everyone would be able or willing to perform their part of this chain of activity with serious intent and satisfactory result.
In our non-religious age, we may no longer have the background to understand why churches performed certain sacraments the way they did (and do) or what our ancestors’ attitudes toward their own religion might have been. So, we need to have church records explained and to explore their wider uses for genealogists.
The approach we will take is that of the family historian. This means that we are not only interested in obtaining a birth, death and marriage record for the individuals in our families, but we also hope to find other details which will illuminate the lives they lived, their thoughts and society. In other words, we want anything which will help us understand our family’s past. All these details become useful data for recording in a written family history, whether they seem important at the moment or not.
The first bit of information which the researcher needs is the denomination to which the family belonged.
Often, a modern researcher asked this question responds with the answer, “Protestant”. This is a modern error. In our non-religious age, many people have no church affiliation but think of themselves as ‘Protestant’ as opposed to Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or whatever. In the past, although people may have been Protestant in fact, they knew that they belonged to one particular denomination within that umbrella label. So, even if they rarely attended church (and many of our ancestors went no more often than we do), they knew they adhered to the tenets of Presbyterianism or Methodism, and even which of the various sub-groups, such as Primitive Methodists or New Connexion Methodists, was their own.
Throughout the nineteenth century, religious controversy assailed most Protestant denominations. Many of them experienced schisms of greater or lesser importance. People discussed the issues among themselves in the same way they discussed political differences and other happenings in the larger world. Even for the Scots in 1840s Upper Canada, for example, the arguments between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church in Scotland itself were very real, and they probably had individual opinions on the subject. This is to point out that for our Victorian ancestors, religion was a day-to-day presence. That is why their denomination was known to them, no matter what their weekly attendance at services might be.
The lesson from this should be that we establish exactly what denomination our ancestors said they belonged to.
For some of us, this will be easy. The family may have a long tradition of association with one church. Families who are Jewish or Roman Catholic can begin with the idea that the family has always been so, because Jews and Roman Catholics tend to keep to their faiths throughout their lives. (This is not to say there are no exceptions.)
Within the Protestant religions, however, people often change from one generation to another. The reasons may be theological, growing from particular beliefs or practices, but these changes are often influenced by geography also.
The second common error which beginning researchers make is to state, “Our family has always been... [Presbyterian, Baptist, whatever].” There are families who have always stayed within a single denomination, but it is doubtful that there are any where every member of the family has done so. You will, almost certainly, have to consult the records of many kinds of churches to find all the information you want.
Ways to Verify the Religion
If you need to verify what religion your family followed in the nineteenth century, the first place to turn is the census. The Canadian census always records the family’s religion and during the time of the most frequent schisms in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches (in mid-19th century), they give the exact group the family says it belongs to. The census is such a basic tool for all genealogy, a thorough look at all available years for any family you are researching is essential.
If you are researching a family over a number of decades, as most will, you should look at all the censuses, to see if the family changed its religion as it moved about or as the area where they lived became more built up, with more church congregations to choose from. Here are some other possible places to find the denomination of individuals:
• Cemeteries: if the person is buried in the burial ground of a particular church, they may be a member or adherent there. This is far from sure, however, and there are many reasons (convenience, family connections) why a non-member may be found in a religious cemetery. Finding someone in a religious cemetery provides you with a hypothesis about their religion, not a fact.
• Obituaries: summaries of a person’s life published at the time of their death may give a clue to their religion. It may say outright, “Mrs. Allen was a longtime member of McPhail Baptist Church.” It may also state that her funeral is taking place from McPhail Baptist Church (another hypothesis about membership can be made from this) or that the Reverend Septimus Harding will be taking the funeral. A contemporary city directory will tell you that Mr. Harding was the pastor at McPhail Baptist Church, and you can hypothesise that Mrs. Allen was a member there. Once again, be careful that you do not assume membership in a church from these funeral associations, which may happen only because of family connections or convenience.
• Death certificates: Many provinces have death certificates which include religious affiliation. They are often very general in nature, but they will provide a clue. When you take any references from a death certificate, be sure to look first at who is providing the information. If it is a close family member, then you may be fairly sure the denomination is correct; if it is the doctor or someone unknown to you, then treat the information as unproved.
• Death cards: these pasteboard announcements/invitations were commonly used to communicate funeral information in the period 1880-1950, and can contain the same information about church, cemetery or pastor which can help a hypothesis. In addition, they may have symbols for organizations to which the individual belonged, which will help. Any information you have about societies, schools or other institutions associated with the family and which have a religious basis may provide you with a clue.
Having established a denomination, you then must determine the church whose records may include your relations.
For additional information on Canadian Religious Records see: Canada Church Records
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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